Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why the Eucharist Does Not Make the Church: Index

Why the Eucharist Does Not Make the Church Part III: Analysis and Conclusion


With Zizioulas’s Pneumatological Christology, Webster calls us to remember that we must not think that “at his ascension Jesus Christ as it were resigns his office in favour of human ministers, and that henceforth the church is the real centre of ministerial agency” (John Webster, “The Self-Organizing Power of the Gospel” in Word and Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 199). This is true even in the face of deep communion between Christ and the church which Zizioulas posits. “Ministry in the church ‘points beyond itself’ to the action of another” (Ibid., 201, quoting T.F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood. A Theology of Ordained Ministry, revised ednn. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 97). No matter how eschatological, the communion of saints surrounding the bishop can never be theologically understood to supplant the rightful place of Christ.

In regard to Zizioulas’ remarks on mission of the church to creation in the eucharist, human responsibility cannot consist in making creation “capable” of anything, let alone communion, and Christ’s cosmic reign is certainly not conditional on us – for he already is that in himself. Whereas the emphasis here is clearly on subjectivity, it fails to retain any objectivity that would make it properly eschatological such that “x becomes what x already is.” While the issue of capacity might be considered a Western hang-up, it is nonetheless important for making ontological distinctions between divine and human agents.

Responding to the caricature of Western (if not Protestant) theology, our position is not that “our fallen state of existence is all there is,” but that it certainly is to be accounted for. Without the qualification of realism regarding our sinful world and our place in it as a sinful community, Zizioulas runs the risk of making the truth of communion an escapist communal subjectivism. Christ is both objectively the author of our faith and the one who perfects it subjectively in us. Either way, it should be said that he is the primary acting subject in whom we participate. As Zizioulas points out earlier, “creaturehood means precisely this: the being of each person is given to him; consequently, the human person is not able to free himself absolutely from his ‘nature’ or from his ‘substance'” (Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 19). What is this nature if not sinful? No anthropology can deny this aspect of total depravity if it wants to understand the true meaning of grace.

Furthermore, an episcopate built on the Gospel of Jesus Christ must disagree with Zizioulas here. The life and ministry of Jesus to the poor and needy is essential to the Gospel, and this cannot be considered secondary with respect to unity. The social implications of the Eucharist, which attests to the Gospel, further support this move. George Hunsinger makes such a move in his chapter, “Christian Ethics as Evangelical, Social and Eucharistic,” as he exegetes Paul in 1 Cor. 11:17-34. Such implications are counter to the individualism that Zizioulas rails against, since Christ creates communion through the Eucharist here and now.

A proper understanding the Eucharist is found at Calvary. Here we see Christ present to us as both the one who is the Offerer and the Offering, the High Priest and the Lamb of God slain “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The Eucharist thus requires anamnesis, which is looking backwards at what has been achieved for us once and for all on the cross. At the same time, it is also prolepsis, looking forward to Christ’s second coming. E.L. Mascall puts out a stunning vision of the reality in which we anticipate and participate:

The apostles will have received their thrones as the judges and patriarchs of the New Israel. They will be seated with their Master, who is himself the Apostle of the Father, at the Messianic Banquet, which, because it is the banquet of his crucified and ascended Body and Blood, is at the same time the perpetual Liturgy where in the Father is glorified by the Eucharistic offering of him who is the son by nature and who includes within himself all those who, because they are his members, are the sons of the Father by grace and adoption, and who in their organic unity are his mystical Body and Bride the Catholic Church, one flesh with him (E.L. Mascall, Corpus Christi (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1953), 30-31).

Christ’s relationship to the church in the Eucharist is one in which he remains the “sole saving agent.” The Word makes the church by proclamation, guiding it by the authority of Scripture. The Sacraments make the church by baptism, sustaining it by the Eucharist. Christ witnesses to himself by the Word, imparting himself to us in faith. The Eucharist manifests his mediation to and from us as an impartation of communion and as his eternal self-offering on the basis of his finished saving work through intercession as our High Priest. Finally, he is the first-fruits of what is to come at the end when he returns in glory (Here I am indebted to George Hunsinger’s handout in TH325: Theology of the Lord’s Supper for helping to decipher the various components Christ’s agency in the Eucharist).

Mutual indwelling must mark our union with Christ, such that our relationship is internalized rather than extrinsic. However, this is marked by an asymmetry between Christ and the church, so that Christ maintains priority as Lord and Savior. Such a move would disallow the Monophysite tendencies of de Lubac and Zizioulas.

The Eucharist is part of the ministry of reconciliation, which is synonymous with the apostolic ministry. It is this ministry that de Lubac and Zizioulas have emphasized in their own unique ways. In proclamation, we as Protestants do not look forward as if unity were just an eschatological reality that is here. This is certainly true. But we also give emphasis to the perfect tense of this unity. The cross means reconciliation with God and with humanity itself. It has already been achieved in Christ there and then. And yet, as John Webster points out, “What the apostolic ministry of reconciliation indicates is the [reconciled] existence (not simply the potentiality) of the ‘one new man’” (John Webster, “Christ, Church and Reconciliation” in Word and Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 223).

The desire to form ecclesiology along the lines of communion has failed to account for Christology in a sufficient manner. The Eucharist, that institution by Christ which deepens our union with him, is thus used as a pattern for all ecclesiology, particularly the understanding of the ordering of the episcopate. Our union with Christ is a given entity to the Church, and its mission is to bring all others into communion with itself, the body of Christ. The line between Christ and his Body becomes blurred in this move by de Lubac, and further by Zizioulas, who believes Christ is the Church without distinction.
In their own unique ways, de Lubac and Zizioulas attempt to address the individualism of the church in modern times. However, one gets the idea that the only sin of the church is individualism. De Lubac and Zizioulas both try to account for a mutual indwelling of the “one” and the “many,” even as there is asymmetry between them. However, this does not defend against the ultimate problem of failing to distinguish between Christ and his church. This becomes apparent when the Eucharist, as a third wheel as it were, promulgates the Church itself as the primary acting subject. It turns out that the Eucharist “makes the Church,” but also that the church “makes the Eucharist.” This double principal, introduced by de Lubac, does not seem to take Christ into account, except as the one who endowed the church with the gift of the Spirit through apostolic succession we receive today.
Our ecclesiology can be mirrored in the Eucharist not as a principal of unity or communion, but only insofar as the Eucharist attests the union we have in Christ and thus with one another. It will be argued that we can indeed have a Eucharistic ecclesiology when a proper understanding of the Eucharist is put forth. Ecclesiology that builds upon the Eucharist in union with the Word, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, will not fail to account for how the church can be, and surely is, the body of Christ here and now.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Why the Eucharist Does Not Make the Church Part 2: John Zizioulas

John Zizioulas (Being as Communion)

John Zizioulas, like de Lubac, also recovers the early church’s teaching on the Eucharist for the purpose of revitalizing ecclesiology, emphasizing that the celebration was not simply memorializing what had been accomplished. First and foremost, it was celebrating the fact that it was caught up in “an eschatological act" (21). The Eucharist constituted the being of the Church. It also helped bring together the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It could hold both the historical form and the divine reality together without confusion. The Eucharist was not simply an institution (22), but an event out of the working of the Holy Spirit to bring history into eternity with God.
Like de Lubac, Zizioulas wants to check individualism in the church.

The eucharistic community makes the Church eschatological. It frees it from the causality of natural and historical events, from limitations which are the result of the individualism implied in our natural biological existence (22).

