To Be or Not To Be Religious: A Clarification of Karl Barth’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Divergence and Convergence Regarding Religion

Christian theologians Karl Barth (1886-1968) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) inherited a particular understanding of religion. In the broadly post-Kantian milieu, nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, and Adolf von Harnack defined religion essentially, anthropologically, and subjectively. That is, religion has a particular essence, and is in some manner inalienable from our humanity. The emphasis of this conception is on the experience of the religious subject, instead of the knowledge of religion’s object (let alone its reality).[1] It is this notion of religion that both Barth and Bonhoeffer challenged.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

However, despite the challenge they issued to their shared intellectual heritage, Barth and Bonhoeffer appear to diverge on both the definition and, therefore, the critique of religion – at least during the stage of Bonhoeffer’s 1943-45 imprisonment. While Barth unleashed a thoroughgoing theological critique of religion as faithlessness [Unglaube], he also insisted that humans were always and unavoidably religious.[2] Barth maintained that, despite the liabilities of religion, we cannot and should not be religionless because we are not truly godless.[3] Bonhoeffer, however, spoke in 1944-45 of a desirably “religionless Christianity.”[4] This, despite the fact that he ostensibly intended to carry forward Barth’s theological critique of religion – which was, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion, Barth’s “greatest merit” as a theologian.[5]

Whether Barth and Bonhoeffer share a common theological critique of religion has been subject to intense scholarly debate. To answer this question, we need first to ask another: What did Barth and Bonhoeffer mean by the term “religion”?  I propose that, although Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s definitions of religion diverge, their critiques of religion converge. Barth developed a systematic/dialectical concept of religion as self-justification, which the early Bonhoeffer inherited. However, in prison, Bonhoeffer developed a historical/psychological definition of religion as an inward and partial approach to human life. We must realize that these are two different definitions of religion, lest we compare apples to oranges, as it were, and conclude that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critiques of religion also diverged.

Once we realize the divergent definitions, we can see the convergent critiques of a particular essence of religion: the self-justifying projection of a deity – a projection which calls for theological analysis. That is, for both Barth and Bonhoeffer, at the heart of “religion” is the impulse to posit and make room for a “God,” in order to secure our own identities by means of and over against this deity. Although religion, thus understood, is inescapable, it is not constitutive of our humanity.

[[To continue reading, download the PDF: To Be or Not To Be Religious.]]


[1] See Christine Axt-Piscalar, “Liberal Theology in Germany,” in The Blackwell Companion to Nineteenth-Century Theology, ed. David Fergusson (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 468–85; Ernst Feil et al., “Religion,” in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 31–55; James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[2] See Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2006). This is a new translation of §17 in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 280–361. Henceforth, all references to the Church Dogmatics will appear in the following form: CD I/1, 1.

[3] CD IV/1, 483.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. John W. de Gruchy, trans. Isabel Best et al., DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 361–67.

[5] Ibid., 429.

30 Works on Karl Barth & Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Are There Others?

  1. ABROMEIT, Hans-Jürgen. Das Geheimnis Christi: Dietrich Bonhoeffers erfahrungsbezogene Christologie. Neukirchener Beiträge zur systemaschen Theologie 8. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991.
  2. BEINTKER, Michael. “Kontingenz und Gegenständlichkeit: Zu Bonhoeffers Barth-Kritik in ‘Akt und Sein.’” In Krisis und Gnade: Gesammelte Studien zu Karl Barth, edited by Stefan Holtmann and Peter Zocher, 29–54. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.
  3. BENKTSON, Benkt-Erik. Christus Und Die Religion: Der Religionsbegriff Bei Barth, Bonhoeffer Und Tillich. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/9. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1967.
  4. BETHGE, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Edited by Victoria J. Barnett. Revised. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1967.
  5. BOOMGAARDEN, Jürgen. Das Verständnis der Wirklichkeit: Dietrich Bonhoeffers systematische Theologie und ihr philosophischer Hintergrund in “Akt und Sein.” Gütersloh: Chr. Kaiser/Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1999.
  6. BURTNESS, James H. “As Though God Were Not Given: Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Finitum Capax Infiniti.” Dialog 19, no. 4 (1980): 249–55.
  7. DEJONGE, Michael P. Bonhoeffer’s Theological Formation: Berlin, Barth, and Protestant Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  8. EICHINGER, Franz. “Zwischen Transzendentalphilosophie und Ontologie: Zur kritisch-systematischen Standortbestimmung der Theologie beim frühen Bonhoeffer.” In Vernunftfähiger – vernunftbedürftiger Glaube: Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag von Johann Reikerstorfer-, edited by Kurt Appel, Wolfgang Treitler, and Peter Zeillinger, 65–86. Religion – Kultur – Recht 3. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005.
  9. FEIL, Ernst. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Translated by Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  10. GODSEY, John D. “Barth and Bonhoeffer: The Basic Difference.” Quarterly Review 7, no. 1 (1987): 9–27.
  11. ———. The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960.
  12. GREEN, Clifford J. Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality. Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  13. ———. “Trinity and Christology in Bonhoeffer and Barth.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 1–2 (2006): 1–22.
  14. GREGGS, Tom. Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth. London; New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  15. ———. “The Influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Karl Barth.” In Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence and Impact of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought, edited by Matthew Kirkpatrick. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.
  16. KAMPHUIS, Barend. Boven En Beneden: Het Uitgangspunt van de Christologie En de Problematiek van de Openbaring Nagegaan Aan de Hand van de Ontwikkelingen Bij Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer En Wolfhart Pannenberg. Kampen: Kok, 1999.
  17. KARTTUNEN, Tomi. Die Polyphonie Der Wirklichkeit: Erkenntnistheorie Und Ontologie in Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. University of Joensuu Publications in Theology 11. Joensuu: University of Joensuu, 2004.
  18. KRÖTKE, Wolf. Barmen – Barth – Bonhoeffer: Beiträge Zu Einer Zeitgemäßen Christozentrischen Theologie. Unio Und Confessio 26. Bielefeld: Luther-Verlag, 2009.
  19. LEHMANN, Paul L. “The Concreteness of Theology: Reflections on the Conversation between Barth and Bonhoeffer.” In Footnotes to a Theology: The Karl Barth Colloquium of 1972, edited by Martin Rumscheidt, 53–76. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1974.
  20. MARSH, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  21. MAYER, Rainer. Christuswirklichkeit: Grundlagen, Entwicklungen Und Konsequenzen Der Theologie Dietrich Bonhoeffers. Arbeiten Zur Theologie, II/15. Stuttgart: Calwer, 1969.
  22. PANGRITZ, Andreas. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: ‘Within, Not Outside, the Barthian Movement.’” In Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, edited by Peter Frick, 29:245–82. Religion in Philosophy and Theology. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  23. ———. Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.
  24. PUFFER, Matthew. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth.” In Karl Barth in Conversation, edited by W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon, 46–62. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014.
  25. REUTER, Hans-Richard. “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition.” In Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, 162–83. DBWE 2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
  26. SHERMAN, Franklin. “Act and Being.” In The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought, edited by Martin E. Marty, 83–111. New York: Association Press, 1962.
  27. TIETZ-STEIDING, Christiane. Bonhoeffers Kritik Der Verkrümmten Vernunft: Eine Erkenntnistheoretische Untersuchung. Beiträge Zur Historischen Theologie 12. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.
  28. WITVLIET, J. Theo. “Bonhoeffer’s Dialoog Met Karl Barth.” Kerk En Theologie 16 (1965): 301–21.
  29. WOELFEL, James W. Bonhoeffer’s Theology: Classical and Revolutionary. Nashville: Abingdon, 1970.
  30. WÜSTENBERG, Ralf K. “Philosophical Influences on Bonhoeffer’s ‘Religionless Christianity.’” In Bonhoeffer and Continental Thought: Cruciform Philosophy, edited by Brian Gregor and Jens Zimmermann, 137–55. Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Press, 2009.

