Thursday, July 14, 2011

Barth I.2 §15.3

The Miracle of Christmas.

This entire section deals with the issue of the virgin birth of Christ.  Barth, opposing his most frequent opponents, liberal theologians, decisively affirms the dogma of the virgin birth of Christ.  Many liberal theologians in the early 20th century had come to deny the historicity, or the reality, of the virgin birth.  They denied this miracle, as they denied all other miracles, on the basis of its physical impossibility in light of modern physics and biology.  Barth, on the other hand radically defends the dogma of the virgin Birth.

For Barth, the virgin birth is a sign.  That is, it signifies something greater, points beyond itself to some other reality.  This "something greater" is the incomprehensible mystery of the incarnation, the Word assuming human nature.  For this sign to truly signify the deep inconceivable mystery that is the incarnation, the sign must be equally mysterious and inconceivable: hence, the birth of Christ from a virgin. 

Barth begins by saying that this dogma is attested in scripture, and he is of course correct.  Both Matthew and Luke speak of Jesus' birth from Mary, a virgin.  The question, which Barth answers in the affirmative, is: is the virgin birth part of the "core testimony" of the gospels?

For Barth, the virgin birth is important for several reasons:
1) it states that Jesus had a human mother, making Jesus a human "like us."
2) it eliminates the possibility of docetism on the one hand (that Jesus was a mere divine phantom) and Ebionitism/adoptionism on the other hand (that Jesus was a mere human, born of a mother and father, and later adopted as the Son of God).
3) perhaps most importantly, for Barth's own situation, the affirmation of the virgin birth protects against going down the road of liberal theology.

Barth's entire system seems to be fighting liberalism at every front.  He so despised liberal theology, that he wanted to head them off at every turn.  I think also, at times, liberal theology blinded Barth in his own internal logic, and I think that the virgin birth is one of those places.

For example, Barth has a fairly lengthy discussion on sex in this section which I have had a hard time deciphering. 

For example, Barth writes the following:
"Here we cannot consider the quite un-biblical view that sexual life as such is to be regarded as an evil to be removed, to that the active sign is to be sought in the fact that this removal is here presumed to have taken place." (CD I.2 §15.3 p. 190). 
By this I take Barth to mean that the virgin birth is not affirmed to appease any puritanical notion that sex is evil and dirty and for Christ to have been born through a sexual union would thus be unworthy of the Son of God.

But, not a page later, Barth writes the following:
"By this action [virgin birth] of God sin is excluded and nullified.  And to this particular action of God the natus ex virgine points.  It is the sign that the sinful life of sex is excluded as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ." (CD I.2 §15.3 p. 191).
Now, perhaps I am missing something here, but it seems as if Barth has turned 180 degrees.  Here he seems to be saying that the virgin birth is the sign because it excludes the sinful sexual life of humans.

What Barth appears to be saying is the the sinful sexual life of humans is not capable of receiving the human origin of Jesus.  Yet, he goes on to say, that even Mary, in her innocence and virginity, was in no way capable of receiving the Son of God.  She had no innate capacity, no "point of contact" with the divine, making her worthy to receive the Son of God.  For Barth, the very action of God in the virgin birth creates this capacity in Mary to receive.  But logically, if God had to create such a capacity in Mary, why could he not have also created this capacity through a sexual union between Mary and Joseph?  Barth does not answer this question. 

The best answer Barth gives is to say that the sign must adequately point to the mystery of the incarnation and that only birth from a virgin, in its impossibility and inconceivability, truly points to the mystery of the incarnation.

Barth touches briefly on other stories of miraculous births in antiquity, including numerous other stories of births without sexual union.  I must say that here Barth's argument was very weak.  He admits to other stories in antiquity that speak of "assertions from the realm of heathen mythology which sound very similar." (CD I.2 §15.3 p. 197).  And Barth's response: Well, they sound similar, but they are not miracles, because they did not come about from the true God.  That is no different from the argument that says, "well, my religion is true and yours is false." Or "I believe in the true God and you serve a false God."  It is circular reasoning: My God is true, and so his miracles are real, your god is false, and therefore your miracles are not miracles at all.  I think that Barth failed to put the virgin birth in its context in its literary milieu and to evaluate these stories on such grounds.

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