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Christ is All: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Karl Barth — Part 4

Thus far in this series we have looked at the life of Barth as well as begin to explore his theology as well. In particular we have shown how Christ is everything for Barth in the sense that he reframes every loci of systematic theology along christological lines. Jesus Christ, the God-man, forms the two sides of each doctrine that comes under review. Christ is himself both the divine and human sides of the covenantal relationship between eternity and time. We looked at how that is the case for his doctrines of revelation and election. Now we will look at how it is the case for his doctrines of creation and reconciliation. We will then conclude this part, and the series, with some critical reflections.

c. Creation

In Barth’s doctrine of creation he will make an important distinction which many of us will appreciate. He holds at every place the importance of making the distinction between the creator and the creature. Now, he uses that word “creation” in a very interesting way. He understands “creation” to be a reference to both an act and a thing. We may speak about “creation” as an act of God whereby he calls that which is not into existence. We can also use the word to describe the finished product, the thing which God has made – the “creation.” So we can speak about the act of creation, and we can speak about the creation. So, really, there are three elements to Barth’s doctrine of creation: the creator, the creature, and the act of creation.

So, now, you may already be anticipating how his Christology structures his doctrine of creation. In the tradition, the act of creation is an event that occurs at the beginning of time by the triune God. Particularly, it is the second person of the Trinity, the pre-incarnate Word, who is the immediate agent of creation. However, for Barth, Jesus Christ is himself the subject, object, and act of creation. He is both the creating God and the creature, as well as the act of creation. His divine nature is the creator, and his human nature is the creature, and the incarnation is itself the act of creation – the actualistic bond that holds together both creator and creature.

Jesus Christ is always both sides of the covenant, for Barth. He is the revealing God, and the revealed-to man. He is the electing God, and the elect (and reprobate!) man. He is the creating God and the created creature. He is always and everywhere both sides of the covenant, without separation and without confusion.

d. Reconciliation

And lastly we have Barth’s Christological doctrine of reconciliation. Here we may, once again, begin on familiar ground. Let us begin with John Murray’s classic Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. The two parts of redemption correspond, roughly, to the historia salutis (what Christ has accomplished for me in history) and ordo salutis (the application of Christ’s work to me by the Holy Spirit).

In traditional Reformed theology these are two aspects of soteriology which are one act of God, but distinct in time. Christ’s accomplished work of redemption is done at a particular time and in a particular place once for all. But Christ, by his Spirit, applies that once and for all work to believers all through history – both those who came before his work, and those who came after it. But there is a time differential between redemption accomplished and applied.

Barth proposes to close that gap. He does so by eliminating our faith, and the necessity thereof, as a condition for receiving the application of the benefits of Christ’s accomplished redemption. He does so by making the two aspects of redemption one time-event. Following the pattern we have seen before, Christ is himself both God the redeemer and the redeemed man. He is, from above, the divine accomplishment of redemption and, from below, the human application of redemption. In one transcendent act of grace, Jesus Christ is himself both redemption accomplished and applied.

E. Barth and Modern Theology

And so we can see how Barth would be subject to the label “christomonism.” Christ is literally all. All of theology is reduced to Christology. There is no single loci of doctrine that is not reframed along Christological lines. For Barth, Christ is all in his theology.

Nevertheless, the expression “christomonism” may not be the most accurate label. Which is why I am proposing the term “christopanism” instead (see part 1 of this series). For Barth Christ restructures all of theology along the lines of God’s one transcendent act of grace in his time for us in Jesus Christ.

Now, its that idea of “transcendent act” that I would like to discuss now. In Barth, time and eternity, or God and the creature, are both wrapped up in this one act. This is an act that takes place, for Barth, in a transcendent time – called “God’s time for us.” This time is neither our time, nor is it pure eternity – as eternity is traditionally conceived. Rather, it is a different time altogether. As such Jesus Christ is quite literally out of this world, he is the great beyond, being beyond our time.