Barth, Bonhoeffer, & The Theological Critique of Religion: My Reading List This Fall

This semester — my final one at Beeson Divinity School — I’m doing a directed study with Piotr Malysz on the topic of “Religion” in Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The impetus for this study was a discussion question in Dr. Malysz’s Spring 2015 20th Century History and Doctrine course. On March 24, our third class period on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our second question for discussion read as follows:

“What is religion for Bonhoeffer? What are its anthropological manifestations (in Bonhoeffer’s day)? In what ways is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of religion similar to, and different from, that of Barth?”

Having taken Malysz’s Fall 2014 seminar on Karl Barth, I was intrigued by the question. We only spent a few minutes on the topic in class, focusing on how Bonhoeffer’s definition of religion focuses on a “necessary God of the gaps,” but I wrote down the following questions for further consideration:

  1. Is there a tension in how Barth and Bonhoeffer describe “religion,” or an underlying harmony?
  2. Barth speaks of boundary, Bonhoeffer of finding God at the center. Are they getting at the same thing?
  3. What is the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s God as “stopgap”?

It has been over a year since that class discussion, but these questions are still on my mind. I’m convinced that Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological critiques of religion can provide resources for the Church today.

In addition to that class discussion question, Tom Greggs‘ Theology Against Religion: Constructive Dialogues with Bonhoeffer and Barth [affiliate links throughout] has been an enormous catalyst for this project.

After graduating from Beeson in December, I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in historical/systematic theology. If all goes well, I’d like to expand my Barth/Bonhoeffer project this semester into a doctoral project – perhaps focusing on the relationship between Barth’s “No-God” and Bonhoeffer’s “God-as-stopgap,” or on the relationship between Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretation[s] of Scripture and their theological critiques of religion.

My Reading List

Anyway, with the help of Michael DeJonge, Clifford Green, Garrett Green, Tom Greggs, and Paul Dafydd Jones, I have developed the following reading list for this semester’s directed study:

Primary Sources: 

Secondary Sources:

If you’re interested in Barth and Bonhoeffer, I’m interested in starting up a conversation! Based on what I’ve written above, do you:

Have any suggestions on how to improve this reading list?

Have any suggestions on who might be interested in supervising doctoral work in this area?

If so, let me know in the comments!

Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!

Yesterday, I asked you to join the Church if you, like me, are frustrated with the Church. The strongest critiques of religion come from within, not without, the Christian community. Plus, your frustrations are likely shared by many others within the Church!

However, it’s not enough to point the finger at others from your pew, instead of doing so from the public square. Yes, that’s a good first step, but another one is necessary.

You – and I – need to be willing to take ownership for the Church’s failures.

Continue reading “Frustrated with Church? You’re the Problem!”

What does it mean to be human?

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

A clue to the answer lies in the asking of the question, for this act presupposes both a [human] subject and object in a dialectic of self-transcendence.

As Robert Jenson notes, “in asking this question, we somehow take up a vantage outside ourselves to make ourselves our own objects, get beyond ourselves to look back at ourselves.”1 The mystery of human existence is “that I am the subject of the object I am and the object of the subject I am.”2

But what do I see when I look at myself? At others? At God?

On our own, this self-transcendence leaves us humans at the mercy of our own divided desires – searching for definition. But with God, we receive our true humanity in the midst of divine discourse – finding significance in God’s recognition that we are true human beings. The failures of the former approach highlight the successes of the latter.


What Do I See When I Look at Myself?

One driven by desire.

Based upon human behavior, Sigmund Freud rightly notes that the primary human desire is for happiness, which involves the avoidance of the pain and the pursuit of pleasure.3

However, I quickly discover that my own body, the external world, and human relationships oppose my pleasure-drive.4 These oppositions help me to distinguish myself from that which is not me. For example, I am not the ground which hurts when I fall upon it. I am not my parents who fail to provide me with food the moment I desire it. I am not the external frustration and pain which I encounter. I am the one with the frustrated desires.

Despite the necessity of unfulfilled desires for human development in Freud’s framework, he recognized the unavoidable tensions which human beings experience as the result of two competing drives: Eros and Death.5

The former, Eros, is synonymous with libido, the desire for objects for the sake of preservation; while the latter, Death, leads to guilt when internalized, and aggression towards others.6

What Do I See When I Look at Others?

