“Chapter 17. Jesus Christ.” In The Oxford Handbook of Karl Barth, edited by Paul Dafydd Jones and Paul T. Nimmo, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 277-293.

Chapter 17      Jesus Christ

‘The fact that Jesus Christ is the central content of the Biblical witness is easy to see and easy to state as every student of the Bible knows. And the corresponding confession – “Jesus is Lord” – is also clear and easily understood. Yet that statement or that confession would be by itself void and meaningless. It has to be interpreted and explained. I have been speaking of “faith seeking for understanding” and the statement and confession about Jesus Christ needs understanding. Jesus Christ is a living person – both in the Bible and in us, for God and for men . So in our relation to him and his relation to us there is a mystery – analogous to our relation with our all-too-human neighbor. And Jesus Christ is the neighbor! So the confession that Jesus is Lord is not so easy after all and involves a task with which we have to deal anew each day if we would understand who and what he is.’

Karl Barth during a conversation in Princeton, 4 May 1962 (GA 25: 515)

Throughout his entire life as a Christian and a theologian it was Karl Barth’s intention to be a witness of Jesus Christ and to confess his Lordship. But in its forms of expression and in its attempts at understanding, this witness went through many at times subtle, at times dramatic changes and breaks, although the initial themes either remained firm or surprisingly returned in later days. In this Chapter, we will note several stages on Barth’s learning path toward a theological understanding of Jesus as Lord, with its starting anew daily, its advances in thinking, its resumption of themes and its successive constructive outcomes. I begin with Barth’s intuition, from 1915 onwards, that Jesus is the embodiment of a fully new initiative from heaven. I then show how Barth’s intuition connects with Christological dogmas in 1922 – dogmas developed as Barth engaged with Reformed and Lutheran thinking in 1924-1925 and in the 1930s. From this point, I consider Barth’s original contribution to the renewal of Christology, announced in his doctrine of Election (1942), and elaborated in his doctrine of Reconciliation (1953-1959). I conclude with some questions that await further consideration.

The theologian inspired by Bad Boll

Research of the last decades has found that Barth gained his decisive theological insights during his conversation with Christoph Blumhardt in Bad Boll between April 10 and April 15, 1915 (Spieckermann 1985: 68-71; McCormack 1995: 123-125). From that moment onwards, the presuppositions that underwrote Barth’s own brand of liberal Protestantism began to give way to a new manner of reasoning. For instance, in a lecture on ‘A Time of War and the Kingdom of God’ [Kriegzeit und Gottesreich], given in Basel in a debate with Paul Wernle on 15 November 1915, he says: ‘the world is the world, and the yield of the world war is of no religious importance; it does not produce anything new, no victory over the world. God is the one, who can be known in the life and word of Jesus; everything else that calls itself divine besides him, even Wotan (the god of war), is not God’ (GA 48:193). Slightly later, Barth similarly declares, ‘The Kingdom of God, as Jesus proclaimed it, was never the final goal of the natural development of the world, but rather the new dawning of the authority [Geltung] of God’ (GA 48:196), And finally, Barth observes, ‘In the life and death of Jesus God meets me in a way that shows me with a clearness that excludes any misunderstanding that God is radically different from anything else that might otherwise appear to me to be true and important’ (GA 48:201). Barth refused to publish this lecture because of the ‘unprotected’  character of its assertions, and indeed it lacks an detailed Christology. Yet one can summarize that here the name of Jesus Christ is identified from the very beginning with the primary fact of the fully new relationship that is created by God himself – a unity of a God we do not have, with a human being that we are not (Spieckermann 1985: 77). The liberal-theological presupposition of an experience with Christ, given beforehand in human subjectivity, has completely collapsed. Now, the divine initiative in his Word who is Jesus Christ  alone is to serve as the true basis for  any human knowledge of God.

When, shortly afterwards, Barth provided his first paraphrase of the Epistle  to the Romans (1916-19), the impulse of Bad Boll showed its creative force. The central point of view here is ‘real history’, in contrast to ‘so-called history’. ‘Real history’ is, for Barth, history as it is realised in Christ: history in which God approaches us in an immediate way, and which constitutes our knowledge of God, in which we do not only know but are known. There is no path to this knowledge that begins with the historical Jesus, not even as a culmination of history, or with Jesus ‘inner life’ – as Wilhelm Hermann had contended. The turning point must be located in heaven: it is there that the divine decision with regard to the dawning of the new world has taken place. And the world that is coming is neither a second world, nor a purely transcendent world, but is this world made new. Because of this turn in heaven, a breakthrough has taken place on earth, with its focus in the meta-historical event of the raising of Jesus from the dead. Concomitantly, in the cross and the burial of Christ the fallen old world is judged: there is a divine verdict that brings the old Adam to an end, so that humanity is now separated from sin. In all this, however, Bruce McCormack is right to speak of an ‘extremely thin Christology’ and a ‘rather summary treatment of the work of Christ’ in the first edition of Romans (McCormack 1995:162). As McCormack observes, Barth’s ‘clipped answer to the problem’ of how ‘Jesus’ „rediscovery“ of a life of immediacy to God was possible under the condition of fallen human existence … was quite simple: God was in Christ. But what that means in detail, he did not say.’ (McCormack 1995:152).

