Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What does Barth mean by the "faktische Verheißung der Existenz Jesu"?

I'm interested in both translation possibilities and a conceptual clarification. The phrase comes from Barth's KD III §41 p. 68 (I don't own an English translation). Here's the quote:
Das Haupt der Gemeinde ... kann ja das alttestamentliche Zeugnis an sich und als solches noch nicht bezeichnen und mit Namen nennen. Es muß sich begnügen, seine Existenz faktisch zu verheißen und mit dieser Verheißung zum Gehorsam und zur Hoffnung aufzurufen.
Faktisch can mean different things: "factual," "actual," "objective," "literal," "virtual," "effective," "de facto," "in practice." It seems here that Barth is talking about the reality of Jesus Christ as something that transcends the particular and partial presentations of him as we find them in the various strands of the New Testament. He's bigger than the New Testament and can be witnessed to adequately enough by the Old Testament too (if only in a different "idiom"). As such, Barth could be talking about the Old Testament's witness to the reality of Jesus as such. The problem is that here the word faktisch is an adverb modifying the verb (he doesn't say "faktische Existenz"). It would seem that he is talking about a quality of promise, rather than a quality of existence. The promise itself is "faktisch." Or maybe I'm just being too pernickety. Perhaps translating with a kind of adverbial phrase could make faktisch apply to Existenz after all. One possibility would be: "It must be content with promising his existence in terms of its substance [rather then literally identifying Him]."

Incidentally, it would seem that this (apparently) "Barthian" emphasis on the adequacy of the Old Testament as a direct witness of Jesus is not shared by all Christian theologians. In his "Translator's Introduction" to the work of another Barthian, Heiko Miskotte (When the Gods are Silent), J. W. Doberstein makes the following criticism:
It is not a primary function of a translator to criticize a book which he has translated. I cannot conceal the fact, however, that I do not share one of its basic points of view, namely, its completely Barthian orientation. Though the author is certainly right in insisting that the Testaments must not be isolated from each other, he, following Barth, sees no real redemptive progress from the Old to the New Testament, but rather tends to regard them as two concentric circles which revolve around an identical centre. There would seem to be no qualitative difference between the Testaments, only a difference in manner of presentation. This results in the typically Barthian confusion of Law and Gospel. (1967, p. x)
I have to say, this is one of the things I really like about Barth (and it is picked up with vigour by Brevard Childs; cf. his Biblical Theology; cf. also Seitz, Word Without End). Could someone explain what Doberstein means by Barth's "confusion of Law and Gospel"?

Update: Howard of Sans Contexte has kindly supplied the following quote by Barth in the comments:
"...There are still far too many things which I cannot understand in the counter-thesis, advanced with varying degrees of sharpness and consistency by these authors, that the Gospel and the Law differ and are even antithetical in significance and function.
I do not understand (1) with what biblical or inherent right, on the basis of what conception of God, His work and His revelation, and above all in the light of what Christology, they can speak, not of one intrinsically true and clear Word of God, but of two Words in which He speaks alternately and in different ways to man according to some unknown rule."


Bob MacDonald said...

FWIW Phil, I find no lack of Gospel in the OT. I am always delighted to meet other opinions whether they concur with my readings or not. I expect there are strong triumphalist tendencies in readers of the NT. "Mine's better than yours" as gospel just doesn't wash. When we look at Israel, God's servant, elect and chosen, and Christ as servant to the circumcision, there cannot be a confusion of the instruction of the first testament with the openness of the second. The first is as open and the second as full of the instruction of the one whose name is above every name. There seems to be no lack even in the formation of one story or one pericope. Whether I am reading the speeches of Job or letter by letter in Ruth, I don't feel disadvantaged (apart from my own obvious limitations). What disturbs me about Christians is our tendency to close open questions - short-circuiting the dialogue with premature answers. I do have to recognize my historical obligation and my gratitude for a word of life from both testaments.

theologien said...

If I understand Barth correctly in that section (I'm not an expert, but an enthusiastic amateur), the charge seems to center around an accusation by Lutheran scholars that Barth has turned Law and gospel into "one word," or concept. The Lutherans cut a sharp distinction between the two. Barth's comment is:
"...There are still far too many things which I cannot understand in the counter-thesis, advanced with varying degrees of sharpness and consistency by these authors, that the Gospel and the Law differ and are even antithetical in significance and function.
I do not understand (1) with what biblical or inherent right, on the basis of what conception of God, His work and His revelation, and above all in the light of what Christology, they can speak, not of one intrinsically true and clear Word of God, but of two Words in which He speaks alternately and in different ways to man according to some unknown rule."