Ones who both inform and frustrate my desires.

Now, on one hand, this is necessary and beneficial for development. As a child, I learn to desire to eat and speak like my parents.

However, as Rene Girard observes, when these imitative or mimetic desires are frustrated, they lead to rivalries.7 When I desire something my neighbor possesses, and my neighbor prevents me from obtaining it, my desire for the object increases. Yet so does my neighbor’s desire, which produces tension between us.

Therefore, imitation distinguishes human desires from animal instincts for natural needs, yet simultaneously causes the conflicts of human existence. Mimetic desire “is responsible for the best and the worst in us, for what lowers us below the animal level as well as what elevates us above it.”8

Without a goal or telos to distinguish between right and wrong desires, I can only take cues from my neighbor and hope for a relative peace. Soon, “choice itself becomes the only thing that is inherently good,” as “all desires, good and bad, melt into the one overriding imperative to consume.”9

When desire is turned in on itself, the pursuit of things (and not even the things themselves!) becomes my temporary respite from the restlessness of my existence. Since I cannot define myself, I go shopping instead.10 And yet, I cannot shop forever.

What Do I See When I Look at God?

If human self-transcendence in search of definition is an enclosed circle, the most I will ever see is a personified, projected “god” who is the opposite of my weaknesses and the abstracted absolute of my strengths.

Why even bother positing such a “God”? Because I live my life as a narrative awaiting a conclusion – death – which, although it grants meaning to the plot, prevents me, its main actor, from ascertaining its final significance!

As Jenson dryly observes, “if the conclusion of our play, hidden as we play our temporal stories in the impenetrable future of death, is nevertheless already enacted, then it can only be enacted in something like the mind of an author, standing above the play and holding what in the play are past and future in a superior present, in the ‘all-at-once-now’ of eternity.”11

And so I trade places with the indefinable God of past theological formulations, defining him against the contours of my own mysterious existence, which I expect him to justify and underwrite.12 Yet if I worship a mere projection, I am left on my own.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

To be at the mercy of our own divided, conflicted, and frustrated desires.

Karl Barth best describes the failures of self-definition:

“[T]he enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ (to justify our existence) is avenged by its success. […] Our conduct becomes governed precisely by what we desire. By a strict inevitability we reach the goal we have set before us. […] And now there is no higher power to protect [humans] from what they have set on high.”13

My idols (whether myself, my neighbor, or my “God”) exhaust and finally crush me. The attempt to establish my own identity isolates me from myself, whom I do not know; my neighbor, whom I love to hate; my “God,” whom I project; and God, whom I ignore.


Who am I? What do I see when I look at God?

To solve the enigma of my own existence, I must reverse the latter question and expand the former.

What Does God See When He Looks at Me?

As Barth rightly inveighs, God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him.”14 Therefore, humans “ought not to be independently what they are in dependence upon God.”15

And because of this, I cannot define myself on my own, but merely describe the characteristics and tensions of my life. My self-transcendence has value only when it transcends the self in the context of a divine discourse.

As Eberhard Jüngel claims, “it is only as the human ‘I’ is addressed in such a way that it is simultaneously claimed by something outside itself, that one is really speaking about the human ‘I’ as such.”16

I am told who I am by God, and thereby enabled to exist in proper relationship to God, to others, and to myself – the very relations that I jeopardize in self-definition.17

Barth rightly insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place: the encounter between God and humanity. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return.”18

In Jenson’s terms, humans are unique in that God relates to us as “his conversational counterpart,”19 and this divine address to us “is the Son, who is the human person Jesus of Nazareth.”20

Therefore, as Barth puts it, “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus.”21 To be human is to be with God in the person of Christ.22

God Sets Us Free, for Himself and for Others

If true, the grounding of humanity in divine discourse is a profound liberation, for “our acts [and our desires] cannot determine our being. Only the one who determines being and non-being determines our being.”23

And the Incarnation decisively reassures us that God recognizes us as human beings. Indeed, “the truly human person is the person who is definitively recognized by God, and in that way one who cannot be discredited by anything or anyone, not even by him- or herself.”24

Once I see that the real God has, in Christ, broken through the veneer of my projected “God” to secure my humanity, I no longer have to drive myself mad trying to secure my humanity. I am freed to worship the true God, enabled to respond to his address in prayer and worship.25

I am also liberated to relate to my neighbor, not in conflict as a model/rival, but in love as a fellow human.

This is the ineluctable result of God’s incarnational address in Jesus Christ, for “to receive myself from God and be directed toward him is therefore to receive myself from and be directed toward a fellow human. And it is to receive myself from and be directed toward a human person who precisely to be himself brings others with him.”26

Because he provides the standard by which human desires are evaluated, Christ, who exists completely for God and for others, calls and enables me to reorient my desires toward human flourishing, “the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God.”27

I can now recognize the dignity of each fellow human, not as a means to my distorted ends, but as one whom God loves, one for whom Christ died.

As Martin Luther concluded:

“as Christians we do not live in ourselves but in Christ and the neighbor. […] As Christians, we live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith we are caught up beyond ourselves into God. Likewise, through love we descend beneath ourselves through love to serve our neighbor.”28

This is self-transcendence as it was meant to be. Divine discourse encompasses God, the self, and the other, grounding both anthropology and ethics.

(For an overview of what I believe, check out my essay: “Theology in Outline.”)


What does it mean to be human? On my own, I am unable to answer the question.

In my efforts to secure my own existence, I can only describe my incoherent estate at the mercy of my divided and frustrated desires. I am a mystery to myself, I love to hate my neighbor, and I project a “God” to comfort myself in light of death.

Yet with God, I am enabled to receive my humanity in the midst of divine discourse, and to respond to his address to me in Christ through prayer, worship, and love of neighbor.


1 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2: The Works of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

2 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 64.

3 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010), 27.

4 Freud, 28.

5 Freud, 103.

6 Freud, 94-103.

7 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), 8-13.

8 Girard, 16.

9 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 13.

10 Cavanaugh, 34-5.

11 Robert W. Jenson, A Religion Against Itself (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967), 18.

12 Eberhard Jüngel, “On Becoming Truly Human,” in Theological Essays II, ed. J.B. Webster, trans. Arnold Neufeld-Fast and J.B. Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 223.

