Paul Dafydd Jones – Karl Barth on Gethsemane

Paul Dafydd Jones[1] – an excerpt from his paper in the International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 9 Number 2 April 2007


….For Barth, election conveys the startling fact that God’s love has such intensity, such radicality – such jealousy, perhaps – that God wills, freely, to qualify God’s own being for all eternity. To talk of Gottes Gnadenwahl is to claim that God qua Son wills to embrace an identity bound to the ontologically complex yet personally simple person of Jesus Christ; it is to claim that God wills, for all eternity, to ‘become and be’[2] Christ qua ‘electing God’ and ‘elected human’. As such, it is not only a bland construal of election as merely a matter of salvation and reprobation that must be avoided. Also erroneous is any separation of election from the doctrine of God. Election identifies the incarnation as an act of God that bears upon the being of God; it describes a divine event with ontological consequences, for God freely self-determines, qua Son, in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[3]  Certainly, this self-determining event derives from a divine initiative, unconnected with prior human worthiness. It is ‘preceded’ by a pre-temporal divine decree (which can be conceptualized, at least in principle, in terms of the logos asarkos motif) that forms the anterior condition of possibility for God’s economic act. Barth will not risk suggesting that God’s being is adventitiously conditioned by events that transpire in the created order, even when God Godself is intimately involved in those events; nor will Barth suggest that God is necessarily (i.e., unavoidably) qualified by the incarnation. Nevertheless, God exercises God’s freedom in such a way that this economic act (and only this act) has decisive ramifications for God’s immanent life. God scribes Godself an identity, qua Son, that is irrevocably bound to the contingent life of the human, Jesus of Nazareth.[4]  God, for all eternity, makes this human history, realized in unity with God qua Son, a constitutive and integral part of God’s being-in-act; the logos asarkos is always becoming and being (and never not becoming and being) the logos ensarkos. Barth does not halt with the claim that election means divine self-determination. He contends also that election has consequences for humanity as such, with humanity receiving its elemental determination in light of God’s action. One condition of possibility for this anthropological determination, this covenantal partnering of God and humanity in active companionship, is the ontological complexity definitive of Jesus Christ’s person.[5] Specifically, the connection Barth makes between incarnation qua divine self-determination and incarnation qua covenant-institution depends on the distinctive dithelitism that he makes basic to his doctrine of election. Thus the striking claim that, in Jesus Christ, one finds ‘steadfastness on both sides’.[6] On the one side, there is steadfastness on the part of God qua Son, before the Father, in becoming and being the logos incarnatus; on the other, there is steadfastness on the part of Jesus of Nazareth, the human individual assumed by the Son, in embracing the identity assigned him, as Son, before the Father.[7] This divine and human steadfastness, actualized and enacted in the person of Christ, constitutes the basis and the substance of the covenant as active commerce between humanity and God.[8] Just as God is actively ‘steadfast’ in God’s love for humanity, realizing God’s reconciliatory purpose through the incarnation of the Son, before the Father, with the Spirit, so too, in and with Christ, is humanity actively ‘steadfast’ in its love for God. Put a bit differently: ingredient in the formula ‘electing God and electing human’ is a grace-enabled corollary, namely, Jesus Christ as the ‘electing human who elects God’.[9] And given that Jesus Christ is the ‘electing human who elects God’, there arises the prospect of all humans acting in a similar manner, albeit derivatively and analogously.

[1] Paul Dafydd Jones is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (2008), which won a Templeton Award for Theological Promise in 2010, and over two dozen scholarly essays. In addition to co-editing two forthcoming collections (The Oxford Handbook of Karl Barth and Liberation Theology), he is completing a book on patience and Christian thought. He is co-principal investigator, with Charles Mathewes, of “Religion and its Publics,” a research project at the University of Virginia funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

[2] I borrow this phrasing from Eberhard Jüngel; see his God’s Being is in Becoming: TheTrinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase, trans. and intro. John Webster (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2001).

[3] McCormack makes this point thusly: ‘Diese Entscheidung ist nicht ein blobs Rollenspiel, sondern eine Entscheidung mit ontologischer Bedeutung. Sie ist ein freier Akt, in welchem Gott sich selbst das Sein gegeben hat, das er in alle Ewigkeit innehaben wird’ (‘Barths Grundsätzlicher Chalkedonismus?’ p. 154).

[4] How is it that an eternal being, who exists prior to the creation of the world and time, self-defines according to a life-history that takes place in the world and time? While I cannot tackle this difficult question at length, the answer certainly must not entail the dogmatically unsatisfying claim that God simply wills that it be so. Such would be to ignore Barth’s Anselmian belief that Christian faith embraces the operations of human understanding. My sense is that Barth’s co-ordination of eternal divine self-determination and the concrete event of Christ’s life has much to do with Barth’s understanding of divine eternity as inclusive of divine temporality (see here, esp. CD II/1, pp. 608–40). This particular kind of divine ‘richness’ provides the condition of possibility for the inclusion of Christ’s temporal history in God’s life.

[5] Hartmut Ruddies advances a similar claim in ‘Christologie undVersöhnungslehre bei Karl Barth’, Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 18 (2002), p. 181. He writes: ‘Versöhnung ohne die Voraussetzung des Bundes wäre primär zu denken als Reaktion Gottes auf die menschliche Aktion der Sünde und nicht als Aktion seiner Selbstbestimmung. Wird aber von der Selbstbestimmung Gottes als Bundesgott ausgegangen, dann ist damit von Anfang an die Denkfigur eingeschlossen, dab die Priorität und Einseitigkeit des geschichtseröftenden göttlichen Bundeshandelns die Gegenseitigkeit der menschlichen Bundespartner nicht aus-, sondern definitiv einschlieben will.’

[6] CD II/2, p. 125. The German: ‘Es handelt sich von beiden Seiten um ein Beharren’ (KD II/2, p. 134).

[7] While the qualification ‘before the Father’makes for syntactical awkwardness, it is very much necessary. Regin Prenter’s rather drastic misreading of Barth – ‘Karl Barths Umbildung der traditionellen Zweinaturlehre in lutherischer Beleuchtung: Einige Vorläufige Beobachtungen zu Karl Barths neuester Darstellungen der Christologie’, Studia Theologica 11 (1957), pp. 1–88 – suggests that the divine–human covenant depends on the relationship between the divine Son and the individual human essence assumed by the Son. This interpretation confuses a relationship between humanity and the triune God (covenant) with the relationship between the two realties constitutive of Christ’s person (the hypostatic union).

[8] Thus CD II/2: ‘It is in freedom that God has turned and covenanted Himself to man, and it is in the same freedom that the act of the covenant has been completed by Jesus. It is in this freedom that He lives the life of the first and basic and normative covenant-partner of God.’ Barth also notes: ‘The Early Church knew what it was about when in the monothelite controversy it insisted on the distinction and confrontation of the divine and human will in the person of Jesus. It did this in light of the temptation story and Gethsemane, where it emerges clearly enough that the freedom in which Jesus obeys is real obedience. He “learned obedience” (Heb 5.8)’ (pp. 605–6).

[9] For more on this point, see Hans Theodor Goebel’s excellent text, Vom freien Wählen Gottes und des Menschen. Interpretationsübungen zur ‘Analogie’nach Karl Barths Lehre von der Erwählung und Bedenken ihrer Folgen für die Kirchliche Dogmatik (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1990).

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