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Unconditional Pardon in Christ :: Justification in Karl Barth

If not the most important theologian of the 20th century,[1] the case could be made that Karl Barth was at least one of the foremost Christian theologians of modern times.  His attitude toward scripture and scathing critiques of the classical liberal tradition “marked a watershed in twentieth-century theology.”[2]  His first publication, a commentary on the book of Romans, functioned somewhat like a bombshell on the theological playground of his contemporaries.[3]  His decisive break from the school of classical liberal theology spawned an entirely new school of thought: postliberalism.[4]  Although Barth is criticized as never having actually escaped the Enlightenment framework,[5] the Christomonism (or “Christological concentration”) that makes possible a Christian appreciation of the Barthian tradition argued that the truths revealed in Christ were not merely truths ascertainable through general revelation and therefore Christ reveals new and indispensible truth.[6]  Barth in particular took a Christ-centered approach to theology to such extremes he has been criticized for turning “the whole of theology into Christology.”[7]  Nowhere is this Christocentrism more evident than in Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification.

 

This blog series is an attempt to highlight accurately some of the unique aspects of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification.  Because Barth himself warns that the theology represented in his Romans commentary is only “the beginning of a development,”[8] while his Church Dogmatics[9] is considered his most mature thought,[10] this study will give its attention to the latter.  The study will be at least 6 posts long, and will attempt to show 1) how Barth’s distinctive doctrine of election informs his articulation of his doctrine of justification, 2) how Barth’s Christocentric outlook enables him to see the wrath of God as only a phase or form of the grace of God, 3) why differences of opinion exist on whether or not he held to a position of ultimate universal salvation, 4) what various arguments Barth employs to defend his position that sola fide is not the articulus stantis et cadentis acclesia [“the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”], 5) in what ways Barth’s version of sola fide is similar to classic Protestant positions and in what ways it is dissimilar, and 6) that Barth’s doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. 

 

Next Post :: How Barth’s Doctrine of Election Bears on His Doctrine of Justification


 

[1] “Karl Barth was without doubt the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century.  Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol 2: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1985), 362.  Alister E. McGrath is more reserved: “Barth is unquestionably one of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century” [italics mine].  Alister E. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1984), 123.

 

[2] W. S. Johnson, “Barth, Karl (1886-1968)” in Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald K. McKim (Downers Grive, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 433. 

 

[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1968). 

 

[4] B. E. Benson, “Postliberal Theology,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, second edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 937.  McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition, 123-152, 220. 

 

[5] “Barth’s own theology may be regarded, at least in part, as a reaction against the anthropocentricity of the liberal school – a reaction particularly evident in his inversion of the liberal understanding of God and humanity as epistemic object and subject respectively.  Yet Barth has essentially inverted the liberal theology without fundamentally altering its frame of reference.  As such, he may be regarded as indirectly – perhaps even unintentionally – perpetuating the theological interests and concerns of the liberal school, particularly the question of how God may be known.”  Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, third edition (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 398.

 

[6] McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, second edition, 131, 220.

 

[7] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 401.

 

[8] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, vi.  Barth even goes so far as to say, “When, however, I look back at the book, it seems to have been written by another man to meet a situation belonging to a past epoch.”  Ibid.

 

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. G. Bromiley et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-75).

 

[10] David Ford even considers Volume IV of Church Dogmatics in particular—the volume we will be focusing on—as “the crowning  achievement of Barth’s mature theology.”  David Ford, “Barth, Karl (1886-1968)” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. Alister McGrath (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1993), 32. 

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