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Karl Barth on Justification :: Summary and Conclusion

Justification, for Barth, is unconditional divine pardon. Because Barth’s doctrine of election reduced the total number of both all elect and reprobate persons down to one, Jesus Christ, the God-man is really the only one who is justified as well as condemned. Because Jesus Christ as the elect and reprobate one represents all of humanity, however, Christ’s history becomes the history of all people. In this way only are all people also derivatively both elect and reprobate. However, because God’s No in reprobation is ultimately just a subcategory or phase of his Yes in election, which Yes is more ultimate, “there is not one” who is not elect, justified, and ultimately pardoned.

In spite of this apparent universal soteriological framework, Barth denied that he ever taught universal salvation and emphasized that the freedom of God keeps us from presuming that God’s grace will ultimately pardon all. Differences of opinion are held on the question of whether his denial makes his views incoherent, or whether his denial is compatible with his theological position.

Although Barth places importance on the doctrine of justification, he does not believe it is the Word of the gospel per se, for it is one among many aspects of soteriology and should not have a monopoly in soteriologial frameworks. In the end, it is not the articulus stantis et cadentis acclesia. Although Barth emphasizes that faith is not God’s chosen instrument for “realizing” one’s justification because of any virtue that it’s nature entails (such as notitia, assensus or fiducia), he goes futher than the Reformers by denying that one’s justification is in any way dependant on this human response. Justification is realized by faith, not actualized.

Barth’s doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in discussions between Protestants and Catholics about areas of continuity between Protestant and Catholic doctrines of justification. This appropriation of Barth is largely due to the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng. Discussion surrounding Protestant and Catholic views of justification that were influenced by Küng’s approach to Barth’s doctrine have culminated in some of the most impressive ecumenical achievements this side of the Reformation, although such achievements are not appreciated by all.

Barth’s Christocentrism is a good example of why he finds appreciation among conservative Protestantism, yet his universalism is a good example of why conservative Protestants are also ambivalent toward his system as a whole. His willingness to engage scripture and traditional church dogma makes his writing intriguing to those who take the Bible seriously, yet his highly eccentric formulations make him difficult to understand, leave him vulnerable to the charge of incoherency, and for more conservative evangelicals who hold to classic doctrines of reprobation and hell, hard to believe.

Karl Barth and Roman Catholicism via Hans Küng

In spite of Barth’s attempt to take a hard-line protestant stance on the doctrine of justification—even going into long polemical tirades in his Church Dogmatics—nevertheless, his doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in ecumenical discussions between Protestants and Catholics. The foremost interpreter of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification in this regard is the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who attempted to show that Barth and the council of Trent were in basic agreement on all the crucial questions surrounding the doctrine of justification.  Barth freely conceded that Küng had done justice to all of the contours of his views on justification.  In a letter to Küng, which eventually became a part of the preface to Küng’s book on justification, Barth said:  

I here gladly, gratefully and publicly testify not only that you have adequately covered all significant aspects of justification treated in the ten volumes of my Chruch Dogmatics published so far, and that you have fully and accurately reproduced my views as I myself understand them; but also that you have brought all this beautifully into focus through your brief yet precise presentation of details and your frequent references to the larger historical context.[1]

That Barth’s doctrine of justification would ever be used in such a fashion was baffling to him, yet at the same time, delightfully intriguing.

What I say about justification—making allowances for certain precarious yet not insupportable turns of phrase—does objectively concur on all points with the correctly understood teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.  You can imagine my considerable amazement at this bit of news; and I suppose that many Roman Catholic readers will at first be no less amazed … All I can say is this: If what you have presented in Part Two of this book is actually the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, then I must certainly admit that my view of justification agrees with the Roman Catholic view; if only for the reason that the Roman Catholic teaching would then be most strikingly in accord with mine!