So they say the two are two distinct words, where Barth sees gospel as preceding the Law, and part and parcel of the word.

I have to admit I prefer this to what I understand of Luther, et. al.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks for your thoughts, guys. Bob, I'm with you there. Howard, thank you for the Barth quote! Could you tell me where it's from? When it comes to dogmatics I'm pretty much an amateur myself. I do find myself preferring Barth's approach. I wonder if this is particularly "Calvinistic"?

Anonymous said...

I'll take a stab at it. The Barthian confusion Doberstein is referring to, I believe, is that Barth saw law and gospel as being contained in each other. That is, the law comes to us in the gospel, and the gospel comes to us in the law. To think of law apart from the gospel, then, is to think of a law that is not God's revelation, since God always reveals himself as pro nobis (i.e., in Christ). So whether we are reading the Old Testament "law" or the New Testament "gospel," both are revealing each other because they are equally God's revelation of himself for us.

Since Luther translated law as any imperative, "do this," Barth believed that Luther opened the door to what would later be the German Christian Movement--the imperatives of the Kaiser became divine imperatives. Thus the Barmen Declaration explicitly declared against this that there is only "one Word of God whom we have to hear . . ." and that Word is Christ. So, according to Barth, if we think of the Old Testament revelation as law ("do this") rather than as the law which contains the gospel, we might end up thinking of an altogether different God.

The traditional Reformed view is that God's covenant with his people (covenant of Grace fulfilled by Christ) remains the same in substance from after the fall until the eschaton, but it varies in form and is not revealed all at once (progressive revelation). Barth would have a problem with the traditional Reformed view because of the covenant of works before the fall (law without gospel). Barth would say that even in the Garden, God's relationship to Adam was grace.

I'm not entirely sure how Lutheran theology fits in here, but I hope that much helps.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Josh,

that's great, thank you for taking the time.

That does clarify things for me a bit. If I get you right, you are saying that according to Barth God's revelation is one in substance, so that whenever we talk of any facet of it, we must always make sure that its fundamental characteristics are present. For the god of the Bible, this is "grace, "the Immanuelgeschichte," "Christ for us." But doesn't that make "gospel" more fundamental than law? You said they are contained in each other, but it sounds as if grace is really the driving reality, in the light of which law has to be understood (e.g. "God always reveals himself to us pro nobis"). In what way is "law" a fundamental part of God's revelation? How is law present in the gospel?

I hope my questions make sense.

Anonymous said...

You are getting me right.

To adjust a little of what you are saying, it's not simply that we must make sure that the fundamental characteristics are present, but if we are truly speaking of God's gospel we necessarily speak of God's law, and vice versa.

A common complaint against Barth's theology is that everything is subsumed under grace. For Barth the law exists for the sake of the gospel. Related to this is his constant complaint against some of the Protestant scholastics who subsumed grace under law (i.e., grace can only be understood in light of sin). What Barth was going after was a thoroughly christocentric theology so that even concepts such as law and sin, could not be understood in themselves, but only in their relation to Christ. So the gospel reveals the law accomplished in Christ, and the law points to Christ as the one who fulfills it. In other words, for Barth, our hamartiology must always and only come after christology--we must understand sin in light of Christ and not Christ in light of sin. And this is why Barth calls himself a "refined supralapsarian"--Christ precedes everything.

To put it in terms of Barth's Yes-No dialectic, the No exists for the sake of the Yes. Even Creation itself begins with God's Yes (Christ for us) and the No can only be understood in light of the Yes. Because of this Barth understands Adam, not as federal head, but as a princeps inter pares--the first sinner among many sinners. Adam is differentiated from the rest of us only because he is the first person to sin. The traditional Reformed view holds that Adam fell from a covenantal relationship (which was law) and thus entered a state where he needed grace (and if grace is understood as demerited favor, it only makes sense for it to come after sin and law). To Barth, this stepwise view of salvation is unacceptable. It's grace from beginning to end.

You're asking the right questions. It is a common complaint from Reformed circles that Barth's understanding of the law-gospel distinction really ends up becoming a confused golawspel, where neither law nor gospel are properly understood, but are rather confused.

Hope that helps.

Phil Sumpter said...

Josh, thanks again for your comments, you're really helping me out here - I can see light slowing dawning on the horizon.

