Saturday, January 18, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 1.2 §15.3 "The Miracle of Christmas" pp. 172-202

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 §15.3 ("The Miracle of Christmas"), Barth begins by affirming the mystery of the incarnation once more, which is God's revelation to us and our reconciliation with Him:
“Incarnation of the Word” asserts the presence of God in our World and as a member of this world, as a Man among men. It is thus God’s revelation to us, and our reconciliation with Him. That this revelation and reconciliation have already taken place is the content of the Christmas message. But even in the very act of knowing this reality and of listening to the Christmas message, we have to describe the meeting of God and world, of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ—and not only their meeting but their becoming one—as inconceivable. This reality is not given nor is it accessible elsewhere. It does not allow us to acknowledge that it is true on the ground of general considerations. Our experience no less than our thought will rather make constant reference to the remoteness of the world from God and of God from the world, to God’s majesty and to man’s misery. If in knowledge of the incarnation of the Word, in knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ we are speaking of something really other, if the object of Christology, “very God and very Man,” is objectively real for us, then all that we can arrive at by our experience and our thought is the realisation that they are delimited, determined and dominated here by something wholly outside or above us. Knowledge in this case means acknowledgment. And the utterance or expression of this knowledge is termed confession. Only in acknowledgment or confession can we say that Jesus Christ is very God and very Man. In acknowledgment and confession of the inconceivableness of this reality we describe it as the act of God Himself, of God completely and solely. If we speak of it in any other way, if we deny its inconceivability, if we think that by our statements we are speaking of something within the competence of our experience and thought which we can encounter and master, we are speaking of something different from the dogma and from the Scripture expounded in the dogma. We are not understanding or describing revelation as God’s act in the strict and exclusive sense. We are speaking of something other than God’s revelation. In the very act of acknowledgment and confession we must always acknowledge and confess together both the distance of the world from God and the distance of God from the world, both the majesty of God and the misery of man. It is the antithesis between these that turns their unity in Christ into a mystery. Thus we must ever acknowledge and confess the inconceivability of this unity. 
It is this mystery of Christmas which is indicated in Scripture and in church dogma by reference to the miracle of Christmas. This miracle is the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost or His birth of the Virgin Mary (172-173).
Barth begins by acknowledging both the dogma and the paucity of scriptural evidence for the virgin birth - and we should accept it not accept it just because it is dogma:
The passages with which the Church dogma is directly connected and with which we, too, must start are Mt. 1:18–25, with its reference back to the sign of Emmanuel in Is. 7:14, and Lk. 1:26–38 (esp. 34–35). The formulation of the dogma is as follows: 
In the Roman baptismal symbol of the 4th century according to Rufinus: qui natus est de Spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine [who is born by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary]. 
Acc. to the Psalt. Aethelstani: τὸν γενηθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου [who is born by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary]. 
In what has become the official form of the so-called Apostolicum: qui conceplus est de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine [Apostles’ Creed, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary]. 
In the Eastern form of the so-called Apostolicum* (and in the Nic. Constant.): σαρκωθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου [was made flesh by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary]. 
In the Latin version of the Nic. Constant.: et incarnatus est de Spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine [and was made flesh by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary]. 
By taking up this reference and so making confession of this dogma as a statement grounded in Holy Scripture, we do not by any means show disinterested respect for the fact that it is a dogma after all, and that up to the present day it has been a dogma which Catholics and Protestants have on the whole believed and taught unanimously and as a matter of course. The respect paid in the Church to this dogma cannot be sufficient reason in itself for us to adopt it as our own. In dogma as such we hear merely the voice of the Church and not revelation itself. If we make it our own and affirm it as the correct Church interpretation of revelation, this can be done only because we realise its necessity, and this realisation will have to be substantiated in an attempt to understand it.
In terms of accepting the virgin birth as dogma, Barth states:
Decision as to the necessity of the dogma cannot ultimately be made on the ground where such questions are to be raised and answered. No one can dispute the existence of a biblical testimony to the Virgin birth. The questions to be raised and answered are literary questions; they are concerned with the tradition, the age and the source-value of this testimony. The final and proper decision is whether in accordance with the demands of Church dogma this testimony is to be heard, and heard as the emphatic statement of the New Testament message, or whether in defiance of Church dogma it is not to be heard, i.e., only to be heard as a sub-statement of the New Testament message which is not binding. This decision can be supported by answering the literary questions in one sense or the other. But it does not stand or fall with the answer to these questions. It certainly was not their age and source-value that brought the narratives of the Virgin birth into the text of the Gospels and out of this text into the creed. But a certain inward, essential rightness and importance in their connexion with the person of Jesus Christ first admitted them to a share in the Gospel witness (176).
Barth reminds us that the virgin birth is a sign, one which marks the coming of God's revelation and the effecting of our own reconciliation:
In order to reach the dogmatic a posteriori [revealed] understanding we have in view, it is, above all, necessary to realise that the dogma of the Virgin birth, in fact the New Testament basis of the dogma, is of a different kind, and lies, as it were, on a different level of testimony from the dogma or New Testament knowledge of the true divinity and true humanity of Jesus Christ. It denotes not so much the christological reality of revelation as the mystery of that reality, the inconceivability of it, its character as a fact in which God has acted solely through God and in which God can likewise be known solely through God. The dogma of the Virgin birth is not, then, a repetition or description of the vere Deus veer homo [very God very man], although in its own way it also expresses, explains and throws light upon it. As a formal dogma, as it were, which is required to explain the material, it states that when the event indicated by the name Emmanuel takes place, when God comes to us as one of ourselves to be our own, to be ourselves in our place, as very God and very Man, this is a real event accomplished in space and time as history within history. In it God’s revelation comes to us, in it our reconciliation takes place; yet it is such an event that to every Why? and Whence? and How? we can only answer that here God does it all Himself (177). 
In an expansive and thoughtful paragraph, Barth articulates why the virgin birth is distinguishable yet not separable from the thing it denotes, and how this bears on our acceptance of the virgin birth:
Is acknowledgment and confession of this mystery of the divine origin of the person of Jesus Christ completely tied up with acknowledgment and confession of the Virgin birth in particular? Is the form in which we speak here of this mystery as if it were the content of it inseparable from this content, or this content from this form? Must it not be left to Christian liberty or even to the historical judgment of the individual whether he can and will acknowledge and confess this content in precisely this form? To this the answer is that the doctrine of the Virgin birth is merely the description and therefore the form by and in which the mystery is spoken of in the New Testament and in the creeds. Similarly we might say that so far as the New Testament witness to Easter is the account of the empty grave, it merely describes the mystery, or the revelation of the mystery, “Christ is risen.” It describes it by pointing to this external fact. No one will dream of claiming that this external fact in itself and as such had the power to unveil for the disciples the veiled fact that “God was in Christ.” But was it revealed to them otherwise than by the sign of this external fact? Will there be real faith in the resurrection of the Lord as revealing His mystery, as unveiling His divine glory, where the account of the empty grave is thought to be excisable as the mere form of the content in question, or where it can be left to Christian liberty to confess seriously and decisively the content alone? With this form are we not also bound in fact to lose the specific content of the Easter message for some other truth about the resurrection? Sign and thing signified, the outward and the inward, are, as a rule, strictly distinguished in the Bible, and certainly in other connexions we cannot lay sufficient stress upon the distinction. But they are never separated in such a (“liberal”) way that according to preference the one may be easily retained without the other. Are the signs of which the biblical witness to revelation speaks arbitrarily selected and given? Is the outward part, in which according to this witness the inward part of revelation is brought to ear and eye, merely an accidental expression of the inward? From what standpoint will we really want to establish this point, if we are clear that revelation is something else than the manifestation of an idea? But if we cannot establish it, how can we really want to achieve this abstraction, holding to the thing signified but not to the sign unless we freely choose to do so? When we do this, is it not the case that openly or tacitly we have in mind something quite different? This is the question we have to put to ourselves even in regard to the Virgin birth. Ultimately, the only question that we can ask here, but we very definitely have to ask it, is this: When two theologians with apparently the same conviction confess the mystery of Christmas, do they mean the same thing by that mystery, if one acknowledges and confesses the Virgin birth to be the sign of the mystery while the other denies it as a mere externality or is ready to leave it an open question? Does the second man really acknowledge and confess that in His revelation to us and in our reconciliation to Him, to our measureless astonishment and in measureless hiddenness the initiative is wholly with God? Or does he not by his denial or declared indifference towards the sign of the Virgin birth at the same time betray the fact that with regard to the thing signified by this sign he means something quite different? May it not be the case that the only one who hears the witness of the thing is the one who keeps to the sign by which the witness has actually signified it? (178-180).
Barth rejects (not surprisingly) the rooting of our understanding of the virgin birth in natural theology (180f.). In the end, the virgin birth cannot be proved:
We have made the point that, however scattered and problematic the relevant statements may be, the content of the dogma answers to biblical attestation. In particular, it is related to the mystery of the person of Jesus Christ. It is connected with it as sign with thing signified. It describes this mystery by a miraculous event in analogy with the mystery. In this way, and by incidentally disputing the various denials of the Virgin birth, we have merely hinted at its necessity. We have called attention to the points of view from which this necessity can be made clear. It becomes clear only as we hear the biblical witness, in spite of and amid its reserve. If we hear it as it was obviously heard in the Early Church, we will discern the uniqueness of its content as a sign and the relation between this sign and the mystery of revelation, and so come to understand the miracle constituting this content in its essential appropriateness. Everything in the end depends on the one thing, on the mystery of revelation speaking and being apprehended through this sign. Theological explanation at this point can as little anticipate this or compel it to happen as in the case of revelation generally. To this extent the necessity for this very dogma cannot be proved. It can only be shown what the elements are which lead us to acknowledge its necessity. If we affirm this necessity, we must regard the acknowledgment involved as a decision, which in the last resort can only authenticate itself by virtue of its conformity to the object which is demanded of it. It can and will receive further confirmation, however, in the detailed exposition of the dogma, to which we have now to turn (184-185). 
Barth now turns to an exposition of the clause "Born of the virgin Mary." Of this statement, Barth says and handful of things.