After reading Küng’s treatment of justification, Barth came to believe that he had so strongly denunciated the Catholic position on justification because he had so woefully misunderstood it.[2]  Barth was, however, aware that perhaps in spite of the fact that Küng had flawlessly interpreted his own teaching, the ecumenical discussions would not be received well by the Catholic Church.  Although he was warmly open to Küng’s work, he was not as certain of Küng’s interpretation of the Catholic position as he was of Küng’s interpretation of his own position: “Of course, the problem is whether what you have presented here really represents the teaching of your Church.  This you will have to take up and fight out with biblical, historical, and dogmatic experts among your coreligionists.”[3] 

This Küng did, but the results were disappointing.  The attitude of the Catholic Church up to this point had been to assume that since the doctrine of justification was the main reason for the Protestant split from Catholicism (notwithstanding other disagreements), if one could show that a basic agreement existed between Protestant teachings and Catholic teaching, this would cancel the largest motivating factor for division.  But once Küng had given the most persuasive demonstration of such essential continuity, the Catholic church quickly altered their stance, arguing, in effect, “Only when the church’s claims of truth, leadership, and hierarchy are settled can we then draw consequences from the doctrine of justification.”[4]  When Küng’s hopes for a substantial reassessment of the justification doctrine were largely ignored in the Vatican II council meetings, Küng followed the Vatican meetings with a critical eye.  Disheartened, he concluded that “pope and curia [the papal court] were not willing to accept the critical challenge.”[5] 

In spite of the apparent initial disinterest of the Catholic Church, we can only predict that were Barth alive today he would be pleased to find, like Hermann Häring, that Küng’s thesis has had the last laugh.  Küng’s approach to the ecumenical dialogue over justification appears to have had a major influence in approach to Protestant-Catholic dialogue which has culminated in what might be considered the most significant ecumenical achievement in Post-Reformation times.

So far his book on justification is not outdated.  Better yet, his thesis of that time has received a late justification.  Everyone today agrees that the doctrine of justification no longer divides confessions.  Differentiating exegetical as well as theological and dogmatic research has strongly confirmed that notion, especially the studies about the Council of Trent. … Since 1999, the state of discussion can be easily and accurately shown in the Joint Declaration of Augsburg with its highly detailed style.  … [A]ll seven problem areas, the points of agreement as well as continuing disagreement are meticulously listed.  Each single time, however, the conclusion is drawn that the differences no longer warrant a church division.[6]      

Not everyone, however, has been as optimistic about the viability of the ecumenical discussions that took place over the similarities between Barth’s doctrine of justification and the Catholic position as interpreted by Hans Küng.  Alister McGrath, for example, grants that Küng has at least shown that Barth and Trent are both anti-pelagian, but he censures the hype over Küng’s thesis as reflecting failure to recognize the difference between agreement over how man is justified—by grace through Christ—and what justification actually is.

However, the Council of Trent (1543-63) specifically anathematized a series of propositions which it considered Pelagian.  The result is, as Küng has shown, that both Karl Barth and Trent teach a strongly anti-Pelagian Christocentric doctrine of justification.  Nevertheless, the question of how man is justified before God does not exhaust the question of justification. … [I]t is highly doubtful whether Küng has demonstrated anything other than that Barth and Trent both hold that justification is primarily a divine act arising through the work of Christ.  There are at least four areas in which Barth and Trent are in serious disagreement: namely, the nature of justification ; the freedom of the will; the nature of election ; and the assurance of salvation.  Küng fails to ask the crucial question, which is this: What do Barth and Trent have in common that Calvin and Trent do not also have in common?  The answer to this question is that Barth and Trent have considerable less in common than Calvin and Trent. … What does it mean to say that a man is justified?  It is a trivial matter for Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed theologians to agree that man is justified by a divine act of grace through Christ, for to fail to accept this would be to deny the doctrine of their churches as laid down by the Council of Trent, Orange II, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the various confessions of the Reformed churches. … But what is the difference between the unjustified and the justified?  What happens in justification?  What is justification?  It is one thing to agree how something occurs; it is quite another to agree on what the entity in question actually is.[7]

McGrath also believes that Küng “confuses the matter by introducing modern Roman Catholic scholars, whose teaching counts as theological opinion, and not as the authoritative teaching of the Church.”[8] 

It is our contention that Küng, by presenting the more theocentric, Bible-oriented section of opinion within Roman Catholicism, and by presenting only those aspects of Barth’s theology of justification which are capable of harmonization with this section, has not represented the true state of affairs.  This does not mean that Küng has misrepresented Barth’s theology of justification: rather, we are of the opinion that he has been unduly selective.[9]

Because of the prominent role that Barth’s doctrine has played in the ecumenical discussions, Catholics and Protestants argue over whether Barth’s doctrine was more Catholic in orientation or more Protestant.  Bruce L McCormack takes issue with Douglas Harink’s claim that “Barth’s doctrine of justification anticipated in all its essential features Harink’s own version of Paul’s teaching on this subject.”[10]  He argues that the defining element of the Calvinistic Protestant doctrine of justification is John Calvin’s notion of double imputation—specifically the notion of an alien righteousness outside of us (extra nos)—that came out of the Osandrian controversy in 1551.  The intention of this defining element was to free the grounds of justification from anything God does in us (in nobis)—even if it is by grace—under the conviction that it would undermine Christian assurance. 