The Eucharist cannot happen in isolation, but only when everyone is present. That is, Zizioulas has no regard for private masses because of the communal nature of the Eucharist. He characterizes the Eucharist not as a sacrament along side the word, but as

the eschatologization of the historical word, the voice of the historical Christ, the voice of the Holy Scripture which comes to us, no longer simply as ‘doctrine’ through history, but as life and being through the eschaton. It is not the sacrament completing the word, but rather the word becoming flesh, the risen Body of the Logos (22-23).

Zizioulas locates ecclesiology quite explicitly in the economic Trinity, identifying the humanity as the imago dei not within a universal human nature as de Lubac does, but only within “the work of Christ and the Spirit in history" (19).

Zizioulas bypasses the choice between a Christological or Pneumatological ecclesiology by emphasizing their unity-in-distinction. “The separation between Christology and ecclesiology vanishes in the Spirit (111).” To distinguish the Spirit from the Son, he writes:

Now if becoming history is the particularity of the Son in the economy, what is the contribution of the Spirit? Well, precisely the opposite: it is to liberate the Son and the economy from the bondage of history . . . The Spirit is the beyond history, and when he acts in history he does so in order to bring into history the last days, the eschaton (130).

It is also the Spirit that allows Christ to have a “corporate personality,” such that Christology is given a communal form – “with Christ having a ‘body,’ i.e. to speak of ecclesiology, of the Church as the Body of Christ" (131).

The two aspects of Pneumatology not only determine but also constitute ecclesiology. “[T]hese aspects must qualify the very ontology of the Church. The Spirit is not something that ‘animates’ a Church that already somehow exists. The Spirit makes the Church be" (132). This leads Zizioulas in a surprisingly premature way to the practical question to which he holds off on an answer: “what ecclesial structures and institutions exist which help the Church to maintain the right balance between local and universal?” (133). We will return to the framing of this question in our critique.

This Pneumatological Christology is significant for conciliarity. The oneness of the church is understood to coincide with its multiplicity. There is no council or synod that acts as a mirror image of the Pope for Orthodoxy. The relationship between the local and universal Church is worked out along the lines of his understanding of the being of God as a communion of persons. There is a double principal at work for Zizioulas, for on the one hand the institution has no prior existence or authority beyond “the event of communion,” while on the other hand the communion of the church cannot be prior to its unity. “The institution which expresses this communion must be accompanied by an indication that there is a ministry safeguarding the oneness which the communion aims at expressing" (135).
A Pneumatological Christology is also significant to the relationship between the bishop and the church, and the maintenance of relationship between the “one” and the “many.” “In the case of the local Church is represented through the ministry of the bishop, while the “many” are represented through the other ministries and the laity” (136). The “one” and the “many” are interdependent. In so far as the “one” is dependent on the “many,” there can be no ordination or episcopacy apart from the community. In so far as the “many” are dependent on the “one,” there can be “no baptism” or “ordination without the presence of the bishop" (137).

Finally, the ecclesial institutions of the bishop and the laity “have to be attached to the eucharist,” (138) thus emphasizing not only the communion but the eschatology of the Church. He describes the institutions as being “reflections of the Kingdom” in two ways. First, they “iconic,” in that “their ontology does not lie in the institution itself,” nor due they owe anything to “historical expedience” (138) but to Christ alone. Zizioulas does not advocate neglecting the needs of people, but he does not see these as having any fundamental structural bearing.

We turn to the function of truth in the Church. Zizioulas describes the Eucharist as “the Locus of Truth" (115). Christ is the experience of truth as the one who comes into our history and dwells within us (115). There is no truth of Christ apart from the community that we might locate within the individual mind (rationalism) or soul (mysticism). Christ is not the truth “in a community, but as a community" (115). The truth of Christ takes on a eucharistic historical form, which differentiates it from mere fact. History as such is known in “charismatic-pentacostal events” which do not submit to “a linear development" (116). Not surprisingly, this creates a new understanding of the infallibility of the Church as dependent on communion of the bishops and the community. Regarding the formulation of truth in dogmas, the aim of definition and anathema was to preserve “Eucharistic communion” (117). Zizioulas goes on: “Thus it may be said that the credal definitions carry no relationship with truth in themselves, but only in their being doxological acclamations of the worshiping community” (117).

The Eucharist reveals the renewal of creation, such that humanity is given the task of priesthood to it. Here we begin to see a characteristic blurring of divine and human agency:

Man’s responsibility is to make a Eucharistic reality out of nature, i.e. to make nature, too, capable of communion. If man does this, then truth takes up its meaning for the whole cosmos, Christ becomes a cosmic Christ, and the world as a whole dwells in truth, which is none other than communion with its Creator. Truth thereby becomes the life of all that is (119).

Finally, “a Eucharistic concept of truth shows how truth becomes freedom” (120). Whereas freedom as choice often assumes an individualist concept of being, the freedom “given by the Christ-truth to creation is precisely this freedom from division and individualization, creating the possibility of otherness within communion" (121). Those who “gather together in the eucharist realize their freedom under the form of affirmation alone: it is not the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ together which God offers in Christ, but only the ‘yes,’ which equates to the Eucharistic ‘Amen" (121).

Because this notion of freedom is so otherworldly, Zizioulas admits that it may seem impractical and unrealistic. However, he reprimands Protestants for this reaction:

You do not do justice to truth’s ontological content by implying that our fallen state of existence is all there is. The individualization of existence by the fall makes us seek out security in objects or various ‘things,’ but the truth of communion does not offer this kind of security: rather, it frees us from slavery to objective ‘things’ by placing things and ourselves within a communion-event (122).

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Why the Eucharist Does Not Make the Church Part 1: Henri de Lubac

The following is my final paper that I wrote for George Hunsinger's class on the theology of the Lord's Supper last spring:

Does the Eucharist make the Church? Henri de Lubac, the great 20th century Catholic theologian who helped to stir interest in Eucharistic ecclesiology across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theology, proposed that it does. In Catholicism, de Lubac sought to give an account of the Church that relied on the Eucharist as a pattern of its life and being, exhibiting its “eminently social character.” Because the Eucharist is where the Church is found to be in communion – its eschatological reality - this pattern was instrumental in fighting off the individualism that had encroached the church so strongly in modern times. No less did John Zizioulas prefer to think of the Church as that which is its fullest self in the Eucharist. By focusing, as the Church Fathers did, on what the Eucharist does to the community, these and other high-sacramental theologians have circumvented the polemics over issues of real presence and sacrifice in favor of seeing the Eucharist as a celebration of communion. However, it is clear that in this turn to its ecclesiological benefits, Christology has languished.

The purpose of this essay is to analyze the ways in which de Lubac and Zizioulas describe the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. I limit myself to two main texts for their thought: Catholicism by de Lubac and Being as Communion by Zizioulas. In this paper I attempt to give a Reformed response by paying particular attention to cases where the ontological continuity of Christ and the church threatens Christ’s own subjectivity and agency. On the other hand, it is my intention to avoid making Christ a completely supernatural and extrinsic entity to the church. A proper relationship between Christ and the Church will allow the Eucharist to both attest to Christ’s true presence in and with the Church and his lordship over it.

Henri de Lubac
According to de Lubac, “The Church . . . completes – so far as it can be completed here below – the work of spiritual reunion which was made necessary by sin; that work that was begun at the Incarnation and was carried on up to Calvary (17).” Again, he says: “Humanity is one, organically one by is divine structure; it is the Church’s mission to reveal to men that pristine unity that they have lost, to restore and complete it (19)” This mission of gathering humanity into its unity was given to the Church, enabled by the Holy Spirit and its gifts. The gift to the Church to deepen its own union was the Eucharist.

