Crossing Lessing’s Ugly Ditch: Karl Barth on Union with Christ

The way Barth understands the relation between eternity and time manifests itself in how he answers the theological problem of how the once and for all work of Christ on the cross “then” has relevancy for us “now.” This is the problem of the limitations of time which goes back to at least G. E. Lessing and his “ugly ditch” (CD IV/1, 287). Barth answers the problem with a Christological solution. Christ, as the eternal event of God in whom eternity and time come together, is always with us. Barth affirms Christ’s contemporaneity with us (CD IV/1, 293). Barth says that it is “the directness of our encounter and presence with Him, and the overcoming of the temporal barrier between Him and us” (ibid.). So, what is a problem on the temporal/horizontal level is analogous to the fundamental problem between eternity and time on the vertical level. Just as there is a qualitative difference between eternity and time (eternity “up there,” and time “down here”), likewise there is a qualitative difference between Christ back then and us living now. And so the solution to both problems (which are really one) is the same—Jesus Christ and the rapprochement of God’s eternity and man’s time in him. In this event, and in this event alone, Christ “then” and we “now” are contemporaneous realities. Several observations need to be made here.

First, the event of Christ in which he is always and everywhere present to us is a transcendent event:

But these conclusions have to be continually drawn afresh as long as we have time, as long as our allotted span of life endures. In Jesus Christ a Christian has already come into being, but in himself and his time he is always in the process of becoming. . . . And as this power it is each day afresh the power of the revelation of Jesus Christ Himself, the power of His resurrection, on which depends that our presence is also revealed, and therefore the presupposition given from which we have continually to draw these deductions and to become Christians . . . it is the power of the inconceivably transcendent transition from what is true and actual in Jesus Christ to what is true for us, or even more simply from Christ to us as Christians. It is the one transcendent power which is at work on both sides, from Him on the one side and to us on the other. (CD IV/2, 307; emphasis mine)

This idea is similar to what above we described as “the beyond.” Christ in his work can and is always contemporary to us because his work is never bound by our time, precisely because it is not of our time. It is its own special time. It is the time in which eternity and time come together and are reconciled. Therefore, our time is always present with God in Christ in this one “transcendent power.”

Second, while reconciliation and the rapprochement of eternity and time in it is a transcendent event, it is never an event which takes place without our time. It, in fact, includes it. This is what Barth means when he speaks against “transcendentalising” (CD IV/3.2, 501). He eschews any Docetic tendency at every turn. He refuses to make the temporal and physical irrelevant and unreal. Barth says that the incarnation “demands a human soul and a human body, human reason and human will, human obedience and humility, human seriousness and anger, human anxiety and trust, human love for God and the neighbor. And it demands all this in an existence in our own human and created time” (CD IV/2, 99). This is because the work of Christ “is accomplished in a history which takes place in the world itself, on the earth, in time, among men” (CD IV/2, 96).

However, thirdly, the event itself is not an event which takes place only in our time: “But it has the same character as what had gone before to the extent that it, too, is an event within the world, in time and space. It, too, takes place in the body, although not only in the body” (CD IV/2, 143). So, while the event of reconciliation does not take place “without the body,” or apart from our time, yet it is not an event which is trapped in our time. It does not originate within our time, and so it is not bound by the limitations and restrictions of our time. It is its own sovereign act of God’s freedom in love for us, and thus it is present to each and every time. In this way we can say that reconciliation is transhistorical, even while it is supra-historical.

Fourth, and in connection with the previous point, it is helpful to understand the principle of Aufhebung in Barth’s thought.1 Terry Cross puts it well:

In Hegel [Aufhebung] occurs in history; in Barth it only occurs in God—in the eschaton of eternity. In some sense, it is trans-historical for Barth. For Hegel, the circle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is entirely drawn within time; for Barth, the dialectical movement of thesis/antithesis remains in a tension between time and eternity—its only synthesis occurs in God.2

The distinction between Hegel and Barth is significant here. Barth may have employed Hegelian language, but his content is completely God-centered and Christologically structured. The act which this word is intending to denote is one in which a dialectical relation attains between time and God. God takes our time to himself, and as he does so he both condemns it and, in Christ, redeems it and makes it his own. Our time, remaining always in antithesis to God, is present before God as redeemed in an eternal-temporal event. This event is the relating and reconciling work of Christ who takes our time (embodied in the humanity of Christ) and brings it into a state of rapprochement with eternity (denoted by the divinity of Christ). So, both eternity and time are present and related Christologically in the eternal-temporal event. The event is eternal because it is qualitatively different from our time, and it is temporal because it includes our time. Yet the event is not of our time, and thus is a different time altogether—God’s special time of redemption for us.

Fifth, Barth’s bridging of Lessing’s ditch entails a change in the direction of traditional Protestant soteriology. In the tradition it is typical to speak of Christ’s accomplished work of redemption being historically grounded and then applied to the individual believer by faith. But as Webster points out:

Barth locates the bridge between Jesus’ history and our own not in some cognitive or interpretative or experiential process, but in the self-manifestation of the risen Jesus in the power of the Spirit, as a reality which we can only acknowledge.3

Traditionally, “union with Christ” is the lynchpin by which Christ’s work “then” becomes relevant to us “now.” As we noted above, the acquisitio salutis and the applicatio salutis are distinguished in the tradition, but brought together in one event according to Karl Barth.