Barth’s justification is forensic through and through, McCormick argues.  In Barth, justification does not occur through the faith of the one justified but in eternity past and consists primarily, as we have already noted, in acquittal.  Justification takes place in Christ because it is in Christ that God restores his own righteousness by destroying both sin and the sinner.  The justification of man is really Christ’s justification in Barth’s forensic framework.  In Barth faith is merely our becoming aware of our justification, not even an instrumental cause.  Thus, McCormack concludes that Barth’s doctrine of justification is not only protestant, but radically so, for not even our faith makes it effective for us; only Christ’s faithfulness, death, and resurrection makes justification effective.  “Christ’s history is as such our history … [and] participation in Christ is not something that has first to be realized by means of an independent work of the Holy Spirit, but is already real even as the God-man carries out his work.”[11]  Barth sees both our being and God’s being “constituted by way of anticipation” in His eternal decision of the covenant of grace in which the God-man takes God’s reprobation and we get God’s mercy.[12]  Just because Barth does not use the language of imputation does not remove the element from the heart of his doctrine, McCormack argues, only in his doctrine imputation does not occur at a moment in time when the believer puts his faith in Christ.  Rather, it happens in eternity past. 

Although Barth’s doctrine has perhaps caused more openness between Protestants and Catholics towards fruitful ecumenical discussion, this has not taken place without serious controversy over whether this should have ever taken place, whether it reflects true agreement between essentials of Protestant and Catholic teaching on justification or naïvety.  If nothing else, Küng has inspired a new approach to ecumenical theology that relishes in the areas of continuity between Barth (and Calvin for that matter) and Trent.  Whereas Protestants and Catholics in time past were more narrowly aiming their energies at polemical writings that emphasized the areas of disagreement between them, Küng’s interpretation of Barth has caused a shift in focus on appreciation for elements that are similar.       

—————————————–

[1] Karl Barth, “A Letter to the Author,” in Hans Küng’s Justification (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John KnoxPress, 2004), lxvii-lxviii.

[2] “I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing misunderstanding and, consequently, of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your Church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent.”  Ibid., lxviii.  

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Hermann Häring, “Justification: Then and Now,” trans. Katharina Gustavs, in Justification, xxii.  

[5] Ibid.  Häring seems to imply that this was part of the reason Küng ultimately denied papal infallibility, for which the Vatican rescinded his authority as a teacher of Catholic theology.

[6] Ibid. xxv.

[7] Alister McGrath, “Justification—’Making Just’ or ‘Declaring Just’?: A Neglected Aspect of the Ecumenical Discussion on Justification,” Churchman, vol 96 no 1 (1982): 44-45.

[8] Alister McGrath, “Justification: Barth, Trent, and Küng,” Scottish Jounral of Theology, vol 34 no 6 (1981): 525. 

[9] Ibid., 527. 

[10] Bruce L. McCormack, “Justitia aliena: Karl Barth in Conversation with the Evangelical Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L McCormack (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 168.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid. 

::: The Sola Fide of Karl Barth ::: Justification by Faith Alone?

Nowhere does Barth sound more like a typical Western Protestant than in his forensic categories for justification (as we have already seen) and his insistence upon what he understands to be the meaning of justification sola fide, yet Barth differs from the Reformers in crucial ways in his understanding of justification.  Perhaps the biggest difference in Barth’s sola fide is that he does not consider the justification of man to be contingent upon faith but rather how man’s relationship to God’s redemption in the twofold divine sentence is “realized.”[1]  Nevertheless, his insistence that faith never be seen as the attainment of merit or the accomplishment of justifying righteousness pervades his discussion of what is meant by faith alone.  Barth makes this point countless times and appears to say it as many ways as he knows how.  He sees this as the point of Paul’s faith-works dichotomy and of Luther’s sola fide.[2] 

