Barth on What it Means to be Human
Dr. George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary discusses eminent theologian Karl Barth’s anthropological views. He asks what Barth might answer on, “What does it mean to be human?” from a thoroughly Christian perspective. He explores what a responsible theological anthropology might look like.
Just in case, some people might not know much about Karl Barth. He was born in 1886 and died in 1968. He was described by Pope Pius XII as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. And among other things, he was the intellectual leader, the theological leader of the Confessing Church, that small section of the Protestant churches in Germany who resisted Hitler, he was the principal author of the Barmen Declaration. Barth on what it means to be human, a Christian scholar confronts the options.
Yeah, I’m gonna have to read this pretty quickly in order to try to stay within the time frame, but I hope that the PowerPoint presentation will help you to stay with me, but fasten your seatbelts. Christian theologians must address a number of questions about what it means to be human. Among them are, how should we understand human nature from a theological standpoint? If we develop a theological account of human nature, a theological anthropology, how might secular or non-Christian alternatives stack up against it?
Finally, within the range of specifically Christian proposals, what would a theologically adequate account of human nature look like as opposed to one that was below par? These are some of the questions tackled by Karl Barth in “Church Dogmatics,” Volume Three, Part Two. It is the treatise where he develops his theological anthropology from within the context of the doctrine of creation. With regard to God the Creator, Barth defines human nature in terms of a basic God relationship. Fundamental to our being as creatures is that we are bound to God, because God our Creator has bound himself to us.
With this basic anthropological premise as his yardstick, which he will elaborate at considerable length, Barth proceeds to consider several competing views of what it means to be human. Where no reverence to God exists, to the Creator as revealed in Holy Scripture, Barth wonders, can the nature and meaning of human existence be captured at all? Barth’s answer to this question is at once simple and complex. It hinges on a basic distinction between the real and the phenomenal.
Let us consider first, the idea of the real. The real human being is the one who exists in relationship to God. Human beings have no reality apart from this relationship. Their central purpose as creatures is to know love and glorify God forever. There is therefore no such thing as a godless human being, because no human being exists apart from this basic God relationship. By the same token, there is no such thing so to speak as a God without humanity or a humanless God.
As revealed in Jesus Christ, God does not will to be God without us. The real God exists in relationship to humanity, and the real human being exists in relationship to God. The reality of what it means to be human cannot be known where this relatedness to God is not known. Does that mean, then, that non-theological anthropologies can grasp nothing true about human existence?
Barth, who finds much to commend in non-theological anthropologies, thinks that this conclusion would be premature. Certainly, by leaving God out of the picture, non-theological or philosophical anthropologies cannot know the real human being or human nature as it really is. Nevertheless, these anthropologies can and actually do discover genuine aspects of human nature. Barth calls these genuine aspects symptoms or phenomena. Reason alone cannot know humanity as it really is in relation to God, but it can know phenomena of the human.
A Christian theological anthropology needs to respect and learn from these phenomena. My procedure in this essay will be as follows.
First, I will set forth the basic criteria that Barth develops for establishing a theological anthropology. His criteria are remarkable, not least because he derives them from a christological center, even though he is describing human nature from the standpoint of the doctrine of creation. I will then show how Barth uses these criteria to assess four alternative types of anthropology that he finds instructive, but finally, deficient. For the sake of convenience, I will call these alternatives, naturalism, idealism, existentialism, and neo-orthodoxy. In conclusion, I will comment on the kind of Christian scholarship that Barth practices in dealing with views that he at once commends, and yet pointedly critiques.
Real human existence means being toward God in a particular history, determined by Jesus. Barth picks out six attributes that define a theologically adequate anthropology. Although they exist at the level of general presuppositions, he sees them as material attributes, not just formal features. They are therefore sufficient for distinguishing a Christian anthropology from other anthropologies.
They sketch a theological definition of human existence, which can be used for distinguishing what is real from what is merely phenomenal. The first feature mentioned by Barth has to do with the idea of divine presence. God is not just present to human creatures in a general way, but most especially in and through Jesus.
Jesus is God with us, fully God and fully human. He is the incarnation of the eternal word of God. Human creatures must be seen as conditioned by him. In and through the humanity of Jesus, they have to do immediately with the divine presence. Jesus’ humanity is the medium of communication through which God is made present to them, and they are made present to God. In and through Jesus, they belong to God, as those created for the sake of fellowship with God.