The Church has its active and passive aspects, baptizing and yet also being baptized, blessing even as it is blessed. It is both the one who reunites and constitutes those who have been reunited. It is a means to the end, and yet it is also “the end, that is to say, that union in its consummation (27).” There is a “mystical analogy” for de Lubac between the Church on earth and the church in heaven, “which we should perceive the reflexion of a profound identity (27).” For de Lubac, the union between the temporal and eternal, the visible and invisible, is a mystery that we should not seek to penetrate. He goes at great lengths to clarify that there is no confusion between them, so that the visible is neither deified nor adored. While seeing the Church requires faith, it is not the same faith which God requires to be known. While the Church has a hierarchy and a discipline at its disposal, this is only a partial cure to the rampant individualism and separatism since it works “only from without by way of authority, instead of effective union (27).” In a passage that blurs the distinction between Christ and the church, de Lubac writes:

If Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is for us the sacrament of Christ; she represents him, in the full and ancient meaning of the term, she really makes him present. She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation, in a sense far more real than in which it can be said that any human institution is its founder’s continuation (27).

Thus, only by partaking of the bread and wine in a proper manner does the individual receive Christ and is received by the Church. To reject this reception into the Church is a rejection of the sacrament itself and Christ. How should we understand the relationship between the individual and the Church? For de Lubac, the individual is a “Church in miniature, (168)” and they are brought into a unity that mirrors that of the Trinity:

Between its different persons, whatever the variety of their gifts, the inequality of their ‘merits’, there obtains no scale of the degrees of being, but in the likeness of the Trinity itself – and, by the mediation of Christ in whom all are enfolded, within the Trinity itself – a unity of circumincession (183).

According to de Lubac, “since the sacraments are the means of salvation they should be understood as instruments of unity (35).” Here we come to the essence of Eucharistic ecclesiology. Because the sacraments deepen our unity with Christ, they necessarily deepen the unity of the church. The horizontal deepening of unity is intimately bound up with the vertical deepening of unity. “Indeed, in certain cases it must be said that it is through this union with the community that the Christian is united to Christ (35).” This contraction of church and sacrament occurs such that one is not effective without the other. Instead of seeing the sacraments as a supernatural rite that transmits grace, there is no point at which the church ceases to be the cause and effect of such transmission. The sacraments are given power by the church, even as the church is also nourished by the sacraments.

The primary significance of the Eucharist lies not in real presence or sacrifice, but in its unifying effect. Thus, it is impossible to speak of a true Eucharist if there is no unity in the Church. Furthermore, this unity is forged through suffering with the Church, since the Eucharist memorializes Christ’s Passion. Thus, the sacrificial significance of the Eucharist points toward unity since the Church is offered again and again “for a greater, more united Church.”

The unity achieved through the Eucharist is not simply for the Church’s spiritual enjoyment: “True Eucharistic piety, therefore, is no devout individualism . . . With one sweeping, all-embracing gesture, in one fervent intention it gathers together the whole world (49).” There is, thus, an assumed unity within humanity to be found in the fact that God made humanity in his own image. This image does not stem from below in the humanity of Adam. Instead, “it is one and the same image stamped from above identically upon each which makes all one; in other words, the principle of unity lies above, it is not to be identified with nay of the particular images here below (16).”

Whereas sin has introduced not only a metaphysical individuality but also a moral egoism into humanity (187), Christ is the redemption of our image by dwelling in us, both uniting and differentiating us at once:

But what is impossible to mere man becomes possible to man made divine, and what natural understanding rejected as fanciful becomes the sacred object of our hope. Christ, by completing humanity in himself, at the same time made us all complete – but in God. Thus we can say, in the end . . . that we are fully person only within the Person of the Son, by whom and with whom we share in the circumincession of the Trinity (187-88).

Earlier we saw a blurring of the distinction between Christ and the church, but now we see a clear distinction with asymmetry, so that Christ is spoken of as the primary subject. “Christ completes humanity,” and de Lubac provides a quote from Clement of Alexandria with supposed affirmation, saying:

This eternal Jesus, the one high priest, intercedes for men and calls on them: “Hearken,” he cries, “all you peoples . . . I summon the whole human race, I who am its author by the will of the Father! Come unto me and gather together as one well-ordered unity under the one God, and under the one Logos of God (6, quoting Protreptic, c.12)

Clement thus believed Christ proclaimed himself as one who constituted the unity of the world. De Lubac, however, does not dwell on how proclamation is related to the Eucharist.

Ultimately, it was the concern of individualism that drove de Lubac to recover a Eucharistic ecclesiology. “God does not love us as so many separate beings (182).” The grace mediated by the Eucharist was to be found only in the fellowship of the Church. However, as we shall see, an Orthodox theologian named John Zizioulas would not find this to be enough – he would not only de-individualize society but Christ himself, so that there is no external relation between them. Rather, the Church, as an eschatological reality, truly constitutes Christ here and now in the celebration of Eucharist.

The most significant short-comings of de Lubac relate to his lack of qualification regarding the relationship between Christ and the church. While there is certainly unity, there rarely ever seems to be a distinction. However, he maintains a healthy understanding of indwelling, at least with respect to our natural unity and our supernatural unity in Christ: “True union does not tend to dissolve into one another the beings that it brings together, but to bring them to completion by means of one another. . . . Union differentiates (180).”

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Saturday, July 28, 2007


If we stipulate rationalism as purely attempting to prove the existence of God then it is obvious that Barth, as well as Brunner, have no interest in such a project. By disallowing natural theology, any speculation on the existence of God is nullified. For Barth, the reality of God’s existence is presupposed or given through revelation in Jesus Christ. Rationalism, as a motif for Barth, assumes reason as internal to faith (as in Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding”) and confines it within revelation alone. A more interesting question is: how would Barth respond to an a posteriori natural theology that articulates God’s handiwork in the apparent intelligent design of creation through scientific inquiry? It is unclear, given that Barth never truly engaged in dialogue with the sciences, as his protégé Thomas Torrance did. However, we can speculate that Barth would allow this scientific inquiry as a form of worship through creation, but only one entailed within the gracious revelation of Jesus Christ.

In response to the philosophy of religion, Barth made his views clear in Church Dogmatics I/2 in a famous chapter called “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.” He believes that Christianity without revelation is certainly no better nor worse than any other religion. Again, he understands “religion” as relying on “innate” human capacities” and thus belonging to the subjective side of the human-divine correspondence. Revelation, must speak to this side if it is to determine our existence, for to deny this would be to deny it as revelation. Revelation, furthermore, must be regarded as a human phenomenological experience. It is thus open to the comparisons of history, psychology, etc. The human aspect of revelation thus introduces it into the sphere of religion. By recognition of the revelation of God as having a general human aspect, “Christian religion” becomes one in a mass of other human religious phenomena.
The fact that God’s revelation must be considered as a religion among other religions leads Barth to add an even more pertinent question to the discussion: “Whether theology and the church and faith are able and willing to take themselves and their basis seriously.” Religion in the 18th and 19th century had been the problem of theology rather than a problem for theology. Barth saw theology’s duty to the growing humanism of this period as a duty “to participate in this trend and lovingly investigate it. But it was certainly not its duty to co-operate in it.” It is precisely this “co-operation” that occurred. Thus, Barth sought to recapture the “object” of theology: “revelation in all its uniqueness.”
As Bromiley summarizes Barth’s concern not to coordinate revelation and religion:
Religion has to be considered (293), but it cannot be coordinated with revelation (294). If revelation on its subjective side becomes religion as event God himself is always the subject of the event. The question, then, is not that of relating revelation to a known factor of religion, but of finding out what religion is from the standpoint of the disclosed factor of revelation and faith.