13 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 51.

14 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010), II/1: 285. Henceforth all references to the Dogmatics will be in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”

15 Barth, Romans, 247.

16 Jüngel, 220.

17 Jüngel, 221.

18 CD II/1, 284.

19 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 95.

20 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

21 CD III/2, 132.

22 CD III/2, 135.

23 Jüngel, 236.

24 Jüngel, 239.

25 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 58-9.

26 Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 2, 73.

27 Cavanaugh, viii.

28 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, eds. Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, 3 rd. ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2012), 423.


Disunity in the Church? Absurd!

Presented at Southeast ETS 2015.


Joshua P. Steele


Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church1 and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. Two excerpts from the Barthian corpus legitimize this connection. First, in his prepared remarks to the 1937 Second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, Karl Barth maintained that

we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.2


Second, almost two decades later, Barth described as “impossible” that which he had earlier declared “unthinkable”3 – that certain Christian communities should “stand in relation to other groups of equally Christian communities in an attitude more or less of exclusion,” by claiming that “their confession and preaching and theology are mutually contradictory” (CD IV/1, 676).4 It is furthermore impossible “that the adherents of the one should be able to work together with those of the other in every possible secular cause, but not to pray together, not to preach and hear the Word of God together, not to keep the Lord’s Supper together” (CD IV/1, 676). Barth insists that, “in view of the being of the community as the body of Christ [, the disunity of the church] is – ontologically, we can say – quite impossible; it is possible only as sin is possible” (CD IV/1, 677; emphasis added).

In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I will then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)


In considering human sin, we must begin with what it means to be human. Although various attempts have been made to define humanity in the spheres of natural science, idealist ethics, existentialist philosophy, and theistic anthropology, Barth claims that these are merely descriptions of the phenomena, and not the essence, of humanity (CD III/2, 71-132).

Against these provisional anthropologies, Barth insists that true humanity – true human personality – is only found in one place, the encounter between God and man, and not in the reaches or intricacies of human emotion, intellect, or will. Therefore, on his own, “man is not a person, but becomes one on the basis that he is loved by God and can love God in return” (CD II/1, 284). This is because God “is not the personified but the personifying person – the person on the basis of whose prior existence alone we can speak (hypothetically) of other persons different from Him” (CD II/1, 285). Most importantly, “the One, the person, whom we really know as a human person, is the person of Jesus Christ, and even this is in fact the person of God the Son, in which humanity, without being or having itself a person, is caught up into fellowship with the personality of God” (CD II/1, 286). Christology determines anthropology, and not the other way around (CD I/1, 131).

Christological Anthropology

Although Barth grounds the definition of humanity in Christology, he is always careful to preserve a qualitative distinction between Christ’s humanity and humanity in general:

Christology is not anthropology. We cannot expect, therefore, to find directly in others the humanity of Jesus, and therefore His fellow-humanity, His being for man, and therefore that final and supreme determination, the image of God. Jesus is man for His fellows, and therefore the image of God, in a way which others cannot even approach, just as they cannot be for God in the sense that He is. He alone is the Son of God, and therefore His humanity alone can be described as the being of an I which is wholly from and to the fellow-human Thou, and therefore a genuine I. (CD III/2, 222)


Instead of framing this distinction between Christ and other humans in terms of a vague moral perfection, Barth portrays Christ as distinctly more human than humans in general – existing both for God and for other humans in a way which is unparalleled. Christ’s existence for other humans is “the direct correlative of His being for God,” and this reveals a correspondence between the existence and love of God ad intra – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the existence and love of God ad extrato humanity (CD III/2, 220).

Humanity only exists within this Christological correspondence, this analogia relationis (CD III/2, 218-20, 225-6). Specifically, Barth grounds the humanity of individual humans in the notion of a shared sphere with Christ: “the ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus” (CD III/2, 132). Therefore, “to be a man is to be with God,” for no matter what else each individual is, “he is on the basis of the fact that he is with Jesus and therefore with God” (CD III/2, 135). Because the incarnation is the fullest expression of the Creator’s summons to the creature into relationship, it is the ground of the human creature’s being and personality – distinguishing humanity from the other non-human spheres which Christ did not inhabit (CD III/2, 137).

Sin is the Impossible Possibility

However, the incarnation is also the source of sin’s absurdity. Because humanity “is not without God, but with God,” true “Godlessness, is not, therefore, a possibility, but an ontological impossibility for man” (CD III/2, 136). When it comes to sin, Barth simultaneously removes it from the definition of what it means to be human, and emphasizes its absurdity as part of human existence – for, although sin undeniably exists, “our being does not include but excludes sin. To be in sin, in godlessness, is a mode of being contrary to our humanity” (CD III/2, 136).

Nevertheless, to make some provisional sense of sin’s existence, Barth claims that the distinction between Creator and creation necessarily entails the possibility of creaturely conflict with God. As opposed to the inherent impossibility of a conflict between God and himself ad intra ,5 “it is a mark of created being as distinct from divine that in it conflict with God and therefore mortal conflict with itself is not ruled out, but is a definite possibility even if it is only the impossible possibility, the possibility of self-annulment and therefore its own destruction” (CD II/1, 503). Positively, this reinforces the creature’s identity as simply that: a creature, owing its existence to God. In fact, “creature freed from the possibility of falling away would not really be living as a creature. It could only be a second God – and as no second God exists, it could only be God Himself” (CD II/1, 503). This distinction does not necessitate actual sin, however, for “sin is when the creature avails itself of this impossible possibility in opposition to God and to the meaning of its own existence” (CD II/1, 503; emphasis added). And, given the Christological and theological basis of human existence, it makes no sense for a human to actualize this possibility, for “if he denies God, he denies himself” and “chooses his own impossibility” (CD III/2, 136). In Barth’s evaluation, this one absurd decision underlies all actions which are usually considered sins, for “every offence in which godlessness can express itself, e.g., unbelief and idolatry, doubt and indifference to God, is as such, both in its theoretical and practical forms, and offence with which man burdens, obscures, and corrupts himself” (CD III/2, 136).