‘God Send his Own Son in the Likeness of Sinful Flesh…’: The Second Edition of the Commentary on Romans

How thin was the Christology of the second edition of his commentary on Romans (1922) that followed? To answer, it is useful to look at Barth’s treatment of Rom. 8:1-3: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus … For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh,  and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.’ Barth’s remarks on these Pauline verses involve multiple claims [for what follows, see RII, 271-283]:

First, in his own Son, God shows himself to be singular, so that there exists no timeless Christ-idea, but only a unique personality. At the same time, this singularity is exposed by the divine existentiality: God’s revelation in the human being, Jesus. In this way, any rationalism – the eternal God as a ‘necessary truth of Reason’, as Lessing put it – is excluded.

Second, God sends the Son ‘from the eternal, unfallen, unknown world’. In an unnecessary but, given his liberal-theological background, understandable way, Barth warns the orthodox not to rejoice, when regarding this Son that has been sent he draws on early confessional authorities. In turn, Barth cites from the Nicene Creed 325/381 ‘begotten, not made’ – commenting that ‘he is contrasted with every creature familiar to us’’; then the Apostles’ Creed: ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ – observing that ‘he is the protest against assigning eternity to any humanity or nature or history which we can observe’; and, third from the ‘Definition of Chalcedon’ of 451: ‘very God and very human being’, positing that ‘he is the document by which the original, lost-but-recoverable union of God and humanity is guaranteed’. Compared with the ‘real history’ and the ‘turning-point in heaven’ of the first edition of the commentary, important progress has been made. The heavenly decision receives Christological substance, and it appears possible to formulate the contrast between real history and so-called history in terms of the dogmas of the early Church. However, the purpose of the Father sending the Son to carry out the work of reconciliation still appears to be the restoration of the original unity of God and humanity. A remnant of the philosophy of identity in German idealism – longing for and asserting an ‘original unity’ of thought and being, subject and object, God and humanity – therefore remains present in this text, and a genuine theological answer to the goal of salvation seems not to have been found.

Third, the Son has been sent into the world of the ‘flesh’, that is, into ‘so called history’ or the systems of ‘humanity, nature and history’, which belong to the past that has been judged. Barth speaks about these systems without any illusions. Under their impress, life has finally to be interpreted only in biological categories, history only from the point of view of economic and materialistic concerns, and human consciousness only by psycho-analytical unmasking. But Barth insist that flesh must not be confounded with spirit, and certainly not with the Holy Spirit.

Thus it is, fourth, that the claim that the Son came in the ‘likeness of the flesh’ has great importance. This likeness to the flesh tells us that it is quite possible to interpret the historical figure of Jesus in a sceptical way, as anything but the glorious appearance of the eternal Son. His God-consciousness can be seen as paranoid and his sinlessness as deceitful; his miracles are susceptible to medical explanation; his preaching can come across as mere moralism; his crucifixion can be viewed as that of an enthusiast who died in despair; and the story of his resurrection can be construed as early Christian boasting. Apologetics attempts to opppose such judgements makes no sense, precisely because the Son is sent in the likeness of sinful flesh.       The fifth and final observation pertains to the Son of God taking the ‘form of a servant’ – that is, his kenosis or his ‘impenetrable incognito’. There is a ‘decreasing tendency’ in his appearance, a downward way, showing itself in the history of his temptations and finding its nadir at Gethsemane and Golgotha. Perhaps his cross, his existence in the likeness of the flesh of sin, is the only truly important word that can be said about him. Therefore Barth hesitates concerning the munus triplex, the traditional threefold office of the Redeemer [see RII 159]: is the obedience of the Son not the only message that can be proclaimed? He is not able to forgive or to save himself; and the verdict, the acquittal – for ‘there is no sentence of death’ – is reserved for his Father in heaven to pronounce.

Becoming Acquainted with the Doctrine of the Early Church: The Göttingen Dogmatics

Prolegomena: The Mysteries of the Deity of Christ and of his Primal History

The allusions in the second edition of the commentary on Romans to the decisions of the early church became more solidly grounded, when Barth became better acquainted with them through the mediation of post-Reformation Orthodoxy – this took place during his lectures on dogmatics in Göttingen (Reeling Brouwer 2015: 88-91; 99-106). Barth’s leading question at that time remains in line with that of his earlier dialectical theology, and is fully modern in character: How ought one to honour the unsublatable subjectivity of God in his self-revelation? As he studied and lectured upon them, the doctrine of the early church came to be useful in helping Barth to answer the question. Thus the title Kyrios might be seen as an improper way of speaking – as a pious metaphor suggesting (but not really meaning) the apotheosis of the human Jesus, or as a mythologization which posits a divine being alongside or under God (GD: 114). But in distinction to the divinisation of a humanity or the humanisation of a divine idea, the patrictic doctrine of Christ’s deity is to be understood in the sense that Christ reveals his Father – and this Father is God. He who reveals him, then, reveals God. But who can reveal God except God himself? Neither a human being that has been raised up nor an idea that has come ‘down to earth’ can do it. (GD: 117; see also CD I/1: 406). Given this stance, Barth is able to comment favourably on the Christological section of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (GD: 120-3; see also CD I/1: 423-47). For Barth, this section of the Creed stresses that the sending of the Son by the Father in time is grounded in his generation in eternity, which ultimately means that dogma renders all apotheosizing or mythologizing illegitimate.