Barth wants us to consider man as the subject of religion. Not man as a human per se, but as man (whether he knows it or not) in the revelation of Jesus Christ his Lord. It is this “revelation [that] singles out the Church as the locus of true religion.” The “Christian Religion” however is not the locus, or fulfilled nature of human religion, or in any way superior to all other religions. Rather it is that the truth of Christian religion is the revelation of grace by which it lives.
Barth believes that the Church, as the locus, can begin a theological treatment of religion and religions only for “those who are ready to abase themselves and their religion together with man, with every individual man, knowing that they first, and their religion have need of tolerance, a strong forbearing tolerance.” Without a readiness to give tolerance in the way they have received it, through God who has graciously reconciled sinful humanity, the church becomes mere religion and no longer the locus of true religion. Religion needs this toleration of itself, for in itself . . . it is shown . . . by revelation itself to be unbelief.”
Barth provides us with two standpoints from which to consider religion as unbelief. Firstly, revelation is “God’s self-offering and self-manifestation.” For Barth we must renounce all attempts to apprehend the truth, and let truth be revealed to us. However he also states that the “attitude and activity” by which the genuine believer met and still meets revelation is religion. “Arbitrarily and willfully” does humanity seek by its own insight to apprehend truth about itself. Revelation, as we have said before, opposes all these a priori ideas. “In religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation.” Barth presents humanity, creating in their religion a fiction and replacement for God, with little or no relation to God. It is not an outstretched hand that God fills in his revelation. Instead, revelation is a surprise to humanity!
Barth uses the Old Testament testimony against idolatry to emphasize that revelation does not link up with existing human religion. Rather revelation contradicts the arbitrary constructs and attempts of humanity. The New Testament proclamation of Christ is equally met with “a capricious and arbitrary attempt to storm heaven!” Thus, our attempts to seek after God can only be considered idolatrous to the revelation of God.
The second standpoint is that revelation affirms that man is unable to help himself. It opposes the self-righteousness of works. “He cannot in any sense declare himself that he is righteous and holy, and therefore saved . . . it would be a lie” against the truth of the Fall. God’s act of reconciliation is in opposition to the piety of religion, which Barth describes as an “abomination.” Though perhaps rare, it is possible to find a pious “godly” man within the sons of Adam, but a Christian is a different thing altogether.
By interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, Barth sets out to show the Old as a scripture of revelation against every religion of law and works and therefore all religions as such. He is, however, aware that religion can be criticized from within, and is careful to distinguish this from the abolishment of religion by revelation. “Religion is always self contradictory and impossible per se.” Barth addresses religion’s self-contradiction and humanity’s inward dialect as something within the life of religion itself, unlike revelation. Religion fails to overcome idolatry and self-righteousness in its own strength.
Human criticism points to a two-fold weakening of religion. Firstly, religion is a non-necessity and need not be indispensable, as it is only an externalization, expression, or representation that man has fulfilled for himself in religious life. Thus it is not an authentic need. Secondly, “the link between religion and religious man in his variable-ness is the weakness of all religions,” i.e. religion either changes with the times and therefore makes its truth claims to rest on these times (relativism), or it holds fast but dies due to a lack of fresh believers and adherents.
In the weakness revealed by human criticism, religion attempts to dispel its externalism by convincing itself that the previous “attempt to externalize God was a misunderstanding that deceived us right at the outset” and that an outward law is replaced and concentrated onto an inward loyalty to a nameless, impersonal and undirected will. Barth sees this progression as taking a two-forked route: that of mysticism or atheism.
Mysticism does not negate religion or attack it openly. For as Barth goes on to explain it requires external religion as the text by which it makes its attempts to interpret its internal meaning. Atheism is seen as little better, and perhaps all the more naïve for its outright “negation of the over-world of religion, the weakness and non-necessity of which are perceived.” However, it fails to see that other dogmas of truth and ways of certainty will take on religious character and create other over-worlds of religion.
Barth agrees that atheism and mysticism bring religion into crisis, however they fail to undermine its power “for their own existence is too closely bound up with the existence of religion.” A real crisis within religion, which outstrips humanity’s power to create its own gods, justify and sanctify itself, comes by revelation. Revelation is the positive Word of Christ that goes beyond any negative word of humanity (in pure mysticism and pure atheism). Only in the light of faith can the judgments of unbelief, idolatry and self-righteousness be made.

According to Barth, “religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies that any religion is true, i.e. that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God.” As Barth points out, Christianity comes under the judgment of revelation also. The only way for religion to become “true religion” is for it to “be justified.” For “revelation can adopt religion and mark it as true religion . . . there is true religion: just as there are justified sinners.”
If this is so, then there is no hesitation to say that Christianity is the true religion. Christianity does stand under judgment of religion as unbelief, but it is acquitted by the grace of God’s proclamation in revelation. The faith that justifies Christianity is not that which lives by Christian self-consciousness but “the faith that accepts Christianity’s weakness and therein displays its true power.”
“This power dwells only in weakness . . . the power of religious self-consciousness which is the gift of grace in the midst of weakness, unless Christianity has first humbled itself instead of exalting itself.” Thus, there is nothing with regard to the qualities of Christianity that give it any degree of superiority over other religions. Instead, it is made true as it is created, elected, justified, and sanctified in divine work of Jesus Christ.

This discipline, which is equated with Brunner’s “eristics,” is the most difficult to identify within Barth’s theology. His theology lacks the crisis and anxiety which apologetic theology is constantly fighting, as it fights its opponents in defense of its doctrines, and especially its truth. Barth rejects any apologetics that defends theological truth if this truth is assumed to be neutral and capable of being grounded in some general possibility unknown to us. Apologetics of this type attempts to validate the truth claims of Christian theology by means of rational reflection. As Hunsinger puts it:

"Such validation would show that these claims are either not precluded or else, more strongly, are actually required (or at least confirmed) by certain philosophical principles, or by the results of certain historical or scientific research. Apologetics might also attempt to show that Christian beliefs are commendable, because they enable us to obtain certain ends which we know on other grounds to be valuable or beneficial. The validity of Christian theology – its possibility, its necessity, or its instrumentality – is thus to be demonstrated on external grounds."

Thus, the problem with apologetics defined as such is that it denies the existence of revelation, just as natural theology denies the power of revelation. Apologetics can also attempt to validate revelation by subjecting it to alien standards. Revelation is such that it cannot be tested, commended, or construed by terms outside itself, thanks to Barth’s radical singular definition of it. Revelation, again, is received by faith.
When Barth insists that the offense of truth’s exclusivity in Christ cannot be overcome on apologetic grounds, he seems to be saying that it cannot be overcome apart from a personal encounter with and apprehension of God’s Word. This apprehension does not occur unless our trust, humility and obedience are fully engaged. Apologetic theology, like natural theology, seems to defer to the moment of personalist apprehension while offering an objectivist generalization which strangely deletes reference to Jesus Christ. By contrast, what Barth seems to be saying is this: insofar as Jesus Christ himself in inalienable to an authentic objectivism, personal encounter and commitment are inalienable to our apprehension of God. The two are so indissolubly united that neither can be had without the other.

Like natural theology itself, apologetics must be done in such a way that it is a posteriori to revelation.

While the theological debate left Barth and Brunner in deep conflict with one another, there was, in the sense of the “greater context” which Barth spoke of in his “Angry Introduction,” a reconciliation at the most important moment in life: on the cusp of death itself. George Hunsinger tells us the following about Brunner and Barth:
"An attempted reconciliation in 1960 did not work out. As Brunner lay dying in 1966, Barth was moved to communicate through a mutual friend. “If he is still alive and it is possible, tell him again, ‘Commended to our God,’ even by me. And tell him, Yes, that the time when I thought that I had to say ‘No’ to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious Yes to all of us.” These were the last words Brunner heard before he died."


