I think Karl Barth missed the (pastoral) point of Romans

I’m scheduled to give a paper on Karl Barth’s reading of Romans 9:30–10:21 in Der Römerbrief at the 2019 Barth Graduate Student Colloquium at Princeton in August.

Now, of course, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to give a paper at the colloquium. However, in hindsight, I don’t know why I thought giving a paper on chapter 10 of Barth’s Römerbrief was a good idea!

Granted, I don’t have to solve all of the exegetical issues (of which there are many) in Romans 9:30–10:21. I just have to make some sense of what Barth thought about the passage.

But, it turns out (surprise, surprise), it’s difficult to make sense of what Barth thought about Romans 9–11!

Barth on Romans 9–11 in Der Römerbrief ##

If you haven’t read Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, here are his chapter headings:

  • The Ninth Chapter: The Tribulation of the Church
    • 9:1–5. Solidarity
    • 9:6–13. The God of Jacob
    • 9:14–29. The God of Esau
  • The Tenth Chapter: The Guilt of the Church
    • 9:30–10:4. The KRISIS of Knowledge
    • 10:4–21. The Light in the Darkness
  • The Eleventh Chapter: The Hope of the Church
    • 11:1–10. The Oneness of God
    • 11:11–24. A Word to Those Without
    • 11:25–36. The Goal

Barth then proceeds to lump all of Romans 12–15 into one chapter, “The Great Disturbance.” And Romans 14:1–15:13 is relegated to a 25-page subsection entitled “The KRISIS of Human Freedom and Detachment.”

Now, if you’ve read chapters 9–11 of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, you might be wondering: “Where did Israel go?” Great question!

Barth makes the move from Israel to Church without slowing down. Commenting on Romans 9:1–5, after giving a summary of what he’s said about the gospel of Jesus Christ in Romans 1–8, Barth writes:

And now, in contrast with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is thrust upon our attention—Israel, the Church, the world of religion as it appears in history, and, we hasten to add, Israel in its purest, truest, and most powerful aspect. We are not here concerned with some debased from of religion, but with the ideal and perfect Church. (Romans, 332).

Now, as someone who cut his teeth on the book of Romans in the wake of N.T. Wright, I’m pretty sure that my jaw hit the ground the first time I read that.

But perhaps I should have seen it coming! After all, earlier, commenting on “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” in Romans 1:16–17, Barth wrote:

There is no man who ought not to believe or who cannot believe. Neither the Jew nor the Greek is disenfranchised from the Gospel. . . . The Jew, the religious and ecclesiastical man, is, it is true, FIRST summoned to make the choice; this is because he stands quite normally on the frontier of this world and at the point were the line of intersection by the new dimensional plane (1:4) must be veritably seen (2:17–20; 3:1, 2; 9:4, 5; 10:14, 15). But the advantage of the Jew provides him with no precedence. The problem ‘Religion or Irreligion’—not to speak of the problem ‘Church or World’—is no longer a fundamental problem. (Romans, 40).

Hmmm. So “the Jew” and “Israel” are both ciphers for “the religious and ecclesiastical man,” “the world of religion as it appears in history.”

Isn’t that supersessionism?

Without fail, Barth’s equation of “Israel” with “the Church,” built upon his apparent evacuation of “Jew” and “Israel” of all Jewish and Israelite content, raises the specter of “supersessionism,” the view that the Church supersedes, replaces, or supplants Israel.

After all, in a straightforward sense, Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 is supersessionist, because he literally replaces “Israel” with “Church” in his exposition!

Despite this, it’s become increasingly common to at least mitigate the accusation of supersessionism against Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11.

Let me highlight a few of these defenses of Barth.

Katherine Sonderegger, That Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew: Karl Barth’s “Doctrine of Israel” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).

In the chapter on Der Römerbrief in her examination of Barth’s doctrine of Israel, Sonderegger argues that Barth had a robust notion of solidarity between Israel and the Church, and that, thanks to his use of the figures of Prophet and Pharisee at least, “Barth does not discard history, empty it, or make it of no use or value” (42).