For the sake of this fellowship, God becomes present to them in and through Jesus Christ. Being determined for fellowship through God’s presence in Jesus is a distinctive feature of human existence. Barth’s second feature has to do with the idea of history. God exists for the human creature only in a certain history.
It is a history of deliverance, in which God becomes present to the human creature through the covenant fulfilled in Jesus. Humans are conditioned by the fact that this deliverance takes place for them. Each of them exists in God’s history of deliverance in such a way that their being as creatures is inseparable from it. In this history, their creator takes on the role of a savior. Human beings are included in a history of deliverance, as fulfilled in Jesus. And this inclusion is another distinctive feature of what it means to be human.
Along with the ideas of presence and history, I think I may have, yeah, okay, along with the ideas of presence and history, Barth’s third feature of being human involves the idea of divine glory. When God becomes present to human beings in Jesus, by including them in a history of deliverance, God’s deity is not compromised. God’s deity is not lost in Jesus’ humanity, despite being completely present and revealed in it. God remains entirely God. Certainly, God’s act of deliverance is an act of self humiliation. It is God’s total immersion into human frailty, sin and death, and immersion finally into total disgrace.
But this immersion is not only an act of divine love, it is also an act of divine freedom. In it, God confirms who God is, and triumphs as the creator. God is never more glorious than when hidden in Jesus as he died ingloriously on the cross. In and through Jesus, the being of every human creature is included in the glory of God’s self humiliation. Because humans are included in it, their being is not an end in itself. It is a being in and for God’s glory.
Their existence for the sake of God’s glory is another distinctive characteristic of what it means to be human. The idea of God’s sovereignty is the fourth factor singled out by Barth as determining human existence. God’s sovereignty is seen, most supremely, in the history of deliverance fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus does not exist outside God’s sovereignty, but within it.
Jesus’ weakness embodies what it reveals, the sovereignty of God, and this sovereignty is the power of salvation. In the person of Jesus, the humanity of all others is posited, contained and included. Because of the crucified Jesus, in whom God’s lordship is present and revealed, all other human beings also exist under that lordship and not otherwise. They are all determined by the lordship of God, as enacted, fulfilled and mediated in Jesus.
Being determined by God’s lordship in Jesus is another distinctive feature of what it means to be human. The idea of freedom is the fifth factor singled out by Barth as an important feature of what it means to be human. Divine sovereignty and human freedom cannot be separated, Barth urges, nor can they be placed in competition.
Whatever human freedom may need, it cannot consist in the freedom to escape God’s lordship. Freedom is an ambiguous term with at least two meanings. Freedom in the substantive sense of proper fulfillment, must be distinguished from mere freedom of choice. As in Jesus, so also in us, substantive freedom is strictly the freedom to decide for God and not otherwise.
Freedom is therefore not something neutral, nor is it something independent of grace or outside it. Freedom, in the substantive sense, does not include the possibility of rejecting grace, because when grace is rejected, freedom contradicts itself and is lost. It enters into the bondage of sin and death. The rejection of grace is not an act of freedom. It is an act of self negation.
Human freedom is free, furthermore, only as it depends on divine grace. Because Jesus was free for God in this substantive way, our freedom shares the same conditions. Freedom for God, in dependence on grace as manifested in Jesus, is a distinctive characteristic of human existence. The sixth and final factor in Barth’s sketch of theological anthropology concerns the idea of service. Human beings exist not for themselves but for the sake of serving God.
God is served when they give thanks for the history of their deliverance through God’s presence in the person of Jesus. God is served when human beings bow to God’s lordship, glory, grace and love. God is served when they freely bear witness to what God has done for them in Jesus, corresponding to it with their lives.
Although only Jesus has ever served God and lived for God fully in this way, all others are called to a corresponding form of service in him. The vocation of service to God is a distinctive feature of human existence. Let me sum up. As set forth by Barth, real human existence means existence in relationship to God. It cannot be understood apart from the ideas of presence, history, glory, lordship, freedom and service.
God is present to human beings in and through a particular history, a history of deliverance as fulfilled in Jesus. In this history, God is hidden and revealed in glory under the form of the cross, and manifest as the lord of all. At the same time, human creatures are posited, contained and included in the person of Jesus. They are embraced in the history of deliverance as centered in him, so that they have no real being apart from it. The freedom given to them is freedom for God under the lordship of God.