By now it should be fairly obvious to the reader that Barth’s commitment to God’s grace fuels his hostility toward natural theology within the Church. Natural theology bypasses the mediation, the miracle, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God’s act of revelation. It renders human access to God immediate by way of innate spiritual and material capacities, as a general given truth.
In regards to its source and motivation, natural theology has been one way that the Church has chosen to affirm itself self-sufficiently, over against the penetrating revelation of God as Word. George Hunsinger interprets Barth’s view of natural theology in the following way:
It shows the extent to which we would rather bear our own lives, even through the wretchedness of guilt and death, than be carried solely by divine grace. It shows the extent to which we can endure the offer of God’s Word without being thrown off course. It shows the extent to which natural theology is something that has already been lived out before it has been thought and developed as such. Above all, it shows the extent to which we are prepared to affirm in self-sufficiency and self-justification that we ourselves already stand in the truth. “The core of this theology is that for us the truth can be had without the truth itself, because we are the truth itself, or at any rate, we are also the truth itself, in independence of the truth of God. This theology of life only needs to be made explicit as such and the whole of natural theology is in force in its basic idea” (II/1, 135-36 rev.).

For Barth, the question of truth cannot be answered without God’s help, nor even properly asked. Hence, the kind of access we might like to attribute to ourselves, as we do in other fields of knowledge, does not exist due to our sinful nature. All knowledge of God is rooted objectively and subjectively in the Holy God, who is set apart yet completely intimate to humanity.
Natural theology, as an expression of our desire for self-sufficiency, defends us against the miracle of grace, whereby God comes to us in our need to carry us to redemption, through guilt and death on the Cross, but in such a way that involves the subsequent surrender of precisely this self-sufficiency. Natural theology does not wish to allow this surrender. Instead it assumes that we have an independent status from God, standing objectively at the Archimedean point if you will, with no inadequacy. This natural theology is what Barth was schooled in, and what he attempted to break away from profoundly in 1916.
While grace “disrupts” us in order to liberate us, natural theology seeks to give us greater control. Natural theology is especially keen on using the language of grace, entailing grace as a choice that we can meet with utter poise. For we love nothing better than free gifts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this point well when wrote against the “cheap grace” of the German-Lutherans of his time, who felt that grace had no restrictions, and their obedience was completely irrelevant.
What Barth has against Brunner is that Brunner is formulating a natural theology that still seeks to explain grace as co-existing with nature, by which nature has its own self-grounded capacity for grace (at least in part). Nature cannot establish external conditions, especially on its own grounds, which grace must conform to. This would have grace cease to be free and sovereign. Instead, grace has the ability to reconstitute nature, as well as humanity itself, in order to have genuine fellowship with it. There is no autonomous capacity to choose revelation. Therefore, “natural theology (for all its good or bad intentions) not only reinforces human nature at its most unfortunate point, but also in the process fails to allow grace to be grace, revelation to be revelation, and God to be God.”
The only solution to the problem of subjectivity is to replace us with Jesus Christ as the respondent to grace. Barth’s theology always brings truth under Jesus Christ, especially as it regards our human existence. He is always “the missing center . . . Yet when he is restored to the center that is rightfully his, everything else falls into place.” Barth’s objectivism always entails subjectivism. And his “one-sidedness” always entails a “two-sidedness.” It is through Jesus Christ that this is accomplished - where God became Man because he was for Man, and responded to God as Man because he was for Man.


According to O’Donovan, Barth and Brunner agree that human beings are unique creatures due to the unique relationship that God has chosen to have in covenant with them. The imago Dei must describe the relational aspect of man in order to describe its uniqueness. They both realize that in order for the doctrine of the imago Dei to say anything about the relationship between God and humanity, it must identify with the Word of God. This identification exists between being created in the image of God and receiving one’s true being in that Word. It further instructs us into a sustained true being through grace. The imago Dei is thus the “life- and form- bestowing transcendent divine relationship in which man as man participates.”
Where Brunner and Barth differ is in their articulation of this relational aspect of humanity. Brunner believes that this relational being of humanity can be found in the human constitution as originally created by God. Barth opposes this and instead advocates a Christ-centered understanding of human being.
For Brunner, the formal aspect of the imago is a transcendental structure of human subjectivity. He understands a person to be an individual example of freedom, responsibility, and decision. As the personal identity has continuity in both the sinful nature and in the act of faith, so does this transcendental structure of human being. But this formal definition of a person becomes difficult for Brunner to sustain when he materially describes the formal aspect in terms of our various capacities to know God as He is in Himself, as well as His Word for us. As O’Donovan points out:

"His concept of person depends on this move to actuality for its ethical force, its power of communicating the uniqueness and superiority of human being. In this move as well resides the tension of law and Gospel, for these actual capacities of sinful man constitute, at one and the same time, his openness to God’s saving grace and the negative totality of his rebellious will."

Barth rejects Brunner’s idea that the concept of a formal image as transcendental subjectivity never arrives at the individual’s actual being, but instead only stops at his/her possible being. Barth can accept Brunner’s “understanding of person as individual being in its singular destiny established by God’s Word of election as long as God’s elective Word is His revealed Word in Jesus Christ and as long as the singular destiny established is actualized from its inception within the covenant of God’s gracious dealings.”
The continuity of personal identity, which transcends both sin and faith, is a neutral concept for Brunner that is entailed within in his transcendental structure. As such, humanity cannot have this structure, for there is nothing neutral in actual sinful humanity – there could never be! Instead, sinful humanity falls within the scope of faith whereby individuality is conformed to the redeeming Word of Christ. This conformity “is the being with which he was created and within which his unique destiny unfolds.” Thus the only exclusion that occurs is in the corruption and destruction of human being. Sin thus threatens humanity with “non-being,” “irrationality,” and “perdition.” The covenant of grace in the Incarnate Word of Jesus Christ safeguards the “actuality of each man” as promised, here and now. St. Paul testifies that Jesus Christ is the true “image of God, full and perfect, in whom there is no division of form and content.” The only uniqueness attributed to humanity is found in their participation within the humanity of Christ alone.
Barth further implies that his own Christ-centered understanding of human being is consistent with the Word of God’s election of humanity. Brunner’s transcendental structure abandons the theological and Christological realism that he wants to maintain. “Whereas [Barth’s] Christological formulation of person keeps the focus on God’s transcendent act, Brunner’s transcendental formulation shifts the focus to an immanent and abstract structure, losing sight of the covenantal foundation of human being.”
Finally, O’Donovan highlights the ethical consequence of this shift of focus:

"namely, a loss of universality in the application of the concept of person. Barth’s reply of 1934 draws out this consequence with passionate lucidity by pointing to those ‘children of Adam’ who, ‘as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions’, and so fall outside the category of self-determining subjectivity. His examples, ‘new-born children and idiots’, carry as timely evocations for us as for the German church of 1934. While his words then resonated in the abyss opened up by the German Christian Movement’s demand that the nation be protected against the unfit and inferior, so the same words now resonate in the abyss opened up by the demonstrated willingness of members of our society routinely to dispose of incompetent human life by technological means."