There is no instance of the combination δικ. δια την πιστιν. This means that from the standpoint of biblical theology the root is cut of all the later conceptions which tried to attribute to the faith of man a merit for the attainment of justification or co-operation in its fulfillment, or to identify faith, its rise and continuance and inward and outward work with justification. … As a human attitude and action faith stands over against the divine attitude and action described as δικαιουν, without competing with it, or preparing it, or anticipating it, or co-operating with it, let alone being identical with it.  … [Faith as a human work] corresponds on the human side, to his divine justification.  Not because of its intrinsic value.  Not because of its particular virtue, or any particular power of its own.  But because God accepts it as the human work which corresponds to His work … which corresponds to His righteousness.  God recognizes, not that by this action man fulfils a condition or attains something which makes him worthy of the divine pardon … It is the good pleasure of God which singles out from all others this particular human action. … As the doctrine of “justification by faith” (alone) this conception of Paul was rediscovered in the century of the Reformation, and as such it was both attacked and defended.  … “Justification by faith” cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. … There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation in contrast to his way in wicked works.[3] 

Taking this protestant stance on justification, Barth scathes any understanding that justification is “by” faith precisely because of the particular good qualities of it (even as the gift of God)—faith as notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent of the will) or even fiducia (the heart’s trust) is not what justifies man.[4]  This humble and free despair is what is most important for Barth about faith as it relates to justification. 

There is as little praise of man on the basis of his faith as on that of his works. … For there is as little justification of man “by”—that is to say, by means of—the faith produced by him, by his treading the way of faith, by his achievement of the emotions and thoughts and acts of faith, by his whole consciousness of faith and life of faith, as there is a justification “by” any other works. … If it tried to be this, if man tried to believe with this purpose and intention and claim, then even if his faith was not a “dead” faith, even if it was a most “hearty” faith, even if it was a fiduciary faith most active in love, it would be there supreme and most proper form of his sin as the sin of pride.[5]

For this reason, Barth is not even comfortable speaking of “justifying faith.”[6]  In order to prevent a misunderstanding of faith as contributing anything to man’s justification, Barth attempts to place the importance of faith elsewhere than on notitia, assensus, and fiducia.  Barth would rather speak of faith as consisting “wholly and utterly” in humility because “it is the abdication of vain-glorious man from his vain-glory,” or rather a “radical and total distaste for it.”[7]  Faith is a “despairing of self,” a joyful “humility of obedience,” a “free decision,” and “a comforted despair.”[8]  Because of his denial that man’s justification is dependant upon any human response and is “realized” (not actualized) through faith, Barth’s sola fide is very different from that of any of the Magisterial Reformers.  Even when he is attempting to echo the Reformers teaching that justification is not “by faith alone” because only faith contains the virtuous qualities necessary for being considered just in the eyes of God, he prefers to argue that faith is God’s chosen instrument for “realizing” one’s justification because it is a humble despair of self, not on account of its notitia, assensus, and fiducia. 


 

[1] Ibid., 615.  Carl F. H. Henry includes Barth in a list of modern theologians who deprived faith of it’s cognitive content, thus perverting the doctrine of justification by faith.  Although he admits that later Barth did try to rescue justification by faith from this dilemma, he complains that it was too little too late.  Carl F. H. Henry, “Justification by Ignorance: A Neo-Protestant Motif?” Jounral of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol 13 no 1 (1970): 3-4.  

[2] “Luther’s sola fide: the opposition of faith to all and every work; the two statements (1) that no human work as such either is or includes man’s justification (not even the work of faith as such), but (2) that the believer is actually the man justified by God. … The works to which they referred in this context are the thoughts and words and achievements of sinful man, including the works which he is able and willing and ready to do and produce as such in relation to the revelation of God and in obedience to His Law. … The sola fide does not actually occur in the Pauline texts.  Yet it was not an importation into the texts, but a genuine interpretation of what Paul himself said without using the word sola, when Luther translated Rom 3:28. … [For] if he is not justified by the works of the holy Law of God, but by faith, then obviously he is justified only by faith, by faith alone, sola fide.”  Ibid., 621-22.  Barth marvels that “even Augustine, the only name we can consider, did not understand him as the Reformers did.  He did not understand the principle underlying the Pauline distinction of faith and works. … How could Augustine—and in his wake all Catholic exegesis and dogmatics—possibly have understood justification as a process which is fulfilled in the human subject, allowing it simply to begin with faith and to be completed with the infused grace of love, if he had had before him the contrast of Galatians as it revealed itself afresh to Luther.” Ibid., 623. 

[3] Ibid., 615. 

[4] Barth believes himself to be following the sharp distinction of John Calvin on this point. 

[5] Ibid., 616. 

[6] Ibid., 618. 

[7] Ibid., 618-19.