I haven't read that much Barth, only as a means to understanding Childs, but I do get the impression that for, as you say, grace subsumes everything. But then, don't you think this contradicts his claim that God speaks both equally? God doesn't: they are hierarchically and even temporally ordered

I also whether if this one of the reasons why Barth is accused of universalism.

As for me, I have always operated in more "scholastic" (or conservative Evangelical) categories, namely that the good news has to be bad news before it is good (as Martin Lloyd Jones put it). I always figured this was basic Reformation teaching, whether Lutheran or Calvinist. The Law "breaks" us, so to speak, so that we are ready for the good news of forgiveness. I still have to figure out the implications of seeing things the other way round. I think there is a trend in this direction amongst, for example, Emergent types (e.g. N. Livingstone's talk of the Gospel's "demanding beauty"). I do worry that an important if difficult strand of the Bible, namely God's wrath and judgment, is being underplayed ...

I also wonder about the legitimacy of Barth's thorough Christocentrism. There was a debate a while back between Chris Seitz and Francis Watson on this, Seitz arguing that we need to be "Trinitarian" before we can be "Christological". Here's a quote by Barr on the subject, which Seitz cites, and here's a quote by Watson which actually seems to affirm this.

Bob MacDonald said...

Phil - if your thesis is true then wrath cannot be underplayed but it can be played with. You should look at that relationship between psalms 90 and 91 and how the word play underscores this. The last verse of 90: 'The beauty of the Lord' na'om adonai, a palindrome to 'the Lord as habitation' adonai mo`an in the first verse and in 91:9 where incidentally, Hashem and Elyon are implicitly both identified with Adonai. To boot, besides the obvious 'answers' and promises in 91, there is the word play between fury and feathers in the two psalms. Fury sounds like feathers apart from the ayin instead of the aleph.

Anonymous said...


No problem, glad to hear that I'm helping out.

With regard to speaking Law and Gospel equally, yes and no. I don't think Barth would say that we speak both equally in the sense of balancing before the two. He doesn't like the idea of having a law that can be preached apart from Christ (i.e., there is no revelation of God's law apart from the gospel)--so in that sense one might say he puts greater emphasis on grace. However, from his perspective it's not so much a matter of one or the other, but a matter of preaching the gospel which reveals the law (and, from that same angle, to preach the law of God would be to preach the gospel). I'm not quite following that last part about God not speaking both equally--if anything of this paragraph is not answering your question you might have to re-ask it.

A lot of the above is related to Barth's understanding of God's attributes. Rather than view, for example, God's love in the incarnation and then his holiness in the condemnation of sinners, Barth would argue that all of God's acts are simultaneously loving, holy, righteous, good, etc. This stems from Barth's underrstanding of divine simplicity. He acknowledges the multiplicity of the attributes, but also sees them functioning simultaneously in all of God's acts. So God's love is revealed in his justice, his justice is revealed in his love, etc.

With all that said, I'm in agreement with you and with the reformers. I think there are particular aspects of Barth's theology that are vital (particularly his emphasis on the preached Word), but I think there is enough nuance with the Reformed scholastics (and Calvin, Olevianus, Ursinus, etc.) to avoid the sort of natural theology that Barth hates so much while avoiding some of Barth's own views.

The drama of redemption (fall, sin, death, incarnation, resurrection, etc.) seems to lose a lot when the plot is flattened to a single aspect (even if it is the main aspect of the story). Obviously, in God's mind things would not be so disparate and spread out (temporal), but when it is played out in history we see things differently. That is, we see a time without sin, a time where grace becomes necessary for fallen people, and a time that anticipates the incarnation of the God-Man, etc., but all this occurs in the context of a story and, as we would say in terms of drama, the story is moved along as the plot unfolds.

In my opinion, Barth is right in his emphasis on christocentricity--we need to make sure we're thinking everything in terms of Christ (as well as in terms of the Trinity). However, I'm not so sure that this means we need see Christ (the protagonist of the drama) appearing in every scene in the same way. Just because he is less present in one scene (e.g., the Fall of Adam) it does not mean that the play is not centered around him. But the plot must be developed and it must unfold so that he can be presented at the climax (incarnation, redemption).

So, I don't think we need to be Barthians to see Christ in the Old and New Testaments. The Reformers did that well enough. Heeding Barth's warning, however, we need to be careful not to think of God apart from Christ, resulting in some sort of despotic Greek deity wielding an abstract 'absolute' power.

Anyway, hope that made sufficient sense.


Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Bob, that may be poetic example of the dialectic at hand.

