Barth on the Future Resurrection

This beautiful quote on our future resurrection as a sharing in God’s eternal life comes from late in the Church Dogmatics:

Since, then, God alone can be its future, the life of a creature after death cannot in any sense or circumstances be anything other than its life from God and for God, i.e., the life which is not its own but is given to it by God. God alone is above death and after it. He alone has immortality (I Tim. 616). If a creature is to have immortal life, i.e., the life which defies and overcomes death, which leaves it behind, which is no longer threatened by it, then in no circumstances can this be simply its autonomous continuation in life. It can be only its new life from God and with God. It can be only the eternal life which is given to it by God after the manner of His own life. Its corruptible and mortal, therefore, must as such, as that which it was between birth and death, put on the incorruptibility and immortality which are proper only to God (I Cor. 1553). Its present form is not, then, dissolved or done away with or destroyed, which would mean death, or a future without God. It is taken up into the new form which is not proper to it in its creatureliness but is given to it as that of God its Creator. The past state upon which it enters with death, and which is manifest in death, is thus taken from it by the fact that God, who was its only but true future even in its corruptibility before death and its corruption in death, is present to it in death itself. As what it was before death, it may thus be present and live eternally even after death in the power of His presence, i.e., not of itself, but in the power of the presence of God. (CD IV/3, 310-11)

In this sense, the question of the ‘mortality’ or ‘immortality’ of Adam before the fall, or of Christ’s humanity, is an abstract and meaningless question. We live only as we receive life from God, only as he upholds the universe by the Word of his power (Heb 1:3). God is the life of the creature, its “only but true future even in its corruptibility before death”. It is only as we given life and breath and everything else from God himself that we continue to live, and only ultimately as we are transformed and brought to share in God’s own life that we will one day, after the resurrection, have life forever. This resurrection life will be a “new life from God and with God. It can be only the eternal life which is given to it by God after the manner of his own life.”

Barth on God and the Whole Person

Since I finished the dissertation, I’ve been reading chunks of Karl Barth. In Volume I, Part 2 of his 13-part Church Dogmatics, he writes at length of the subjective side of revelation, what might be called the “appropriation” of the objective side of revelation, what Christ has accomplished for us (§16). How does it look, what happens when people get involved with what Christ has done for them? Barth’s answer is simple: the Holy Spirit. And because the Holy Spirit makes us share in what Christ has done, and not something else, this sharing has a definite form: Church, sacraments, Scripture, and preaching (I/2, 249) under the “mastery” of Christ (265ff.).

In light of my dissertation topic, however, I’m particularly interested in how Barth treats how individuals relate to God. One of the questions I tackled (briefly) was whether one or more “faculties” are central to this relation. Is there a decision of the will which is central? A passionate attachment? Does our intellect drive us inevitably to God? Do we have an appetite, a desire for God? Barth gives this answer:


But the possibility given us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the possibility of a direct confrontation of the whole man by God. Man is confronted in the totality of his own possibilities, and therefore in all possible conditions and attitudes. In revelation, the whole man is addressed and challenged, judged and pardoned by God. In view of this totality of revelation to us we must not refer the revealedness in us to some obscure or even luminous place apart from our own experience and activity. We must not refer it to a place where we can exempt ourselves from all responsibility. We must not refer it to a place which enables us to count on the fact that God or “it” believes in us, from which we are therefore onlookers both of ourselves and God. In the presence of God there is no such back room. There is only the one well-known place for our physico-psychical existence, although it does include within it many alternative possibilities. It is in this totality that our existence participates in the divine possibility, or else we have no part in it. The point is that the whole area of our possibilities is again enclosed by the divine possibility. That is what we have to reckon with if we would understand our participation in this possibility… Again, we can and must know that all our experience and activity is involved in this standing before God. But we can never say how far this or that impression is our calling, this or that discovery our awakening, this or that decision our conversion, this or that conviction our faith, this or that emotion our love, this or that expectation our hope, and this or that attitude our responsibility and justification before God. For as participators in God’s possibility, all that we see and find is simply ourselves, and all the very selfish, very human states and conditions and attitudes in which we actually find ourselves. We never can and never will comprehend how far the concretion of our situation and our attitude is the concretion of our participation in God’s possibility. (CD I/2, 267-68)

Barth is making a polemic here against various certainties we might have. We cannot claim that an experience, a feeling, a decision guarantees our right standing before God–though these things may be signs of it. Sure. But I’m more interested in the way that Barth says God’s revelation claims all of us, the whole person: all our thought, feeling, emotion, attitude, habit, memory and desires. This means, though I’m not sure if Barth says this himself, that our salvation reforms all the pieces of who we are. But I wonder if saying this means we cannot also say, as would a Kierkegaard or a Blondel, that the will or action plays a central role in our relationship to God in a way that, say, memory does not. Our relation to God certainly does not exclude these other areas, but might there not be a kind of tiered relation, where the will or desire plays a key role?

