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::: 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.

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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. 

 

Did Karl Barth Teach Contingent or Necessary Universalism? ::: — :::

In spite of the fact that the depiction of Karl Barth’s doctrine of justification appears implicitly (if not explicitly) to amount to universalism—that all people will ultimately be saved—Barth himself denied that he ever taught any such a doctrine: “I do not teach it (universalism), but I also do not teach it.”[1]  Barth did not deny that the logic of his position appears to lead to universalism.  In fact, he makes several comments on the issue that appear to indicate that he was acutely aware of this dilemma[2] but insisted that the freedom of God prohibits this conclusion. 

As in many other cases, theology must here refrain from drawing logically consistent conclusions from its premises for the sake of its own subject matter.[3]      

Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction [that is, the direction of universalism], we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift.[4] 

[Because God controls grace and he is free] we cannot venture the statement that it (the circle [of the redeemed]) must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such.[5] 

Many, therefore, attempt to interpret Barth in a way consistent with his denial.  Geoffrey W. Bromiley concludes:

At this point Barth bluntly rejects any necessary universalism as “historical metaphysics.” On the other hand, since all is by grace, he will not rule out the possibility of this final enlargement [of the circle of redemption] in Jesus Christ. … Nevertheless, it is not apparent why, in his view, the Holy Spirit in his ministry of calling should not positively fulfil in all individuals the one eternal will of the triune God.  A gap arises here which Barth can finally fill only by an appeal to the divine freedom.[6] 

John Colwell defends the same position with more feisty remarks: “[I]f some of Barth’s critics refuse to take this divine freedom seriously with respect (especially) to Barth’s doctrine of election and consequently suspect him of implicit universalism then that is their problem rather than his and probably says more about them than it says about him.”[7] 

Others, however, are not convinced that Barth can be let off the horns of the dilemma so easily.  Hans Ur von Balthasar, for example, thinks Barth is kidding himself.

Nonetheless, despite these demurrals, Barth’s doctrine of election does not leave much room open for possibility.  There is something inevitable and necessary in his views.  What is definitive in Barth’s thought is grace and blessing, and all reprobation and judgment are merely provisional. … Actually, given his premises, Barth really cannot discuss this issue in any other way.  True, he gives lip service to our inability to survey the full implications of the activity of the Word of God.  He speaks of a healthy “inconsistency” in dogmatics.  But these are mere words, because he has already immured the idea of an all-encompassing redemption in the very groundwork and foundation of his doctrine of creation.”[8]  

Perhaps the most thorough consideration of potential ways Barth’s doctrine might escape the apparent inevitability is found in Oliver Crisp’s article, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism.”[9]  He makes several observations about Barth’s position.  For example, Barth is not arguing (like traditional Arminianism) for an atonement universal in scope, not effectiveness,[10] nor is he arguing that Christ’s atonement is only potentially effective for all.  Barth argues that the atonement is actually effective for all human agents.[11]  Also, a well recognized point, Barth emphasizes salvation as “knowledge” (through faith) that one is already saved rather than a means by which salvation is appropriated (as in the tradition Reformation formulas).[12]  Whereas the Reformers would say “If you believe [and repent] you will be saved,” Barth is saying, “You are saved, therefore, believe and repent!”[13]  Much of Barth’s writing appears to demonstrate that the free will of man as a potential loop hole in Barth’s thought is not a logical option.  Crisp offers the following remarks from Barth.

[O]n the basis of this decree of His the only truly rejected man is His own Son … so that it can no longer fall on other men or be their concern.  … Their concern is still the suffering of the existence which they have prepared for themselves by their godlessness (in the shadow of that which the One has suffered from them) – and it is bitter enough to have to suffer this existence.  Their concern is still to be aware of the threat of their rejection. But it cannot now be their concern to suffer the execution of this threat, to suffer the eternal damnation which their godlessness deserves.  Their desire and their undertaking are pointless in so far as their only end can be to make them rejected.  And this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God to suffer in place of the godless, and cannot any longer be their goal.[14] [italics mine]

After concluding that neither a compatibilist nor libertarian view of the free will of man could unloose Barth from this predicament,[15] Crisp specifically addresses the arguments above concerning Barth’s denial on the basis of God’s freedom.