In a further step, Barth reckons with the Son of God assuming human nature without ceasing to be fully divine and without human nature undergoing substantive alteration. Thinking in terms of union and distinction, to be sure, had already featured Barth’s earlier theology. In his famous Tambach lecture of 1919, for example, Barth had warned of a ‘simple opening of the floodgates’ – a Christianization of society – or, at the same time, of a ‘secularization’ of the new world of the Bible into our world, even as he also worried about an  ‘isolation of the human toward the divine’ and ‘holy realm set apart unto itself’ (WGT: 37, 46). This warning implies that the ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ in Barth’s theology (Hunsinger 2000) was present well before Barth had really studied the definition of the Symbol of Chalcedon. Chalcedons’s double limitation – ‘no confusion and no change’ (against Eutychianism) as well as ‘no division and no separation’ (against Nestorianism) – was thus being applied in respect to the history that God makes from heaven, in and against the fallen old world, before Barth had fully explored the right doctrinal categories for it. Barth shifts the categorical field to which the Chalcedonian definition belongs from metaphysical speculation (where modern theology suspected it belonged) to the ‘primal history’ (‘Urgeschichte’ – the unknowable origin of a phenomenon, GD: 148) that God makes by sending his Son in the flesh, a history that transforms all so-called history of the fallen world and that can be seen only though revelation and grasped only by faith. For that reason, Barth wants to locate this primal history in the context of the double witness of the covenant of God with Israel and of the apostolic message of Jesus Christ, and at the same time recognize that neither of the two witnesses offer a direct identification of the divine mystery with human history.

Yet there is a significant development in term of Christology, in a limited sense, at this juncture. In an old Reformed source, the Leiden Synopsis, mentioned in the textbook of Heppe,  Barth made his wonderful discovery of the post-Chalcedonian (although in its implication perhaps already Cyrillian) doctrine of the an- and enhypostatic nature of the assumption of the flesh by the eternal Word (GD: 157; see Heppe: 2007: 418). This doctrine posits that the humanity of Christ has no personhood of its own but only in its union with the Logos of God. Already in the first edition of the commentary on Romans, Barth asserted that there is no path from the historical Jesus to the knowledge of the ‘real history’ that God started on earth from heaven. Now he found the dogmatic formula to express this basic idea, and it would remain foundational for his whole approach of the relationship of revelation and history from this point. That is a surprising phenomenon, for it presupposes a modern context (the question of the ‘historical Jesus’) that was totally unknown to the fathers of the sixth century who are said to have coined the formula (contra Shults: 1996).

Remarkably, Barth’s exposition on the incarnation does not conclude with an explanation of the Symbol of Chalcedon, but with the dogma of the virgin birth from the Apostles’ Creed. Barth identifies the virgin birth with the assumption of the flesh by the Logos as such; later, he will distinguish the incarnation from this accompanying ‘sign’ (Resch 2012). Its importance for Barth at this time in Göttingen is that Jesus is confessed as the human being born from above: in history, yet in history as the end of the old history – which since the days of Adam and Cain had predominantly been a male history. Jesus anhypostatically sets aside this old history, and at the same time marks the outset of the new history (GD: 160-3). The onset of this new history by way of  this event is told as a miracle, and as such it can only be acknowledged as indirect communication. This means that is can only be recognized and acknowledged in faith, making any ‘fundamentalist’ reading inappropriate.

The Redeemer, his Person and his Work

In the Prolegomena of the Göttingen Dogmatics, the treatment of the assumption of the flesh within the doctrine of revelation was what Barth describes as an ‘intentional anticipation’ (GD: 133). The incarnation received further attention in the lectures on reconciliation in 1925, when Jesus Christ the Revealer is at the same time seen to be the Reconciler. Barth’s thinking on the  person of Christ is dominated here by a sketch of the contrast that obtains between Reformed and Lutheran Christology. In thinking through Chalcedon, Barth observes, the Lutherans are occupied by a fascination with the communication between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ, and therefore by an interest in the immediate experience of divine qualities by the human being. In line with the second edition of the commentary on Romans, and strengthened by an increasingly ‘actualistic’ sensibility that supposes that Gods being is always a being-in-act, Barth is suspicious of that direction. At the same time, he is enthusiastic about the Reformed alternative, that is, the emphasis on the Logos who takes the initiative in the hypostatic union. This alternative does not imply a denial of this communication between the natures of Christ (communicatio idiomatum) as one of the consequences of the union. However, that aspect is not stressed; it is overshadowed by the attention given to the communication of graces (communicatio gratiarum) passing from the divine nature to the human Jesus, which finds its aim in the common operation of both natures under the command of the person of the Mediator (communicatio operationum). The hypostatic union as a unique divine act is therefore without analogy, and even the comparisons used by the early church to describe it – such as the union of soul and body – fail in the end. It is possible to derive this kind of analogy from what is not meant, such as the construction of Apollinaris in which the Logos takes over the function of the creaturely soul in the incarnation. Thus, in truth, the positive content of the enhypostatic existence of humanity in the Logos can only be described in rather bare sentences, such as: ‘This singular person (that was also met by Caiaphas or Pilate) is the Logos, the Son of God’, or: ‘The divine person is exactly his human person’ (GA 38: 47). ‘One is curious to learn more’, Barth states, but the Reformed guides are reserved in this respect, with good reason (GA 38: 72).

            In addition, for the first time Barth deals extensively here with the doctrine of the work of the Mediator, even though he appreciates that the early church, as distinct from modern Protestantism, took the doctrine of Christ’s person to encompass the entirety of knowledge that was needed for salvation. Barth here endorses the idea of Christ’s threefold office – the munus triplex – and distances himself from his negative remarks about this idea n the second edition of the commentary on Romans (GA 38: 99). At the same time, he maintains from the earlier work the importance of the solidarity of Jesus Christ with the damned – realized in the priestly work of Christ on the cross – as the kernel of the dangerous provocation that the Word brought into the world (GA 38: 140). The advantage of the threefold order is that it reckons with a range of perspectives, and in this way respects the universal Church.