[8] Ibid., 619.

Karl Barth’s Denial of Justification as the chief Article of Soteriology

Sometimes Barth speaks of the unique importance of the doctrine of justification in such a way that one might think he understood its role in theology in much the same way the Reformers did.

There is no part of dogmatics, no locus, where we can treat it lightly.  At every point we are dealing with the one high Gospel.  What we can and must say is that in the doctrine of justification we are dealing with the most pronounced and puzzling form of this transition because we are dealing specifically with the question of its final possibility. … But in the doctrine of justification we have to do with the original centre of this crisis [between holy God and sinful man], and to that extent with its sharpest form, with what we can describe provisionally as the crisis which underlies the whole.  If we find it running through the whole with all kinds of repetitions and variations, at this point where we grapple with the peculiar difficulty of it, it has to be seen and handled as the main theme—the question: How am I to lay hold of a gracious God?[1]

Nevertheless, Barth distinguishes himself from the Western Protestantism of his own day and his contemporary interlocutor Ernst Wolf by allowing the article of justification to be one among many aspects of the gospel, not necessarily the Word of Gospel itself.

There can be no question of disputing the particular function of the doctrine of justification.  And it is also in order that at certain periods and in certain situations, in the face of definite opposition and obscuration, this particular function has been brought out in a particular way, that it has been asserted as the Word of the Gospel, that both offensively and defensively it has been adopted as the theological truth.  There have been times when this has been not  merely legitimate but necessary, when attention has had to be focused on the theology of Galatians and Romans (or more accurately, Rom 1-8). … [e.g. Augustine] … But in theology it is good to look beyond the needs and necessities of the moment, to exercise restraint in a reaction however justified to be constantly aware of the limits of the ruling trend (however true and well-founded it may be).  … In the Church of Jesus Christ this doctrine has not always been the Word of the Gospel, and it would be an act of narrowing and unjust exclusiveness to proclaim and treat it as such. … [I]t relates only to one aspect of the Christian message of reconciliation. … [I]n the true Church of Jesus Christ the formulated recognition and attestation of this truth may withdraw, it may indeed be more or less hidden behind other aspects of the Christian message, without it being right and necessary to draw attention to its absence, to believe that its truth is denied and the unity of the Church is broken.  … The Christology of Paul is more than simply an argument for his doctrine of justification.[2]

Several observations of Church history are set forth by Barth at this juncture to compliment his position and help set this doctrine in perspective.  For example, he raises the point that the early church saw no explicit treatment or emphasis on the doctrine of justification, and the development that took place in the writings of Augustine “was something which belonged specifically to the Western Church.  The East was much less interested in the contrast between sin and grace than in that between death and life, between mortality and immortality.”[3]  He also claims that John Calvin’s thought was controlled and organized by “the development and formation of the Christian life and therefore of sanctification,” and was even “overshadowed” by his doctrine of predestination which “plumbed the matter even further.”[4]  He concludes: “One thing is certain—that if the theology of Calvin has a centre at all it does not lie in the doctrine of justification.”[5] 

Even Martin Luther himself, Barth argued, always had a twofold emphasis in his teaching: one having to do with the once-and-for-all work of Christ and another having to do with the righteousness which is given to man in the Spirit’s work of new birth.[6]  Luther insisted that both justification and sanctification are in need of being properly maintained.  “If either of them is forgotten or neglected in favour of the other, this will inevitably involve the corruption either of faith or of its power and fruit.”[7]   Pointing out that Luther’s own understanding of justification was a theolgia viatorum (being reformed and developed throughout his life), he remarks, “Luthernaism old and new followed the direction of Luther—or at least the older Luther—when, like Calvin and Calvinism, it refused to centre its theology upon the one article of justification.”[8] 

Pietism and Methodism also put their chief emphasis on aspects of reconciliation which Barth argues cannot be subsumed under the narrow category of justification.  Barth’s alternative form of thought was, he hoped, more balanced, a midway between placing too much emphasis and importance on the article of justification on the one hand (as if it were the gospel and to the neglect of other equally important aspects of reconciliation) and relegating it to secondary or marginal status on the other. 

