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The Autonomy Theme in the Church Dogmatics: Karl Barth and His Critics

Elizabeth A. Alister E. Anselm K. Molnar, Incarnation and Resurrection : toward a contemporary understanding. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article.

Get access to the full version of this article. View access options below. You previously purchased this article through ReadCube. Institutional Login. Log in to Wiley Online Library. Purchase Instant Access. View Preview. Learn more Check out. Hence the apparent dilemma found by Barth in developing his own Christian doctrine of creation.

We have already noted that in the order of presentation Barth develops his doctrine of election prior to his doctrine of creation. This is known in Jesus Christ, to whom all Scripture testifies. This means that also the story of creation cannot be read independently of the one purpose of God known in Jesus Christ. Creation has no purpose other than election. Hence it embodies no structure or actuality that points to some other truth about God than the one truth of his election of man in Jesus Christ. God does manifest himself in his creation. The Bible tells us this and the Christian, therefore, knows it.

But what God manifests in his creation is nothing other than Jesus Christ! Therefore, apart from Jesus Christ there is no knowledge of God in creation, neither correct nor distorted. The understanding of its limitations and need has provided the context for understanding the work of Jesus Christ. Thus Christology has depended upon anthropology. Only in this case could Adam, hence natural man as such, be understood as having reality in himself.

But just this view is what Barth has rejected in his doctrine of creation. The purpose and meaning, and hence the actuality of creation, is election and nothing else. In so far as man is not elect, he lacks the purpose, meaning, and actuality of creation. He lacks, therefore, created nature as such and can be understood only as a shadowy anticipation of his own reality. Elect man, and hence man as the creature that he really is, is seen only in Jesus Christ.

This means that the usual order of theological inquiry is sharply reversed. Barth does not speak of Adam and Christ but of Christ and Adam! The doctrine of creation and created man, like the doctrine of election and elected man, has no other object than Jesus Christ. It is characteristic of Barth that he is nor satisfied with this view on the basis of its harmony with his general position. He affirms it explicitly on the basis of exegesis of Paul. Christ and Adam is an exegesis of Romans, ch. Although Barth can in this way subsume all doctrines about man under the one doctrine of Jesus Christ, he must face the fact of evil.

He must face it, not primarily because of its empirical factuality, but because of its importance in the Bible. If creation can be understood as having its meaning in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ must nevertheless be understood as victor over evil.

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Hence evil must have some status for Barth. The problem is, of course, that Barth must give some account of the source or origin of evil. It would seem, then, that evil must be somehow antecedent to creation as an eternal enemy of God. But this would imply a dualism that Barth knows to be wholly un-Biblical. Barth faces here a traditional theological dilemma. How can the reality of evil be reconciled with the omnipotence of God?

Barth equates evil with nothingness, The German term "das Nichtige" has no adequate English translation. Since the translators of the Church Dogmatics have decided to use "nothingness" as the translation, confusion will be minimized if we conform. Yet it is precisely this nothingness which, as the enemy of God, is overcome in Jesus Christ! Clearly, nothingness is a very active and powerful nothingness -- and not, as nothingness, simply negligible. Nothingness, so far as it is, cannot be understood either as an eternal reality or as a created entity.

Yet it has such importance that it is overcome by God only in Jesus Christ. This last statement is the key to the understanding of nothingness. It is that which is overcome by God in Jesus Christ. It is that possibility which is rejected by God in creation. Thus its being is both negative and dependent upon God, but nevertheless, as that to which God says No, still real and potent. Church Dogmatics III. From this scheme we may omit completely any reference to plants and animals and heavenly bodies and the like -- the nonhuman creation -- since this is of little importance.

Any such scheme must begin with God as Trinity, creator, reconciler, and redeemer of man -- equally God in his hiddenness and in his revealedness. At the opposite pole we must set nothingness. Nothingness is real and exists, but its reality and existence are sui generis. That is, nothingness does not share in the kind of reality that God has or imparts to his creation. Nothingness has its reality only as that which is rejected by God, therefore, as that which is negated and overcome.

Between God and nothingness we must place man, the creature. But in man, too, we find a parallel duality of the elect and the rejected. The same kind of duality characterizes angels and demons, although in the case of the demons their lack of existence and their identity with nothingness are virtually complete. See Weber, op. The elect are those who have become as creatures what the creature really is.

That is, God has presented himself to the elect in such a way that they acknowledge his Lordship and their creaturehood. Their existence and reality consist in the Word that God has spoken to them. The rejected also have their peculiar reality and existence. They remain creatures even in their denial of their creaturehood. But their nothingness is not sheer nonexistence, and it is not to be equated with the reality of nothingness itself.

His reality can be seen only in the creaturehood manifested in the elect and denied in him. Even the denial is visible only in and for the elect. Even this highly negative account of the status of the rejected, however, does not really explain how Barth can deny to natural or rejected man a special place in Christian thinking. Barth must do so if he is to maintain clearly his distinction from Brunner.

Brunner agrees that natural man cannot understand himself, that, therefore, there can be no doctrine of natural man as creature except from the point of view of faith. At that point a Christian doctrine of fallen man becomes possible and even mandatory. On the basis of what has just been said there seems no reason for Barth to deny this possibility. But Barth does deny to the discussion of natural man any proper province in Christian theology.

Neither nothingness nor rejected man becomes an independent topic for theology. The kind of reality they have is such that they can be seen only as that which grace has negated. Hence the theologian knows only the grace and its negating, and the negated only as the negated. Even the rejection, or perhaps we should say precisely the rejection, which might otherwise constitute an object for theological investigation, is now impotent, even unreal. It is not to be taken seriously; therefore, it is not to be talked about as if it were an effective human act on the part of the rejected.

