Monday, May 9, 2011

Barth I.2 §13.1-2

The Incarnation, the Word became Flesh and made his home among us.  Perhaps one of the greatest miracles of the Bible, greater even than the virgin birth, is the astonishing sentence: The Word became Flesh.  This was the real stumbling block for the Greeks.  Not the resurrection.  Not the Virgin Birth.  Not healings or exorcisms.  No, that God could take on human flesh. 

For Barth too, this is a miracle of the greatest magnitude.  He thus asks the question: how can God become flesh, flesh that is in total contradiction to God?  And Barth's answer: we don't know "how," but we believe the witness of the Bible that this did actually take place.  God, in a mode of being distinct from himself, yet still himself, took on human flesh as a means of revelation. 

For Barth, the witness of the Bible is twofold: 1) God's Word/God's Son became the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and 2) The man Jesus of Nazareth was in fact God's Son/God's Word.  This is the doctrine of the incarnation.  That this man Jesus was God's Word.

In this section, Barth tries to understand Jesus as God's Word by avoiding two heresies: Docetism and Ebionitism.  The Docetic takes a preconceived notion of divinity and then thinly masks it with the appearance of humanity.  Ebionitism on the other hand takes humanity and tries to elevate it to divinity in a sort of hero worship.  Neither of these will do for Barth or for Orthodox Christianity.  Barth writes:
"As the true humanity of Christ is ultimately dispensable for Docetism, so is the true divinity of Jesus for Ebionitism." (CD I.2 §13.1 pp. 20-21). 
In 13.2, Barth is concerned with investigating further what it means that Jesus is the Son of God, going beyond what the Bible has to say and ferreting out the meaning of this event of incarnation.

There were a couple of powerful sections in this discussion for me.  First, Barth notes that without the incarnation, humanity would not even know that it was blind.  It is like a blind man who does not really know what it means to be blind until he sees the light.  Without revelation, humanity would not even know what it was like to be without God.  Barth writes:
"Revelation itself is needed for knowing that God is hidden and man blind.  Revelation and it alone really and finally separates God and man by bringing them together." (CD I.2 §13.2 p. 29). 
Another powerful section was Barth's discussion of what it means that God becomes flesh.  God does not become flesh in general.  That is, human flesh is not generally capable of revealing God.  The fact that God becomes flesh is revelatory only in Jesus Christ.  As Barth writes:
"Really and originally, therefore, flesh as the possibility of the revelation of God is entirely and emphatically the possibility of Jesus Christ himself." (CD I.2 §13.2 p. 44).  
Yet, because God became flesh, humans are able to know God, because God has become familiar.  Yet even in this, God is still veiled in the same way that one human is veiled from another.

Now, I must say, I have been having frustrations with Barth recently.  I have not quite been able to put my finger on why.  Then this week, two blog posts unrelated to the Barth synchroblog caught my attention.  The first was A "Systematic" or "Ad Hoc" Theology over at Diglotting.  In this post, Kevin Brown shares his own discomfort with "systematic" theology because it attempts to impose a "univocality" on the text of the Bible, making it speak with one voice in all places.  As a biblical scholar, I am convinced that this is not the case. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I ran into Daniel Kirk's post about People of the Story of the Cross.  This is a post about how talking about the cross usually leads to discussion of atonement theory.  Yet, for Kirk, atonement theories are asking and answering questions that the NT itself neither asks nor answers.  For him, atonement theories (how the cross saves us) tell us that our vision of the cross as Christians is actually too small.  The cross is about much more than saving us.  The cross is about the Kingdom of God come to earth.  And this is best told not in the propositional statements of systematic theology (i.e., atonement theory), but rather in the context of story.  Here it is: here is why I find it hard to read Barth.  It is not because I see myself as smarter than Barth.  That is certainly not the case.  It is not even that I fully understand Barth and disagree with him, I often don't understand, and I often agree when I do.  My problem is that I think that most of the truths that the Bible is trying to communicate are best communicated through story, not propositional statements as necessitated by systematic theology.  

Well, that is all that I can say at the moment as my brain is full.  Go and read the posts by Kirk and Brown, they are much better than this rambling I am sure.


  1. Somehow I'd missed that you were keeping up with the Barth reading and blogging. Great work! I'll try to come around on Fridays to see what you're thinking. Also, feel free to post a link to your page from mine.

    Glad to have you along.

  2. Doesn't the apostle Paul engage in "atonement theory"?

  3. Beau,
    I am not sure that statement is quite accurate. For sure, Paul talks about atonement, but I am not sure I would call it atonement "theory." The distinction I would like to make is that Paul discusses various images or metaphors to describe what God had accomplished in Christ, while atonement theory is a later theological construct. That is, later theologians have tried to systematize what Paul and other NT authors said about atonement into nice, neat packages that describe in propositional statements exactly what Christ accomplished on the cross.

    The problem is that what the NT says about what Christ accomplished on the cross does not fit into nice, neat, theological packages. Sometimes it is the image of sacrifice, a la OT animal sacrifice. Sometimes the image is of Christ being victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Sometimes the image is of a ransom paid (presumably to the devil). Sometimes the image is one of an example that spurs one on to imitation. Sometimes it is a legal image of clearing guilt. All of these images/metaphors are used to describe what Christ accomplished on the cross, yet none of them is complete, and none, as metaphors, tell it exactly how it is. My difficulty with systematic theology is that it often tries to abstract a propositional statement: e.g., Christ substituted himself in your place and took your rightful legal punishment for your sin on the cross. Yet, this statement removes the story in which Christ's death is embedded and tries to extract a timeless truth, an in turn, goes beyond the various metaphors used in scripture which are closely tied in with the story.

    So yes, Paul talks about atonement, but atonement theory is a later theological abstraction that makes me uncomfortable.