Friday, June 22, 2007


In the next chapter of Barth’s response we begin to see what Barth would have preferred from Brunner. Here he describes Brunner’s earlier project of natural theology (with some aspects akin to that of Kierkegaard) in a much more positive light than the one he sees in Nature and Grace. He distinguishes Brunner’s earlier project from the natural theology of the 18th and 19th centuries. He says:
"But the question concerning Brunner’s “true” theologia naturalis, of which we have already spoken, is the following: Does he really mean a “theologia naturalis” consisting of propositions and instruction directly obtained from natural evidence, of the kind that was introduced into Protestant theology two hundred years ago? Nature and Grace would have led one to suppose so. But again there is Brunner’s last authoritative pronouncement but one on the subject, which seems (at least at the first glance) to point in a somewhat different directions."

Barth then describes Brunner’s earlier form, which looks very familiar to Barth’s own earlier dialectical project:
"It seemed then, that Brunner was not speaking, as he is now, of a directly observable continuity between nature and grace, reason and revelation, but of a continuity which at the same time was discontinuity, which provided both a contact and a contrast. The latter was said to be so great that the continuity was subordinate to the discontinuity, the contact to the contrast. “The Gospel cannot be preached unless this continuity is completely disrupted. The content of the Gospel is of such a kind that by it this previous understanding (i.e. of God through reason) is not merely corrected but decidedly negatived. The natural knowledge of God is neither a true knowledge of God nor a true knowledge of God” (p. 510 f.). All natural knowledge of God is – so Brunner then said – essentially a knowledge of the wrath of God. And being subject to the wrath of God meant the same thing objectively as a bad conscience or despair subjectively. The different degrees of the subjective consciousness point to the objective side. The “contact” made in the natural knowledge of God consists in the fact that it involves a “loss of certainty.” The contact is made, not with something positive or neutral but with something negative."

Brunner, as Barth points out, believes that we apply this negation of human existence as the point of contact for evangelism:

"As regards the contents of the relations of God and man there is a discontinuity. Only as regards the formal fact of the relation is there continuity (p. 523 f.). Hence the proclamation of the God revealed in Christ must always be at the same time an attempt “to show the unbeliever the true character of his existence without faith, to show that despair is the ‘fundamental condition’ of existence.” “Humanly speaking, the success of the preaching of the Gospel is as dependent upon the contact that is made as upon true doctrine. And this contact consists of leading man to the place where he will know the desperate character of his existence, not merely theoretically but in his conscience.” For “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. X, 5) means “that man recognizes himself in what is said to him by Christ concerning his natural existence, so that he can identify himself with it.” Similarly, theology has to make contact with the natural self-knowledge of man by elucidating and underlining its negative result from the point of view of faith. “Eristic theology means ‘laying bare’ the true character of existence by destroying the fictions of every Weltanschauung. But this ‘laying bare’ cannot be performed except by using what man can of himself know about himself” (p. 529 f.)."

While this all used to be Brunner’s opinion, much of it is “absent” in his Nature and Grace, though it has “faint echos” in his doctrine of the imago Dei. Barth is unsure why Brunner gave up on this direction, which he likens to that of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Apparently Barth has decided that while he once found this small capacity for revelation interesting “around 1920, and perhaps even later,” he has turned away from it himself: “for in spite of its restrained formulation, it raised the problem of a peculiar aptitude of man for divine revelation in a much more acute, tempting and dangerous form.”
Thus, the earlier form of Brunner’s theologia naturalis explained the human capacity for revelation as consisting

"only in the fact that in the rational existence of man there is a diacritical point where this existence can be discontinuous, where it can issue in a “negative point,” where its most essential truth, its “fundamental condition,” i.e. despair, can come to light, where this despair can be theoretically described as true and felt to be so by the conscience, and where the knowledge of God, which is bound up with it from the start, can “become uncertain.”"

Barth notices that here at least Brunner sharply distinguished the formal and material aspects as being completely “incompatible,” while reason consists purely in its ability to be negated by sin, which leaves humanity with one response: despair. He adds: “Nor did Brunner fail to add that the transition from the ability to despair to real despair is dependent on grace.”
Barth defines this earlier form of natural theology this way:

"Accordingly the independent functions of natural theology would be the following: theology and proclamation of the Gospel must not confine themselves to putting forward “true doctrine.” In, with and under the preaching of revelation, natural theology would have to use what man can of himself know concerning himself. It would have to tell him about himself, i.e. about his deepest despair of himself. Lastly, it would have to use the demonstration of this negative point to destroy all the fictions of Weltanschauungen."

Barth then applies his “No!” with the same force towards this lesser version, for it still seeks to find within humanity a “capacity for revelation.” This earlier form is even more threatening because of its proximity to “Evangelical truth.” According to Barth, Brunner was “stating a real theological problem” in describing this negative, “uncertain” natural knowledge of the wrath of God and existential desperation. This theological truth is present in Scripture, and is the concept of revelation that I wish to highlight later on:

"that man is of himself unable to find access to the revelation of God. Just because Christ is born, we have to regard the world as lost in the sight of God. The Word of God declares man to be unfree in his relations with God. The fact that we become hearers and doers of the Word of God signifies the realization of a divine possibility, not of one that is inherent in human nature. Freedom to know the true God is a miracle, a freedom of God, not one of our freedoms. Faith in the revelation of God makes this negation inevitable. To contradict it would amount to unbelief."

But Barth notices that as early as 1932 Brunner shows us that he did not hold onto this concept for long. For if he had, he would not further preceded to explicate a “natural” knowledge of God. Barth speaks against anthropocentrism, and regards that being “one-sided” is our necessary point of contact:

"Nor could he possibly have said that the state of affairs to which this knowledge relates could be seen only by “utilizing that which man can of himself know about himself.” How can man ever in any sense know “of himself” what has to be known here? He may know it himself, yes! But “of himself,” never! How could he possibly convince himself of this negation of his freedom? He could only do it if he thought that he could, in advance, overlook and grasp both the Word of God and himself, if he thought not only that he knew the condition of his hearing of the Word – i.e. the negation of his freedom to do so – but also that he could create it himself. If we base ourselves upon what is possible to us, we shall always believe in them.. . . All the comfort, all the power, all the truth of the revelation of God dependso n the fact that it is God who is revealed to us. And all understanding of this fact depends on its identity with God being understood, on all possibilities except that of God being excluded. This applies also, or even specially, to the “loss of certainty” ! Also the wrath of God is the wrath of God. Hence it is by no means identical with any fundamental condition or “negative point” of our existence."

Hence, Barth rids of himself of previous contradiction regarding his own a priori use of natural theology, particularly through this amendment to his (and Brunner’s) earlier notion of the negative natural self-knowledge. He provides further Scriptural evidence and historical-theological scholarship that any self-knowledge, even negative knowledge, is never prior to the work of the Spirit. I find Barth’s use of Luther most illuminating, since it counters most of what Protestant theology today teaches in the pulpit:

"According to Luther, man is not a “sinner” by nature. He has to become one, and it is “a rare thing and a hard one” to become a sinner (Comm. On Romans 1515/16, Ficker II, lxxi, I f.). “As the righteousness of God lives in us through faith, so it is also with sin; that is, we must believe that we are sinners” (lxix, 10). “We have to give way to his revelation, that is to his Words, to justify and confirm them, and thus on the basis of what they say to us to confess to ourselves what we did not know before, namely that we are sinner” (lvii, 31). Humilitas can exist only as spiritualitas (cxlv, 23). Hence only the spiritual man can speak of himself as St. Paul does in Romans vii (cxlvii, 32)."