For Barth, therefore, sin is not merely moral – it is both ontological and incomprehensible: the inherent contradiction of a nothingness which opposes God as the very ground of all existence and reality (CD II/1, 532; III/3, 351). The value of this definition is its absurdity. Responding to the challenge (from Berkouwer) that defining sin as “nothingness,” an “impossible possibility,” or an “ontological impossibility” seems “to suggest or imply a denial of the reality of evil,” Barth maintains that “it is of a piece with the nature of evil that if we could explain how it may have reality it would not be evil. Nor are we really thinking of evil if we think we can explain this” (CD IV/3, 177). His subsequent clarification is especially instructive for this discussion:

When I speak of nothingness, I cannot mean that evil is nothing, that it does not exist, or that it has no reality. I mean that it exists only in the negativity proper to it in its relationship to God and decisively in God’s relationship of repudiation to it. It does not exist as God does, nor as His creatures, amongst which it is not to be numbered. It has no basis for its being. It has no right to the existence which to our sorrow we cannot deny to it. Its existence, significance and reality are not distinguished by any value nor positive strength. The nature underlying its existence and activity is perversion. Its right to be and to express itself is simply that of wrong. In this sense it is nothingness. (CD IV/3, 178)


Similarly, the phrase “impossible possibility” is designed to reflect “the absurd possibility of the absurd,” and “ontological impossibility” to state that “the nature of evil as the negation negated by God disqualifies its being, and therefore its undeniable existence, as impossible, meaningless, illegitimate, valueless and without foundation” (CD IV/3, 178). Easily understood definitions of evil are perhaps evil themselves, obfuscating sin’s inherent incomprehensibility.

Given the definition of humanity and the absurdity of sin, there is a tension between humanity’s Christological being/essence and its sinful act/form. As Barth puts it, “perhaps the fundamental mistake in all erroneous thinking of man about himself is that he tries to equate himself with God and therefore to proceed on the assumption that he can regard himself as the presupposition of his own being” (CD III/2, 151). However, if there is one presupposition allowed in Barth’s epistemological non-foundationalism, it is the anthropological presupposition of God and his Word as the ground of human being – divine election as the frontier beyond which we cannot look for a human being “not yet summoned” (CD III/2, 151). Just as there is no God behind God, there is no humanity beyond the divine summons, beyond existence in the same sphere inhabited by Christ. It is therefore unthinkable that humanity should try to be the source of its own existence, and yet this is precisely that which occurs.

For Barth, this absurdity takes on the character of improper judgment: “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge” (CD IV/1, 220). Although “not all men commit all sins,” everyone commits “this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins” (CD IV/1, 220). Self-justification and the damnation of the others characterize sin as “the arrogance in which man wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge,” wanting “to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty” (CD IV/1, 231). Sinful humanity tries to ground its own existence by carving-out its own improper position as judge.

Atonement’s Intensification of Sin’s Absurdity

Yet sin becomes an even further absurdity in light of the atonement. In fact, the tension between humanity’s Christological essence and its sinful form is a driving force in the doctrine of reconciliation, for “the incompatibility of the existence of Jesus Christ with us and us with Him, the impossibility of the co-existence of His divine-human actuality and action and our sinfully human being and activity” must be addressed before we can rest assured “that Jesus Christ belongs to us and we belong to Him, that His cause is our cause and our cause is His” (CD IV/1, 348). As an answer to this predicament, “the event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position [of improper human judgment], but destroys it” (CD IV/1, 232).

This displacement of humanity by Christ is the source of both its abasement and liberation, the former because, although self-justification always results in a verdict of my own innocence, “He who has acted there as Judge will also judge me, and He and not I will judge others” (CD IV/1, 233). However, it is also the source of freedom from the wearisome and “intolerable nuisance to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right” (CD IV/1, 233). With relevance to our subsequent ecclesiological discussion, Barth adds that it is similarly

an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. (CD IV/1, 233-4)


Christ liberates us from the tiresome task we were never meant to complete.

Furthermore, in taking our improper place as judge, he also takes away from us the just sentence we merited by taking up that position in the first place. Christ “takes from us our own evil case, taking our place and burdening himself with it,” and “it [therefore] ceases to be our sin” (CD IV/1, 236). Due to this exchange, he “is the unrighteous amongst those who can no longer be so because He was and is for them” (CD IV/1, 237), because he has delivered “sinful man and sin in His own person to the non-being which was properly theirs” (CD IV/1, 253). Christ destroys human faithlessness by taking it to its absurd conclusion: annihilation.

Because of this, humans “have no other ground to do evil now that the ground has been cut out from under our feet” (CD IV/1, 243). Considering Christ’s work both for us and in us, Barth maintains that “unfaithfulness to God is a disallowed possibility which can no longer be actualised. It is seen to be the wholly impossible possibility on which we can no longer count, which we see to be eliminated and taken from us by God’s omnipotent contradiction set up in us” (CD IV/4, 22). In light of the doctrine of reconciliation, repentance from sin is the only viable human response. Only by ignoring Christ and his accomplished atonement, only by denying the source of our own existence can we presume to have the freedom to sin, to reject God, and to be our own judges.


Humanity’s Christological definition results in sin as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. The church’s Christological definition similarly results in disunity as an absurdity which is intensified by the atonement. As we began with what it means to be human, so we begin with what it means to be the church.

Just as Barth resists an anthropology that is based upon the mere phenomena of humanity, he resists an ecclesiology that is based upon the mere phenomena of the church. Although the church is “a phenomenon of world history which can be grasped in historical and psychological and sociological terms like any other” (CD IV/1, 652), what the church actually is, “the character, the truth of its existence in time and space, is not a matter of a general but a very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654). And just as grasping the Christological essence of humanity allows for a true appreciation of humanity’s historical form,6 understanding the Christological essence of the church allows the community to “act confidently on the level of its phenomenal being” (CD IV/1, 660). This includes ecumenical pursuits.