All honour to the question: How can I find a gracious God?  But for too long it has been for Protestantism—at any rate European and especially German Protestantism—the occasion and temptation to a certain narcissism, and a consequent delay in moving in the direction we have just indicated.  The articulus stantis et cadentis acclesiae is not the doctrine of justification as such, but its basis and culmination: the confession of Jesus Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Co. 2:3) … The problem of justification does not need artificially to be absolutised and given a monopoly.[9]        

Alister McGrath speculates that such a demotion of the importance of the doctrine of justification in Barth’s theology results from his “essentially supralapsarian understanding of the Fall” and reflects a broader theological trend: 

 [T]he onset of Reformed orthodoxy saw the starting point for theological speculation shifted from the concrete event of the justification of the sinner in Christ to the divine decrees of election and reprobation. … As a result, justification is accorded a place of low priority in the ordo salutis, in that it is merely the concrete actualization of the prior divine decision of election.  Barth approximates more closely to the theological method of Reformed orthodoxy than to that of Calvin.[10]

Although Barth saw himself in basic agreement with the Reformers, he ultimately believed that the level of importance Luther placed on this doctrine was driven largely by their cultural context.


 

[1] CD IV/1: 520-21.

[2] Ibid., 522-24.

[3] Ibid., 524. 

[4] Ibid., 525. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid., 525-26. 

[7] Ibid., 526. 

[8] Ibid., 526-27. 

[9] Ibid., 527-28. 

[10] McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 400. cf. Alister McGrath, “Karl Barth and the articulus iustificationis,” Theologische Zeitschrift, vol 39 (1983): 349-361. 

 

::: How Barth’s Doctrine of Election Informs His Doctrine of Justification :::

Barth’s understanding of the nature of justification is easy enough to understand—it is nothing more than God’s pardon of man based on Christ’s substituionary work on his behalf.  However, to grasp the unique complexity and idiosyncrasy of his doctrine of justification, one must first understand the broader soteriological context seen in Barth’s doctrine of election.  Barth’s soteriology holds much in common with typical Christian theologies in key respects.  For example, for Barth, the climax of human history is the Christ event—the incarnation, substitutionary death, burial and resurrection of Christ.  This event is both the execution and the revelation of the eternal sentence of God on all mankind in which God establishes his right over against man’s wrong.  However, whereas the early church and Reformation eras largely understood election and reprobation as dividing humanity into two separate groups of people,[1] the reprobate who are eternally damned and the elect who are eternally saved, Barth reduces the sum total of all elect and all reprobate members down to one person: Jesus Christ.  From all eternity, Christ is both the only one who elects and the only one who is elected; he is also the only one chosen for the full measure of the wrath of God against sin and yet, at the same time, he is the only one elected for eternal salvation.  Whatever blessings of election and horrors of reprobation apply to men and women in general, then, must be understood only as derivative in this sense: in this same twofold eternal sentence of God, Christ’s history becomes our own from all eternity.  It is in light of the temporal execution of the divine eternal sentence of Christ as the elect and reprobate one that man’s own justification can be seen like a shadow behind the Christ event.[2]

 

Pardon—by God and therefore unconditionally pronounced and unconditionally valid—that is man’s justification.  In the judgment of God, according to His election and rejection, there is made in the midst of time, and as the central event of all human history, referring to all the men who live both before and after, a decision, a divisive sentence.  Its result—expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—is the pardon of man.  And this as such is man’s justification, this alone, but with unconditional truth and efficacy, so that apart from it there is no justification, but in it there is the total justification of man.  Whether man hears it, whether he accepts it and lives as one who is pardoned is another question.[3]

 

Pardon, then, is not conditional upon one’s response to the Christ event (i.e. faith).  Rather, total pardon is objectively accomplished in Jesus Christ on behalf of man.[4]  But this rendering of the doctrine of justification does not mean that Barth has no place for the wrath of God in his soteriology.  Although pardon, and all that it accomplishes, should be considered the positive aspect of the divine sentence executed in God’s judgment, the negative aspect of this sentence must always be kept in view, for the two belong together since the one (“the divine election of rejected man”) implies the other (“the divine rejection of the elected man”).[5]  The positive side of this sentence is “goodness, mercy and grace; His decision and pronouncement in man’s favour,” and this is “the work of his redemption.”[6] The negative side of the sentence is God’s judgment “that we are these proud creatures, that I am the man of sin, and that this man of sin and therefore I myself am nailed to the cross and crucified (in the power of the sacrifice and obedience of Jesus Christ in my place), that I am therefore destroyed and replaced, that as the one who has turned to nothingness I am done away in the death of Jesus Christ.”[7] 