Hi Josh, that all made perfect sense, so thanks again for taking the time. I think what I really need to do is just read more Barth in order to fill this with more content. I've only read his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction and a few excerpts here and there (esp Vol. 1 of his Dogmatics). However, I've had to struggle through them in German which can be pretty exhausting. For now, the main thing that pops in my mind when I hear that the gospel is revealed in the law and vice versa is that the law leads to recognition of sin and repentance while the gospel reveals the true content of the law and thus to renewed obedience. I'm guessing Barth is more nuanced, but does he think something along those lines?

Anonymous said...


Yeah, that sounds about right. The gospel comes to us in the law, telling us to "be who we are in Christ" (I tend to liken this to the traditional third use of the law), and the law comes to us in the gospel as fulfilled in Christ (first use of the law).

The two concepts (the gospel in law and law in gospel) are not necessarily "unreformed." The main difference with Barth is that he always holds the two together so that you can never have strict law, or strict gospel--and even then, I don't think the Reformers would have disagreed. However, when we leave the sphere of preaching and the church (i.e., the secular realm, city of man) then the question arises whether natural law accurately reflects God's law. Barth would say no, the Reformers would say yes. And you can see why Barth saw Luther's law-gospel distinction as the problem behind the German Christian Movement.

That's great that you're reading through KD in German. I'm trying to fit learning German in between all the rest of my classes, but it'll be a while before I can even "struggle through" any Kirchliche Dogmatik. Aber ich kann es jetzt nicht tun! Spater ich will die Zeit haben es zu tun. (I hope that made sense).

Auf Wiedersehen.

Phil Sumpter said...

Josh (sorry for the late reply),

so would the implication for evangelism be that instead of going to someone with the law in order to point out how dirty they are, we should go to someone with the law in order to point out how clean they could be? The majority of evangelistic approaches that I've been acquainted with have accorded with the first model.

And you can see why Barth saw Luther's law-gospel distinction as the problem behind the German Christian Movement.

The penny still hasn't really dropped for me here, but I can hear it clinking along the way!

I think deciding to learn German is one of the wisest decisions you can make as a theologian. There is simply so much good stuff written in this language, and many English translations lose so much (I find the English translation of Gunkel's Einleitung in die Psalmen pretty terrible). So well done, keep it up! One tip: make an effort to learn all the gendres of nouns. Especially at the level of academic German, you need to know how to divide up their excruciatingly long sentences and differentiating between "die Person" and "der Person" is important. Barth, by the way, is one of the worst culprits here :) . Some of his sentences last a whole paragraph.

Bis dann.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

The law would not be used to show how clean Christians could be, but more like how clean they already are in Christ--the call to sanctification is not about becoming someone that you are not, but becoming who you already are in Christ. Paradoxically, for Barth, it's only when we understand the gospel that we understand the law (how dirty we are)--it's only through grace that we come to know law. This means that for evangelism we don't share the gospel in a stepwise manner. Rather than talk about sin and guilt first to prepare the way for the gospel, Barth would have us preach the gospel since only then will the hearer understand sin and law.

Barth links Luther to the German Christian movement through Luther's understanding of law-gospel. Specifically, according to Barth, because Luther understood the law to be anything in the imperative voice ("the law says, 'do this' . . ."). As soon as Luther identified the law as any imperative, the imperatives of the German kaiser took on divine authority. So the church in Germany became explicitly national. Barth reacted by linking the law of God to Christ, i.e., to the gospel. The Barmen Declaration says that there is only one word of God who is Christ. If there is a law that is separated from the gospel, it is not the law of God, ergo, the law of the kaiser is not divine.

I really wish I had more time to study German. I've been crawling very slowly through April Wilson's "German Quickly." I haven't looked at the book for a few months now, but hopefully when summer hits I'll be able to put more time & effort into it. Any recommendations on learning German?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hello Josh,

The law would not be used to show how clean Christians could be, but more like how clean they already are in Christ

I was thinking thinking of non-Christians, i.e. the law shows them how clean they could be, if they accept Christ. As for Barth starting with the Gospel, does it really matter where one starts? I would have thought it doesn't matter. There are people, a lot of them, who are totally ignorant of their sin, so that the statement "God is able to forgive you" is meaningless. What for? is their response.

