Monday, December 30, 2013

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §15.1 "The Problem of Christology" pp. 122-132

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §15 states: "The mystery of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ consists in the fact that the eternal Word of God chose, sanctified and assumed human nature and existence into oneness with Himself, in order thus, as very God and very man, to become the Word of reconciliation spoken by God to man. The sign of this mystery revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the miracle of His birth, that He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary."

In subsection §15.1 ("The Problem of Christology"), Barth begins with a little review of where's he has been and launches into a preliminary Christological discussion which he will eventually flesh out fully in CD IV. In his first brief statements in this section, Barth makes it clear that since he thinks revelation is essentially incarnation (upon which scripture and Christian proclamation both stand and fall), then dogmatics must be essentially centered upon Christology:
In §13 we answered the question as to the objective possibility of revelation (or the question as to the freedom of God for man) by pointing out its reality. And in §14 we held this reality to be the object of Old Testament expectation and of New Testament recollection, to be fulfilled time in the midst of the times. In a strict and proper sense this reality, and so fulfilled time in the midst of the times, is the Easter story and the Easter message. It is the revelation of the Word of God, with which Holy Scripture and with it the proclamation of the Christian Church are connected. With it they stand and with it they fall. With it also all church dogmatics obviously stands or falls. From the Easter story the passion story is of course inseparable. In it takes place the hidden work of Jesus Christ which is subsequently revealed and believed in His resurrection. And to the passion story belongs the story of the whole life of Jesus prior to it, although that life is not without signs and anticipatory revelations of the Kingdom at hand, not without announcements of His resurrection. What happens in this life and passion of Christ is thus the concrete content of the revelation which takes place in the event of Easter
We now have to inquire into the presuppositions of this work and event, hidden in the life and passion of Christ and revealed in His resurrection. What is the power of the resurrection, and so of this work and event? How can it be the Word of reconciliation, spoken by God to men, at once divinely true and humanly real and effective? Who is the subject of it? Who is Jesus Christ? We have already in the most varied contexts underlined emphatically the answer to be given here, that Jesus Christ is very God and very Man. From this fact and from this standpoint the work and event in question, and so the revelation of it, derives its force and significance. From this standpoint we have already answered the question as to the objective possibility of revelation. From it we have obtained a view of the unity of times in fulfilled time, or the time God has for us. But just because everything else depends upon this “standpoint,” it now claims special investigation for its own sake. At this point we are entering the problematic sphere of Christology, in the special sense of this concept. A church dogmatics must, of course, be christologically determined as a whole and in all its parts, as surely as the revealed Word of God, attested by Holy Scripture and proclaimed by the Church, is its one and only criterion, and as surely as this revealed Word is identical with Jesus Christ. If dogmatics cannot regard itself and cause itself to be regarded as fundamentally Christology, it has assuredly succumbed to some alien sway and is akeady on the verge of losing its character as church dogmatics (122-123).
Barth of course feels like the "alien sway" had already had its way by the time he was writing - because there was a loss of focus on the reality that the Word became flesh:
The collapse of church dogmatics in modern times under the devastating inrush of natural theology would not have been possible had the way not been already paved for it in the age of orthodoxy (and even to some extent in mediæval Scholasticism and among the fathers), because the necessary connexion of all theological statements with that of Jn. 1:14 did not receive the obvious attention required at this point, if the construction of sub-centres alien to its content was to be avoided (123).
Barth contends that the first important step in fleshing out a Christology is to make a concrete statement about Christology's content - which is that God became human in Jesus Christ. This is pointed to in two crucial New Testament witnesses and signs - the conception by the Holy Spirit and the virgin birth:
The first essential to a complete grasp of this matter is a statement about the content of the incarnation, about God and man becoming one (the so-called “two natures”) in Jesus Christ, in which the mystery of revelation must be brought to its definite expression. This must be accompanied and followed by a statement about its form, about the miracle of Christmas, i.e., about Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary (123–124).
After some important statements about how an emphasis on the Trinity and Christology allows the church to do "Church" dogmatics (rather than natural theology and philosophical prolegomena), Barth turns to the "problem" of the title of this section. The "problem" is the problem of the mystery of revelation. He begins with a discussion of limits - limits set by the Object itself:
In Christology the limits as well as the goal must be fixed as they are seen to be fixed already in the Evangelists and apostles themselves; i.e., the goal of thought and language must be determined entirely by the unique object in question. But this same object in its uniqueness must also signify for us the boundary beyond which we are not to think or speak. Christology has to consider and to state who Jesus Christ is, who in revelation exercises God’s power over man. But it must avoid doing so in such a way as to presuppose that man may now exercise a power over God. It must state definitely what cannot be stated definitely enough. But even so it must observe its own limits, i.e. the limits of man who has seriously to do with God’s revelation (125).
In other words, true Christology has to stay with its object but in doing so it sets its own limit, beyond which it cannot speak. To illustrate this, Barth turns to the example of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, seen here and above:

