Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #3, The Leap of False Faith

I've been reproducingKarl Barth'smagnificent exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations in Church Dogmatics IV/1.

It is a particularly appropriate discussion for this season ofLent, for Jesus was not tempted to break the Law or commit a moral infraction. Instead, he was tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For Barth, if Christ had capitulated to any of the temptations, he would have abandoned God's redemptive mission. Jesus Christ had to persist in penitence in order to be "the Judge Judged in Our Place" (Barth's most concise description of the atonement proper).

In response to thefirst temptation, to turn stones into bread, Christ refused to use divine power as a "technical instrument" to preserve his own life. In response to the second temptation, to worship Satan in exchange for authority and power, Christ refused to sell redemption short by establishing a Christendom "ostensibly ruled by Jesus but secretly by Satan."

Which brings us to today's discussion:


The Third Temptation: The Leap of False Faith (CD IV/1, 262-4)


Barth begins by noting the climactic, surprising nature of this third temptation, given the temple setting and Satan's use of Scripture:


"The third temptation, according to Luke's account, is the most astonishing of all. The dignity of the setting, the temple of God in the holy city of Jerusalem, is obviously incomparably greater than the still secular dignity of that high mountain from which Jesus was shown and offered all the kingdoms of the world. It is of a piece that Satan now appears as an obviously pious man who

can even quote the Psalms of David, and he gains in the seriousness and weight of his approach. Above all, his suggestion-we can hardly describe it by the horrible word temptation-is quite different from everything that has preceded it.


The temptation at hand is different from the preceding one's in terms of its apparent piety! Isn't an act of "total confidence in God" appropriate for God's Son?


"It now consists in the demand to commit an act of supreme, unconditional, blind, absolute, total confidence in God-as was obviously supremely fitting for the Son of God. We might almost say, an act in the sense of and in line with the answers which Jesus Himself had given to the first two temptations, to live only by the Word of God, to serve and worship Him alone.


Indeed, it doesn't take much imagination to see the connection between Jesus' response to the first two temptations and what he is asked to do here. However, Barth points out that this is not designed to be a miraculous demonstration of Jesus' Messianic identity. Instead, it something even more nefarious:


"In the last decades we have become accustomed to think of the seeking and attaining of totalitarian dominion as the worst of all evils, as that which is specifically demonic. But if the climax in Luke is right, there is something even worse and just as demonic. It is not just a matter of a miraculous display to reveal the Messiahship of Jesus. It is often interpreted in this way, but by a reading into the text rather than out of it. The text itself makes no mention whatever of spectators. It is rather a question of the testing and proving, of the final assuring of His relationship to Godin foro conscientiae, in the solitariness of man with God. Jesus is to risk this headlong plunge with the certainty, and to confirm the certainty, that God and His angels are with Him and will keep Him.


Christ is asked to affirm, to certify on his own terms, the relationship between him and God. Barth then uses Schlatter to demonstrate the connections between this temptation and some familiar theological concepts:


"Schlatter has rather mischievously said that what we have here is what is so glibly described "in contemporary theological literature" as the "leap" of faith. It certainly does seem to be something very like "existence in transcendence," or "the leap into the unknown," or in Reformation language "justification by faith alone," justification in the sense that (in face of death and the last judgment, and in the hope that in trust in God these can be overcome) man presumes to take it into his own hands, to carry it through as the work of his own robust faith, and in that way to have a part in it and to be certain of it; just as Empedocles (we do not know exactly why, but seriously and with courage) finally flung himself into the smoking crater of Etna, which is supposed to have thrown out again only his sandals; just as on this very same rock of the temple, when it was stormed by the Romans in A.D. 70, the last of the high priests put themselves to death with their own hands, possibly in despair, possibly in the hope that there would be a supreme miracle at that last hour.


Such faith ceases to be true faith. The grasp for certainty destroys it from the inside out. And yet, because Christ will eventually take something similar to this leap of faith, Barth interprets it further:


"What would it have meant if Jesus had taken this leap? Note the remarkable closeness of the temptation to the way which Jesus did in fact tread. In this respect the Lucan order, in which this is the last and supreme temptation, is most edifying. He will "dare the leap into the abyss, the way to the cross, when the will of God leads Him to it" (Schlatter). But what would have led Him to it here would have been His own will to make use of God in His own favour. He would have experimented with God for His own supreme pleasure and satisfaction instead of taking the purpose of God seriously and subjecting Himself to His good pleasure and command. He would have tried triumphantly to maintain His lightness with God instead of persisting in penitence, instead of allowing God to be in the right against Him. In an act of supreme piety, in the work of a mystical enthusiasm, He would have betrayed the cause of God by making it His own cause, by using it to fulfill His own self-justification before God.


Notice the return of penitence as a theme, which is contrasted against a desire to turn faith in on itself, to experiment with God by demanding his acceptance of an apparently robust faith/piety:


"If He had given way to this last and supreme temptation He would have committed the supreme sin of tempting God Himself, i.e., under the appearance of this most robust faith in Him demanding that He should accept this Jesus who believes so robustly instead of sinful man by Him and in His person. He would have demanded that He should be the most false of all false gods, the god of the religious man. And in so doing He would Himself have withdrawn from the society of sinful men as whose Representative and Head He was ordained to live and act. He would have left in the lurch the world unreconciled with God. "Farewell, O world, for I am weary of thee."


"Look how strong my faith is, God!" What religious human being would not have taken this leap of false faith in Christ's place? Barth pulls no punches in unveiling the subtle power-plays against God often at work in the religious enterprise:


"But again we may ask, what other man, all things considered, would not actually have done this in His place? For Adamic man reaches his supreme form in religious self-sacrifice as the most perfect kind of self-glorification, in which God is in fact most completely impressed into the service of man, in which He is most completely denied under cover of the most complete acknowledgment of God and one's fellows.


Precisely in this way, Christ is unique. He is sinless in his repentance and obedience:


"Jesus did not do this. He rejected the supreme ecstasy and satisfaction of religion as the supreme form of sin. And in so doing He remained faithful to the baptism of John. He remained the One in whom God is well-pleased. He remained sinless. He remained in obedience. In our place He achieved the righteousness which had to be achieved in His person for the justification of us all and for the reconciliation of the world with God, the only righteousness that was necessary.


This is not the way we usually interpret the righteousness of God at work in the wilderness temptations! And yet, it seems to be the unavoidable conclusion, given that the Son of God had to face these extremely unique temptations to retain his role as the Perfect Penitent on his way to the Cross. Yet even here, we are granted a glimpse of hope, of the resurrection to come:


"We cannot ignore the negative form in which the righteousness of God appears in the event handed down in these passages. This is unavoidable, because we have to do with it in the wilderness, in the kingdom of demons, in the world unreconciled with God, and in conflict with that world. It is unavoidable because what we have here is a prefiguring of the passion. But in the passion, and in this prefiguring of it, the No of God is only the hard shell of the divine Yes, which in both cases is spoken in the righteous act of this one man. That this is the case is revealed at the conclusion of the accounts in Mark and Matthew by the mention of the angels who, when Satan had left Him, came and ministered unto Him. The great and glorious complement to this at the conclusion of the passion is the story of the resurrection."


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Stay tuned for an eventual
discussion of Barth's interpretation of the Garden of Gethsemane in light of these wilderness temptations.

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