In God’s eternal counsel the election of rejected man did not take place without the rejection of elected man: the election of Jesus Christ as our Head and Representative, and therefore our election as those who are represented by Him.  Therefore the positive sense of the sentence executed in that judgment belongs together with the negative.  If Jesus the Crucified lives, and we live in Him and with Him, the sentence of God revealed in His resurrection is valid in Him and therefore us, in that negative sense.  Therefore the knowledge of the grace of God and the comfort which flows from it in this sentence, the knowledge therefore, of its positive sense, is bound up with the fact that in it we do not cease to see ourselves as those who are condemned.[8] 

 

In Christ man is not merely pardoned; he is also condemned and destroyed.  Barth therefore often refers to this divine sentence as including both the Yes and the No of God.  Furthermore, even though both aspects of this sentence apply only to Christ, since Christ was “in our place”[9] on our behalf they also apply derivatively for all mankind.  The scope of Christ’s substitutionary work is universal.

 

There is not one for whose sin and death He did not die, whose sin and death He did not remove and obliterate on the cross, for whom He did not positively do the right, whose right He has not established.  There is not one to whom this was not addressed as his justification in His resurrection from the dead.  There is not one whose man He is not, who is not justified in Him.  There is not one who is justified in any other way than in Him—because it is in Him and only in Him that an end, a bonfire, is made of man’s sin and death, … Again, there is not one who is not adequately and perfectly and finally justified in Him.  There is not one whose sin is not forgiven sin in Him.  There is not one whose peace with God has not been made and does not continue in Him. [italics mine][10]  

 

Although it might sound impossible that either Christ or (derivatively) mankind could be at the same time and in the same senses elect and reprobate, enjoying both the utmost blessings of grace and utmost furies of wrath, Barth understands God’s wrath as a subset of his grace in such a way that the two notions are not contradictory.  Indeed, in the end, the Yes of God is louder than the No of God, for the No of God is only part of the “transition”[11] of man to the Yes of God.  On the one hand, “the righteousness of God means God’s negating and overcoming and taking away and destroying wrong and man as the doer of it.”[12]  On the other hand, because Barth understands the destruction of man taking place in Christ, it does not follow that all of sinful mankind must be eternally damned, for he does not understand this divine retribution the way classical Christian theologies comprehend it. 

 

Do we not have to say that even in the non-willing, the wrath of God expressed in this conflict, even in the terrible “Away with thee” which is pronounced upon the wrong of man and therefore upon man as the doer of it, what rules finally and properly is grace, the divine Yes deeply buried under the divine No, in so far as God’s free address to man is operative even in the No? … [E]ven in the judgment which comes upon man and his wrong God is gracious to man.  The crisis which comes upon man when he encounters the righteousness of God, but in which the grace of God is secretly present and operative, is frequently described in the Bible as chastisement.[13] 

  

Two things are important to note about how Barth understands God’s destroying wrath.  First, it only applies to mankind in general inasmuch as Christ’s history (in which he bore the fury of God’s wrath in our place) becomes our own by the unconditional sentence of God.  This understanding of God’s wrath might be called the imputation of Christ’s damnation to the sinner.  Christ’s destruction, as representing mankind, is our destruction.  For Barth, Christ’s death is the most revealing display of just how serious God’s hatred of sin actually is.  Second, as we have noted, God’s wrath is not what “rules finally and properly,” but it is a means to a greater end—that of God’s grace.  Even in God’s wrath his grace is “secretly present” like the chastisement of a loving father.  Wrath is a form of grace that sustains fellowship with man.[14]  Although the reasoning of Barth is unclear in the matter, he is convinced that if the wrath of God was given full exercise to any given individual without the grace of God as its ultimate end, God would not be truly righteous.    

 

To put it in another way, on the left hand man is the one who because of His wrong is condemned and rejected and abandoned by God, and on the right hand he is the same man as the one who even in his condemnation and rejection and abandonment is still pardoned and maintained by God, being kept for the fulfillment of His will and plan. … And God is righteous in this distinction as such: for satisfaction would not be done to His right if He could only chide on the left hand or only pardon on the right, if He accepted the identification of man with wrong, and was content simply to banish from the world both wrong and the wrongdoer, or if in spite of the wrong which man has done and his identification with it he allowed him to live at the price of not destroying the wrong which man has committed, of recognizing de facto its right to exist.  The righteousness of God would not be God’s righteousness and therefore it would not be true righteousness if it did not proceed on both sides.[15]     

 

Since “even that which God does on the left hand is grace,”[16] wrath must be considered penultimate at most, otherwise the very righteousness of God would be in question. 

