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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. 

What’s the Problem with Justification?: Karl Barth’s Answer

Barth attempts to explain in his Church Dogmatics, that the problem of justification consists in how man can be at the same time sinner and just.  Therefore, Barth surmises, the doctrine is unique and important.  Here are some excerpts: 

How can he be simul peccator et iustus?  And how can God for His part (the omniscient and righteous Judge of good and evil) give right to man when man is obviously in the wrong before Him, and God Himself has put him the wrong? … To what extent is this justification not a mere overlooking or hiding of the pride and fall of man, a nominalistic “as if”—which is quite incompatible with the truthfulness of God and cannot be of any real help to man—but God’s serious opposition and mighty resistance to the pride of man and therefore the real redemption of fallen man?  How in this justification can God be effectively true to Himself and therefore to man—to man and therefore primarily to Himself?  How can He judge man in truth and even in that judgment be gracious to Him?  How can He be truly gracious to him even in the fact that He judges him?  This is the problem of the doctrine of justification which we now have to develop.  (CD, § 61: 517)

But whether we are dealing with a divinely true actuality depends upon whether in this alteration of the human situation in the atonement—as the work of grace and mercy of God—we are dealing with that which is just and right.  It depends upon whether—however strange it may seem to us—there is a genuine justification: that is, whether the right of God which gives right to man and the right of man which is given by God to man is a true and indisputable right.  If we do not have an indisputable divine right, and (for all its difference) an indisputable human right, how can the conversion of man to God be true, and how then can it be actual? … [The task of the doctrine of justification] is the task of finding a reliable answer to the question: What is God for sinful man?  And what is sinful man before the God who is for him?  The basis of the community and the certainty of faith stands or falls with the answer to this question. (CD, § 61: 518)

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. … 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, 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?  And it is from here, and along the line which runs from here, that in different ways it works out everywhere. (CD, § 61: 520-21)


Justification as a Two-Fold Judgment of God: Karl Barth

Under “The problem of Justification,” in Barth’s treatment of the doctrine in Church Dogmatics, he explains that although in studying justification, one is dealing more specifically with the positive aspect of God’s two-fold judgment and sentence, the negative aspect of God’s judgment and sentence belong together with the positive. 

Therefore the positive sense of the sentence executed in that judgment belongs together with the negative. …  And what we have to show is that this is possible, that the two belong together: our real sin and our real freedom from sin; our real death and our real life beyond death; the real wrath of God against us and His real grace and mercy towards us; the fulfillment of our real rejection and also of our real election. … the No of God behind the Yes of God before, but the Yes of God only before as the No of God is behind.  This history, the existence of man in this transition, and therefore in this twofold form, is the judgment of God in its positive character as the justification of man. (CD, IV, §61: 516)   

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