Finally, Barth gives a quote from Calvin: “According to Calvin, true knowledge of self in real humility cannot precede the knowledge of God, it must follow the latter. We perceive how little our eyes are able to bear the light, not when we direct them on to the ground, but when we try to look at the sun (Instit., I, 1).”
Barth turns his attack to the concept of despair as a negative “point of contact.” This concept, which was historically utilized by Kierkegaard , was an important part of the edifice for the dialectical movement, and so his rejection of the concept of despair further isolates him from this movement. For we find that Barth’s dialectics is formed out of his Reformed commitment of objectivism, and that “despair,” as a subjective reality, cannot be real for human knowledge prior to divine revelation. He says:

"It does not matter whether the despair we experience and know as our own is, according to one philosophy, the “fundamental condition” of our existence or, according to another, something else. At any rate that despair is not a factor which co-operates with the judgment of God and which, therefore, is indispensable for its execution. Nor is it, as Brunner evidently thought and still thinks, indirectly identical with the judgment of God, as being its subjective manifestation. That sorrow which really is possible to us is always that sorrow of which it is said in 2 Cor. Vii, 10, that it “worketh death.” It may be “shown up.” But what can here be shown up and appear can never be the sorrow “after a godly manner” which works “repentance not to be repented of,” which leads to salvation. Not even when it is in the sphere of grace! On the contrary, even when it enters into the sphere of grace I have to realize that in that sorrow which I experience, undergo and know as my own, I am still, and even all the more, my own lord and master."

Barth concludes this section by remarking that our proclamation, if it rests on this “point of contact” of “despair,” thus rests on a false doctrine. It also proves severely impractical. Barth points out once again that Brunner is trying to fill the “purely formal” imago with actual material, which is “the capacity for a sinless knowledge of sin . . .to sit in judgment on human existence, to inform oneself concerning oneself, to known oneself to be punished with despair . . . If that isn’t capacity for revelation . . .!” For Barth, the Holy Spirit is not in need of a point of contact in humanity, but instead creates its own “point of contact.”

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Brunner and Calvin: Concerning Natural Knowledge

Again, as stated above, there is not enough space to direct attention towards a proper interpretation of Calvin’s theology out of Brunner and Barth’s disagreements. However, in conjunction with the interpretation of Romans I:18-20, Barth offers his own views on what the role of natural knowledge is by way of appealing to Calvin.
According to Barth, Calvin did not regard natural knowledge of God in creation as a separate capacity that is retained (formally) and is then “reconstituted” by Christ to be the “point of contact” for revelation. Furthermore, Scripture did not drive him “to search in reason, history and nature for another source of nature beside that of Scripture, for one that would supplement Scripture. While the possibility of natural knowledge in creation was a true possibility for Calvin “in principle, but . . . not a possibility to be realized by us.” Barth distinguishes the former as an “objective possibility, created by God” from the latter as a “subjective possibility, open to man.” This renders any natural knowledge as purely “hypothetical.” Thus, any talk of degree of human limitation regarding this knowledge is useless, because we simply do not have knowledge in the first place. Barth quotes Calvin, and makes an even stronger point:

“We are blind, not because revelation is obscure, but because we are mad (mente alienati): we lack no only the will but also the ability for this matter (Comm. In 1 Cor. I, 21; C.R. xlix, 326). That is true also of those “whose eyes have been opened by Christ”! Thus, even after any revelation we still find that the sinful nature impedes any prospect of Christ “reconstituting” us to see God in the world. Yet notice what Barth says regarding worship following this statement:

"Over against the philosophers [Calvin] sets the teaching of Scripture and nothing else. Scripture tells him that man is created by God and for God, that the wisdom and paternal providence of God rule over his life and that of the whole world, that there are ordinances of God and what those ordinances are, in which he has to honour the will of God. Scripture moves and inspires him to praise through the creation the God who is so completely hidden from man. That is what man, who is reconciled in Christ, can and must do. He cannot and must not, however, embark upon independent speculations concerning these things, made apart from and without Holy Scripture or arbitrarily deduced from it."

Thus we are still called to worship through creation. But how can Barth hold that we lack natural knowledge even after Christ opens of our eyes (revelation), and yet are called by Scripture to worship through creation after we are “reconciled in Christ” (revelation)? There is a tension here, for it appears we are supposed to worship that which we do not and cannot know. The tension could be better understood given Barth’s emphasis on worship being something that we participate in, and that Christ makes possible for us in Himself and through Himself. He makes it clear that even the hypothetical natural knowledge is not realized in Christ. But where even hypothetical knowledge is excluded from the possibility of participating in true worship, Barth may have something in his concept of revelation, one that allows humanity to worship God through creation. At this point it is quite unclear what he means.
Barth goes on to express Calvin’s claim that natural knowledge, when actualized, results in, and is always the source of, idolatry. Barth quotes Calvin as saying: “‘The knowledge of God which now remains to man is nothing other than the terrible source of all idolatry and superstition’ (Comm. in John iii, 6; C.R. xlvii, 57).” Barth is confused how Brunner can allow this possibility as a “point of contact. Between it and the possibility of divine revelation there is no relation, nothing common, and hence no inner connection.” Barth goes on to say that the only result of attempting to put divine revelation and this idolatrous natural knowledge together is “repulsion.”
Calvin’s hypothetical natural knowledge came from his conviction (based on Romans 1:20, for example) that God is revealed in all creation. Barth then elicits his clearest positive definition of the function of “natural knowledge:”

"It serves to demonstrate the fact that man is without excuse. The fact that God is revealed in all his works is God’s scriptural testimony to us against the ignorance of man. It justifies the wrath of God and his judgment upon man. It points out that man’s inability to know him is his guilt. But it does not serve “to praise our perverted nature” (Comm. In John I, 5, loc. cit.). We cannot make anything of it. It is a fact that our ability to distinguish good and evil convicts us of our guilt. But Calvin did not, any more than St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, draw from this the systematic conclusion that a “natural” knowledge of the law of God is to be ascribed to us and that this knowledge has to be put to a positive use in theology either antecedently or subsequently (“in faith”). On the contrary, he plainly denied that knowledge of the ethical good is gained by means of an ability (facultas) of man."

[Footnote: See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans: 6th Edition, trans. Edwyn C.Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 42-48. Here Barth provides further commentary on his interpretation of Romans 1:18-21. He describes the “negative” natural knowledge in this way: “That which may be known of God is manifest unto them . . . We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. We know that God is the Personality which we are not, and that this lack of Personality is precisely what dissolves and establishes our personality. The recognition of the absolute heteronomy under which we stand is itself an autonomous recognition; and this is precisely that which may be known of God” (pp. 45-46).]

Finally, Barth emphasizes the point that knowledge of God revealed in Christ includes a real knowledge of God in creation. Thus, it does not allow natural knowledge as a separate entity through which we engage in disciplines such as “eristics.” Barth believes that there is evidence that Brunner actually conceived of natural knowledge as negativity at an earlier point, and that he should have stayed this course with Calvin, and subsequently Barth himself. This is probably due to the impact of Barth’s Romans commentary, which Brunner had previously (and at least briefly) been converted to.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


The reply given by Barth has the intention of undermining Brunner’s nature/grace dialectic. Barth does this by undermining Brunner’s distinction between the “formal” and “material” aspects of the imago Dei. He does this by pointing out Brunner’s dialectical usage of the distinction. He first concedes to Brunner that sinful man retains the personal structure of existence as subjectivity, responsibility, and decision. This is not a problem for Barth, since asserting a remnant of the “formal” image within the set of purely formal possibilities is like saying “Even as a sinner man is man and not a tortoise.”
Second, he concedes that we can consider the “formal” aspect as “the point of contact” for divine grace. But he stipulates that this concession should be allowed only if it does not make favorable humanity’s capacity for reception of divine revelation over against non-humanity’s capacity for reception. To make such a prejudgment would lead to the exclusion of non-human beings. It is here that Barth believes Brunner exceeds this stipulated use of the “formal” aspect, for he makes it the precondition for grace. For the “formal” aspect to occupy one side of the nature/grace dialectic, it has to be filled out with “material” content. This content is disguised in Brunner’s “formal” image from the beginning, according to Barth. This content is the natural knowledge of God. As Brunner has pointed out, this knowledge is available to sinful humanity in the contingent order of nature, in the historical experience of communities, and in the dictates and indictments of the conscience.
Barth argues that imperfect and incomplete knowledge of God is, nevertheless, real knowledge of God, and so is “not without relevance to salvation.” As Barth puts it:

"And if we really do know the true God from his creation without Christ and without the Holy Spirit – if this is so, how can it be said that the imago is materially “entirely lost,” that in matters of the proclamation of the Church Scripture is the only norm, and that man can do nothing towards his salvation? Shall we not have to ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively? Shall we not ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively?"

