Karl Barth Undermined Justification

The worldview of justification, which includes that God is just and the judge, that humans are sinful, and that in Christ alone God declares humans “right with God,” is undermined by the theologies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth.

So contends Alan Spence in his sketch of the history of the idea in his new book Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Both Schleiermacher and Barth, in Spence’s sketch, are marked by substantive revising of the basic ideas of theology – Schleiermacher by rooting theology in human piety and Barth in rooting theology in a theocentric Christology from above.

Spence contends Barth was responding to Schleiermacher’s anchoring of theology in human piety and in seeking compromise; Barth, as is well known, anchors everything in God’s divine transcendence and an utter contradiction between time and eternity.

The early Barth was more fixated on revelation, wherein God speaks and enables humans to hear and respond. That revelation is the Word of God – Christ, in Scriptures and in preaching the Word. This permits Barth to envision the Trinity in terms of Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.

Instead of a soteriological framework, which is thoroughly Protestant, Barth has a Christological framework; election is election of the Son (and just “who” Christ was in ages past is not entirely clear in that some would say that elected Son was not the Eternal Word as is traditionally known but the human Jesus Christ).

This Christological centering leads to revision on what “sin” means: it is not known from the law but from the redemption in Christ; humans are under the wrath of God; Christ is the mediator as the representative human in whom redemption is found. Oddly, Barth connects the priestly role to the deity of Christ and not to the humanity of Christ (Spence makes a point of this).

Justification, again, is revised to be seen as God being right – “the inherent justice of God in his justifying decree is what Barth means by the righteousness of God” (121). That decree is forgiveness of sins.

A major issue in Barth studies, at least for some, is whether or not he is a universalist. I thought this issue was mostly settled in the negative, but Spence thinks Barth’s theology – in the election of the Son, in his view that sin is an irruption that is conquered, in justification being rooted in God’s own rightness – leads finally to universalism.

And Spence thinks Barth does not give sufficient attention to the role of human faith in salvation.

In other words, what we find here – against the grain of many today – is a repeat of the old evangelical criticisms of Barth.

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.apprentice2jesus.com Dan

    What a shame… Justification being centered in Christ. How terrible. ;)

  • Richard

    “Justification, again, is revised to be seen as God being right – “the inherent justice of God in his justifying decree is what Barth means by the righteousness of God” (121)”

    Isn’t this fundamentally what NT Wright puts forward as what Paul is saying about justification that caused Piper to tee off on him?

  • sean

    I think the traditional Protestant soterian framework makes God’s plan of redemption a plan B fix for our fall into a state of sin, whereas a christological framework for salvation puts Christ at the center of the reason for creation itself as the lamb crucified before the foundation of the world. God did not offer salvation after we messed up, God is salvation…and we messed up.

  • CGC

    HI Everyone,
    For fifteen hundred years, justification was grounded in Christology and then after the Protestant Reformation, it’s now grounded in soteriology. As a Protestant, Barth grounds his understanding of justifcation in Christology and now he is the one with the faulty logic and wrong view of justification?

  • Karl

    Is this a permanen, new format for Jesus Creed? I find the gray text on brown background tiring on the eyes, at least on my computer.

  • scotmcknight

    Karl, sorry but Patheos is working on this today … I’m confident we’ll all be satisfied when they are done.

  • Luke

    I’m so confused right now…. Can someone explain all this? Forgive me for seeming like an idiot.

    “Instead of a soteriological framework, which is thoroughly Protestant, Barth has a Christological framework; election is election of the Son”

    When I read this at face value it looks like you’re saying when the Bible talks about “elect” it only is referring to Jesus. Is that what it’s saying?

    “(and just “who” Christ was in ages past is not entirely clear in that some would say that elected Son was not the Eternal Word as is traditionally known but the human Jesus Christ)”

    Isn’t that the same thing? Like saying “it’s not so much a rooster as it is a male chicken”? Or do you mean as in Jesus being physically human for all eternity?

    “This Christological centering leads to revision on what “sin” means: it is not known from the law but from the redemption in Christ;”

    Meaning it’s not the Law that reveals our sin to us, it’s our salvation that does so?

    “humans are under the wrath of God; Christ is the mediator as the representative human in whom redemption is found.”

    Here we have a point about substitutionary atonement I’ve never understood. Doesn’t this make Christ a mediator between us and himself essentially? Since he and the Father are one?

    “Justification, again, is revised to be seen as God being right – “the inherent justice of God in his justifying decree is what Barth means by the righteousness of God” (121). That decree is forgiveness of sins.”

    So God forgiving sins can’t not be just because everything God does is just? Or God is just and righteous because he justified us?

    Again, forgive my confusion.

  • Alan K

    Barth on apokatastasis: “I do not teach it, but I do not not teach it.”

  • Dana Ames

    Following up on Karl’s question re format, I too find it hard to read, and I never have liked this font.

    But the most annoying thing for me about the site lately is that it takes so doggone long to load up. Other sites with just as many text sections, ads, graphics, etc. don’t take nearly as long. That’s what I’d like most to see “fixed”.

    Thanks.

    Christ is risen!
    D.

  • scotmcknight

    Dana, on time loading… I haven’t observed this at all. Except when Patheos is working on the site.

  • Alan K

    Regarding Barth giving insufficient attention to the role of human faith in salvation, one can say that Barth’s whole career was about opposing the tendency in modern theology of humanity taking control of its own salvation. Barth was clear that there was no offering that humanity could ever offer back to God that would be an acceptable offering save one–the offering that Jesus Christ made. It is by the faith of Jesus Christ–his offering to God alone–where humanity plays a role in salvation.

  • Dan Arnold

    Alan K,

    I’ve been looking for that quote. Do you know where he said that?

  • http://www.andyrowell.net Andy Rowell

    Ok. I’ll pick off a couple of low hanging fruit here.

    @Luke Lots of good questions. I will only address the first one as Barth’s position is indeed a bit odd (and great!). You write “‘election is election of the Son.’ When I read this at face value it looks like you’re saying when the Bible talks about ‘elect’ it only is referring to Jesus. Is that what it’s saying?” Yes and no! For Barth, Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the elect. Romans 8:29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Barth writes, “The election of grace, as the election of Jesus Christ, is simultaneously the eternal election of the one community of God [that is, Israel and the Church] by the existence of which Jesus Christ is to be attested to the whole world and the whole world summoned to faith in Jesus Christ” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, p. 195, first part of thesis statement of §34 The Election of the Community). In other words, the election of Jesus Christ also includes the people of God who will witness to the world about Jesus Christ. Think also of Genesis 12:2–the promise to Abraham–”all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” But Barth’s emphasis on God’s electing of Jesus Christ is indeed partly original and famous. Again, whatever God was doing before the world he had chosen Jesus. John 17:24 “you loved me before the creation of the world,” Jesus prays to the Father.

    @Alan K and Dan Arnold
    I don’t doubt Barth quipped something like what Alan quotes but here are some more quotes that give a fuller account of his position with regard to “apokatastasis” or universalism or whether everyone will be saved.

    “To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift . . . If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off for ever’ ( La. 322f., 31)” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, p.477-478).

    See also:
    “If we are to respect the freedom of divine grace, we cannot venture the statement that it must and will finally be coincident with the world of man as such (as in the doctrine of the so-called apokatastasis ). No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced. Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, p. 417).

    “The Church will not then preach an apokatastasis , nor will it preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, p. 477).

    All the best,
    Andy


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