Tips on learning German: It's an gruelling experience, though very rewarding, so commit yourself for the long term. Aim at as much immersion as possible. I.e. listen to German radio, German music (I like Juli, Wir Sind Helden, and Xavier Naidoo), watch German films (even with subtitles, you still get a feel for its rhythms). Most importantly of all, get hold of "easy readers" which your library ought to have. These are German books with various vocabulary capacities, depending on what level your at (the easiet is 600 words). They really help you get a feel for the language, make the vocab stick, and teach you the nuances of the words. It's also more fun than doing grammar exercises. Oh, and try and find a German speaker with whom you can do a tandem course (you help out with English in response). Even if your spoken German is poor, you can still go through the exercises and stammer out what you can. Even if they can't tell you why it is wrong, you will will either be able to figure that out yourself because of your better "meta-knowlege" (grammar) and it doesn't matter anyway why. Try and speak it and write it (i.e. production) and hear and read it (i.e. input). Oh, and go to Germany, Austria, Switerzland or certain mountainous regions of Canada on holiday. Let me know if you are in the area of Bonn.

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I realized that you might have been referring to non-Christians after I had commented. For Barth, you can only begin with the gospel. Barth's theology of the preached Word comes into play here. Where it is God's Word which creates its own hearers. Revelation, to Barth, is an event, not a set of propositional doctrines or an experience. Revelation 'happens' when God reveals himself to the sinner and the sinner responds in faith--and all of this is God's work through his Word. In response to your comment, I believe Barth would say that everyone is totally ignorant of their sin until revelation happens--giving them the law won't do anything for them. But when revelation does happen (i.e., when the word of man becomes the Word of God), then people understand the gospel and realize their sin. It begins with preaching Christ, with preaching the gospel--not by preaching the law in order to position the hearer in a place where the gospel can finally have effect. The gospel always comes first, grace is always first.

I'm not sure if Barth ever pointed to the various passages in Acts, but I think they can act as examples. The Ethiopian eunuch was led to repentance through seeing Christ in Isaiah 53 and the rest of the OT. Peter was proclaiming the fulfillment of the promise of God in Christ to the Jews at Pentecost when many of them asked, "what must we do to be saved?" In these instances it wasn't a matter of strictly preaching the law first ('this is what you guys need to do and are not doing') and then gospel ('this is what Christ has done for you'), but simply preaching Christ: 'this is what God has promised and has done in Christ. This is the promise fulfilled.'

I do think Barth's actualistic view of revelation is somewhat reductionistic--I don't think revelation can only be understood in terms of event, though it is certainly not less than that. I do think there are some things to gain from Barth. He definitely has faith in the power of the gospel to save (even sinners who don't know they're sinners yet), and I think that is something that we shouldn't dismiss too quickly. There's certainly overlap in areas between Barth and the Reformers, but there are areas of serious disagreement as well. I think the early Reformers were more nuanced than Barth gives credit for when it comes to law-gospel (and natural law) and when in doubt, it's probably best to stick with the Reformers.

I watched "Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage" yesterday and enjoyed it very much. I will definitely look up the German music you recommended and I'll be on the lookout for easy readers. I recently discovered a Starbucks near my school where a woman from Germany works. I was about to make an attempt at dialogue when I heard her speaking German with another German (I don't know where all these Germans are coming from!) and I thought I might study a little bit more before an attempt. Haha, I will probably try again soon. I was in Bonn two summers ago, just for vacation. If I ever am in the area again I will let you know.

Thanks for the help!

Bob MacDonald said...

Still listening - and a question always comes to mind when someone says Christ. When that person from Ethiopia "sees Christ" - what is he seeing. Acts says that Philip preached Jesus to him. While it is obvious that Jesus fits the pattern of Isaiah 53, it is far from obvious that the anointing depicted in Isaiah is limited to the man Jesus. The Gospel in TNK always strikes me as revealing something new about the Gospel to the Gentiles. It is true that there is a perfection of wisdom in Jesus the elect servant of God - but while he gives him the anointing without measure, the anointing of TNK is of the same spirit as is the anointing in this case of the servant of Candace. In particular the anointing of the servant Israel in Isaiah is not excluded by applying that passage to Jesus. He is in a line of the prior elect and the focus of those who follow him. That is what creates both the Gospel and the hearer. Our elliptical language tends to obscure this gift that transcends time. I think that is why Paul uses the terms Christ Jesus and Jesus Christ sometimes in the same breath - so as not to exclude the chrism of the 'believer' in any age.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Josh,

once again, apologies for the late reply.

