Karl Barth Undermined Justification

Karl Barth Undermined Justification April 16, 2012

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.


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