Barth even speaks repeatedly of the ontological impossibility of sin, although this never implies that sin lacks reality and danger for man. Barth has written so extensively and has developed novel solutions to so many problems that in one sense criticism is easy. It is hardly doubtful that there are inconsistencies, confusions, ambiguities, and simply meaningless sentences scattered throughout the thousands of pages of his Dogmatics.

Presumably, Barth is often wrong even on matters that can be more or less settled by scholarship. Certainly his interpretations of many passages differ markedly from those which are generally taken as standard. But all of these criticisms, however effectively they might be made, would be irrelevant to our central concern in this volume. Our concern here is to determine whether Barth has provided us with an intelligible and self-consistent theological method.

In order to answer this question, we must remind ourselves what the Biblical norm is for Barth. First, it is quite clear that he never regards the Biblical norm as binding him to Biblical language. Further, it is evident that his understanding of the Old Testament is, and must be, very different from the Jewish understanding. According to his own view, these principles must be derived from, and justified by, Scripture itself.

Otherwise they would constitute foreign importations that we might trace to a cultural or philosophical preunderstanding. Barth knows, of course, that the theologian cannot be free in detail from such preunderstanding. But it is essential to his whole approach that its basic procedures and principles not depend on commitments that are not authenticated by Scripture. The major presupposition that must be pointed out, then, is the assumption of the unity of Scripture. Of course, this does not mean for Barth what it has meant to some fundamentalists.

One cannot question that Barth has made an impressive case for his view, and it would be out of place herc to affirm or deny its accuracy. It must be noted, however, that most Biblical scholars are impressed by the deep diversities of understanding that characterize the Biblical writers even on such central questions as are decisive for Barth.


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Hermann Diem, Dogmatics, pp. Barth knows that he diverges at crucial points from the entire church tradition, including the Reformers, and that he differs from virtually all contemporaries except those who take their cue specifically from him. This does not necessarily mean that Barth is wrong in his understanding of Scripture. The favorable and quite plausible explanation would be that throughout Christian history theologians have failed to guard themselves sufficiently against the importation of extraneous patterns of thinking into their interpretation of the revelation attested by Scripture.

Certainly no one has ever been more self-consciously careful at this point than has Barth. Hence, a careful critical inquiry into the Biblical character of this view would be crucial to an appraisal of Barth. The argument is as follows. All Scripture is testimony to revelation. Revelation is Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the sole topic of Scripture.

That this is so is the decisive principle of interpretation of all of Scripture. That is, we may investigate whether the exegesis that results from the Christocentric principle does justice to the Scriptural texts themselves. Can we reasonably interpret Genesis on the one hand and Paul on the other, for example, as presenting natural man as real, visible, and theologically relevant only in the election of humanity in Jesus Christ? We can, of course, say that most Biblical scholars read these accounts differently from Barth, but this is not decisive.

Every interpretation of Scripture depends upon some hermeneutical principle. Barth believes that the scholars who find other meanings do so by bringing alien preconceptions to the Scripture instead of finding their principle in Scripture itself. The principle provided in Scripture is the revelation to which it witnesses. It requires utmost vigilance and subtlety for Barth to interpret passage after passage of Scripture in the light of this monism of grace. One wonders whether it is Scripture itself that drives Barth over and over again to what often appears as strange and strained exegesis on the one hand and to highly novel speculation about nothingness on the other.

Loyalty to Scripture is qualified by the predetermination that such loyalty must make itself exclusive. Hence it is predetermined that aspects of Scriptural teaching that seem to point beyond Scripture do not really do so. The issue is, then, whether Scripture that is understood as testimony to revelation demands that exclusive status which Barth accords it, or whether this exclusive status is ascribed it on considerations that are alien to Scripture itself.

It is my belief that the latter is the case. It is almost certain that this is the case biographically. Barth recognizes that in his earlier writings he did not carefully and consistently rule out statements about natural fallen man as an object in himself. He did not immediately perceive this interest as contrary to Scripture. He did, however, become aware of the implications and consequences of allowing this interest free development, and he startled his early admirers by radically rejecting and repudiating it, giving as his reason precisely the results that follow from taking this interest seriously.

Baillie, op. The real question, however, is not biographical but systematic. Does Scripture teach the monism of grace and the exclusiveness of its own witness to revelation consistently? If not, Barth must employ selectivity and norms based on something else than the united witness of Scripture. These principles may still be found within Scripture, but their selection must point to some preunderstanding on the part of the man approaching Scripture.

This criticism is by no means intended to suggest that Barth is more bound by a preunderstanding than other theologians. On the contrary, what is truly remarkable about Barth is the extent to which he is able to let the Bible speak in terms of its own understanding of itself. If the method he proposes is humanly possible, we must acknowledge it at the very least as a stable, coherent, and intrinsically acceptable way to theologize. Indeed, it would be difficult to justify any other method as equally Christian.

Every other theology would then appear as some kind of mixture of pure Christian thinking with some concern or presupposition brought in from without. If the criticism is valid, on the other hand, we must say that the ideal for theology held up before us by Barth is a false ideal. We must say either that we can find unity in the Bible only by bringing presuppositions to it or that faithfulness to the whole of Scripture requires us to engage also in discussion of and in the world.

Probably we shall be forced to say both. If the criticism is not valid, then Barth confronts us with a profound either-or. Few men in our age or any age have come so near succeeding in confronting us with a final choice for or against faith. If Barth has failed, as I believe he has, his has been one of the most brilliant failures of all times.

In conclusion, we may summarize the possibilities as follows. If despite all objections, Barth shows the possibility of a theology of revelation that receives its principles from revelation and applies them in turn only to revelation, then all criticism ceases.