As with the Reformed tradition in general, Barth begins with the prophetic office. This office expresses the Logos as the Word of God, as proclamation, and it can be found particularly in the gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of himself. Barth then combines the treatment of the priestly and the royal offices with the doctrine of the ‘states’ of humiliation and exaltation respectively. During his lectures on the priesthood of Christ, he writes to his Swiss friends: ‘with many headaches and much astonishment I ultimately have to agree with Orthodoxy on nearly every point, and I hear myself recite things which as a student or a pastor in Safenwil I would have never dreamt that they could truly be this way’ (GA 4: 328-9). To these ‘things’ belong the doctrine of the eternal covenant of God with Christ as the new human being and our substitute, the doctrine of the satisfaction provided by Christ in his work on the cross, the doctrine of the elect as the addressees of the atonement (albeit with a clear reserve Barth has towards the traditional Reformed view of predestination). At the same time the royal office enables Barth to recover the motif from his conversations at Bad Boll concerning the resurrected Jesus as victorious over all demonic powers (GA 38: 85). Finally, Barth remarks on the aspects of Christ’s intercession, which he offers to God the Father after his expiatory oblation, and on the reign of Christ as the head together with the members of his body, and notes that in these regards Christology passes into Pneumatology.

The Third Draft of the Prolegomena: A ‘Twofold Course of Christological Confession’

We pass over the second series of lectures on Dogmatics that Barth gave in Münster in order to  look at Prolegomena of the Church Dogmatics. In the winter semester of 1933-19344 in Bonn, Barth lectured on the incarnation of the Word. As he notes himself, he could not have done justice to John 1:14 any earlier: ‘Revelation is an eternal … but not therefore a timeless reality  … It does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself’ (CD I/2: 50).

                In the New Testament Barth discerns a twofold course of Christological confession (CD I/2: 15-25). Along one line, represented by Paul and John, the eternal Word forms the starting point for reflection. To guard against Docetism, however, this line is emphatical that the eternal Word bears the name of the human being Jesus – which means that the Word can only be found in the flesh, that the Lord became a servant, and that his glorification can only be recognized on the cross. Along the other line, represented by the Synoptic witnesses, the starting point for reflection is the way that human beings associated with their fellow-human being, Jesus of Nazareth. There is an obvious mystery surrounding this person, a mystery which with demons and the devil are familiar, but which they are at the same time forbidden to expose. But more than once the wonderful voice from heaven is heard, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him’ (Mt. 17:5), and, on earth, people like the centurion at the cross finally confess, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’ (Matthew 27:54). With such claims, contrary to any ebionite hesitation, it is proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ, that God is with us. Between the two lines there is, Barth emphasizes, no antithesis. On the contrary, the ‘extraordinary criss-cross relations’ between the interlocking lines testify to one reality, which apparently cannot be represented by only one kind of witness. Barth states that this ‘must be remembered when we are compelled to adopt a position towards the antitheses which repeat the same variety in Church History, namely between the Christologies of Alexandria and Antioch, of Luther and of Calvin’ (CD I/2: 24). Here one notices a shift after Barth’s sturdy Calvinistic stance in Göttingen. If he once saw in Lutheran Christology a dangerous deviation from pure doctrine, but now he speaks ecumenically about the antitheses of distinct theological ‘schools’. That shows an evolution in his thought, to be sure; but it also signals that in the days of the German Church Struggle rather more important enemies had come into view, against both Lutheran and Reformed must be mobilized.

            In the more technical elaboration of the dogmatic statements about Jesus Christ as ‘very God and very man’, that is, on the doctrine of the ‘assumption of the flesh’ (CD I/2: 165-171; Sumner 2014: 95-9), Barth comments on the ἐγéνετο (becoming) of John 1:14: ‘The event of the hypostatical union has to be understood as a completed event, but also as a completed event.’ The Lutherans address the ontological reference point of completeness, the identification of the Logos with Jesus in the flesh; the Reformed, for their part, address the dynamic and revelational event of the Logos becoming flesh, as the Word overcomes the divide between God and sinful human beings. The problem of the Lutheran position is that it risks obscuring the fact that God’s determination to be found only in this presence of the Son – at the cross, in the deepest humiliation – is conditional upon God’s freedom, and does not lead to the Word being submerged in the flesh that it becomes. The problem of the Reformed position, on the other hand, is that while it clearly sketches the path of reconciliation, it is less clear in stating where this path reaches its terminus, that is, the unity of Word andflesh. Barth does not propose a third position or synthesis between the both approaches. In Church Dogmatics I/2, he prefers to speak of ‘a twofold theological school’ (eine zweifache theologische Schule), in which each side is ‘calling to the other and questioning the other’ (gegenseitiger Ruf und gegenseitige Frage), since the reality of Jesus Christ ‘does not admit of being grasped or conceived by any unitary theology’ (Einheitstheologie) (CD I/2: 171).