R. Kendall Soulen, “Karl Barth and the Future of the God of Israel,” Pro Ecclesia 6, no. 4 (1997): 413–28.

Nevertheless, Barth is perhaps guilty of at least a kind of supersessionism in his exposition of Romans 9:30–10:21 in Romans. Soulen has has provided a helpful diagnostic framework of three different kinds of supersessionism: economic, punitive, and structural.

In his own words,

  1. economic supersessionism “holds that from the beginning, God’s purpose for carnal Israel in the economy of salvation was destined to be fulfilled and completed by Christ’s coming, after which its place was to be taken by the church” (415).
  2. Punitive supersessionism “holds that God has angrily abrogated the covenant with Israel because of Israel’s de facto rejection of the gospel” (416). And
  3. structural supersessionism “refers to the fact that the classical model” (of the canon’s coherence, that is), “taken as a whole, tends to render the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping doctrinal conclusions about how God engages creation in universal and enduring ways” (417).

Overall, Soulen interprets Barth as (1) repudiating punitive and structural supersessionism while (2) supporting and defending “economic supersessionism.”

Douglas K. Harink, “Barth’s Apocalyptic Exegesis and the Question of Israel in Römerbrief, Chapters 9-11,” Toronto Journal of Theology 25, no. 1 (2009): 5–18.

In his 2009 article, Douglas Harink argues that

“Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 cannot be regarded as supersessionist, precisely because he rigorously subverts any historicist or heilsgeschichtlich readings of the relation between Israel and the Church. In this respect Barth’s dialectical reading follows Paul’s apocalyptic understanding of history, even though it must be corrected at points with a better reading of Paul” (5).

Critiquing Barth, Harink writes:

“In his “consistent eschatology” of the radical Aufhebung and Begründung of all things created, Barth yields to a temptation that always hovers on the edges of apocalyptic theology, perhaps even Paul’s apocalyptic theology: the temptation to see God’s apocalypse in Jesus Christ as dissolving all creaturely being in its delimited, differentiated character (including God’s creature-by-promise-and-election, Israel), rather than as destroying the powers that set creaturely beings at enmity with one another and in bondage to decay” (16).

Wesley Hill, “The Church as Israel and Israel as the Church: An Examination of Karl Barth’s Exegesis of Romans 9:1-5 in the Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics 2/2,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6, no. 1 (2012): 139–58.

Here is how Wesley Hill assessed Barth’s exegesis of Romans 9:1–5:

“This is not to claim that Barth’s exegesis amounts to a repetition of Paul’s “original intention”; it is, rather, simply to suggest that Paul’s distinctions between Jew and Gentile, and unbelieving Israel and believers in Jesus, are destabilized and reconfigured in Rom 9-11 in such a way that Barth may be considered to be on Pauline ground when he presses and probes these various group descriptors—for example, “Jew,” “Israel,” “Gentile”— to see where and how they may expand to make room for fresh hermeneutical appropriation and application. A case may be made for seeing Barth’s exegesis, despite its weaknesses, as theologizing with, not against, Paul” (149).

I agree with this assessment, and also with Hill’s modification of Soulen’s charge of “economic supersessionism.” Barth is actually closer to structural supersessionism in the 1922 edition of his Romans commentary.

As Hill puts it, “Israel simply does not feature in any central way in Barth’s exposition of what by common consent is Paul’s most sustained, penetrating discussion of Israel’s role in God’s salvific purposes” (152n63). This sounds a lot like the “Israel-forgetfulness” that Soulen mentions in his description of structural supersessionism (“Karl Barth and Future of the God of Israel,” 417).

Susannah Ticciati, “The Future of Biblical Israel: How Should Christians Read Romans 9-11 Today?,” Biblical Interpretation 25, no. 4–5 (November 15, 2017): 497–518.