By grace, they are made free to serve God as present and known in Jesus. These are some distinctive features of human existence from the standpoint of theological anthropology. The second main section, phenomena of the human. Although a theological anthropology would involve more than these six distinctive features, they constitute a kind of irreducible minimum. Other proposals about human nature must be examined in light of these distinctives.
They serve as criteria by which both positive and negative assessments can be made. No definition of human nature can be adequate, however, if it disregards divine revelation. Proposals derived from general experience will always result in a vicious circle in which we will never attain to real human existence. How can we expect to grasp what human nature really is, if we disregard the fact that we belong to God, that we exist in relationship to the work of God, that we live for the glory under the lordship and in the service of God? What kind of human beings are we, Barth asks, if we think we can disregard all this?
Those who know the reality of human existence cannot disregard it. Only phantom human beings would think we can know what human nature is without first taking God into account. On this basis, Barth proceeds to interrogate four types of anthropology, naturalism, idealism, existentialism and neo-orthodoxy. When measured against his six criteria, each has something to be said for it, though each is finally deficient. Each grasps phenomena of the human without comprehending the reality. Naturalism.
Barth begins with a reflection on the familiar Aristotelian idea that the human being is a rational animal. This definition was sometimes adopted by Protestant theologians in the 17th century, who had impeccable credentials with regard to theological orthodoxy. Adopting this definition had the unfortunate consequence, however, had an unfortunate consequence, however, for as time went on, it’s suggested that a theological interpretation of human existence could be regarded as an appendix, or even ignored.
Barth observes, if we start with the idea of the human being as an animal endowed with reason, we are not led by any necessary inference to God, and therefore not to the human being as a being essentially related to God. If the interpretation is to be valid, the definition must include the truth that our relation to God as humans is an essential part of our being. If we construct a general definition before bringing in our relatedness to God, we are in danger, Barth cautions, of making it seem optional and superfluous.
But the most particular thing about us is also the most truly universal and decisive, namely, that we exist in a history determined by God’s attitude toward us. Our God relationship is not simply one fact among others. If we try to make some other idea general and universal, as if our God relationship were somehow secondary, we will end up pointing into the void, not to human existence as it really is. Barth then turns to evolutionary biology and theological attempts to interpret it. Late 19th century and early 20th century apologists, of whom he considers several, tried to confront evolutionary naturalism with the necessary no and yes of Christian faith, insight and confession. In opposing the leveling down of the human being, as threatened by evolutionary views, these apologists, Barth thinks, did what was essential.
They made a serious effort to put up the necessary resistance. Unfortunately, they did not always do so in the most fortunate way. Something else must be said in favor of these apologists, however. They were, Barth notes with approval, prepared to learn, both externally and intensively from the science of their time.
According to Barth, the insights of evolutionary biology, which are manifold and rich, deserve to be welcomed as far as they go with gratitude. Writing in 1948, Barth next devotes extensive attention to the views of one Adolf Portmann, a zoologist who was actually on the same faculty as Karl Barth in Basel, a zoologist who published a work on evolutionary biology in 1944, with, Barth says, no noticeable theological concern. Portmann, whom Barth praises for his moderation, represents a point of view that is perhaps anticipatory of a work published more recently in 2007 called “The Evolution Controversy: “A Survey of Competing Theories,” by Thomas B. Fowler and Daniel Kuebler.
Like Portmann, Fowler and Kuebler are scientists who attempt to offer a balanced and critical assessment of the current state of evolutionary biology for non scientists. What Barth says about Portmann would apply equally well to Fowler and Kuebler. When it comes to our knowledge of ourselves as human beings, evolutionary biology can offer us, says Barth, only modest that is limited, conditioned and relative certainty, and definitely not the certainty which life demands of us as human beings. Furthermore, when we have examined the findings of evolutionary biology, we have encountered only phenomena of the human, not the reality of human existence.
The true existence of these natural phenomena is not itself a phenomenon, but the subject of a judgment, that has not the slightest connection with the observation of the facts. Unless we already know the reality of human existence in its essential relatedness to God, Barth contends, we will not be able to evaluate properly the findings of evolutionary biology.
We will be inclined to think that our reality as human beings consists in what we have in common with the animal kingdom, and the rest of creation generally. We will be blind even though we see, we will mistake the part for the whole. Here again, as with the definition of human beings as rational animals, the fatal mistake must not be made of allowing our opponents to determine the form of the question.