Barth’s Romans Commentary

I’m finally reading the famous commentary on Romans. Of course, there are all the sharpened descriptions of contradiction between God and humanity, stunning and blunt: “In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it” (30). “But the activity of the community is related to the Gospel only in so far as it is no more than a crater formed by the explosion of a shell and seeks to be no more than a void in which the Gospel reveals itself” (36). “Precisely because the ‘No’ of God is all-embracing, it is also His ‘Yes’” (38).

What is most striking just now, having spent last week with him, is how much I feel like I’m reading a biblical commentary written by Kierkegaard. Barth quotes him on the very first page, and throughout you can almost touch the Dane, he’s so palpably present. His ideas are ubiquitous: the “Paradox” (29); “contradiction” (38); “seriousness” and the demand for “choice” (39); God in “incognito” (39); the “qualitative distinction between God and man” (39); the impossibility of “direct communion” (50); and more than any other, the absolute difference between “time and eternity” (29, 44, 47), which is the presupposition of Barth’s whole text.

Yet, there is also another strand, it seems, running through Barth’s commentary, the side that sees the rest on the other side of judgment. This may well be the kinder (less polemical, more pastoral) part of Kierkegaard: “No, he who opens his arms and invites all–ah, if all, all you who labor and are burdened, were to come to him, he would embrace them all and say: Now remain with me, for to remain with me is rest” (Practice in Christianity, 15). And Barth: “the Creator has not abandoned the creation… the faithfulness of God to [humanity] still abides” (41); and, “He is the hidden abyss; but He is also the hidden home at the beginning and end of all our journeyings” (46). Of course, Barth had been a pastor ten years when he wrote this text, so he knew well the need to be assured of God’s faithfulness, that the “Yes” will be heard on the other side of the “No.”

I’m curious how much Kierkegaard’s influence will appear through the rest of the commentary, both explicit and not so subtly hidden.

Von Balthasar and the Reformation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, among the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, unfolds in the early part of his trilogy a theology of Christian experience. Here the saints play a very interesting role as those who exemplify the Christian life which simply is the conformity to Christ’s form (von Balthasar’s first volume is entitled “Seeing the Form”). Between different saints, however, von Balthasar discerns different patterns of experiencing this path. Particularly interesting is his distinction between the experiences of the apostles Paul and John:

If we pass from Paul to John, who constitutes the second classical instance of a New Testament theology of experience, we leave a spiritual world which is impetuous and agitated almost in a violent sense and enter the calm of what “abides.” Paul’s fundamental experience is that of being snatched up by Christ’s dynamis [Greek, “power”] from one aeon and being transferred to the other. Paul overwhelms us because he has himself been overwhelmed. Damascus is a flash of lightning and remains such for the rest of the Apostle’s life. John, on the other hand, has been marked out ever since his first meeting with Jesus at the Jordan… To be sure, John too is one transported by love; but he is so profoundly at rest in this movement that, for him, it becomes the very presence of eternity… (The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1, 232-233)

In this light, it makes sense to see Paul speaking of the battle with the spiritual powers and authorities, the need for spiritual armour, the struggle with the sinful nature so central to his life (esp. Romans 7), and the bitter clashes with his opponents in the churches. From John, however, we are presented with a picture of calm repose, even at those moments in his gospel which in the others are full of agony. On the cross, Jesus’ life ends not with the dramatic cry as in Mark’s gospel (15:34), but with the composed, “It is finished” (19:30). Now, this difference should not be overplayed, but it is striking.

Striking especially in light of the historical circumstances that generated the Reformation. A certain monk, Martin Luther, of the Augustinian order—Augustine’s theology being strongly influenced by Paul—was greatly troubled over his sinfulness and lack of assurance. Luther was continuously plagued by Anfechtung, or “tempting attacks.” Only in reading the first chapter of Romans, with its teaching of justification by faith, did he find himself totally carried away, relieved, transported to a place of comfort and solace. The same sort of pattern is seen in Kierkegaard, perhaps the paradigmatic Protestant, who spoke similarly of Anfægtelse, or “spiritual trials.” (See the excellent article, “The Lightning and the Earthquake,” by Podmore.) This bloomed in Barth’s early dialectical theology of Krisis where Kierkegaard’s “infinite qualitative distance” between God and humanity is unfolded in all its purity.