Thanks very much for taking the time to explain all of this to me. I find it very lucid and helpful. Another question this brings up for me, and this will betray my own struggle to figure out what the Gospel actually is: You paraphrase apostolic preaching as "'this is what God has promised and has done in Christ. This is the promise fulfilled.'" How do you translate that for a modern non-Christian? My understanding of the gospel is still so centred on law and the judgement of God that I find it hard to imagine how I would present the "gospel," without talking about our debt to God. I suppose I could talk about the transformation offered by the Spirit, or the holistic redemption of a fallen creation, offer some kind of "meta-narrative" about being on a journey through the wilderness, or suggest the marvels of a "cross-shaped" God and what it means to participate in his dimension of reality. But somehow ... I feel something is missing. For some NT writers (like Luke) forgiveness is apparently a synonym for salvation. And if forgiveness is a synonym for what Jesus has achieved and thus offers ... how can I talk about it without first pointing out the holiness of God and our failings.

Interesting tip about defaulting to the Reformers. I plan to read Calvin's Institutes soon and hope that the experience will be beneficial.

You were in Bonn on holiday? I presume you were passing through to somewhere more interesting like ... the Black Forest. As for Sophie Scholl, a great film. I'd also recommend Der Wunder von Bern. There's also a good one about mountain climbers in WWII, though they speak with Swiss/Bavarian accents.

Hi Bob,

I have to confess I find it hard to follow you. I don't think any one is limiting Isa 53 to one exclusive referent, although Jesus is still the ultimate referent.

Bob MacDonald said...

My comment is dense - sorry. It is a very simple thesis. Anointing=Christ=the elect - is not confined to Jesus. So when we use the term Christ, we should not exclude the chosen, the elect and the anointed of all times and places whether before or after Christ Jesus.

People will maybe think I am on dangerous even heretical ground. But I am not for I am in Christ by the gift of the election of God the Spirit proven by the election of Israel and confirmed by the work of Christ Jesus in the fulfilling of the created order in his own body for us.

When people write 'Christ' they often automatically assign the hidden word 'Jesus' - and this frequently leads to exclusive pronouncements that are not gospel.

Anonymous said...


No worries. Talking about this stuff is good for me as well. In terms of preaching God's holiness, I don't think Barth would say no to that. His only problem with preaching law, is preaching a law that does not have Christ as its protos and telos. That's why Barth says the No (judgment) exists for the sake of (and because of) the Yes (reconciliation). You cannot have the No without the Yes, and, ultimately, the No is understood only in light of the Yes which precedes (in creation) and follows it (reconciliation).

I don't think your confusion reflects an inability to understand what Barth is saying. The way Barth does things here is very confusing. In re-thinking the doctrine of election, a lot of other doctrines had to be reconsidered (the doctrine of creation, for instance, was redone in a very creative way: Barth's famous concept of 'das Nichtige'). Others have also pointed out that Barth may have been inconsistent in his understanding of grace. If grace is understood as de-merited favor (which is a way Barth explains it at times), it doesn't make sense to have grace before sin and the fall--there are other points where Barth speaks of grace preceding sin (because Christ precedes sin), and the result is the issue at hand. But I don't think Barth minds the problems that arise since he'd rather take the confusion and avoid thinking Christ in the light of sin rather than "systematize" and view sin in the light of Christ. That is perhaps part of the reason Barth rejects systematic theology. He says in his Intro to Evangelical Theology, "the God of the Gospel rejects any connection with a theology that has become paralyzed and static"--which is probably how he would understand a doctrine of sin that is understood apart from Christ (a step-wise understanding of salvation).

The key point of the gospel, I believe, for Barth is understanding who God is in Christ: Emmanuel "God with us" which he also understands to mean "God for us." Regardless of sin God is Emmanuel. Only through understanding this can we understand the rest (forgiveness, holiness, our failings, etc.). This is why Barth held, with Scotus, that Christ's incarnation would have occurred regardless of sin or the fall.

I don't want to make it seem as though Barth was allergic to any law-preaching. He preached law, but he never preached a gospel-less law, I guess you could say. If the law was preached it had to be understood in light of the gospel.

As for "Wunder von Bern," I will definitely check that out. I love WWII films (especially if they are in German)--so keep the recommendations coming.


Phil Sumpter said...

Sorry for the late reply y'all. I've finally got my workload under control and will be able to keep up with you better.

Hi Bob,

I think I can agree with that. Thanks for your thoughts.

Hi Josh,

His only problem with preaching law, is preaching a law that does not have Christ as its protos and telos.