Christological Ecclesiology

For Barth, Christology determines both anthropology and ecclesiology, and there is therefore no “abandonment of the sphere of the [Apostles’] creed” when the transition is made from the second to the third article.7 He offers a conceptual map at this juncture:

The Christology is like a vertical line meeting a horizontal. The doctrine of the sin of man is the horizontal line as such. The doctrine of justification is the intersection of the horizontal line by the vertical. The remaining doctrine, that of the Church and of faith, is again the horizontal line, but this time seen as intersected by the vertical. The vertical line is the atoning work of God in Jesus Christ. The horizontal is the object of that work; man and humanity. (CD IV/1, 643)


There is therefore a Chalcedonian pattern, 8 not only to Christ’s person, but also to his work. This unavoidably includes the Holy Spirit’s work, awakening and forming the church, which is itself the subjective realization of the eternal election of Jesus Christ (CD IV/1, 667).9 In Barth’s terms: “the one reality of the atonement has both an objective and a subjective side in so far as – we cannot separate but we must not confuse the two – it is both a divine act and offer and also an active human participation in it” (CD IV/1, 643; emphasis added).

For this reason, “the history which we consider when we speak of the Christian community and Christian faith is enclosed and exemplified in the history of Jesus Christ” (CD IV/1, 644). Barth takes seriously the New Testament language of the church as Christ’s “body,” and claims that “the community is the earthly-historical form of existence of Jesus Christ himself” (CD IV/1, 661). As Christ is the head of his body, the church, he is the ground of its particular existence. Just as the incarnation grounds human existence, it determines ecclesiological existence. And because Christology and ecclesiology are inseparably intertwined, the Chalcedonian pattern which unites the church with the person of Christ also applies to the relationship between the church’s being and its act – between its invisible essence and its visible form.

Disunity is the Impossible Possibility

This union, however, parallels the aforementioned tension between humanity’s essence and its form, given its Christological definition and the absurdity of sin. As Bender notes, “Barth’s dialectical understanding of the church as both an invisible and visible reality, an event of the Holy Spirit and a historical entity, leads naturally to his dialectical understanding of the marks of the church: the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”10 Within the context of the first mark, there is a tension between the church’s being/essence as one, and its act/form as many.

Credo unam ecclesiam(I believe one church) entails that there is “only one Church. This means that it belongs to the being of the community to be a unity in the plurality of its members, i.e., of the individual believers assembled in it, and to be a simple unity, not having a second or third unity of the same kind side by side with it” (CD IV/1, 668). This follows not just a Christological pattern, but a Trinitarian one as well, for

In all the riches of His divine being the God who reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ is One. Jesus Christ, elected the Head of all men and as such their Representative who includes them all in Himself in His risen and crucified body is One. The Holy Spirit in the fulness and diversity of His gifts is One. In the same way His community as the gathering of the men who know and confess Him can only be one. (CD IV/1, 668)


This is the source of the church’s unity, in the midst of legitimate plurality, between the visible and invisible church and between the ecclesia militans and the ecclesia triumphans (CD IV/1, 669).11 The only other legitimate church plurality is the existence of “geographically separated and therefore different congregations.” (CD IV/1, 671). If the church is to exist “in essential accordance with its commission it has to take place in many localities,” then this necessarily entails a differentiation which corresponds to “its environment and history and language and customs and ways of life and thought as conditioned by the different localities, and also to its personal composition” (CD IV/1, 671). Because it is grounded in God’s Triune unity, the church’s unity does not necessitate homogeneity, and Barth grants that each local congregation should exist within the particularities of its own context.

However, this cannot entail any sort of basic or essential difference between one local congregation and another, for “each in its own place can only be the one community beside which there are no others. Each in and for itself and with its local characteristics can only be the whole, as others are in their own locality” (CD IV/1, 672). No other legitimate plurality within the church exists, for “any other plurality means the co-existence of Churches which are genuinely divided” – churches that, at best will kindly “tolerate one another as believing differently, and at worst they will fight against one another, mutually excluding each other with some definiteness and force” (CD IV/1, 675).

And yet this is exactly the scandalous reality of the church. Although there are myriad reasons for ecclesiological divisions throughout the ages, Barth’s distillation of myriad human sins to improper judgment as “the essence and root of all other sins ” helps to make sense of the scandal of the fragmented church. Just as humans demonstrate the sinful tension between their essence and form by improperly justifying themselves and damning others, the church demonstrates the sinful tension between its unified being and its divided act when individual Christian communities justify their own existence over against the existence of other Christian communities. Because this is the case, Barth is even willing to claim that the church’s formal division has essential implications: “in its visible and also in its invisible being, in its form and also in its essence, the one community of Jesus Christ is not one” (CD IV/1, 679). While it is expected that every Christian community would claim an individual encounter with its Lord which justifies its own existence, this can quickly become a perverse insistence that the “Yes” of Christ has been exclusively spoken to them. This “claim to be identical with the one Church in contrast to the others, and in this sense to be the only Church” entails a delegitimation, whether implicit or explicit, of every other community’s claim to stand under the “Yes” of Christ (CD IV/1, 683-4). The local congregation, instead of existing in harmony with and as a manifestation of the one church, becomes a ghetto by restricting the cosmic boundaries of Christ’s church to its own four walls.

While there may be legitimate human explanations for such divisions, there are no acceptable theological ones, Barth claims, for a “plurality of Churches in this sense means a plurality of lords, a plurality of spirits, a plurality of gods” – a practical denial of the church’s theoretical confession of the singular unity of the Triune God (CD IV/1, 675). Just as it is absurd for humans to oppose God as the very ground of their existence, it is equally absurd for the church to divide in denial of the unity of God.

Atonement’s Intensification of Disunity’s Absurdity

Just as the atonement intensifies the anthropological absurdity of sin, it intensifies the ecclesiological absurdity of disunity. As Barth puts it, the previously-described exclusive claim of a Christian community to be the only church “has been dashed out of hand by the One who is the unity of the Church” (CD IV/1, 684). In making an end of the nothingness of human sin, Christ has also delivered up disunity to destruction, for “in Him it was all humanity in its corruption and lostness, its earthly-historical existence under the determination of the fall, which was judged and executed and destroyed, and in that way liberated for a new determination, for its being as a new humanity” (CD IV/1, 663). The unity which is necessarily implied in Barth’s Christological description of election is realized in the church. Members of the community “were one in God’s election (Eph 1:4), were and are one in the fulfilment of it on Golgotha, are one in the power of His resurrection, one in Jesus Christ…His body together in their unity and totality” (CD IV/1, 664). Most succinctly, “there is only one Christ, and therefore there is only one body of Christ” (CD IV/1, 666). Disunity in the church is therefore absurd, because it denies the definition of the church as Christ’s body, and the reality of reconciliation as Christ’s work.