This genealogy—Paul, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth—suggests a highly significant set of questions, again in light of von Balthasar’s earlier distinction between Pauline and Johannine types of Christian experience or spiritualities: Would the Reformation have occurred if Luther had been formed in a Johannine spirituality of eternal rest? If Luther had been, say, a Benedictine or Franciscan rather than an Augustinian monk? Would it have taken another avenue, perhaps waiting the 20 years for Calvin to begin it? Would it have ended with the Catholics and Reformers so violently opposed? Perhaps most interesting to me, and ecumenically significant: Can the history of the last 500 years between Protestants and Catholics be helpfully read as a history of spirituality? And will this reading allow us to come back to one another once again?

Multiform Jesus

Karl Barth, on seeing Jesus from many different and varied angles:

The recognition of Christian faith can and should be varied. The reason for this is as follows. Although its object, the Jesus Christ attested in Scripture and proclaimed by the community, is single, unitary, consistent and free from contradiction, yet for all His singularity and unity His form is inexhaustibly rich, so that it is not merely legitimate but obligatory that believers should continually see and understand it in new lights and aspects. For He Himself does not present Himself to them in one form but in many—indeed, He is not in Himself uniform but multiform. How can it be otherwise when He is the true Son of the God who is eternally rich? Of course, all knowledge of Jesus Christ will have not merely its basis but its limit and standard in the witness of Scripture and the proclamation of the Church. It is possible only within this definite sphere. It is only in this sphere that Jesus Christ has a form for us men, that He can therefore be an object of our knowledge and known by us. Again, it is a wide sphere with many possibilities …. Outside this sphere, Jesus Christ has no form for us; He is not an object of our knowledge and He cannot be known by us. The believer whom He has definitely encountered in this sphere and not elsewhere will not even try to seek Him outside this sphere. If he did, both Jesus Christ and his faith would dissolve into nothingness. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 763)

Karl Barth on the Church

Karl Barth, in turning to the subject of the Church, makes sure we understand that we must see it as it is, in all the ugliness and deformity which comes with its historical existence. Yet, there is a “hope and a yearning”:

The credo ecclesiam [I believe in the Church : Apostle’s Creed] can and necessarily will involve much distinguishing and questioning, much concern and shame. It can and necessarily will be a very critical credo. In relation to the side of the Church which is generally visible it can and necessarily will express what does not amount to much more than a hope and a yearning. But it does take the Church quite seriously in its common visibility—which is its earthly and historical existence. It confesses faith in the invisible aspect which is the secret of the visible. Believing in the ecclesia invisibilis [invisible Church] we will enter the sphere of labour and conflict with the ecclesia visibilis [visible Church]. Without doing this, without a discriminate but serious participation in the historical life of the community, its activity, its upbuilding, its mission, in a kind of purely theoretical and abstract churchliness, no one has ever seriously repeated the credo ecclesiam. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 654)

Karl Barth on Postmodernity, Ecumenism and Orthodoxy

First, on postmodernity:

The alleged freedom from presuppositions of which a certain [knowledge] is accustomed to boast, simply means that yet another presupposition is being made. Concretely this means that God’s revelation is not to be reckoned with, that on the contrary it is possible to adopt a neutral attitude to what this Scripture points to, just as it is possible to take up this attitude to other things. This neutrality, this unconcern about God’s revelation, and therefore this “freedom from presuppositions” is a presupposition exactly like any other.

Next, on ecumenism:

But since it is a matter of division in the Church, we can recognise these divisions only with horror and can only pray for their removal. We verily believe in the one Church. We can see here nothing but an affliction of the Church, which we must believe will be overcome, though in truth the power to overcome it is not in our hands.

Finally, on orthodoxy:

“Orthodoxy” means agreement with the Fathers and the Councils. As that it can never be an end in itself … If only they knew definitely that here, too, there is a binding tie, they might be disposed to let this “tie” to the Church’s past remain in force as after all a quite respectable affair. The more one listens and breaks free from the illusion that the world began with oneself, the more will one discover that these Fathers knew something, and that the scorned “orthodox” writers of, say, the seventeenth century were theologians of stature. And it can even happen that alongside of them modern theological literature will be found a little insipid and a little tedious.