The Christological Renewal in the Doctrine of Election

One has to ask therefore, whether and to what extent Barth preseveres with this twofold way of speaking, or whether he presents a new, unitary Christological proposal in the later volumes of Church Dogmatics. However, before one can pose this question, it is necessaty to examine the profound renewal he achieved in his part-volume on the doctrine of Election, published in 1942. To introduce his innovative thesis that Jesus Christ must be seen as the ‘electing God’ as well as ‘the elected human’, Barth offers an excursus on the prologue to the gospel of John. At this point, he drew on exegetical lectures he had given in Münster 1925/6, and later repeated in Bonn in 1933 (Sumner 2014: 79-84; Reeling Brouwer 2015: 234-5). At that time he had discovered, based on Schlatter (WW: 28), that the οὓτος of John 1:2 – ‘the same was in the beginning with God’ (KJV) – should not only be understood as an anaphoric (backward) reference to the ‘Word’ of the first verse, but also as a cataphoric (forward) reference (GA 9: 26-35). It is obvious, Barth claims, for the author of John, the Logos ‘plays … the role of a locum tenens [placeholder]’. having ‘the character of a quid pro quo’, and thus serving as ‘the provisional designation of a place which something or someone else will later fill’ (WW: 23). This ‘someone’ in question appears to be the one concerning whom John testifies in verse 15,  and who in verse 18 turns out to be Jesus Christ. So it is, then, that according to Barth the word ‘Logos’, which only appears in the first verses of the Prologue, ‘is a substitute for Jesus Christ. His is the place which at one and the same time is occupied, reserved, and delimited by the predicates which are ascribed to the Logos, by the history which is narrated about him’ (WW: 23). Inspired by this discovery, Barth’s dogmatic conclusion is as follows: ‘The choice or election of God is basically and properly God’s decision that the Word which is “the same”, and is called Jesus, should really be in the beginning, with himself, like himself, one with himself in his deity. And for this reason it is per se an election of grace’ (CD II/2: 101). When, as Barth asserts in Church Dogmatics I/2, revelation is eternal but not timeless, it also becomes possible to claim that ‘Jesus Christ is God in his movement towards man’ (CD II/2, 7). This is really a new proposition in the history of doctrine – though it can be argued that the fathers of the early church would have seen it as ‘Sabellian’ (Meijering 1993: 53, 244). It sept beyond the traditional category of a logos asarkos, a Logos ‘outside’ the flesh, a logos that has not yet become incarnate. From the ‘eternal beginning’ onwards, the Logos must be conceived as the placeholder for the historical name of Jesus, one human being in the midst of humanity. It is this insight that will, in fact, dominate the remaining volumes of Church Dogmatics.

Jesus Christ in the Doctrine of Reconciliation

Some General Remarks. Church Dogmatics IV/1, §§ 57-58

In the 1950’s Barth presented an innovative and experimental reworking of traditional loci. It is impossible to write comprehensively about the central place of Jesus Christ in the unfolding of thought that characterizes Church Dogmatics IV/-3. Fortunately several suitable surveys exist (Thompson 1978: 47-135; Webster 2000: 113-140; Bourgine 2009). In this section, I will confine myselves to remarks that connect with observations from the previous sections, and conclude by highlighting some issues that merit further discussion.

In attending to this material, what must be remembered at every juncture is the ‘sum of the gospel’ that is the doctrine of election: the conviction that God takes upon himself the rejection of sinful human being and elects humanity to participation in its own glory. When Church Dogmatics IV begins, it has become absolutely clear that this event is no timeless decision in heaven. On the contrary, this decision is executed and becomes apparent in the harsh and radical history on earth. Within this context God takes up the totally lost cause of humanity and makes it its own in Jesus Christ, the one who is at the same time the new and true human being who participates in the life of God and manifests God’s glory.

Presupposed throughout this history of reconciliation is the covenant, which, according to the mature view of Barth, only exists as the covenant of grace (Busch 2004: 95-9). This means that Jesus Christ can never be isolated from God’s witnesses in and to Israel, and that Jesus Christ embodies the destiny of all humanity, for there is no God but the God of the covenant (der Bundesgott) and no human being other than the one who stands within the covenant (der Bundesmensch). With that, any claim of ‘Christomonism’ (CD IV/4: 19) is excluded. It is simply not the case that Christ absorbs the histories of each individual into a generic story of humankind. On the contrary, all human beings are involved in this history in their own way, albeit in a way which allows them no neutrality.

Above, I raised the question as to whether Barth was working towards a ‘unitary’ Christology. The shape of Church Dogmatics IV/1-3 provides an answer. In Barth’s mind, it remains quite impossible for a theologian to represent the overwhelming reality of Christ through just one history, one story, or one theological line of thought. This reality must be set out along several pathways, just as one might go up through several naves of a basilica to the altar(s). As such, in Church Dogmatics IV, Barth does not simply repeat the testimonies of the various gospels or reconstruct the arguments of the various theological ‘schools’. Rather, he develops three successive representations of Jesus Christ, which must nevertheless be read simultaneously. Even so, with some qualifications one might say that the first ‘pathway’, which concerns the humiliation of the Son of God in his priestly office and is the ground of the human being’s justification in Christ, mostly resembles the Pauline witness and the theologies of Cyril and Luther (CD IV/1). The second pathway, which concerns the exaltation of the Son of Man in his royal office and is the ground of human being’s sanctification, displays certain affinities with the synoptic gospels and with the theological posture of the Antiochenes and the Reformed (CD IV/2). Finally the third pathway, which concerns the revelation of the life of the Mediator between God and humanity in his prophetic office and is the ground of humanity’s calling, has parallels with the Gospel of John (CD IV/3). This last pathway discloses a Christological  approach particularly necessary for theology in the modern period, given that with the coming of the end of Christendom, the missionary task of the community of Jesus Christ has a special urgency unknown to former generations.

