Quick, do something a little bit intelligent: Book Review Karl Barth's 'The Humanity of God'

I am not worthy.

Voice of the ego:
Quick, Rach, write something academic!
Emm - Karl Barth - he's one of them theological-wotsit types i'n't 'e?
Yeah, go for it, that'll do nicely.

Barth's ''The Humanity of God'

Barth begins with a synopsis of his evangelical heritage, presents his Christology and ends with a reflection on humanity's ethical response to God's generosity. Barth's theology centres on the person of Jesus Christ who is God and Lord, King and Head, Reconciler and Redeemer. God's grace is triumphant because he has put to death the 'No' to sin in Jesus Christ's crucifixion and raised up the mighty 'Yes' to new life in his resurrection. Jesus Christ is victor. The gift poured out is the Son; it is the YES! It is the affirmative which defeats the negative. At its recognition, man praises the giver and loves those who share in its acknowledgement. Hence, the commandments are satisfied to love God and our neighbour. For Barth, the Christian life cannot help but be an ethical life if it is a life led truly in response to its giver.

Barth begins his lectures exhorting all theologians to be indebted to their forerunners, whose works they should study but develop. This works on a symbolic level as we are exhorted to reflect that our origins are in God and we must start with a Christology from above which has Jesus Christ as our contact point with God. By him and through him we understand ourselves as God's children. By his revelation, this truth is revealed and not through anything else. Barth reacts from the outset against his predecessors for whom 'revelation of God by God Himself has been exchanged for the discovery of God by Man.'

Barth's fedeism

Barth's is therefore a theology which begins with the presupposition that God exists. Barth does not engage in apologetics, it is assumed that the reader believes in God. Christ is truth because God has personally revealed himself in Christ. Barth, who read and studied Anselm, seesm to share his “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.”

Nor is Barth concerned with proving that Jesus Christ is both human and divine by a thorough analysis of scripture. He is interested in simply articulating that this is the case, grasped by faith. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth explains how 'His [Jesus Christ's] history is a question which gives its own answer, a puzzle which contains its own solution, a secret which is in process of its own disclosure.” Christ is self-authenticating.

Barth's evangelical heritage

Because this is the case, Barth revises his theological inheritance because Christology can only ever have shaky foundations in reason, (Barth, like Luther, is hostile to its claims), morality (Ritschl's) or experience (Schleiermacher's) for these are located within man. Time is also too much a human concept and readers have to decide whether Barth's revolt against the critical historical enquiry of his forerunners damages too much the sense of the Bible's unfolding revelation. For Barth, Jesus Christ as revelation is an event occurring in eternity. God is forever speaking forth the event. Continuous present tense is triumphant!

Barth' s presentation of the person of Jesus Christ

For Barth a Christological confession is an ongoing dialogue about the ultimate ongoing dialogue: the one that is being conducted between God and humanity, through Jesus Christ. We participate in the sacred speech act with prayer (about man and addressed to God) and sermon (about God and addressed to man).

Barth's is also a Chalcedonian expression of the person of Christ but with a twist. Jesus is indeed both 'wholly' human and 'wholly' God. There is a hypostatic union of the human and the divine but Barth prefers to regard God’s deity as including his humanity. Critics who have accused Barth of a hyper-Alexandrian Christology, dwelling on Christ's deity at the expense of his humanity, misunderstand just how much Barth's Christ is the 'Ho Logos sarx egento' of John 1:14.

Barth champions theology as response to God's grace and the freedom by which he came in humanity in the event of Jesus Christ. The Jesus Christ event; his incarnation is emphasised over and above Christ's work because it includes Christ's work. Christ is as God, man's partner and as man, God's partner. Christ is the Word, spoken (as God and by God) and heard (as a human and by humanity). Christ is mediator and reconciler. Barth juxtaposes various expressions of being (humiliated and exalted, Lord and servant, crucifed and risen) and attributes them to the only one big enough to contain them: Jesus Christ.

The pastoral and missional implications of Barth's Christology

Pastorally, the implications of Barth's Christology are positive. Christ is the answer to any 'otherness' of God. God in his 'majesty' should not confirm in man a feeling of 'hopelessness', just as God in his humanity does nothing to rob God of his glory. God, in love, transferred his divine expression to humanity. This Jesus Christ is fully human (bar sin) and fully divine and this is to the glory of man, such that Calvin's insistence on humanity's depravity seems too harsh in its judgment of the creatures, which God, in his freedom, has chosen to partner. The Church affirms the members of its congregations for they are the brothers and sisters of a loving Lord.