The altarpiece in situ

The Second View, which Barth references below
Of it, Barth says:
This condition under which alone Christology is possible takes visible form in the main picture on the altar at Isenheim by M. Grünewald. Its subject is the incarnation. There are three things to be seen in the picture, and it is difficult to say where the observer should begin. In the background upon the heights of heaven, beyond earth’s highest mountains, surrounded by innumerable angels, there is God the Father in His glory. In the foreground to the left there is the sanctuary of the old covenant. It also is filled with and surrounded by angels, but inexorably separated from the background by an immensely high, gloomy partition. But towards the right a curtain is drawn back, affording a view. And at this point, at the head of the whole world of Advent looking to see the Messiah, stands Mary as the recipient of grace, the representative of all the rest, in adoration before what she sees happening on the right side. Over there, but quite lonely, the child Jesus lies in His mother’s arms, surrounded with unmistakable signs reminding us that He is a child of earth like all the rest. Only the little child, not the mother, sees what is to be seen there, the Father. He alone, the Father, sees right into the eyes of this child. On the same side as the first Mary appears the Church, facing at a distance. It has open access on this side, it adores, it magnifies and praises, therefore it sees what is indeed the glory of the only-begotten of His Father, full of grace and truth. But it sees only indirectly. What it sees directly is only the little child in His humanity; it sees the Father only in the light that falls upon the Son, and the Son only in this light from the Father. This is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly. It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself. Because of this light streaming down from above, it worships before this human being as before God Himself, although to all visual appearance He is literally nothing but a human being. 
John the Baptist too [see image at the very top of this post], in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point—and here everything is bolder and more abrupt, because here all indication of the revelation of the Godhead is lacking—point to a wretched, crucified, dead man. This is the place of Christology. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery. It can and must adore with Mary and point with the Baptist. It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this (125).
Thus the limitation. But what a glorious limitation it is. And in terms of the "problem" of this section - again - it is the problem of the mystery of revelation, which Modern thought has avoided. Orthodox dogmatics must not do this though.
The central statement of the Christology of the early Church is that God becomes one with man: Jesus Christ “very God and very man.” And it describes this event in the conceptus de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine [conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary]. The merit of the statement is that it denotes the mystery without resolving it away. In all the (apparently or really) complicated explanations which are indispensable to the understanding of this statement of primitive Christology, we must be quite clear from the very start that (with the descriptive statement about the miracle of Christmas) it speaks not only simply and clearly, but with real humility and relevance about the very mystery of revelation (125-126).
"Primitive Christology" is a bit of a theme in this reading. In expounding on the topic "primitive Christology", Barth is defending the early Christological statements of the creeds against charges of intellectualism and metaphysical abstraction brought against them by folks like Harnack (see pp. 125-131). Barth rebuts this in an extended small print section and turns a charge against the modernists - they avoid the "problem" of Christology...
Horror of this means a strange impoverishment, but that is not of decisive importance here. What is important is that in all this there lurks a horror of the being of God in His revelation. The polemic against the concept of the two “natures” in Christ does not rest only upon a misunderstanding of terms. Rather, in refusing to acknowledge a “natural” element in revelation, it refused to acknowledge an ontological element. It was opposed to the realism of the biblical message of revelation. It wanted to accept it only so far as it proved to be “historical”—and by that was meant a similar assertion of moral judgment and religious experience to that which was fathered by the wish. But there was no desire to accept it as the supreme Word of the Lord, who is the Lord before we have experienced or adjudged Him as such by our own glory. Because objection was raised at this point, the New Testament had to be worked over, partly by interpretation, partly by literary, partly by religious-historical criticism, until nothing more was said of this Lord, until realism was completely stripped away. And what was more natural than to cease to derive any commands from a New Testament thus purged, to feel no need to face the mystery of its witness to Christ, or to maintain any connexion between its own Christology and this witness to Christ? (130-131).
Despite the faults or dangers of early "primitive" Christology, it did not avoid the "problem" - the mystery of revelation, but it confronted it head on. Now Barth concludes in this way:
Only one thing should be insisted upon here under the title of “the problem of Christology,” namely, that if we have let ourselves be led to Jesus Christ along the only sensible, legitimate path for the Church, i.e., by the prophetic and apostolic witness to revelation, then the statement, “Jesus Christ is very God and very Man,” is the assumption upon which all further reflection must proceed. We could have reached a different assumption only by a different path. But this assumption is a genuine and proper assumption, in so far as it cannot be over-topped by any other, and therefore suspended on, and even disputed by, a higher assumption. Christology deals with the revelation of God as a mystery. It must first of all be aware of this mystery and then acknowledge it as such. It must assume its position at the place where the curtain of the Old Testament is drawn back and the presence of the Son of God in the flesh is visible and is seen as an event; yet visible and seen as the event in which, in the midst of the times, in the simple datable happening of the existence of Jesus, a “man like as we are,” God the Lord was directly and once for all the acting Subject. At this point He was Man: God without reserve and man without reserve. Scripture leads us to the place confronting this event. This is the place Christology has to occupy with its question: Who is Jesus Christ? From this place it cannot fail to see or forget the mystery as such. It cannot, therefore, take further account of the possibility of denying it. Nor can it reckon with the possibility of transmuting it into something devoid of mystery. It has to stand by it and to stand by it as a mystery. It is, so to speak, fixed upon this object with this as its particular character. It can do otherwise only by dropping its problem. This is what modern Christology has done. And in so doing it has been guilty of an unpardonable error, an error which renders impossible any understanding, in fact in the long run any discussion at all, between itself and a Christology which refuses to commit this error. Primitive Christology did not commit this error. It did not drop the problem, but stuck to it. It saw the mystery and, on the whole, was able to preserve it, whatever other faults it may have been guilty of in detail. All its efforts were directed towards preserving the mystery. In this respect it was always relevant. And for this reason we must emphatically take its side both at the outset and in principle (131-132).