Susannah Ticciati suggests that Barth was right to put the Church in the place of “hardened Israel” in his Römerbrief reading of Romans 9–11. Yet, he was guilty of forgetting Israel, “eliding Jews and Judaism from discussion of the text.”

She writes that:

“if the church today is going to understand itself as (part of) Israel, claiming the name Israel for itself (even if not exclusively), then it will not be long, or at least should not be long, before it recognises that it has itself become hardened Israel, no longer the marginal gathering around the apostles of Christ, but a well-established institution which cannot escape the kind of systemic corruption for which the prophets called Israel of old to account. This is one of the radical insights of Karl Barth’s Romans, in which Barth equates the Israel lamented by Paul in Romans 9 with ‘the Church’. I follow Barth in this insight here, but with the hindsight provided by the historical paradigm shifts summarised above, and therefore without eliding Jews and Judaism from discussion of the text, as Barth does in his commentary” (513).

In her explanation (and justification) for Barth’s equation of the Church with unbelieving Israel, Ticciati writes:

“The Church is ranged with all other human possibilities (under the banner of ‘religion’) as that which God brings radically in question. To be sure, it is the canal where the living waters of revelation have previously flowed; but it is an empty canal which can neither compel nor constrain them. Thus ‘belief in Christ’, as a divine possibility, is not something the Church can lay claim to, either as such or by contrast with other human bodies. In Barth’s words (commenting on Rom 11.20): ‘But who is a believer? and who an unbeliever? Belief and unbelief are established only in God. For us they are unobservable, incomprehensible, and uncertain.’ ¶ It is only a small step to the recognition that the Church, as a mere human possibility – far from being the ‘us’ of Rom 9.24 – can only be hardened Israel” (515).

Beverly Gaventa, “The Finality of the Gospel: Barth’s Römerbrief on Romans 9-11,” 2019 Karl Barth Conference.

As it turns out, Beverly Gaventa just gave a talk on Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 at the 2019 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton.

Here’s her talk:

One of Gaventa’s central claims, then, is that “even with its serious flaws, Barth’s treatment of Romans 9-11 has a contribution to make to our understanding of Paul.”

On the one hand, then, Gaventa thinks that Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 is dangerous, because it leaves the door open for supersessionism, and wrong, because it “violates the plain sense of the text.”

However, on the other hand, Gaventa argues that Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11:

  1. Flows naturally from his stance on human solidarity given the qualitative difference between God and humanity as explained in his reading of Romans 1–8.
  2. Is a pastoral/prophetic indictment of Christian arrogance.
  3. Coheres with other aspects of Paul’s letter.

What “other aspects” does Barth’s reading cohere with? Gaventa highlights some of “Paul’s ‘unsettling’ exegetical moves” in Romans 9–11, such as his use of Deuteronomy 30 to speak, not of the “commandment,” but of “Jesus” and “the word of faith.” Or his use of Hosea to refer to the Gentiles, instead of Israel.

Furthermore, she points out that, throughout the letter, Paul appears to draw lines between human groups, but he then proceeds to erase those lines.

For example, Paul plays on Jewish stereotypes of Gentiles in the second half of chapter 1, before springing a rhetorical trap in chapter 2! Gaventa also notes how Paul handles Abraham vis-a-vis the question of circumcision in chapter 4. Paul then puts everyone together in Adam and in Christ in chapter 5.

What if the biggest problem with Barth’s reading isn’t supersessionism?

I think that Sonderegger, Soulen, Harink, Hill, Ticciati, and Gaventa are all on the right track. It’s too easy to accuse Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 in the Romans commentary of supersessionism simpliciter.

Yes, it was a mistake for Barth not to consider the particularities of Israel. This was a mistake that he began to address in his readings of Romans 9–11 in his Shorter Commentary and in the Church Dogmatics. But, as Soulen points out (and as Ticciati also argues in her recent chapter on Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 in the Dogmatics), Barth never fully abandoned some form of supersessionism. For Barth, Israel and the Church always go together as two forms of the one people of God, but there’s an irreversible and, in some sense, asymmetric relationship between the two. The relationship between Israel and the Church moves from judgment to mercy, from hearing to believing, from passing to coming.