Barth is not content to think of justified man as living a dual existence of two mutually exclusive influences—one of sin and one of grace-wrought obedience, for “how then can both be real? … This state of dualism, this static co-existence of two quite different men, can only be the result of a misunderstanding.”[17]  Barth proposes an alternative (which he thinks is the only alternative): rather than understanding man as a mix between the former man and the new man, justified man in the present must be understood as wholly both, but in the future only the latter.  “I was and still am the former man: man as wrongdoer … but I am already and will be the latter man: the man whom God has elected and created for himself … the man who is not unrighteous but righteous before God.”[18]  The conviction that apparently underlies Barth’s insistence that we must never understand justified man to have a dual existence is that “the justification of man by God is an event between God and man, not the static relationship of their being.”[19]  Rather than elucidating what he means by this denial of dual existence, however, Barth’s explanation only seems to further obscure his intentions (at least to this author):

 

The justification of man by God belongs neither to the empirical nor to the ideal world, for God who is at work in it is one God and the Creator of all the visible and invisible reality distinct from Himself which is beyond this contrast. … Again, the justification of man … [is] the being of God and man in a definite movement which cannot be reproduced in two pictures which can be placed alongside and studied together. … As this history the justification of man is a genuine puzzle, unlike that of the dualism which can be caught in that picture.  The justification of man cannot be caught in any picture, not even in moving pictures.  The reason for this is that the man who lives in this history of God with him is not in any sense perceptible to himself.  … [W]e cannot put this too strongly—there can be no self-experience of this drama.  The fact that it is our history which is in train, that we participate in this drama, is something which must be true and actual quite otherwise than in some depth of our own self, and recognizable as the truth quite otherwise than in the contemplation of one of the phenomena which meet us in these depths.[20]

 

Is Barth saying that justification does not happen to man but only for him?  Is he saying that the objective reality of justification is never actually subjectively experienced?  Does this quotation mean that man never perceives Christ’s history as his own in the depths of his own self?  Answers to these questions do not seem obvious.[21]  What is obvious, however, is that by considering Christ as the only true elect and reprobate one, Barth has abandoned the traditional framework of both doctrines (election and reprobation) and argues for a highly eccentric view as the alternative.[22]

NEXT POST :: Barth’s Necessary or Potential Universalism 

 

[1] The exception to this would be the view that God elected a way of salvation, not an actual people, and that people should only be considered elect inasmuch as they follow God’s plan of salvation in Christ. 

 

 

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956-1985), vol. IV, part 1, 514.

 

[3] CD IV/1: 568.

 

[4] The last statement in the above quotation portrays a way of thinking that will be examined in more detail later in this treatment as we consider the question of whether or not Karl Barth’s doctrine of election and justification imply a doctrine of universal salvation.

 

[5] Ibid., 515.

 

[6] Ibid., 514.

 

 

[7] Ibid., 515.

 

[8] Ibid., 516.

 

[9] Ibid., 514.

 

[10] Ibid., 630.

 

 

[11] Ibid., 516.  “There is no doubt that the unusual difficulty of the doctrine of justification is an indication of its special function.  In it we have to do with the turning, the movement, the transition of the existence of man without God and dead into the existence of man living for God, and therefore before Him and with Him and for Him.” Ibid., 520. 

 

[12] Ibid., 535.

 

[13] Ibid., 537. Barth appears to marshal all the biblical texts on the loving nature of discipline in this passage (e.g. Job 5:17; Ps 62:12; Rev 3:19; Prov 3:11; Heb 12:7ff; 2 Sam 7:14, and many passages from the psalms).   

 

 

[14] “It is not too small a thing for God actually to continue His fellowship with man in the form of wrath which consumes man because of his wrong.” Ibid., 542.

 

[15] Ibid., 541-42.

 

[16] Ibid., 541.

 

 

[17] Ibid., 543.

 

[18] Ibid., 544.

 

[19] Ibid., 545.

 

[20] Ibid., 545-46.

 

 

[21] It is no surprise to this author that the foremost interpreter of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification entitled his first chapter, “An Alien Language: Is Barth incomprehensible?—Problem of the thought form—Holy Scripture.”  Hans Kung, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 3-5.

 

[22] Oliver Crisp distinguishes Barth sharply from the Augustinian tradition. Oliver Crisp, “Augustinian Universalism,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol 53 no 3 (2003): 139.  

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