It is worth noting, finally, that Church Dogmatics IV was written in a fraught context –  after two World Wars and a significant economic depression, and in the midst of the Cold War. In these circumstances, there was little agreement as to the meaning of and status of humanity as such. In pursuing his ‘Christological concentration’, then, one task which Barth attempted was to search for the meaning of humanity, and to locate this mystery hidden in the act of the grace of God in which the eternal Son of God assumed human flesh. In what Barth writes concerning about the exaltation of the Son of Man, or about human rights and human dignity (as linked to justification), this search is clearly present in his argument.

Church Dogmatics IV/1 § 59: The Obedience of the Son of God

In § 59.1, Barth continues to uphold his early confession of the deity of Christ. But he now explains it in this way – that ‘God as God is able and willing and ready to condescend, to humble Himself’ (CD IV/1: 177). He continues: ‘Who the one true God is, and what He is… His “divine nature” … this we have to discover from the fact that as such he (Christ) is the very man and a partaker of human nature … from what He has done and suffered in the flesh’ (CD IV/1: 177), as ‘He humbles himself and becomes lowly and obedient … without being in contradiction with His divine nature’ (CD: 199). That means, also, that the obedience of the Son of God and the equality of the Father and the Son are not in contradiction. Rather, Barth posits, ‘God is God in these two modes of being … in the history which takes place between them’ (CD IV/1: 203). This is not a ‘kenotic’ Christology in the 19th century sense of the word, but it might be asked whether this rendering of the matter does not invite us to speak of a willed self-emptying and receptivity by the Logos vis-à-vis the experience of the human nature it assumed – its obedience, its passion, its being condemned and brought to death (McCormack 2006; commented on by Jones 2008: 214).

Barth’s first major elaboration of the priestly office of Christ since the Göttingen Dogmatics is found in § 59.2. It would be interesting to compare both texts in detail. In his mature work in Church Dogmatics, Barth at this point often retains Anselmian or orthodox Reformed vocabulary, yet – often more through suggestion than argument – he effects slight modifications of the tradition. Specifically, Barth does not primarily focus on the morifs of the priest who offers a sacrifice, but instead consistently favours juridical forms of expression (perhaps thereby generating some problems – see Thomas 2002). To the question, ‘what did Jesus Christ do for us and for the world?’ Barth answers: ‘he took our place as Judge. He took our place as the judged. He was judged in our place. And he acted justly in our place’ (CD IV/1: 273). Jesus Christ, in other words, executed divine judgement over sin by undergoing it himself – Barth recalls here Rom. 8:3: ‘God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, and condemned sin in the flesh’ (CD IV/1: 255). In this event the human sinner meets the annihilating fire of God’s love (Jones 2008: 239; see also Mikkelsen 2010: 178-202).

A ‘transitional discussion’ is offered in § 59.3. In the new act of raising Jesus from the dead, God the Father declares a verdict on the path followed by the Son – a verdict that asserts that the Son acted justly. This is an assessment of Jesus Christ in his following the will of his Father by going the way of the cross, of course; but at the same time it forms the basis of the change in de standing of human beings of all times (CD IV/1: 316). And the only possible response human beings can give to this event, this change in standing, is the response of faith.

Church Dogmatics IV/2 §64: The Exaltation of the Son of Man

In the second part-volume of Church Dogmatics IV, Barth writes that in de divine election of grace, in which ‘we have to do with the Son of Man elected by the eternal Son of God’, ‘we have to do with His election to a fellowship with God corresponding to God’s fellowship with him, and therefore to his wonderful exaltation to be the faithful covenant-partner of God, to an existence as the brightness of His glory, to participation in His own, eternal life, in the perfect service of His Word and work’ (CD IV/2: 34). Indeed, Barth observes, ‘[a]ll that follows depends on this. Reconciled man is not merely a shadow of the reconciling God. The exaltation of man is not to be envisaged only optionally with the humiliation of God’ (CD IV/2, 35). Barth begins his exposition on this second aspect of the one Christ-event, which is just as important as the first aspect treated in the previous part-volume, with an exploration of the hypostatic union and the togetherness of the true God and the true human being in the one person of Jesus Christ (§ 64.1). He seems to repeat many of his statements found in Church Dogmatics I/2, but he now has a greater tendency to reframe the language of ‘natures’ (which is prominent in the Symbol of Chalcedon of 451) and to emphasize instead the story of reconciliation as the telling of a story, as real history. After dealing with the an/enhypostatic character of the hypostatic union, Barth pursues an exploration of threefold communication that exists between the divine and the human in this union, and in doing so follows the order of Johannes Wollebius (CD IV/2: 73). The discussion with the Lutherans on the subject of the communication of properties (communicatio idiomatum) is more balanced than it was in the time of Göttingen, but distrust remains: Barth posits that there must be ‘no deification of the creature or humanisation of the Creator, or both’ (CD IV/2: 79). The communication of graces (communicatio gratiarum), meanwhile, gives Barth the opportunity to elaborate, as Calvin had done earlier, on ‘the presence and effective working’ of the Holy Spirit both in the life of Jesus and in the execution of his royal office towards the community (CD IV/2: 94-5), And Barth conceives finally of the communication of works (communicatio operationum) as the ‘common actualisation of divine and human essence as it takes place in Jesus Christ’ (CD IV/2: 104). Here one might comment that an argument that began in an Alexandrian key, with the identity of the divine person and  his human person, ends in the Antiochene key that emphasizes the relationship of God and human being in Jesus Christ (Hunsinger 2015: 162; contra Waldrop 1984; cf. Loon 2003).