Barth’s theology was formed viz-a-viz the imminence theology of modern theology. Liberalism sought to bring together God and man in the sphere, or in the time, of the human experience. It was a theology from below. God and man participated in a common act – the feeling of absolute dependence. Modern theology, from Kant to Schleiermacher to Ritschl, rejected Western metaphysics and developed an actualistic ontology. Ontology would be understood in terms of act, not substance. God and man shared in the same imminent act of human experience. You can understand why Barth tied together the the analogia entis of medieval Catholicism and modern day liberalism. In both schemes God and man share in some kind of commonality.

Barth would not shed this actualism. In fact, he would advance it and apply it more consistently in his theology than anyone before him. But what Barth does is moves, he shifts, the act. In liberalism, the act of feeling of absolute dependence is essentially man’s act. But for Barth, actualism describes not the act of man in his subjective experience, but the act of God in his objectivity. And so he shifts the act from below to above. The act which forms the ground of all theology is an act of God in his grace in Jesus Christ. And it is an act that occurs above, in a realm or sphere which is wholly other. It is not our sphere or time, space, or history.

Besides the fact that he runs into all sorts of difficulties with regard to the historical nature of the acts of God in the historia salutis, Barth also did not shed the most significant problem he found in liberalism. God and man, in Barth, still share something – naming the time of God’s grace. This third time, God’s time for us, is that in which God and man (in the Man, Jesus Christ) participate. They share in this one transcendent sphere. He hasn’t eliminated the modern problem, he’s only shifted it.

In this way, really, Barth has not eliminated the analogia entis, he has only reframed it and reshaped it. To refine that last point some, we might say that Barth has swapped out the ae for an “analogia vera temporis” – an analogy of actual time. That is to say, God and man, on Barth’s scheme, do not share in some abstract notion of “being” but rather in the concrete act of time. Time then becomes the singular concept that holds both God and man together in God’s gracious transcendent act. In other words, at the end of the day, in Jesus Christ there is no real ontological duality. God and man are not, in Jesus Christ, utterly distinct. In fact, there is a complete, radical, and transcendent univocal relation which obtains between them. Barth really never gives up the modus operandi of modern theology after all.

F. Van Til and Barth

Now, I really have to give credit to Cornelius Van Til on this last point. According to Van Til this is the Achilles heal of Barth’s system. The idea of time as the common sphere in which both God and man participate is not developed by Van Til, its a theme I develop in my dissertation. But the basic critique is Van Til all the way. Van Til, long before I was born, analyzed Barth’s thought along similar lines. I’m simply trying to add color and contour as I seek to advance Van Til’s fundamental insights.

Van Til had many criticism to level against Barth. However, in summary form, Van Til’s critique can be understood in two basic steps. If you get this, you are well on your way to understanding Van Til’s transcendental critique of Barth.

First, according to Van Til, there is no direct revelation in Barth’s system. This should be fairly uncontroversial. For Barth, as people like McCormack and Trevor Hart have pointed out, revelation can never become a product of our history or time. Revelation, as we said above, is a transcendent event. Therefore, revelation is not a thing to be possessed by humanity. Rather, revelation is a person in this gracious act of God in Jesus Christ. In this way, then, revelation can only be indirectly known by us. We have no immediate access to revelation. We can only know of revelation as the Bible as the Church point to revelation. But revelation does not take place in nature, and it does not take place in the Bible. Therefore, man cannot read revelation or perceive revelation. He may read about revelation. He may perceive of revelation. But one thing is for sure, man may not have direct access to revelation.

Because of this, while the Bible is important, it can only be a fallible witness to revelation. We must come to the Bible by faith, in order to see this revelation. And since it is a fallible witness, Barth opens the way for a critical reading of the Bible. What is reliable and what is not in the Bible is determined by revelation itself. Because of this, we must read the Bible only in light of Jesus Christ. But what that revelation is is really quite beyond us. We can never grasp this revelation. We can never bottle up this revelation in the form of verbal, intellectual propositions. For Van Til this produces a kind of nominalism in theology. Ultimately and essentially it is irrationalism, deism, and agnosticism.

But since man cannot claim any level of certainty with regard to knowledge of revelation, the theologian is left to formulate his theology on that which is not revelation. Now, to be sure, Barth believes in exegesis. He does quite a bit of it, especially in the first part of volume III on the doctrine of creation. Nevertheless, it is still theologizing without – at least in theory – an infallible Word from God directly given to us. Rather, God is only – but fully and exhaustively (read: with no remainder) – revealed to man in Jesus Christ. This yields, of course, rationalism.