Barth is implying that this negative self-preparation is natural knowledge of humanity in failing to obey the created (and obvious) ordinances installed by God. Barth does not deny a natural knowledge of God’s will that preconditions one to receive divine grace, but instead objects that such knowledge comes through the created ordinances. He also points out that if man’s natural knowledge of God is the precondition of divine grace, what is the point of redemption? It seems that this apparently “formal” aspect actually exercises real limitation on grace by making grace potentially apprehensible to human reason.
In the case of preserving grace, Barth is willing to allow Brunner’s claim that human activity is used by the creator to carry out the work of grace, as long as Brunner is talking about the one grace in Jesus Christ. If this were the case, “human activity” would fall under the scope of the divine grace. But Brunner wants to separate “preserving grace” from the scope of Jesus Christ, according to Barth, and that Brunner’s limitation of grace by nature in this way betrays the most fundamental theological intention of the Reformation, by admitting “an entire sphere (one which is, as it were, preparatory to revelation in the proper sense) in which the Reformers’ principle of sola gratia cannot possibily be taken seriously.”

Barth believes that Brunner’s concept of “formal” has no anthropological significance without this material limitation. In other words, this “form” would not constitute essential human being and unique dignity unless it sheltered a material “capacity for revelation.” Barth puts a few challenging questions to Brunner:

"Is the revelation of God some kind of “matter’” to which man stands in some original relation because as man he has or even is the “form” which enables him to take responsibility and make decisions in relation to various kinds of “matter”? Surely all his rationality, responsibility and ability to make decisions might yet go hand in hand with complete impotency as regards this “matter”! And this impotency might be the tribulation and affliction of those who, as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions: new-born children and idiots. Are they not children of Adam? Has Christ not died for them?"

Here Barth is asking whether Brunner’s formal possibilities of sinful human nature are not actual capacities that express humanity’s original relation to the “matter” of revelation, and thus prove necessary to divine grace. If this is the case, Barth asks about those who apparently lack these specific capacities. Barth is rejecting any formal understanding of the image of God that fails to be universally inclusive, thus excluding some “children of Adam” due to their apparent lack of the defined capacities for revelation. In order to avoid this implication of rejection (which the so called “German Christians” did not). [Footnote:See Robert McAfee Brown, Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990). “Almost immediately after Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and some Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But many Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church's proclamation. At Barmen, this emerging "Confessing Church" adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God's revelation. Not all Christians courageously resisted the regime, but many who did—like the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg—were arrested and executed in concentration camps.”]

Brunner must “stick to [his] statement that man is (‘materially’) ‘a sinner through and through,’ with the consequence that the ‘formal factor’ cannot be anything like a remainder of some original righteousness, an openness and readiness for God.” O’Donovan summarizes the point nicely:

"Only by surrendering its hidden revelational content can Brunner’s ‘formal factor’ perform its modest but legitimate service of indicating the universal being of sinful mankind. But in thus limiting itself, the concept forfeits its anthropological weight as an expression of man’s unique, inalienable dignity. The functional deflation of the ‘formal factor’ signals the collapse of the nature/grace dialectic in its epistemological and ontological aspects. No longer can the persisting structure of sinful human subjectivity, conceived as responsibility, constitute the necessary condition or ‘point of contact’ for God’s gracious self-revelation to man."

“If,” Barth says, “nevertheless there is an encounter and communion between God and man, then God himself must have created for it conditions which are not in the least supplied (not even ‘somehow,’ not even ‘to some extent’!) by the existence of the formal factor.” Only the material aspect of the imago Dei can occupy the human side of the “point of contact” between God and humanity. Here Barth shows us that this side, which sin has effectively barred us from occupying, is where Jesus Christ now stands in our place. Barth argues against Brunner’s anthropologically immanent understanding of the “point of contact” in the opening volume of Church Dogmatics:

"No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitude which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation" (Church Dogmatics, I/1, pp. 238-239).

For Barth, divine grace is not content with having a degree of priority over nature. Instead, it has total priority. Divine grace acts in the humanly impossible, in a redemptive miracle of faith. Barth does not differ with Brunner in this respect, when Brunner says: “Through faith the new person is constituted [in such a way that] the subject, . . . the fact of self-consciousness, is not destroyed.” Barth believes in the continuing identity of the person before and after faith, as Brunner also intends. Yet this continuing identity is not the functional “point of contact” for human apprehension of divine revelation as Brunner believes. Brunner may appeal to Gal. 2:20 (“Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”) as evidence for the continuity of personal identity in faith. However, Barth objects that this appeal stubbornly ignores St. Paul’s primary emphasis on discontinuity, “or rather [with] the divine miracle of the continuity of his existence without and with Christ.”

"Moreover the text does not go on to say something that would have to say if Brunner could fitting quote it in his support. It does not say that though St. Paul is crucified with Christ, but that nevertheless, together with his “formal personality,” some general knowledge of God derived from his conscience or from the ordinances of creation, recognizable in the world, accompanied or even led him into that new life which he can but try to explain by the inexplicable expression: “Christ liveth in me.” Does he live the life which he lives “in the flesh,” the first life, crucified with Christ, in any way but “the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”? Is the change in the human situation through the revelation of God, of which I Corinthians ii and Galatians ii speak, really a reparatio, a restoration in the sense in which Brunner employs it: “It is not possible to repair what no longer exists. But it is possible to repair a new thing in such a way that one has to say this has become quite new”? . . . I must confess that I am quite flabbergasted by this sentence. Had one not better at this point break off the discussion as hopeless? Or should one hope for an angel from heaven who would call to Brunner through a silver trumpet of enormous dimensions that 2 Corinthians v, 17, is not a mere phrase, which might just as well be applied to a motor-car that has come to grief and been successfully “repaired”?"

While Barth’s opposition to Brunner’s concept of the imago Dei successfully shows the problems with Brunner’s anthropology, it does not positively resolve the problem of theologically conceptualizing human being. However, we notice that his insistence on faith as the “point of contact” for divine revelation suggests a relational and Christological concept of human being. Furthermore, his concession of giving the formal aspect a legitimate role in representing the continual being in sin and faith leaves room for the possibility of a concept of human being as “subjectivity,” “personality,” and “responsibility.”

[Footnote: O’Donovan, Joan E. “Man in the Image of God: The Disagreement Between Barth and Brunner Reconsidered,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, 39 (1986). O’Donovan is concerned with the Imago Dei for its ethical implications. She is correct, I believe, in seeing the Imago Dei as the foundation on which Brunner’s other counter-theses rest. Barth treats this as the jugular of the argument which he strategically attacks first.]