Dustin Resch, Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth. A Sign of a Mystery (Barth Studies)


ZDTh  Book Review

Dustin Resch, Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth. A Sign of Mystery, Ashgate (Barth Studies Series), Furnham 2012, 218 pp. £ 55.00, ISBN 9781409441175

Barth’s productive use of the article of the Apostles Creed on the Virgin Birth of the Lord provoked a lot of discussion from its first public treatment in the Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf of 1927 onwards. In this study, Resch (Briercrest College and Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan) offers an informative overview of its intention and its development. After a brief overview of the treatment of the article according to select figures in the history of theology, who will be compared with Barth’s approach later on in the book, a second Chapter sketches the development of Barth’s doctrine. The most important refinement between the Göttingen Dogmatics and the Church Dogmatics appears to be the distinction between the sign of the novum and the new creation or incarnation itself, whereby this signum not accidentally refers to this res. In the third and fourth chapter we find a review of Barth’s commentary of both parts of the article: natus ex Maria virgine (CD I/2, 185-196, Chap. 3) and conceptus de Spirito Sancto (CD I/2, 196-202, Chap. 4). Because of its ecumenical importance, a commentary is added on the excursus about Mary’ title qeotokoj of the Council of Ephesus, and Barth’s critique of Roman-Catholic Mariology in the earlier paragraph on Christology (CD I/2, 139-146, Chap. 5). In the conclusion, Resch raises five questions that follow from Barth’s innovation of this article of faith, pertaining to: 1. de category of a sign; 2. the criteria for judging the fittingness of a doctrine; 3. Barth’s use of the man-woman typology (Barth’s thoughts on the world history as a male history and his rehabilitation of Joseph, the man who first was eliminated as a procreator and then re-involved by calling the name of Jesus, so extensively discussed in gender studies); 4. the broader context of the stories of Matthew and Luke in the biblical canon; 5. the suitability of the spiritual conception of Jesus as an image to discuss the regeneration of Christians. It is my taste that he is too cautious here: after such a careful investigation the author could have been more clear and open in elaborating his own line of thought.

One of the theses in this book is that the informal lectures on the first Chapter of Luke that Barth held for his students in advent 1934 form a decisive step in the development of his thoughts between the Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf and the Utrecht Explanation of the Creed of 1935 and subsequently the Kirchliche Dogmatik I/2 of 1938. Unfortunately, this thesis is based on a lack of information on Barth’s writing procedure, producing his Dogmatics. We know exactly when he began with his lectures that finally would become the text of CD § 15.3, namely May 7. of 1934 in Bonn (Karl Barth – Eduard Thurneysen Briefwechsel Band 3, Zürich 2000, 650; cf. the witness in Antwort (1956) of the Japanese student K. Takizawa, who visited these lectures). We also know that he started with the doctrine of the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit (§ 16) in the winter semester of 1934-1935, until he was forced to stop lecturing. Therefore, the thesis is not correct: the doctrinal renewal preceded the biblical meditations. But the question of date is interesting for more reasons. The summer semester of 1934 coincided with the Synod of Barmen (May 31) and the sending by Emil Brunner of his polemical brochure against Barth’s Natur und Gnade (announced in a letter by Brunner of May 8). It would be interesting to search the text of CD § 15.3 for signals of these debates: how do the discussions on the Virgin Birth and on Natural Theology relate to each other? Undoubtedly, Barth made some additions in his text before publishing editing it. To these additions belongs a grim outburst against the footnote on the Virgin Birth in Brunner’s Der Mensch im Widerspruch of 1937 (CD I/2, 184: ‘so bad that my only possible attitude to this is silence’). Brunner is saying there that the presupposition of the doctrine in the old Church was, that the mother of Christ should be a sheer passive vessel for receiving the seed of the divine spirit. Schleiermacher already had been presenting the same observation, and had opposed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth also in the name of the female sexuality in its own rights. Apparently, Barth had expected more theological sensitivity from Brunner.

Rinse Reeling Brouwer

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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