However (and here’s my contribution to this discussion), I don’t think that the (potential) supersessionism of reading “the Church” for “Israel” is the biggest problem with Barth’s Römerbrief reading of Romans 9–11.

Instead, I think the biggest problem with Barth’s reading is that he equated the “Gentiles” that Paul mentions in Romans 9:30 (and again in 11:11ff.) with the “world.”

Barth thereby fails to recognize that Paul is speaking to/about Gentile Christians. He misses Paul’s pastoral focus on Jew-Gentile tensions within the Church, and instead focuses on the relationship between the Church and the world.

Here is an illustration of the problematic equation of “Gentiles” in Romans 9–11 with the “world.” Commenting on Romans 9:30 (Τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν; ὅτι ἔθνη τὰ μὴ διώκοντα δικαιοσύνην κατέλαβεν δικαιοσύνην, δικαιοσύνην δὲ τὴν ἐκ πίστεως), Barth writes:

The KRISIS appears here first. We have to recognize that, side by side with those who have knowledge and who are saints and children of God, there exist ignorant and unholy men of the world. However the Church be defined, it is encompassed by Gentiles and strangers, who do not comprehend, do not communicate with it, and do not follow after righteousness” (363).

Taking this notion to its conclusion, Barth writes:

And yet, suppose it be allowed and granted that there is also salus extra ecclesiam, that both Esau and Jacob can be elect, what becomes of the backbone of the Church, what confidence can it have in its own mission? Does the Roman Church, in advancing its own well – known claims, do more than protect the proper interests of every Church? What becomes of Israel’s following after righteousness, of its zeal for God, if it be granted that the goal has been reached by those ‘others’ who take no part in this zealous pursuit? Can the Church fail to recognize the reproach which is implicit in God’s undertaking to do, alongside of, and apart from, the Church, the work with which it has been entrusted, and which is the justification of its very existence? What attitude does the Church adopt to this reproach?” (365).

We can leave the admittedly complicated question of salus extra ecclesiam aside for the moment. The main problem with Barth’s exegesis here is that this is precisely not what Paul is saying!

The “Gentiles” that have attained to the righteousness of faith are not some kind of “anonymous Christians” outside the Church. They are, instead, within the Church. When Paul writes in Romans 11:13 “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” he is not referring, as Barth claims, to the dialectical relationship between the Church and the world, but rather to the predominantly Gentile Christians in Rome!

In this respect, the main problem with Barth’s reading of Romans 9:30–10:21 is that his use of these verses to critique the Church plausibly relies on Paul’s admission that he is speaking to “you Gentiles” in 11:13. That is, the Gentiles among his Christian audience at Rome. On this basis, Barth therefore at least has room to consider what role Paul’s critique of Israel in 9:30–10:21 should play for a Christian Gentile audience.

However, Barth’s equation of “Gentiles” with the “world” prevents me from being able to justify Barth’s exegesis in this way! He’s effectively sawing-off the exegetical branch on which he’s seated! The only way that his reading of Romans 9:30–10:21 as the guilt of the Church passes exegetical muster here is if he can appeal to Paul’s clarification to Gentile Christians in Romans 11 that they are no better than Israel.

Barth is focusing so much on the solidarity—the dialectical identity—of Israel and the Church that he is missing Paul’s focus on differentiation within the Church. While Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18–3:20 supports Barth’s insistence that no human group has soteriological superiority over any other, Paul is more nuanced in Romans 9–11. He is doing something different, not merely repeating what he said in 1:18–3:20.

Barth writes that “However the Church be defined, it is encompassed by Gentiles and strangers, who do not comprehend, do not communicate with it, and do not follow after righteousness” (363; German original reads: “Die Kirche, heiße sie wie sie wolle, hat neben sich die Heiden, die Fremden, die Nicht-Verstehenden, die Unbeteiligten, die der Gerechtigkeit nicht Nachjagenden”).