Christ as the protos of the law is something I will have to get my head around. I did read a bit of Barth on creation, but it was dense (for me at least) and I will have to get round to looking at it in more detail. Still, based on what you have said, it would seem that Barth may not have a problem after all with people who preach judgement in order to convict people of their sin before offering the solution ... Theoretically, both sides of the coin wouldn't have to occur in the same conversation ... One could get back to it later. Strategically suspending talking Christ doesn't make the law bit Christ-less, just "Christ-expectant" (perhaps). aboutWhether that's wise is another issue.

Your paragraph on the consistency of Barth's thoughts is helpful, so thank you. It raises questions again in my mind, but then that's the point: they are complex issues that still need to be dealt with. It's an interesting thought that a "step-wise" understanding of salvation could be too systematic. I've never quite grasped Barth's "dynamic" understanding of the gospel. But then that's probably the point ... Not sure how healthy I find that.

The key point of the gospel, I believe, for Barth is understanding who God is in Christ

This brings up for me the issue I raised above about being "Christological" or "Trinitarian." Seitz would want to emphasise that God was known before Jesus in such a way (or of such a quality?) that that knowledge can contextualize Jesus, and not just the other way round. The OT provides the horizon for Jesus and not just something to be interpreted in light of him (i.e. the "Immanuel" of Isaiah has its own meaning in its own context and that needs to condition our understanding of Jesus). It goes in both ways, course (dialectically). I'm not sure how much Barth gives the OT its own voice ... Again, more questions!

Another German film might be Lola Rennt (Run Lola Runs). It's more "arthouse" and not particularly deep, but cute (including Lola). Oh, and you really ought to see Goodbye Lenin, a comedy about die Wende, life before and after the dissolution of the DDR.

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,

Thinking about the issue a little more, I would suggest that one main reason that we find it difficult to grasp what Barth is doing here is because of his actualistic view of revelation. Revelation is an event, not a static truth/proposition that we can control. So we can talk about law (as a list of do’s and don’ts), but if it’s the Law of God (i.e., something which reveals God) then it can only happen through the event of God speaking through the preached Word (Barth quotes the Second Helvetic Confession which says, “the preached Word is the Word of God”). And, of course, when God speaks, he speaks one Word: Jesus Christ (Barmen). So when we talk about law-gospel and when Barth talks about law-gospel, we may be talking about different things or, perhaps, talking about the same thing in an extremely different way. For Barth, when revelation happens, it is Law-in-Gospel and Gospel-in-Law; if it is really God’s revelation, Law cannot be revealed without the Gospel being revealed simultaneously. Because of his view of revelation as event, Barth could never accept a step-wise view of law-gospel. We can never ‘prepare’ for the Gospel by preaching the Law, but God breaks into time and space by speaking his Word through man’s weak word. The most we as men can do is point (Grünewald’s Isenheim comes to mind), only God can choose reveal himself and he does this whenever he likes to whomever he desires. (Barth’s thought is dense to me as well, if that’s any comfort).

With regard to the OT’s per se voice, I think Barth would stand close to Childs. One cannot properly read/understand the OT as Hebrew Bible, but must understand it as tied to the NT (both linked, of course, by their common subject matter). The two Testaments must be understood as witnesses to Christ through which God speaks in the event of revelation. They are not the Word of God, but they become the Word of God (confusingly, there are parts of KD where Barth does seem to say that Scripture is the Word of God). In and of themselves they are finite, fallible, and errant words of men, pointing to Christ with a weak finger. The miracle is that God actually speaks through the OT and the NT. I’m not entirely sure how this works out, though, in terms of biblical theology. I don’t recall any sermon or passage in KD out of what I’ve read where Barth ever speaks of the OT apart from or in terms of a ‘before-Christ.’ Everything in the OT is a witness to God’s grace in Christ. Even Barth’s understanding of creation as God’s Yes indicates this. This is obviously a theological move, but Barth (like Childs) doesn’t want to separate theology from exegesis or things like historical criticism (to the dismay of men like von Harnack). Barth certainly has the right motives, but his strategy, I think, is questionable.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized Barth’s actualism as presenting a God who is not truly ‘haveable’ and I think that is right. There is an element of truth to Barth’s actualism, but I don’t think all revelation can be reduced to mere act. Fundamentalists go astray by reducing revelation to static, propositional truths, Barth goes astray by reducing revelation to act. I think there is a healthy via media that keeps certain elements of both sides while avoiding some of the more problematic reductions of both sides. I wrote a paper on this topic, if you’re interested.