I have endeavored to demonstrate the significance of Karl Barth’s remark that disunity in the church “is only possible as sin is possible,” by showing the structural parallels between his anthropological claim that sin is ontological impossibility and the claim that disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. Yet the value of this correlation for ecumenism is not readily apparent until it is situated within Barth’s own ecumenical vision.

For Karl Barth, the Chalcedonian pattern of both Christology and ecclesiology applies when addressing the tension between the church’s essence and form.12 On one hand, the solution to ecclesiological disunity must not entail a docetic escapism which unifies the church at the expense of its earthly-historical form. No matter how frustrated ecumenists become, they must not abandon their ecclesiological traditions to create a formless Christianity whose only members are themselves. Because the church’s external divisions result from essential, inward fractures, “neither individuals nor the whole Church can overcome it by a flight to the invisible, but only by a healing of both its visible and its invisible hurt” (CD IV/1, 678). On the other hand, because “what is demanded is the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ, not the externally satisfying co-existence and co-operation of different religious societies,” Barth is suspicious of ebionitic approaches to church unity which approach the unification of the church as the unification of any other human communities, looking for the least common denominators upon which to build pragmatic associations (CD IV/1, 678).

Instead, Barth maintains that the pursuit of church unity must be an indirect pursuit – not an end in itself, but an unavoidable consequence of each Christian community sincerely pursuing the call of its Lord, and each individual doing so from a sober and humble loyalty to one’s particular confession (CD IV/1, 679).13 Barth asserts that “if only each church will take itself seriously, ‘itself and Christ within it,’ then even if there be no talk of union movements in it, even if there be no change at all in its order and its way of worship, the one Church would be in that single church a present reality and visible.”14 Because Christ, not Christians, is the ground of the church’s unity, an individual community can exhibit the unity of the church, even within a fractured ecclesiological landscape, “if in its ordinances it is zealous for Christ.”15

And yet this is the most difficult ecumenism of all, for it entails rigorous self-examination within each community, which must be willing to ask itself constantly whether it has legitimate reasons to exist as a particular, differentiated Christian community, or whether it should redefine (or abandon) its boundaries for the sake of church unity (CD IV/1, 680-1). I believe the correlation between sin as ontological impossibility and disunity as ecclesiological impossibility is necessary precisely at this point in the ecumenical equation, for each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation. Just as sinful humanity denies the ground of its own existence, so also a divided and divisive church denies its identity as Christ’s body and the reality of the atonement. Unless the disunity of Christ’s body is seen as an unacceptable scandal, the schisms will remain, and each community’s confession, “credo unam ecclesiam,” will mean nothing more than “we believe ourselves.”

1 As Bender notes, “the referent for Barth’s term [whether ‘community’ or ‘church’] must be determined by context,” whether it refers to the local congregation, the institution, or the universal body of Christ. See Kimlyn Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (Hampshire/Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2005; repr. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 13. I have followed Bender’s approach in that, throughout this study, “church” is only capitalized in quotations, when Barth himself did so.
2 Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1936; repr., 2005), 22-3. Emphasis added.
3 Note the similarities: “It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory…. that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God’s word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.” Barth, The Church and the Churches, 24.
4 The reference is to Vol. IV, pt. 1 of Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. (eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; 5 vols in 14 parts; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-77; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010). All references to the Church Dogmatics appear parenthetically in the following form: “CD I/1, 1.”
5 “It is a mark of the divine nature as distinct from that of the creature that in it a conflict with Himself is not merely ruled out, but is inherently impossible. If this were not so, if there did not exist perfect, original and ultimate peace between the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit, God would not be God. Any God in conflict with Himself is bound to be a false God” CD II/1, 503.
6 Consider Barth’s positive, yet provisional, appraisal of the phenomena-based anthropologies: “In this way and in this sense, then, a knowledge of man which is non-theological but genuine is not only possible but basically justified and necessary even from the standpoint of theological anthropology…. It cannot, of course, lead us to the knowledge of real man. But it may proceed from or presuppose a knowledge of real man” CD III/2, 200-2.
7 “It is significant that at this point, the transition from the second to the third article, the word credo is specifically mentioned. It tells us that we can know the man who belongs to Jesus Christ only in faith.” CD IV/1, 644.
8 Bender credits George Hunsinger with identifying this theme, based upon Barth’s own description of the ecumenical councils’ doctrinal decisions as “guiding lines for an understanding of [Christ’s] existence and action, not to be used, as they have been used, as stones for the construction of an abstract doctrine of His ‘person’” (CD IV/1, 127). See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 3.
9 As Bender helpfully notes, “there is, then, not only a direct Christological analogy between Christ and the community, but an indirect Trinitarian and pneumatological one, in that, as the Spirit binds together the Father and the Son (in the Trinity); and as the Spirit binds together the Word and flesh of Christ (in the incarnation); so also the Holy Spirit binds together Christ and the community.” Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 205. However, in touching so lightly upon the work of the Holy Spirit in this paper, I share Barth’s exclamatory sentiment: “How gladly we would hear and know and say something more, something more precise, something more palpable concerning the way in which the work of the Holy Spirit is done!” (CD IV/1, 649). Furthermore, despite the brief mention of election, it is significant that Barth grounds the unity between Christology and ecclesiology, not in the event of Pentecost, preaching, or the sacraments, but in the election of Jesus Christ from all eternity. The church “became His body, they became its members, in the fulfillment of their eternal election in His death on the cross of Golgotha, proclaimed in His resurrection from the dead” (CD IV/1, 667).
10 Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 181.
11 It is also the source of the unity between Israel and the Church, which Barth describes as the “two forms and aspects (CD II, 2, § 34, 1) of the one inseparable community in which Jesus Christ has His earthly-historical form of existence, by which He is attested to the whole world, by which the whole world is summoned to faith in Him.” CD IV/1, 669-70.
12 I am indebted to Bender’s helpful description of Barth’s critical use of a docetic/ebionitic framework. See Bender, Christological Ecclesiology, 7.
13 See also Barth, The Church and the Churches, 51-2.
14 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 55.
15 Barth, The Church and the Churches, 56.
Posted via blogwith

Karl Barth on the Wilderness Temptations: #1, Stones into Bread

Karl Barth's exegesis of Christ's wilderness temptations isperenniallyinspiring, but particularly poignant during this season of Lent.