We must not proceed on the assumption that as human beings, we are only animals, a higher form of mammals, before trying to speak theologically. Furthermore, even apart from divine revelation, we can see that naturalism cannot account for certain attributes like human consciousness and human freedom. In order to account for these attributes, we must enter into another sphere of discourse.
In consider idealism, in considering idealist proposals about what it means to be human, Barth makes a kind of double move. He considers what can be known by reason alone, while at the same time allowing his perceptions to be informed by divine revelation. In particular, the phenomenon of human freedom must be taken seriously, even though idealism finally falls short in dealing with it.
On the basis of reason alone, it can be seen that human beings exist in connection with their environment, and yet also in freedom from it. Human beings must therefore see themselves as having an identity in two spheres. In their knowledge of themselves, they can see that they are in some sense causally determined, while yet also being more than beings who are causally determined. They exist, so to speak, in two spheres, the sphere of natural causation and the sphere of freedom. On the one hand, they are causally determined, while on the other hand, they are conscious subjects of free decisions.
The central example Barth takes to represent idealist views of human nature is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Fichte was an exponent of a kind of high German idealism that flourished in the 19th century. It placed a premium on the freedom of the human subject over against all natural or causal determinism. What Barth observes about Fichte, however, might also have some bearing on the views of other philosophers more familiar to us today. I think in particular of John Searle and Thomas Nagel. Although Searle and Nagel are very far from Fichte in many ways, they share at least one point in common with him.
Like Fichte, both Searle and Nagel, and each in his own way, seek to resist naturalistic forms of reductionism in their views of human nature. They both adopt a kind of double perspective that will allow them to accept the full findings of the natural and biological sciences, while still seeking to preserve a place for an irreducible human consciousness and freedom. Searle holds that two things are true at the same time.
Consciousness is a real subjective experience, and yet it is also caused by physical processes of the brain. Consciousness is both real and yet a mystery. Nagel similarly argues for the validity of two viewpoints. A third person perspective which is objective and causal, along with a first person perspective that is subjective and transcendent. Finding no way to reconcile these two perspectives, Nagel recommends moving back and forth between the two.
It is the irreducibly subjective element of human experience that offers a point of contact between Searle and Nagel on the one hand, and Fichte on the other. The divergences, of course, are also great. We might say that while Fichte operates, so to speak, with an idealism that veers toward naturalism, Searle and Nagel operate with a basic naturalism that gestures toward idealism.
In any case, all three philosophers take the subjective elements seriously, and all three propose to grasp the reality of human nature on the basis of reason alone. Barth subjects Fichte to an internal critique before he proceeds to an external critique. He sets forth Fichte, at length, on his own terms, as extensively as he did the evolutionary biologists. Barth is then in a position to press Fichte on the coherence of holding to both human freedom and natural determinism at the same time. We might wonder much the same about Searle and Nagel, who at least have the virtue of owning up to the perplexity, however, in a way that is less evident in Fichte.
But Barth finds the value in Fichte is that on the basis of mere reason, he discovers what Barth calls the phenomenon of the human in its ethical aspect. For Barth, this is no mean achievement, since it describes from the philosophical side, something of great importance about the reality of human existence from the theological side.
Yet the idea of the ethical subject in Fichte’s philosophy is judged finally to be both unstable and inflated. Fichte glimpses something that he cannot sustain. Barth concludes by reverting to his six criteria. A god to whom human beings belong as to another. A god who can act in relation to them and become their savior. A god who has his own glory, in which the essential concern of humanity is to be seen. A god who reigns.
A god in relation to whom human beings gain their freedom, and whom they must serve in their freedom. A god who confronts them and limits them and is thus their true determination, is, for Fichte, non existent. Fichte’s God is Fichte’s men, and Fichte’s men is Fichte’s God. And it is because God is non existent that Fichte has had to conceive the idea of the absolutely autarkic and subjective human being. To ascribe this being to humankind, and to regard the result and figure as the real human being.
While this external critique would not fully apply to Searle and Nagel, Barth’s final word to Fichte might also pertain with modifications to them. For Barth suggests that naturalism cannot finally be overcome by a higher idealism without referring to God. If the aim, writes Barth, of Fichte was to provide a philosophy of freedom, it would have been better not to regard God as non existent, and therefore to become blind even to the phenomenon of what it means to be human. This is the warning which we are finally given by this stimulating example. Existentialism.