First, this clause means that Jesus was born as no other man: "It is unambiguous because it describes the sovereignty of the divine act, and therefore the mystery of Christmas, by an express and extremely concrete negative. “Born of the Virgin Mary” means born as no one else was born, in a way which can as little be made clear biologically as the resurrection of a dead man, i.e., born not because of male generation but solely because of female conception. The first and in substance more important clause, conceptus de Spiritu sancto*, which is interpreted by the second, describes in positive terms the same sovereignty of God in the coming of His Word into human existence. It states that the free will of God is the meaning and solution of the enigma." (185).

Second, it means that he was born like every other man: "Thus in the words nates ex Maria* the second clause also defines the positive fact that the birth of Jesus Christ was the genuine birth of a genuine man. And in this way the sign signifies the thing signified, the inexpressible mystery that the Word was made flesh" (186).

Third, it means that the birth of Jesus was a miracle: "But now let us turn to the main point, ex virgine [of the virgin]. What is meant by that? Certainly the general and formal fact that the becoming, the actual human existence of the Revealer of God who is God Himself, (the γένεσις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [beginning of Jesus Christ], Mt. 1:1. 18), is a miracle. That is to say, it is an event in this world of ours, yet such that it is not grounded upon the continuity of events in this world nor is it to be understood in terms of it" (187).

Fourth, it means that there is a judgment and limitation on human nature: "With full recognition of its formal importance we can as little abide by this finding as by the ex Maria [of Mary] which has an equal claim on our notice and emphasis. By the ex virgine [of Mary] the essential point is plainly expressed that by the Word being made flesh, by God’s Son assuming “human nature,” this human nature undergoes a very definite limitation. Grace is imparted to it. But this cannot happen without its coming under judgment as well" (187). [...] "In the ex virgine [of Mary] there is contained a judgment upon man. When Mary as a virgin becomes the mother of the Lord and so, as it were, the entrance gate of divine revelation into the world of man, it is declared that in any other way, i.e., by the natural way in which a human wife becomes a mother, there can be no motherhood of the Lord and so no such entrance gate of revelation into our world. In other words, human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation. It cannot be the work-mate of God. If it actually becomes so, it is not because of any attributes which it possessed already and in itself, but because of what is done to it by the divine Word, and so not because of what it has to do or give, but because of what it has to suffer and receive—and at the hand of God. The virginity of Mary in the birth of the Lord is the denial, not of man in the presence of God, but of any power, attribute or capacity in him for God (188).