Still, the language that Barth employs can often times lead to confusion. He expresses himself in familiar, traditional language which might lead one to believe that he sees a distinction between the acquisitio and applicatio. So, for example in 71.3 we see the longest-sustained discussion in the CD on the topic of the relation between the Christian and Christ, as that relation comes to expression in the doctrine of unio cum Christo. If one were to read only this section on the subject, one would be justified to conclude that Barth develops a doctrine of union with Christ along subjective lines. Indeed, one might also conclude that Barth’s formulation is not altogether opposed to the way in which the Reformed church has historically spoken about union with Christ and the twofold benefit of justification and sanctification. For instance, Barth can speak about faith as the way in which the Christian is “attached” to Christ:

The power in which Jesus Christ sets a man in attachment to Himself is the liberating power of His Word which is opposed to all compulsion and eliminates and discards it. . . . It is the power of His prophecy in which He awakens him to faith in Himself which is rooted in this recognition, and therefore to obedience. It is in doing this that He sets him in the attachment to Himself which makes him a Christian and distinguishes him from other men. No compulsion brought to bear upon him . . . could awaken him to faith rooted in that free recognition and therefore set him in attachment to the One who is light and not darkness, to the living Jesus Christ. (CD IV/3.2, 529)

At first blush this may not appear to be very original. It sounds very much like a traditional ordo salutis: Christ by his Spirit works faith in the sinner and by so doing unites the sinner to himself. Moreover:

The Word of Jesus Christ has divine power to accomplish this. But this divine power is the Holy Spirit. As Jesus Christ speaks with man in the power of the Holy Spirit, his vocation is vocatio efficax, i.e., effective to set man in fellowship with Himself. . . . The gift and work of the Holy Spirit as the divine power of the Word of vocation is the placing of man in this fellowship with Him, namely, with the being, will and action of Jesus Christ. (CD IV/3.2 538; emphasis Barth’s)

Again, on the surface this sounds like a traditional formulation. It appears as if for Barth the doctrine of union with Christ is the teaching that the Holy Spirit transitions the sinner from a state of wrath to a state of grace in the life-history of the sinner-become-believer, by which he is united to Christ at the moment of this “conversion” experience.

However, nothing could more completely miss the Copernican impact of Barth’s proposal. In order to understand how this is so, we must read this extended section on the doctrine of union with Christ against the backdrop of what he has said about the incarnation previously.4 Such a hint is in fact given to us in the beginning of section 71.3:

The mystery of vocation, of the fact that there takes place this calling of man within human time and history, is very great. In its own manner and place it is no less than the Christmas mystery of the birth of the eternal Word of God in the flesh in which it has its primary basis. . . . We are concerned with a lofty event, yet not with one which is without meaning and purpose, but with one which is controlled by and intrinsically clear ratio, like the primary event of Christmas. . . . Can we really say that Christian existence as such . . . stands or falls with the fact that he is called . . . becoming what of himself and previously he was not, in the mystery and miracle which correspond in mode to the Christmas story? (CD IV/3.2, 521; emphasis mine)5

Now, we must not misunderstand Barth at this point. He is not saying that the Christmas mystery—the incarnation—is something analogous to union with Christ. Rather, what he is saying is that the incarnation is union with Christ. The traditional theological distinction between redemption accomplished in the life and death of Christ on the one hand, and the application of the benefits of that life and death to the believer on the other hand, is eliminated. Salvation is wholly objective, and performed by God in Christ. In other words, Barth’s formulation of union with Christ is always and everywhere qualified and conditioned by his soteriological objectivism.

This unique doctrine of union with Christ is confirmed by considering earlier references to the doctrine which anticipate his formulations in CD IV. In CD I/2, in § 16, Barth enters into a discussion of what it means to say that the church has its origin in Christ. In short, it means that the Word became flesh:

It derives from the Word that became flesh. That the Word was made flesh was not without meaning for the world of flesh. . . . In Jesus Christ our human nature and kind were adopted and assumed into unity of being with the Son of God. . . . [T]here are among the men whose nature and kind were met by this occurrence in Jesus Christ those who live in this adoption and assumption. They are the children of God because, in spite of the sinfulness of their nature and kind, they are justified and sanctified by that which meets their nature and kind in Jesus Christ. (CD I/2, 214-5)

In response to this, at least two comments are in order. First, notice the emphasis on the idea of “unity of being” between human nature and the Son of God. What is significant for our purposes is to highlight the connection between the incarnation spoken of here with what he says about union with Christ in IV/3.2. Notice the similarity of not just language but thought pattern:

But we have to remember that even indicatively it speaks of the history in which the union of the Christian with Christ takes place. . . . And they are in Him because Christ has adopted them into unity with His being. . . This historical being in Christ is decisively determined, of course, by the fact that first and supremely God was ‘in Christ’ reconciling the world to Himself. (CD IV/3.2, 546; emphasis mine)

Union with Christ takes place because Christ adopts or assumes humanity into his being. What is meant by this idea of Christ adopting another into his being? According to I/2, it means the event of the incarnation. Union with Christ is a real, carnal, objective event in the hypostatic union. In other words, hypostatic union is union with Christ. Barth bypasses the entire notion of a subjective appropriation of the benefits of Christ’s redemptive works in the historia salutis through a wholly objective soteriology.