What does it mean for Christ to be the Perfect Penitent? And how should this influence our own repentance?

The following series of quotations comes from a lengthy small-print section in CD IV/1, 259-73 (§ 59 The Obedience of the Son of God; 2. The Judge Judged in Our Place). There Barth walks through the three wilderness temptations before masterfully connecting them to Christ's experience in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On page 261, the discussion of the temptations begins:

The First Temptation: Stones into Bread (CD IV/1, 261-2)

"In both Evangelists [Matthew and Luke] the first Satanic suggestion is that after the forty days of hunger He should change the stones of the wilderness into bread in the power of His divine Sonship by His Word.

For Barth, it is important that Christ is not tempted in the wilderness to any sort of moral violations of the Law. Instead, he is tempted to abandon his role as the Perfect Penitent. For this is the form and content of Jesus' sinlessness — not a vague moral perfection, but specifically his obedience and repentance.

"What would it have meant if Jesus had yielded? He would have used the power of God which He undoubtedly had like a technical instrument placed at His disposal to save and maintain His own life. He would then have stepped out of the series of sinners in which He placed Himself in His baptism in Jordan. Of His own will He would have abandoned the role of the One who fasts and repents for sinners. He would have broken off His fasting and repentance in the fulness of divine power and with the help of God, but without consulting the will and commandment of God, because in the last resort His primary will was to live. He would have refused to give Himself unreservedly to be the one great sinner who allows that God is in the right, to set His hopes for the redemption and maintenance of His life only on the Word of God, in the establishment of which He was engaged in this self-offering. He would have refused to be willing to live only by this Word and promise of God, and therefore to continue to hunger.

From a "human" standpoint, however, choosing self-preservation over starvation makes perfect sense!

"In so doing He would, of course, only have done what in His place and with His powers all other men would certainly have done. From the standpoint of all other men He would only have acted reasonably and rightly. "Rabbi, eat" is what His disciples later said to Him (Jn. 431) quite reasonably and in all innocence. But then He would not have made it His meat "to do the will of him that sent him, and tofinish his work" (Jn. 434).

However, Christ the God-Human is more human and less sinful than us in his refusal to abandon obedience and repentance. For this reason, his repentance was perfect — a repentance unto redemption.

"Instead of acting for all other men and in their place, He would have left them in the lurch at the very moment when He had made their cause His own. Jesus withstood this temptation. He persisted in obedience, in penitence, in fasting. He hungered in confidence in the promise of manna with which the same God had once fed the fathers in the wilderness after He had allowed them to hunger (Deut. 83). He willed to live only by that which the Word of God creates, and therefore as one of the sinners who have no hope apart from God, as the Head and King of this people. His decision was, therefore, a different one from that which all other men would have taken in His place, and in that way it was the righteousness which He achieved in their stead."

Stay tuned for Karl Barth's exegesis of the second temptation, for Christ to fall down and worship Satan.

Posted via blogwith

Presenting on Karl Barth at 2015 Southeastern ETS

I just received the news today that my student paper submission for the 2015 Southeast Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society has been accepted!

My theme lately has been to write on Karl Barth and the unity of the Church. At last year's Regional ETS (hosted by my seminary, Beeson Divinity School), I presented an edited version of my undergraduate thesis: Reconciliation and the Lack Thereof: Atonement, Ecclesiology, and the Unity of God. Click the link if you'd like to read the PDF. Here's the thesis:

"This essay endeavors to demonstrate the theological and exegetical legitimacy of viewing the atonement as the act in which the one God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his uniqueness and simplicity to bear on our sinful, divisive condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation."

That paper was a blast to write, because I got to take the doctoral work of my professor (and friend) Adam J. Johnson (God's Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth, now available in paperback!) and "build" an atonement theory based upon the divine perfection of oneness/unity. I hope to expand on that work, drawing upon other theologians than Johnson and Barth, expanding my exegetical arguments for the atonement theory's legitimacy, considering practical implications for ecumenical efforts, etc.

This year, I have submitted a slightly edited version of my final paper fora seminar on the Theology of Karl Barth taught by Piotr Malysz last Fall at Beeson. The Barthian analogy is taking Barth's definition of sin as ontological impossibility — the impossible possibility — and transferring it to thought and speech about the Church. It's a relatively simple idea, with profound ramifications (in my humble opinion) for ecumenical efforts. Here's the abstract:

"Just as sin is ontological impossibility, disunity is ecclesiological impossibility. The tension between the undeniable reality of sin and Karl Barth’s theological definition of sin as an impossible possibility parallels the tension between the obvious reality of a fractured church and the theological definition of the church as the one body of the one Christ. In order to describe in Barthian terms what it means for church disunity to be possible only as sin is possible, the purpose of this paper is to correlate Barth’s anthropological concept of sin as ontological impossibility with its parallel ecclesiological concept: disunity as ecclesiological impossibility. I then conclude by locating this discussion within Barth’s own ecumenical vision – with an eye toward informing and motivating further ecumenical efforts."

I believe this is an important topic to discuss because, as I put it, "each community’s self-examination and pursuit of Christ’s unifying summons will only be as rigorous as its understanding of the absurdity of church fragmentation." That is, we're only going to put effort into being unified as Christ's Church if we have a robust understanding of just how ABSURD division is within the Body of Christ!

If you're interested in this topic, but you can't make it to Lithonia, GA on March 27-28, feel free to read my paper here:

Posted via blogwith