Barth and Israel

Barth and Israel July 25, 2011

I’ve become interested in Karl Barth’s view of Israel and the Jewish question. Most know Barth is considered the greatest Protestant theologian since Calvin. He lived through the Nazi era and was part of the Confessing Church which stood against Hitler and the Nazis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was highly influenced by Barth’s theology–introduced to it when he was a theology student. Bonhoeffer, however, could never be characterized as a theological parody; he was certainly his own man theologically speaking.

I have  seen references to Barth’s discussion of Israel from Church Dogmatics in literature I’ve recently been reading. A useful book on the subject is Mark R. Lindsay’s  Barth, Israel, and Jesus (Barth Studies). It is currently not available in a form that makes it possible to purchase, so I’ve read a library copy, which I must admit is all penciled up!

Barth’s ambivalence toward the Jews has been often recognized and underscored. Perhaps most recently in Katherine Sonderegger’s book That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Israel. There she attempts to understand how Barth’s Christological redescription of Judaism works. How exactly does one put together his “stern anti-Judaism” visible in his Christo-centric theology with his lifelong fight against anti-Semitism and his strong support of the modern state of Israel? Sonderegger’s work, therefore, begins with a negative assessment of Barth’s posture toward Judaism.

Lindsay, however, takes a different tack. He begins with a more positive assessment of Barth’s relationship to Jewish people. He notes, for example, that Barth had a first-hand acquaintance with Judaism through his personal relationships with Jews. He argues that Barth’s fight against anti-semitism and his support for Israel stem directly from his theology.

Here is a sample of Barth’s language on the Jewishness of Jesus and the Christian faith:

In order to be elect ourselves [Gentiles], for good or evil we must either be Jews or belong to this Jew [CD 3/3, 225], emphasis added (taken from Lindsay, 83).

There is one thing we must emphasize especially . . . The Word did not simply become any “flesh” . . . It became Jewish flesh . . . The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that [Jesus’ Jewishness] comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of the New Testament Christology may have been shaped by a very non-Jewish environment. But they relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfils the covenant made by God with his people [CD 4/1, 166], emphasis added (taken from Lindsay, 93).

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