That might be true, but that’s not the Paul is referring to ethne in this passage. The Gentiles are Christians!

Now, Barth is absolutely correct to interpret Paul as arguing for (1) unity between Jews and Gentiles on the basis of (2) the judgment and the salvation of God. However, at least here in the Romans commentary, I believe that Barth is overlooking the fact that, for Paul and the Roman Christians, differences between Jews and Gentiles were still significant, even if they were not meant to be ultimate/final.

If you miss the Jew-Gentile tensions within the Church, you miss the (pastoral) point of Romans!

I agree with the thrust of Scot McKnight’s argument, in his recent book, Reading Romans Backward: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire, that “Romans 12–16…reveals the pastoral context of Romans.”

(Here’s a webinar where Scot introduces his work.)

That’s why I think it’s so lamentable that Barth puts Romans 12:1–15:13 into a single chapter in the Romans commentary.

And the only thing that Barth can squeeze out of Romans 14–15 is self-critique—that we should read Romans against ourselves. That’s great, and it’s not foreign to Paul in Romans (as Gaventa points out), but it’s not exactly what Paul is up to in Romans 14–15!

Paul has very specific tensions in mind within the Christian community (communities) in Rome—tensions that had to do with Christians’ attitudes toward Jewish Law and traditions. And I think that McKnight is right to claim that Paul is speaking to the “strong” and the “weak” of Romans 14–15 throughout the entire letter!

Barth claims that “Truth and Mercy hold together Jew and Gentile, Church and World” (Romans, 526), but he misses the fact that, in both Romans 9–11 and 14–15, Paul is focusing on holding together Jew and Gentile within the Church!

The “strong” and the “weak” in Romans 14–15 were not necessarily “Gentiles” and “Jews” respectively. As Thielman notes, “the situation in mid first-century Rome was more complex than this simple division allows” (Romans, ZECNT, Zondervan, 2018, p. 629). Nevertheless, the identification of the “strong” and the “weak” almost undoubtedly had to do with Jewish customs, and not, as Barth seems to claim, merely with the extent to which one had grasped Pauline theology and the KRISIS of God.

Barth seems to have missed the pastoral point of Romans.

Barth claimed, in the preface to Hoskyns’ English translation of Romans, that, “in writing this book, I set out neither to compose a free fantasia upon the theme of religion, nor to evolve a philosophy of it. My sole aim was to interpret Scripture” (ix).

It is unfair, therefore, to critique Barth’s exposition of Romans 9:30–10:21 in chapter ten of Römerbrief by simply claiming that Barth was intending to carry forward his theological critique of religion, and not interested in explaining what Paul had to say.

However, it is entirely fair to critique Barth’s work by holding him accountable to the text of Romans 9:30–10:21. He himself said so.

“Proper criticism of my book can be concerned only with the interpretation of the text of the Epistle. . . . My book deals with one issue, and with one issue only. Did Paul think and speak in general and in detail in the manner in which I have interpreted him as thinking and speaking? Or did he think and speak altogether differently? The fourth and last request I have to make of my English speaking readers is therefore quite direct. Of my friendly readers I ask that they should take nothing and believe nothing from me which they are not of themselves persuaded stands within the meaning of what Paul wrote. Of my unfriendly readers I ask that they should not reject as an unreasonable opinion of my own what, in fact, Paul himself propounded. The purpose of this book neither was nor is to delight or to annoy its readers by setting out a New Theology. The purpose was and is to direct them to Holy Scripture, to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, in order that, whether they be delighted or annoyed, whether they are ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’, they may at least be brought face to face with the subject-matter of the Scriptures” (Romans, ix–x).

Especially when it comes to Barth’s equation of “Gentiles” in Romans 9–11 with the “world,” I do not think that Paul thought and spoke “in general and in detail” as Barth interpreted him.

By Joshua Steele

Software engineer using "dead" languages to help the living. Learn more at joshuapsteele.com.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.