I think I’ve seen the poster for Goodbye Lenin. I will have to look those up.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Josh,

[given word limits imposed by Blogger, this will come in several installments]

this is really helpful, and I think you hit several nails on the head.

(oh, but before I say anything - yes, please do send me your essay! I'm on philsumpter at hotmail dot com).

1) Barth's "actualistic view of revelation" (a helpful term, thank you) has both excited and frustrated me. I feel some kind of intuitive appreciation of the concept, based on fragmentary personal experience and broader theological reasoning. Yet at the same time it's really hard to pin down. I totally agree with you that it ought to be pinned down in some way - isn't that what the creeds were for? Childs himself talked about the Bible having a "concrete referent" (see his response to postmodern exegesis in The Struggle to Read Isaiah as Christian Scripture). I have actually written an essay comparing Childs and Barth (based on Barth's Introduction to Evangelical Theology; if you are interested I can send it to you - naturally I'd appreciate feedback from a Barth expert!), in which I tried to come to grips with what Barth thought the Gospel actually is. I concluded that the concept of "covenant" was central to his thought, and is another way of saying "Immanuelgeschichte," which is essentially a relational category and as such irreducible to propositions. In other words, I figured that that which makes revelation so hard to grasp is the its very nature as relationship, as us being taken up into a complex, comprehensive relationship which included commands, and hopes, and responsibility, and vision, and judgement and transformation, and mystery and a past and a future etc. etc. By virtue of this fact, the res of the text's verbum is "living" and thus "actualistic." It has a certain contour, for sure (the Biblical Heilsgeschichte, various logical propositions one can extract from that), but this is all dead unless quicked by a relationship in which a different kind of knowing is involved. This "knowing-in-relationship" constitutes Biblical truth, and hence the need for an actualistic doctrine of revelation (I didn't actually say this in the essay, this is the result of my reflection on what I wrote in my essay about 1.5 years ago). Do you think that clarifies the issue at all? (i.e. the issue of why we can't really "conceive" what revelation is in the full sense of the word, why it has to be a repeated experience of God "breaking into" our dimension). Revelation is not just an event - it is an objective state of affairs, an eternal reality - but it requires and event in order for it to be grasped (and further proclaimed) with any kind of adequacy.

2) I also addressed the issue of the Bible both being the Word of God and becoming the Word of God in another essay which Mark Bowald reckons I should submit the Journal of Theological Interpretations (with a few tweaks here and there). I drew on Hermann Diem (Dogmatik) who talks about Barth's "three-times of the word". This was really helpful for me in understanding the theological integrity behind Childs' canonical process. If you are interested, I can send you that essay ("Text and Ontology: the Theological Dialectic of Brevard Childs"). Diem talks about the "oneness" behind the three forms, but it's dense!

Phil Sumpter said...

3) Barth could never accept a step-wise view of law-gospel. I still find this hard to understand, but having re-read my essay, I wonder whether just acquainting myself with Barth's own construal of the Gospel as Immanuelgeschichte will help me understand how he conceived this. Perhaps a good place to start would be Vol. IV of KD ... .

4) I’m not entirely sure how this works out, though, in terms of biblical theology. I don’t recall any sermon or passage in KD out of what I’ve read where Barth ever speaks of the OT apart from or in terms of a ‘before-Christ.’

Again, I see this coming up in Childs here! A good place to go, apart from Childs' own Biblical Theology (esp. p. 85: "The Theological Task of Biblical Theology") is his article "Does the OT witness to Jesus Christ?" He talks about two dimensions: the ontological and the temporal, Jesus fulfilling both. As per usual, I feel that Childs himself felt that he was standing on the edge of new territory, struggling to conceive how this works, but I do think that he is pointing in the right direction. There is a need to hold a "both-and" in tension (he has some great comments on Wilhelm Vischer), i.e. there is a "before Christ" and a not-before. I'm not sure what that means in practice ... . I wonder if Robert Jenson's complex metaphysics is helpful here (I'm thinking of his essay in Nicene Christianity)?

5) Finally, as I mentioned above, I appreciate the Bonhoeffer quote. In fact, I was chatting to a friend who's in NT the other day and I think we came to this kind of "stalemate" - at some point you have to be able to say something, he told me. I'd say that we can say something - that what the tradition of the church has said - but we can only "get inside" it when God brings us inside with the Spirit. Without the Spirit, the statement "Jesus loves me" can be oppressive (can't it?). I think the concept of "beauty" plays an important role here too.

I've done a lot of on-the-spot thinking here ... hope it's understandable.