As regards the Church's mission and Barth's 'Humanity of God', this book might do much to satisfy the yearnings of a post-modern culture, which whilst seeking answers, questions the means by which people arrive at truth. For Barth, revelation lies in something beyond the powers of human reasoning, tradition and experience. Barth, like today's post-modern culture, is always questioning the anthropocentric foundations upon which theologians propose so certainly to 'know'.

Today's seekers might also be much enamoured by Barth's inclusivity, wherein we are all saved but some of us just do not realise it. There is no doctrine of a predestined elect here, instead it is our job to treat every human being 'as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother' and make known to each their sacred sibling connection if they are unaware of it. The Church, however, if it is evangelical and championing biblical inerrancy could disagree. The more evangelical our churches, the less they espouse a Barthian theology, for the saving grace which they understand is not quite as universal as Barth's. The Church might decide that Barth alongside ‘the prophets and priests alike all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 8:10-11).

Barth has been accused of Universalism because for him Christ is the rejected and the elected and we are all recipients of salvation. Pastorally, the implication, for the Church, is that no-one is beyond its reach because 'we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ', and this empowers mission, but if it contradicts the scriptures, our churches have a problem and it would seem that 'Scripture takes man in his unbelief more 'seriously than Barth'.

Personally, I find Barth's thinking about the Bible refreshing. The Bible remains highly honoured and indeed the starting place for all that Barth has to say but it is not to be reduced to systematics and dogmatics. Scripture's purpose is to mediate knowledge of God by its witness to Jesus Christ, it isn't to be employed as some kind of theological system rationalised and fixed for consumption, it is instead the place from where God speaks. There is something more Anglican than evangelical about this. Anglicanism witnesses to the Bible's authority, where evangelicalism witnesses to its inerrancy and where that evangelicalism is reformed, it often reduces the Bible to systematics. However, I also realise that as an Anglican, I champion the Bible for being as well as becoming the Word of God where the three essential elements of my Anglican heritage are Scripture, Reason and Tradition. Barth, if he were still with us, would want to purify my faith of its worldly foundations!

Primary text

Barth K, The Humanity of God, USA, WJK, 1960


Runia K., Karl Barth and the Word of God, Theological Students Fellowship, Leicester

M J Charlesworth, St Anselm's Proslogion, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1965

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3/1 (ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans. G. W.



Anonymous said...

Haha. You have nothing to fret. Biblioblogs very rarely have posts of this kind of structure, detail, thought, and length (incidentally, the closest things are book reviews, I think).

I'm a little rusty with my Barth, but I have appreciated his writings and I'm happy to read your review and thoughts.

One comment comes to mind regarding this statement: "Anglicanism witnesses to the Bible's authority, where evangelicalism witnesses to its inerrancy and where that evangelicalism is reformed, it often reduces the Bible to systematics."

I'm not sure I would entirely agree with you here, although it may be a cultural difference--you are in the UK, no? I'm not sure what "evangelical" looks like over there. As a graduate of a seminary which is solidly "evangelical" but which has also fought a "battle" to distance itself from "inerrancy", I think I have grown towards a more fluid understanding of evangelicalism.

Going by your summary there, I wouldn't be able to call myself an "evangelical." Going by the broader understanding of "evangelicalism" I found at Fuller Seminary, I might cautiously allow the label for myself.

Thanks, Rachel!

Rachel Marszalek said...

Hi Pat

You know, when I read my review through, this was the one sentence of awkwardness for me. I wrote the review 6 months ago and my understanding of reformed evangelicalism has mellowed, somewhat. I think my statement is much too sweeping and needs developing.

It is good though to see where I am growing; which I think is also a good reason to blog,to plot the changes in our own thinking. The main aim of a Christian blog should be to give God glory but also to wrestle with the bits of my humanity which need much shaping and reforming under the guidance of his Holy Spirit is a good thing.

David Ker said...

This blog looks great. I love black blogs. Good content, too.

Rachel Marszalek said...

Ah, gee, t'anks, Dave ;-)

Pat McCullough said...

"It is good though to see where I am growing; which I think is also a good reason to blog,to plot the changes in our own thinking."

Amen. But alas, this is part of the reason that many academics fear blogging. They don't want to show potential weakness and growth implies weakness. It also means that anyone can do a search and find something stupid you said last year and know is stupid now. [I'm not saying your statement above is stupid, but just referring to all the stupidity that I'm sure exists in my own archives!]

Rachel Marszalek said...

I think as academics, we should be worried about looking stupid but I think as Christians we should not worry at all about looking foolish.

Interesting to think about.

I think every time I say something foolish, it is an opportunity for me to learn from someone's else's wisdom, if they care enough to teach me, which I hope they do.


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