Barth’s subsequent section entitled ‘The royal man’ (§ 64.2) has been linked to the ‘new quest’ for the historical Jesus in New Testament exegesis. Yet it is clear that Barth upholds here the legacy of Martin Kähler, emphasizing that all knowledge of Jesus, at least as it is given in the synoptic gospels, depends on his self-revelation to his disciples in his resurrection and ascension (CD IV/2: 156). Barth himself conceived of his detailed sketch of the human Jesus as a new undertaking in dogmatics. The doctrine of the threefold communicatio is presupposed here. Jesus as the true human being lives in conformity to God, and this implies a particular kind of revolutionary preaching and acting that is determined by a particular exercise of human freedom (Jones 2008: 150-83). At this point, on a secondary level, there is a connection to contemporary debates around the Cold War: for Barth, a free human being who tried to escape the so-called inevitable alternatives of that time could only exist in affliction (see the personally tinted material on CD IV/2, 609-11).

The ‘transitional discussion’ in this volume (§ 64.3) can be characterized by noting the way in which Barth cites questions 45 and 49 in the Heidelberg Catechism regarding the benefits of Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Barth notes that the Catechism responds that the respective benefits are ‘that we are awakened now by His power to a new life’, and ‘that we should have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he as the head will also take to himself us as his members’ (CD IV/2: 274). It is for Barth these answers, in fact, that form the basis for everything that is to be said on Christian discipleship.

Church Dogmatics IV/3 § 69: The Glory of the Mediator

After two simultaneous movements that are respectively conceived of as downward (‘the humiliation of the Son of God’) and upward (‘the exaltation of the Son of Man’), there follows in the third part-volume of Church Dogmatics IV the description of a third forward movement, in which the Glory of the Mediator between God and humanity, the ‘light of life’ (§ 69.2), illuminates the world. As Barth had discovered in Göttingen, the prophetic office deals with the Word of God. But unlike in his first attempt in dogmatics, Barth now places this prophetic office at the close of his presentation. For, as revelation is reconciliation, reconciliation in its turn is also revelation. In this way Barth is able to resume the epistemological subject of Church Dogmatics I in the conclusion of Church Dogmatics IV. At the same time, there is a significant shift between the 1930s and 1950s. In a certain sense, one can say that what Barth was reading in the prologue to John, that the Logos in the beginning must be seen as ‘placeholder’ for the concrete Name of Jesus Christ, is also true for the discourse of the Church Dogmatics as a whole. Retrospectively, the Word of God of volume I of Church Dogmatics can be seen to function as a ‘placeholder’ for the all-embracing and gracious presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ himself, who concretely dominates the volumes on reconciliation in volume IV.

            The work of the Reconciler is here conceived as that of Christ revealing himself (§ 69.3). This is joined to the ‘transitional discussion’ on the threefold parousia (coming again) of Jesus Christ: in his resurrection on Easter morning, in the impartation of the Holy Spirit, and in his coming as the Author of the general resurrection of the dead and the Fulfiller of universal judgement (§ 69.4: ‘The Promise of the Spirit’). ‘In these last days’ (Hebrews 1:2), Barth observes, the Christian community does not live in an empty time; it lives in a time filled by the presence of Christ in the Spirit. Now, right now, Jesus Christ is a living person – both in Scripture and in us. Under the two first points of view of Church Dogmatics IV, it was necessary to think about the connection between the time of the Bible and the time of the community, and to pose the question of  how is it possible that the historical events of cross and resurrection are at the same time current events. But in this third point of view, now Barth looks forwards, in the presence and at the same time in the expectation of the third form of the parousia. The cry that was decisive for Blumhardt the elder, ‘Jesus is Victor’ (Jesus ist Sieger), is a cry for the demonstration of the actual power of the Lord. In this manner, at the end of his lifelong reflection, Barth once again revealed himself to be a theologian of Bad Boll. The circle was closed, even as it was also lifted up to a higher level, with the Lord expected as the one who is,  who was, and who is to come (Revvelation 1:8).


There is an array of clear tendencies evident in the Christology of Church Dogmatics IV/1-3, some of which have been extended or just questioned in the theological debates that have arisen since Barth’s death. Four merit mention here by way of conclusion.

First, it seems apt that Church Dogmatics IV/1 §59.1, on the obedience of the eternal Son in his self-offering and humiliation, be read simultaneously with Church Dogmatics IV/2, §64.3, which reckons with ‘the Son of Man who is willing to undergo his hanging on the gallows as a criminal between two other criminals, and his dying with that last despairing question on His lips, as One who was condemned and maltreated and scorned by men and abandoned by God’ (CD IV/2: 252). Yet in §64.3, Barth fails to go back to the view-point of Church Dogmatics IV/1 and does not ask how this historical experience of the Son of Man was received by God. This raises questions that require further investigations, particularly with respect to  how the ‘receptivity’ of the eternal Son, vis-à-vis the experiences of suffering and death on the side of the human being Jesus, actually plays out.