Also, notice the reference to the twofold benefit mentioned in the quote from I/2. Here it is stated that by virtue of the incarnation human nature is both justified and sanctified. This is language which the Reformed tradition reserved to describe the twofold benefit the believer receives upon being united to Christ existentially. Further, notice that justification and sanctification are said not to be subsequent acts after the incarnation of Christ, but the very act of incarnation itself. Here Barth begins to invoke very strong “union with Christ” language which he will later pick up in IV/3.2:

‘In Christ’ means that in Him we are reconciled to God, in Him we are elect from eternity, in Him we are called, in Him we are justified and sanctified, in Him our sin is carried to the grave, in His resurrection our death is overcome, with Him our life is hid in God, in Him everything that has to be done for us, to us, and by us has already been done, has previously been removed and put in its place, in Him we are children in the Father’s house, just as He is by nature. . . . That is why the subjective reality of revelation as such can never be made an independent theme. It is enclosed in its objective reality. (CD I/2, 240; emphasis mine)

Here it becomes very clear that subject and object—God and man, the I and the thou—are collapsed one into the other. Any distinction between the two is all but erased. To be sure, Barth elsewhere maintains a Creator-creature distinction and invokes Chalcedonian formulae. Nevertheless, Barth brings into the closest proximity his doctrine of union with Christ with that of his doctrine of the hypostatic union and its correlates, revelation and reconciliation. This is how he proposes to bridge Lessing’s ugly ditch. By virtue of the incarnation of the Word with humanity, we are united to Christ. All things that Christ has done, we have done—for we were in him.

Sixth, the relation between Christ’s time and our time is described in terms of the relation between the death and resurrection of Jesus:

As the Resurrected, He lives as the One who not only then, but then once and for all, was humiliated and exalted, offered up and triumphant, for the justification and sanctification of all men, living not only in His own age but in every age as the Lord of all time. He lives in every today as the One in and by whom there took place yesterday, in His time, the reconciliation of the world to God. (CD IV/3.2, 605)

This is further confirmed when Barth enters into an extensive discussion on the relationship between Christ’s death and resurrection. It is here that he is trying to discuss and to answer the question of how Christ’s death on the cross has significance for us today. And for Barth it is the resurrection which constitutes Christ’s eternality and thus renders him present to all times: “He is not of the past, He did not continue to be enclosed in the limits of the time between His birth and death, but as the One who was in this time He became and is Lord of all time, eternal as God Himself is eternal, and therefore present to all time” (CD IV/1, 313). In the resurrection Jesus Christ “became and is as such His eternal being and therefore His present-day being every day of our time” (ibid.). In fact the resurrection of Christ “lifted up” all other times and events (ibid.). This understanding makes the cross “not something which belongs to the past, which can be present only by recollection, tradition and proclamation, but is as such a present event, the event which fills and determines the whole present” (ibid.). In this way, Jesus becomes the “eternal Reconciler” and history in “His time” becomes “eternal history” which is “the history of God with the men of all times” (ibid.). This means that the problem of the objective and the subjective in reconciliation is resolved in Jesus Christ who is both the accomplishment of redemption and its application. In Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation all is accomplished by God alone. This is how Barth preserves the Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratia.

In summary, the rapprochement of eternity and time in the event of reconciliation provides Barth with a conceptual mechanism by which he can answer Lessing and cross his so-called ugly ditch. The fact that this event is a transcendent event, and yet an event which includes our time, renders Christ himself as the eternal-contemporary. Jesus Christ is always and everywhere present to our time, and all times. This special time, God’s time which he has for us, includes not only Christ’s person but his work as well. This is how both his person and his work are present to us and for us, always. In fact, as we have noted before, Christ’s person is his work, and so where his person is present for us, so is his work. And his work of reconciliation is found, primarily and objectively, in the incarnation where eternity and time are brought together into one harmonious time-act. In this way, we can say that Christ’s atonement is both something that has occurred already for us, and yet also has a future reality.


1 . See on this Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 73-74, 85-86, 98, 200; who seems to simplistically place Barth’s usage in parallel to Hegel’s in terms of time being affirmed, negated, and reconstituted.

2. Terry Cross, Dialectic in Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God, (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), 91.

3. Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation, 87-88.

4. Although not developed here, due weight ought to be given to Barth’s out-and-out rejection of an ordo salutis as such in CD IV/3.2, 505-6. While he does not mention that aspect of the traditional ordo salutis referred to as union with Christ by name, the implications are obvious enough.

5. This is a point made also by W. Duncan Rankin, “Carnal Union with Christ in the Theology of T.F. Torrance” (PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1997), 237.


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