Barth, however, is happy to withhold this requirement of theological consistency, because he deems that such a move would compromise divine freedom … Bettis is even willing to go as far as to say, “Barth does not reject universalism because the future of the pagan is uncertain.  He rejects universalism because the future of all men is uncertain.”  But if this [is] true, then Barth’s attempted way out, via divine freedom, yields a contradiction.  We can express this as follows, using the i-iii propositions stated earlier:

i. Christ’s atonement is universal in scope and efficacy …

ii. Christ is the Elect One and therefore the sole member of the set ‘elect’, in whom all human agents are elected …

iii. Christ is the Elect One whose atonement for the sin of human agents is universal in scope and efficacy, and all human agents are members of the set ‘elect in Christ’.

But what Barth is claiming at this juncture in his argument is something like:

iv. Because God is free, the eschatological destiny of all humanity is uncertain.

The problem is that iv simply does not appear to be consistent with i-iii.  In fact, it seems to contradict i-iii.  One cannot consistently hold both that all humanity have been (derivatively) elected, so that all their sin has been efficaciously atoned for by Christ, and that the soteriological status of all humanity is uncertain.[16]

Thus Crisp concludes that either Barth’s claim to not teach universalism is “disingenuous (he was a universalist), or just plain muddled (his position is not coherent).” He also dismisses a third option—that Barth was unaware that his position logically entailed some form of universalism—the grounds that is seems “unlikely.”[17]  Crisp could have easily argued also on the basis of Barth’s own understanding of God’s freedom, for it is Barth himself who poses the question: “Where do we see the freedom of God more clearly than in the justification of sinful man?”[18]  For these reasons, while some theologians attempt to allow Barth’s denials of teaching universalism to play the decisive role in categorizing his thought (i.e. in answering the question, “Was Barth a universalist?”), others give more weight to the nuances of his actual position in concluding that he was, in fact, a universalist. 


 

[1] Karl Barth.  Cited in Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth, A Theological Legacy, trans. Garrett E. Paul (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1986), 44-45. 

[2] Crisp humorously coins this as the universal dilemma.  Oliver Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” in Themelios, vol 29 no 1 (2003): 26. 

[3] Karl Barth.  Cited in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, trans. Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1992), 186.

[4] Karl Barth.  Cited in Oliver Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 28.  cf. CD IV/3: 477. 

[5] Karl Barth.  Cited in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1979), 95. 

[6] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, 95. 

[7] Jon Colwell.  Cited in Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 18. 

[8] Hans Ur von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, 186.  cf. McGrath, The Making of Modern German Christology: 1750-1990, 138. 

[9] Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 18-29.  

[10] Ibid., 21.

[11] Ibid., 25. 

[12] Ibid., 21. 

[13] Ibid. 

[14] Karl Barth.  Cited in Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 22. cf. CD II/2: 318-19. 

[15] Crisp, “On Barth’s Denial of Universalism,” 23-25.

[16] Ibid., 28-29.  

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] CD IV/1: 529.  The confusion about Barth’s position can be seen in the field of systematics.  In Erickson’s treatment, for example, he seems to contradict himself about whether or not Barth answers the question of whether all persons are saved.  This is not to say that Barth holds to universal salvation, a subject he deals with very cautiously without ever really committing himself. … There is no absolute difference between the elect and the rejected, the believers and unbelievers, according to Barth, for all have been elected. … Christians from a traditional background might wish to pray open the question of whether the rejected ones who are actually elect are also saved, but Barth will not open that tangled issue.  The church should not take too seriously the unbelief of the rejected ones.  In the ultimate sense, there is no rejection of humanity by God.  God has in Christ chosen rejection for himself, but election for humanity.”  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 936.  cf. Geisler, who simply places Barth as “one of the most famous theologians in modern times to embrace universalism” without any hesitancy or clarification.  Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Three: Sin and Salvation (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), 389.      

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