The views that Barth has considered so far, anthropological naturalism and anthropological idealism, both seem to have something in common. Both, in various ways, seem to regard human nature, whether as determined by natural forces or as self determining, as something ahistorical and self contained. In turning to anthropological existentialism as seen in the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, who also taught at Basel, the distinction moves to a new level. Human existence is now seen as a history that is open to the transcendent, and this transcendent other, while remaining nameless and impersonal, is nonetheless necessary for human self knowledge and human self fulfillment.
The idea of an unthinkable and inexpressible transcendence has appeared more recently in the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. Barth’s reflections on Jaspers might to that extent pertain with proper qualifications also to them. Like Jaspers, Levinas and Derrida allow for a transcendent God who remains nameless, but who allows himself to be gestured at by human words. Levinas, with his strong emphasis on the ethical subject, is perhaps closer than the others to idealism.
He argues for a deliberate separation from God after the Holocaust, so as to encounter the human face, the face of the human other as absolutely other. The human other is to be honored and respected in its otherness. Derrida, on the other hand, also traumatized by the Holocaust, they’re both Jews, opts for a view that might be called mystical atheism. He presents himself as a kind of atheist for the sake of God, waiting painfully for an ineffable transcendence that is never expected to appear. Neither Levinas nor Derrida, however, would be as interesting to Barth as Jaspers.
What Barth appreciates in his Basel colleague is the way he combines two key aspects. The historicity of human existence on the one hand, and the openness to transcendence on the other. A living relation to this transcendence is thought to be indispensable for the actualization of human existence. Looking back from his core idea that real human existence means being toward God, Barth is prepared to grant that Jaspers, by means of reason alone, has grasped a genuine phenomenon, though of course, not the reality of what it means to be human.
Jaspers has the advantage of understanding that human existence, rather than being self grounded, self resting and self moving, is dynamically open to and dependent on an encounter with the transcendent other.
Nevertheless, Barth departs from Jaspers when Jaspers argues that the way transcendence breaks in on human existence is through the negative experiences of the boundary situation. Barth grants that human beings are continually involved in the boundary situations of suffering and death, conflict and guilt, but it is far from obvious, Barth writes, nor is there any compelling reason to suppose that it is such crises which really bring human beings into relation with the transcendent holy other, and lead them into an existence which embodies the meaning of this relation.
Barth expresses doubt that the boundary situations are saturated with transcendence. He is also skeptical that human beings are capable of themselves of fulfilling the condition of living by transcendence, as Jasper supposes they can do. We are still confronted, Barth concludes, with a picture of a self-enclosed human reality, beyond which there is finally nothing to confront it other than itself. Jaspers has no true concept of a phenomenon that might be identified with a god who is distinct from humanity and the world, superior to both.
The reality of human existence, Barth concludes, cannot be known on the basis of autonomous human self understanding. Unlike naturalistic, ethical and existentialist views, theological anthropology cannot recognize the real human being in a figure who is neutral, indefinite or obscure, regarding God’s attitude toward it, and its own attitude toward God. Barth therefore subjects Jaspers to both an internal and an external critique. His internal critique is that Jaspers cannot convincingly establish the transcendent as a reality independent of human existence. His external critique, on the other hand, appeals once again, to his six points.
Barth writes, on a very definite ground, that of the picture of the human Jesus, which is normative for Christian theology, we have postulated that real human existence must, in any event, be beings who as such belong to God, to whom God turns as savior, the determination of whom is God’s glory, who exist under the lordship of God, and are set in the service of God.
We were warned at the outset not to seek real human existence elsewhere than in this history between God and humanity, and to recognize as the essence of real human existence, none other than its existence in this history.
Despite their laudable appeals to the transcendent, neither Jaspers on the one hand, nor Levinas and Derrida on the other, manage to capture very much the way of phenomenal expressions of this core human reality. Neo-orthodoxy.
The naturalistic, ethical and existentialist views of what it means to be human are seen by Barth as the most important stages on the way to an autonomous human self understanding. He does not reject these views out of hand. They each capture something important about the phenomenon of human existence as it can be known apart from revelation. Taken in sequence, these views represent a progressively more penetrating analysis of the picture that can be gained about humanity by reason alone. But at best, this picture leaves us with a mere abstract phenomenon, not with the concrete reality of human existence.