Fifth, this statement tells us that God has effected a new beginning: "If it is God Himself who here steps forth as man, then it is unthinkable that there steps forth here a sinner like us. But then His existence in our old human nature posits and signifies a penetration and a new beginning. Standing in the continuity of historical humanity He breaks through it and opens up a new humanity (189).

In an extended section (190-196), Barth reflects on original sin, the sexual union, and virginity in general. He establishes that in the virgin birth there is no condemnation of the sexual union or an elevation of virginity in general. Human virginity too lies under judgment, so it is not a point of contact for divine grace: "it is only on the ground of an act of divine justification and sanctification that human nature (at this very point, too) becomes a partaker of the divine nature" (196).

To close this section, Barth does one final exposition, this time on the clause "conceived by the Holy Spirit." "Conceived by the Holy Spirit" means that the birth is the work of God: " In itself the mystery of the incarnation of the Word might also be expressed by saying of Jesus Christ that in the freedom and majesty appropriate to the merciful act of revelation and reconciliation His human existence is peculiarly the work of God the Holy Spirit" (196). Of course, one must be careful here: "It does not state that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Holy Spirit according to His human existence. On the contrary, it states as emphatically as possible—and this is the miracle it asserts—that Jesus Christ had no father according to His human existence. Because in this miracle the Holy Spirit takes the place of the male, this by no means implies that He does what the male does. Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it does not, therefore, mean—or can mean only in an improper sense—that He is begotten by the Holy Spirit. The idea is completely excluded that anything like a marriage took place between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary" (200).
He was not conceived from the substance of the Holy Spirit, but by His power, not by generation, but by command and blessing - Augustine 
...not through His nature, but by His power … not physically, but creatively - Polanus
For it is false to say that God showed Himself in that which a man usually shows in reproduction. For the work of God was not sexual, but merely creative, not internal but external, not formal but efficient… - Quenstedt 
And in the same sense it is essentially right when John of Damascus (Ekd. 4, 14) describes Mary’s ear as the bodily organ of the miraculous conception of Christ. “The operation of the Holy Spirit at the conception of Jesus is one mediated through Mary’s faith. Mary believes … and by believing in the Word of God spoken by the angel she is thereby enabled to take the eternal Word into herself and independently to bring about the beginning of the Redeemer’s life” (Ed. Böhl, Dogmatik, 1887, p. 311). - Barth quoting Böhl
Barth concludes his reflection on the miracle of Christmas, with the reminder that in it God is assuming the creature and imparting His own nature to it:
The positive fact which fills the space marked off by the natus ex virgine [born of the virgin] is God Himself, i.e., in the inconceivable act of creative omnipotence in which He imparts to human nature a capacity, a power for Himself, which it does not possess of itself and which it could not devise for itself; in the inconceivable act of reconciling love by which He justifies and sanctifies human nature in spite of its unrighteousness and unholiness to be a temple for His Word and so for His glory; in the inconceivable act of redeeming wisdom in which He completely assumes His creature in such a way that He imparts and bestows on it no less than His own existence (201).
In conclusion, let us remember that it is particularly this positive factor in the miracle, expressed in the conceptus de Spiritu sancta [conceived by the Holy Spirit], that belongs to the sign of the miracle of Christmas which the dogma aims at stressing. Noetically, i.e., for us to whom this sign is given, who have to recognise it in and by this sign, the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh stands or falls with the truth of the conceptio de Spiritu sancto. But it could not be said that ontically, in itself, the mystery of Christmas stands or falls with this dogma. The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognised and acknowledged as the One He is and in the mystery in which He is the One He is.
The mystery does not rest upon the miracle. The miracle rests upon the mystery. The miracle bears witness to the mystery, and the mystery is attested by the miracle (202).