Karl Barth- “God’s deity is…no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself”.

Karl Barth rightly insisted in his early writings on God being ‘totaliter aliter’ & the ‘infinite qualitative difference or distinction’ between the human and the divine. In his Epistle to the Romans he emphasised such a gulf, “If I have a system, it is limited to a recognition of what Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between time and eternity, and to my regarding this as possessing negative as well as positive significance: ‘God is in heaven, and thou art on earth’. The relation between such a God and such a man, and the relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy.”  As Lane (1992:200) observed of this period in his theological journey, Barth ‘came to see the bankruptcy of liberalism, which exalted man at the expense of God, which studied man’s religion rather than God’s revelation’ (Lane, T. The Lion Handbook of Christian Thought, Oxford, England: Lion Publishing, 1992).  If liberalism, he reasoned, could serve as a theological platform for the militarism and chauvinism of his until-then-esteemed German teachers, then it was a defective theology. His ‘bombshell’ commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans (published in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919) was the dawning of this realisation and the repudiation of the bankruptcy of liberal theology. Galli (2000:24) observed that ‘liberal theology had domesticated God into the patron saint of human institutions and values’. This commentary ‘rocked the theological community. Liberal theologians gasped in horror and attacked Barth furiously, for in this and later works, he assaulted their easy optimism. (Galli, M. ‘Karl Barth’, Christian History, 65 (VOL XIX/1) 2000:23-25).He later colourfully described this experience of becoming the enfant terrible amongst his theological peers in his now famous words from his subsequently aborted Christian Dogmatics: As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone.” (K. Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, Deutschland: …, 1927), IX.; cited in P. Lehrnann, ‘The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology’,  Theology Today, October, 1956, 334). He rightly saw theology at that stage in his journey as being too closely intertwined with the then current reigning social, political and anthropological philosophies. He then had a vision of God as “wholly other”, of whom we can have absolutely no natural knowledge. However, it would be wrong to say that in 1956 when he penned the words “God’s deity is…no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself“, that he was therefore rejecting God’s aseity ie the property by which God exists in and of himself, and from himself , something that perhaps Christian theology has been overanxious at all costs to maintain! In 30+ years our viewpoint can change a lot. Isn’t it refreshing that Barth was prepared to admit that he was overreacting in his early days? Maybe it was needed then. ‘To read the Romans in the light of what happened later is most revealing, for then it becomes evident that behind all the negatives and sharp distinctions there was hard at work a great new theology struggling to be born’ T. F. Torrance, Karl Barth an Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, (SCM, London, 1962) 53.

There is also that wonderful little book edited by John Godsey in 1966 two years before Barth died published by John Knox Press entitled “Karl Barth- How I Changed My Mind”. Barth said, referring to those tumultuous years 1938-48, that “I could not simply go along with an accepted church doctrine and theological tradition; I had to think through and develop everything anew, from a center which I considered the right one- namely, the Old and New Testament witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ” (pp 59-60). He looked back across some forty years of his theological work and re-evaluated his reaction against 19th century liberal theology. As the editors of the other Westminster/John Knox Press work (The Humanity of God, 1960) said at the time: “With honesty and forthrightness Barth asserts the need for correction of the extremes to which he and his colleagues went in their early development of a ‘Theology of the Word'”. His famous ‘Christological concentration’ (CD IV) deveoped from his radical reworking of the doctrine of election (CD II/2) asserted that God did not want to remain in splendid isolation but supremely in Jesus Christ is God for us. This is surely the miracle of the incarnation- God with us.

God’s high freedom in Jesus Christ is His freedom for LOVE. The divine capacity which operates and exhibits itself in that superiority and subordination is manifestly also God’s capacity to bend downwards, to attach Himself to another and this other to Himself, to be together with him. This takes place in that irreversible sequence, but in it is completely real. In that sequence there arises and continues in Jesus Christ the highest communion of God with man. God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity! All that, rather, in the highest proof and proclamation of His deity! He who DOES and manifestly CAN do all that, He and no other is the living God.” (The Humanity of God, pp 48-9).

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