By turning in conclusion to Emil Brunner’s theological anthropology, Barth seeks for a way to break out of the closed circle of existentialist anthropology. A proper theological anthropology, Barth contends, will not be abstract, but concrete, not neutral, but affirmative, not formal, but substantive, not indefinite, but specific, not obscure, but well defined. It will not move from general anthropological possibilities to actualities, but from concrete actualities to the conditions for their possibility.
It will start from real human existence as first of all instantiated and defined by Jesus. It will ground itself in the concrete reality of our being toward God as conditioned by him. What Barth has to say about Brunner would also apply in some ways, I think, to Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, though certainly in rather different respects. To be sure, Brunner’s theology was more Christocentric, more Trinitarian, and more oriented toward the Word of God than anything to be found in either of the Niebuhrs.
Nevertheless, Reinhold Niebuhr drew heavily upon Brunner’s theological anthropology, and H. Richard Niebuhr arguably shared with Brunner a certain penchant for the abstract and the general over the concrete and particular. It is this latter tendency that worried Barth. Although the concept of freedom is finally the focus of what Barth has to say about Brunner’s anthropology, Barth first introduces a number of new ideas into the mix. These ideas are listed at one point as rationality, responsibility, personality, historicity, and capacity for decision.
For Barth, theological anthropology must understand what these ideas indicate, not as abstract possibilities, but as concrete actualities. Not as innate attributes, but as events in the history of God with humanity, and of humanity with God. They must therefore be understood not in a formal and neutral way, but rather in a way that is substantive and determined by grace. Here we must restrict ourselves to considering the concept of freedom.
Barth’s question to Brunner hinges on the distinction between formal freedom and substantive freedom. Recall that formal freedom would simply be freedom of choice. Substantive freedom, on the other hand, would be freedom as given and fulfilled by grace. It would be freedom as it is properly enacted in the course of the actual history in which humans have their being with God and toward God. Humans have their real being in the history of God’s gracious covenant as fulfilled, determined and fulfilled in Jesus.
Barth’s quarrel with Brunner is that his anthropology is ambiguous about the meaning of freedom. Indeed, it is finally more than ambiguous since it tilts toward neutrality and abstraction in its idea of freedom as merely freedom of choice. Real human existence for Barth is distinct, is existence as fulfilled in relationship to God. In this relationship, human freedom is not something neutral and formal. Sin in particular is not to be regarded as one of the possibilities given in human creatureliness. It is rather to be seen as a self contradiction of freedom that leads to destruction of creatureliness.
Unlike Brunner and the Niebuhrs, the operative distinction for Barth is not between the ideal and the real, but rather between the real and the unreal. Sin is a possibility alien to our true creaturely being, not one that is integral to it. It threatens to plunge the human creature into annihilation and nothingness.
By sinning, the creature loses its being towards God and plummets into a being towards death. Sin can only be described paradoxically as the impossible possibility and the unreal reality. For Barth however, the real is defined not by sin, but by grace. The human nose dive into sin is arrested by God’s intervention for the human race in Jesus. It is blocked and reversed in the history of God’s covenant as fulfilled in him.
The history of our deliverance is the history in which our real being as humans is to be found despite our sin. Our being as humans can be described only in concrete, actual and particular terms. It has no reality apart from the history fulfilled in Jesus, in which we are objectively included by grace, and which we are called to acknowledge and receive by faith. We may return to Barth’s six points one last time.
Here they are stated most explicitly with reference to the human Jesus. The ontological determination of humanity as grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. So long as we select any other starting point for our study, we shall reach only the phenomena of the human. We are condemned to abstractions, so long as our attention is riveted, as it were, on other human beings, or rather on humanity in general, as if we could learn about real human existence from a study of humanity in general, and in abstraction from the fact that one men among all others is the man Jesus. In this case, we miss the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity, and therefore the one possibility of discovering the ontological determination of human existence.
Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter. It has not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to pose and answer the question of the true being of human existence from any other angle. We remember who and what the man Jesus is. As we have seen, he is the one creaturely being in whose existence we have to do immediately and directly with the being of God also. Again, he is the creaturely being in whose existence God’s act of deliverance has taken place for all other human beings. He is the creaturely being in whom God, as the savior of all human beings, also reveals and affirms his own glory as the creator.