So, for Van Til, Barth – along with all anti-theistic thinking or thinking that stands on the basis of man’s would-be autonomous reason – is caught up in a rational-irrational dialectic. The would-be autonomous theologian has both ignorance and omniscience at once and the same time.

Second, because God and man meet together in this one time-act in Jesus Christ, God and man share in a common reality. God makes himself fully known through himself. Jesus Christ is the revealing God and the revealed-to man. God and man then, in Jesus Christ, mutually exhaust each other.

So, because of the transcendent nature of the ontological relationship between God and man, God (and man!) remains so “wholly other” that he is truly disconnected from us in the here and now. This is the Kantian and deistic aspect to Barth’s ontological scheme.

But since God and man share in the same actualized time-sphere, God and man are wholly identified with one another. This is the pantheistic, or analogia, aspect of his ontology. This yields an on-going, persistent and consistent deistic-pantheistic dialectic in Barth’s thought. Which, as Van Til points out, is no better than liberalism. If in liberalism God and man become one in the imminent, subjective experience of man, then on Barth’s scheme God and man become one in the transcendent, objective act of God in Jesus Christ. Same problem, shifted to a different sphere.

And this is why I believe so many other criticisms of Barth’s thought have fallen flat. No one else, of those who have written major critiques of Barth, analyze his system as deeply as Van Til. Berkhower and Horton, for example, hover on the surface in their criticisms of Barth, attacking this doctrine or that doctrine. But they never expose the deep structures of his thought.

G. Conclusion

In this series, we have attempted to show at least two things.

First, for Barth Jesus Christ really is all. In fact, the label of christmonism is an appropriate way of summarizing Barth’s theology. But what is more appropriate is to apply the label “christopanism” to his system of theology as a whole.

Second, Barth’s theology is of a cloth with his liberal professors. He did break with his professors, but it was not a radical break. It was a protest driven by political and cultural concerns. He shifts the ground of theology from the subjective to the objective, but does not return to the theology of Calvin, Luther, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

These two factors, his “christopanism” and essentially modern approach to theology, lead to the dialectical tensions in his thought which have plagued his writings ever since he was flourishing in the mid-20th c. Far from being a resource for Reformed theology in the 21st c., Barth’s thought should rather be regarded as a voice of caution from the past. To be sure, all Reformed theology should be Christ-centered. Christ is himself the goal, the sum, and substance of all redemptive history. But when Christ is not just the center, but when he becomes “all,” the irony is that we lose the one true Christ of biblical revelation. If the incarnation becomes an analogy, or conceptual framework, for each loci of theology, only trouble and confusion can result. When a preconceived Christology, even if it is a Chalcedonian Christology, becomes the structure into which everything else must be fitted, man becomes sovereign over his own theological system.

But when we begin with the direct self-revelation of Christ which he gives to his people in his Spirit-breathed Word, then our theology will be truly a manifold witness. It can include a Christ-centered understanding of creation or redemption without forcing it into a christopanistic mold. Christ can be – and must be – preeminent as we do exegesis of the very Word and Words of God in Scripture. But the Scriptures, of course, reveal to us God’s mind about other things other than Christ – even though Christ is always and everywhere the sovereign Lord over all things.

Unfortunately, attempting to move forward with Barth today is actually (ironically?) a returning to the past. It is to return to the 19th century and even back to Kant himself. It is to return to the old pagan philosophies in which man is autonomous and God is made in man’s image.

No, rather, I would urge the next generation of pastor-theologians to move forward by advancing what we have learned from the past. Taking our starting point from the Infallible Word, let us do exegesis while learning, without re-inventing the theological wheel, from Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Calvin, Owen, Hodge, Warfield, Machen, and Murray. And let us learn from them with discernment, delighting in the glorious treasures which they have – by God’s grace – mined from the depths of the Bible.

And not just delight in them, but to live them and to teach them to others. It is these truths, the grand truths of the Reformed Faith, that can and will feed and drive the church until that day when our Savior appears for a second time, this time apart from sin, to take us to himself forever.


On Key

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