 Second, there is the issue of the Holy Spirit. In §64.2 Barth modifies the traditional reformed doctrine of the communication of graces (communicatio gratiarum).He stresses that ‘divine grace is particularly addressed to, given to and received by the man Jesus’, who participates ‘not only in the good-pleasure of God the Father but also in the presence and the effective working of the Holy Spirit’ (CD IV/2: 89 and 94). This line of thought, it would seem, may make it possible to connect fruitfully elements of Barth’s Christological perspective with  more recent theological explorations in so-called Spirit Christology.

 Third, one might bring Barth into conversation with other recent theological trends. For Barth, some physical aspects of salvation, that had often been neglected in western Christianity, were highly relevant for, and closely related to, the ‘Christ is Victor!’ (Christus victor) motif, which had obvious connections to the ministry of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt in Bad Boll. Barth recognized the importance of the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in this respect, but in the contemporary ecumenical situation an engagement with the theologies of  Pentecostals and with Christologies from the African context would also be important.

 Fourth and finally, one might consider the connections between Christology and ethics. In the years after the Second World War, Barth’s Doctrine of reconciliation, in which the divine revolution from heaven changes the traditional coordinates of divinity and humanity, helped to reinstate confidence in Christian discourse of ‘the exaltation of humanity’, after a period of totalitarian horror. Talk of ‘exaltation’, going beyond talk of mere justification, supplied a foundation for a particular Christian affirmation of human rights. Yet in our contemporary context, challenges to human dignity and human rights continue apace. The result is that our speaking of the revolution of God in Jesus Christ can sometimes sound more muted, our confession of Jesus as Lord appear more fragmentary, and the testimonies of our lives express themselves in more afflicted ways. Indeed, as Barth declared, ‘the confession that Jesus is Lord …. involves a task with which we have to deal anew each day if we would understand who and what he is’ (GA 25: 515).

Suggested Reading

– Bourgine, Benoît (2009). ‘The Christology of Karl Barth’, in: Hall, Stuart George (ed.), Jesus Christ Today. Studies of Christology in Various Contexts, Berlin – New York: De Gruyter, 179-208.

– Hunsinger, George (2000). ‘Karl Barth’s Christology: its basic Chalcedonian character’, in: Webster, John (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge University Press, 127-142.

– Jones, Paul Dafydd (2008). The Humanity of Christ. Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, London: T&T Clark/Continuum.

– McCormack, Bruce L. (2006). ‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, 243-251.

– Mikkelsen, Hans V. (2010). Reconciled Humanity. Karl Barth in Dialogue, Grand Rapids Mi.: Eerdmans.

–  Sumner, Darren O. (2014). Karl Barth and the Incarnation. Christology and the Humility of God, London – New Delhi – New York – Sydney: Bloomsbury.


– Bourgine, Benoît (2009). ‘The Christology of Karl Barth’, in: Hall, Stuart George (ed.), Jesus Christ Today. Studies of Christology in Various Contexts, Berlin – New York: De Gruyter, 179-208.

– Busch, Eberhard (2004). The Great Passion, Grand Rapids Mi.: Eerdmans, 82-105.

– Heppe, Heinrich (2007), Reformed Dogmatics, Eugene Or.: Wipf & Stock.

– Hunsinger, George (2000). ‘Karl Barth’s Christology: its basic Chalcedonian character’, in: Webster, John (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge University Press, 127-142.

– Hunsinger, George (2015). ‘Schleiermacher and Barth: two divergent views on Christ and Salvation’, in: Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed, Grand Rapids Mi.: Eerdmans, 146-168.

– Jones, Paul Dafydd (2008). The Humanity of Christ. Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, London: T&T Clark/Continuum.

– Loon, Hans C. van. ‘Karl Barth und Chalkedon’ (2003), ZDTh 19/2, 162-182.

– McCormack, Bruce L. (1995). Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936, Oxford: Clarendon.

– McCormack, Bruce L. (2006), ‘Karl Barth’s Christology as a Resource for a Reformed Version of Kenoticism’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 8, 243-251.

– Meijering, E.P. (1993). Von den Kirchenvätern zu Karl Barth. Das altkirchliche Dogma in der ‘Kirchlichen Dogmatik’, Amsterdam: Gieben.

– Mikkelsen, Hans V. (2010). Reconciled Humanity. Karl Barth in Dialogue, Grand Rapids Mi.: Eerdmans.

– Reeling Brouwer, Rinse H. (2015). Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy, Farnham UK: Ashgate.

– Resch, Dustin (2012). Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth. A sign of Mystery, Farnham UK: Ashgate.

– Shults, F. Le Ron (1996). ‘A dubious Christological Formula. From Leontium of Byzantium to Karl Barth’, Theological Studies 57, 431-446.

– Spieckermann, Ingrid (1985). Gotteserkenntnis. Ein Beitrag zur Grundfrage der neuen Theologie Karl Barths, München: Chr. Kaiser.

–  Sumner, Darren O. (2014). Karl Barth and the Incarnation. Christology and the Humility of God, London – New Delhi – New York – Sydney: Bloomsbury.

– Thomas, Günter (2002), ‘Der für uns “gerichtete Richter”. Kritische Erwägungen zu Karl Barths Versöhnungslehre’, ZDT 18/2, 211-225.

– Thompson, John (1978. 22012). Christ in Perspective in the Theology of Karl Barth, Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press

– Waldrop, Charles T. (1984). Karl Barth’s Christology. Its Basic Alexandrian Character, Berlin – New York – Amsterdam: Mouton.

– Webster, John (2000). Karl Barth, London/New York: Continuum.

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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