He is the creaturely being who as such embodies the sovereignty of God, or conversely, the sovereignty of God, which as such actualizes this creaturely being. He is the creaturely being whose existence consists in this fulfillment of the will of God. And finally, he is the creaturely being who as such not only exists from God and in God, but absolutely for God instead of for himself. Conclusion. Three quick lessons may be drawn from Barth’s discussion of theological anthropology.
Before he turns to examine alternative views of human nature, point one, whether naturalist, idealist, existentialist or neo-orthodox, Barth develops a set of normative criteria based on scriptural revelation. These criteria enable him to distinguish the phenomenal from the real, the abstract from the concrete, and the merely formal from the substantive. They also enable him to set the terms of discussion, rather than allowing competing views to assume that role, a move that he believes is always fatal. Two. Barth always engages in descriptive criticism before he turns to evaluative criticism.
He presents alternative views carefully and fairly before attempting an assessment. Sometimes he offers an internal critique based on conceptual problems inherent in the view he is considering. At other times, he develops an external critique based on his normative theological criteria. The criteria enable him to find points of value in alternative views, even when they are finally deficient.
Third, and finally, Barth thinks everything through from a center in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus Christ who determines what is real and what is merely phenomenal. It is he who conditions our lives as human beings. It is he in relation to whom we live and move and have our being. Our real existence as humans is our being for God, in and through him. This method of inquiry would seem to be highly suggestive for those after Barth who wish to pursue Christian scholarship in the 21st century. Thank you.
Audience Member: Thanks very much, George, for that really interesting account of Barth here. There’s one point on which I don’t really understand him, or understand him as you present him, and that has to do with freedom. So he seems, you say, as I understood you, that Barth thinks of freedom is something like the ability or the capacity to say yes to God. And then he thinks, but of course, people sometimes say no to God.
Now he thinks that’s not a manifestation of freedom. There he says something like, if you say no to God, freedom contradicts itself and hence just goes away. But why does he say a thing like that? I mean, human beings can say no to God, that is a possibility for them. Why would he say that in saying no to God, freedom contradicts itself and so it’s not a manifestation of freedom to say no to God? I should have thought God made us human beings with the capacity to say yes to him, but also unfortunately, from our point of view, we can also say no to him, and wouldn’t each be a manifestation of freedom?
Yeah, Barth doesn’t share the view that you have articulated. He thinks the last thing that Christians should do, Christian theologians, Christian philosophers, any Christian, is to try to make sin intelligible.
Audience Member: Make sin what?
Make sin intelligible. Sin has no right to exist. It has many necessary conditions, but no sufficient condition. It is itself a very dark mystery, and to try to make sin intelligible on the basis of some formal and neutral view of freedom, as freedom of choice, Barth believes, is disastrous. The only true freedom which Christians have, which creatures have as creatures, is the freedom to say yes by God, on the basis of grace alone.
How human beings ever turned against God and fell away from God is not something that can be explained, Barth believes, by an appeal to formal freedom, although, of course, formal freedom is in some sense, operative there, that’s why we have the distinction. This is a rather strong Augustinian view, of how grace and freedom and the sovereignty of grace are related. So that’s why Barth resorts to that paradoxical formulation, the impossible possibility.
Any non-paradoxical account, such as one that appeals to mere formal freedom, lands us in intolerable difficulties when we think about the goodness of God as the creator, and the goodness of the creature as created by grace, with the full ability to stay in a proper relationship with God. So the fall into sin is not necessary, it’s contingent, it’s unintelligible, and it’s self contradictory.
Audience Member: Thank you very much, I’ve always admired Karl Barth but never quite so much as right now, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with your presentation of him. I’m curious about how you see this method applying in other fields of scholarship. I think with theological anthropology, we’re looking at something which is very clearly Christian. But suppose that I’m a graduate student in law, let’s take an issue like the purpose of punishment. Why do we punish people for crimes? How would I do this sort of scholarship in that kind of question?
Well, I think that’s a good question, and it’s one that I want people to take away from my talk if they’re all sympathetic to the line of thought that I developed. But I think the first thing to do would be to establish a solid theological account of law, and this actually is something I find very difficult to figure out, I don’t have settled opinions on this, of the idea of punishment.
How punishment relates to, how punishment is the proper solution to dealing with a wrongdoer. Yeah, I can’t digress on this, I think in the New Testament, there are a variety of viewpoints at stake. There’s a royal viewpoint, there’s a cultic priestly viewpoint, there’s an apocalyptic viewpoint, and there’s a forensic legal viewpoint, and the forensic one is the only one that defines the consequences of sin in terms of punishment.
The others all in one way or another have to do with removal. Sin and death are defeated in the kingly office of Christ, Christus Victor. They’re expiated, and God is propitiated through cultic sacrifices. They’re utterly annihilated apocalyptically in the cross and resurrection of Christ. What function does punishment really fulfill? How do we make sense of punishment? What’s its inner rationality? I don’t say there is none, I just say I’m rather perplexed about that.
So I think the place to begin would be to try to give an account of how scripture understands punishment in relationship to the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, so I’d want to do it in a Christ centered way. And how punishment is related to the victory of God over sin, evil and death, the expiation of sin through the blood of Christ, and the utter abolition of sin and death, the utter banishing of them from the good creation, as we head towards the consummation of all things. What role does punishment play in there?
That’s what I would want to think about first. And then I would start, I mean, I actually bought a bunch of books by philosophers on the idea of punishment. You have some who uphold a retributive understanding of justice, some who don’t, distributive justice, maybe even restorative justice, it’s a really complex question, and I don’t have answers for it. But I would not go right from the study of law to this problem, but I would look at what philosophers have said, and theologians too, and then try to think about punishment on the base, you know, you could keep working it out as you went along.
But in principle, you would wanna have a well established theological account of punishment first, before you start making evaluative criticism about other views. I think that’s the procedure that would follow out of Barth’s view, as I set it forth.
Audience Member: George, I wish we had, well, the organizers had allowed you two hours. The first hour has been all about Barth’s discussing these other, the inadequacies of these other systems. What I would find really interesting is, David Kelsey’s book, “Eccentric Existence,” judging Barth’s anthropology to be theologically inadequate.
And among many, I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about this, among the many inadequacies, or a fair number of inadequacies that David would find in Barth, would be this one, that he is, David holds that the Triune God relates to us in three fundamental, distinct, fundamentally distinct, all interconnected ways. Creator, consummator, redeemer. Barth has virtually swallowed up a few words there, but swallowed up God’s relating to us as creator, into God’s relating to us as redeemer in Christ. And isn’t that an inadequacy?
Yeah, did people understand the question? This is a deep question, I think Barth is right over against Kelsey, I think it’s really not a good idea to break the historical sequence from creation through redemption to consummation, and make them three sort of free floating motifs. I think that is probably the least fortunate aspect of this great work that Kelsey has produced.
The very idea, the very title of his book, “Theocentric Existence,” owes something to Barth, because it has to do with the openness of the human creature to God. Kelsey doesn’t think things through, as Barth would wish, from a center in Christ, concretely. Why does Barth do that? Well, among the complexities here are the way in which Barth thinks that we’re chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world, and that there’s a sense in which, in principle, election precedes creation. So this goes back to all the controversies of the 17th century about infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism and so on, I mean, they are complicated questions, and Barth has a long discussion of that material in Volume Two, Part Two of the “Church Dogmatics” on the doctrine of God and the doctrine of election, and he finally tries to split the difference somehow.
He tries to find a position above and beyond both supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism while still taking a lot from each one of them. But it’s because of his… The supralapsarianism elements in the doctrine of election that he retains that lead him to think about creation from the standpoint of a center in Christ as the one whom we’re all elected from before the foundation of the world. Kelsey doesn’t say much of anything, if I recall, about pretemporal election, he just kind of side skirts that question.
And I have learned in conversation with some Eastern Orthodox theologians, in particular John Behr, who is the dean of Saint Vladimir’s in New York. Behr finds certain parallels in patristic writings to the kind of move that Barth makes, about thinking of creation itself from a Christological perspective. So you know, it’s not a standard view, it’s a kind of a minority report at best, it’s not unprecedented in the history of doctrine. And whether you accept it or not, strong reasons can be given for taking this view over against some other view.
And really, when we’re talking about matters like this, you know, Al said, predestination or election, it’s not something Christian philosophers think about much or should, well, I’m not sure whether they should or not, maybe they should, but in any case, these are difficult questions that there’s no church teaching on, there’s no dogma about these matters. The conversation continues, but there are trade offs no matter where you come down. Kelsey’s view, Kelsey’s fine to criticize Barth, you know, why not, but his own view has differing liabilities than the view that Barth has. And I at least, no surprise at the end of the day, would rather be saddled with Barth’s difficulties than Kelsey’s.
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