Advent with Barth: God’s Own Work is Seen in God’s Own Light

Friday, December 7, 2018

In order to reach the dogmatic a posteriori understanding (understanding from experience) in view, it is, above all, necessary to realize 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. 

The dogma of the Virgin birth is not, then, a repetition or description of the vere Deus vere homo (very God and 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. 

The dogma of the Virgin birth is thus the confession of the boundless hiddenness of the vere Deus vere homo and of the boundless amazement of awe and thankfulness called forth in us by this vere Deus vere homo.

It eliminates the last surviving possibility of understanding the vere Deus vere homo intellectually, as an idea or an arbitrary interpretation in the sense of docetic (the belief that Jesus seemed to be fully human but was not fully human) or ebionite (the belief that Jesus was the Messiah but not God) Christology.

It leaves only the spiritual understanding of the vere Deus vere homo, i.e., the understanding in which God’s own work is seen in God’s own light.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 177

Advent with Barth: The Compelling Light of Revelation

Thursday, December 6, 2018

It certainly was not their age and source-value that brought the narratives of the Virgin birth in the text of the Gospels and out of this text into the creed.

But a certain inward, essential rightness and importance in their connection with the person of Jesus Christ first admitted them to a share in the Gospel witness. 

At first this was announced with great reserve but in the last resort quite definitely, and then admitted also to a share in the Church confession and dogma in contrast to some other elements in this testimony which outwardly (and apparently inwardly too) were much more distinctive.

The question to which we must address ourselves here and give a serious answer is, whether this rightness and importance, which they must have had at the rise of the canonical New Testament, and then again at the framing of dogma, are so compellingly illuminated for us that we, too, must acknowledge the essential rightness and importance of the narratives of the Virgin birth.

By putting the question in this way we shall be quite clear that in answering it we are concerned only with an a posteriori understanding (understanding from experience) of the rightness and importance which belong to this matter in revelation itself, for only in so far as the rightness and importance arise out of revelation can they shine upon us with compelling light.

Behind literary as behind dogmatic investigation there arises the quaestio facti (question of fact), which cannot be answered either by literary or by dogmatic investigation. 

It is fitting, however, that in the realm of theology literary and dogmatic investigation should both be undertaken in the first instance (i.e., until the utter impossibility of this procedure is demonstrated) sub conditione facti (In consideration of the facts.)

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 176-177

Advent with Barth: Revelation and Dogma


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

It is this mystery of Christmas which is indicated in Scripture 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.

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 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 realize its necessity, and this realization will have to be substantiated in an attempt to understand it.

As regards the necessity of the dogma, we must begin with the admission that both in extent and form the grounds for the dogma in the statements of Holy Scripture are not at first sight so strong or so clear as one might wish for such a dogma in the strict sense of the term.

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 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.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 173-174, 176

Advent with Barth: Revelation and Reconciliation (A Brief Reflection on God’s Revelation of Jesus Christ)

“Everyone marries a stranger.”

As I prepare to perform my first marriage in April, the words of my friend and fellow pastor, Tom Cannon, haunt me. He’s right, of course. I think most couples who’ve been married, even for a little bit, know this. You don’t really know who you’ve married until you’re married.

So how do you counsel two strangers who have made the decision to spend the rest of their lives together? How can two people decide to become one flesh in the first place?

If we can know so little about our spouses before we marry them, if our spouses can remain mysteries to us even years after our weddings, then how can we claim to know God? My spouse is at least another human. I’ve spent more time with her than anyone else. Yet if I don’t even know her as well as I think I should, how can I know the God of the universe? Of course, whatever I know about my spouse is by what she shows me. And what we know about God is what God shows us. This is revelation. But this revelation does not happen haphazardly (as is often the case with learning about our spouses). God does not give us bits of data that we can contemplate and place into neat categories. God’s revelation is a gift, something imparted to us.

Indeed, God’s revelation is Someone who comes to us. We cannot master this Someone who comes to us; we must be mastered by him.

This Someone is Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture attests to this revelation of God as the Word (John 1:1-14), specifically the Word that was made flesh, the incarnation of his Word. For Barth, the incarnation of God’s Word is the objective reality of God’s revelation. God is always the Subject of his own revelation – it is his revelation, by him and about him, not us. The Holy Spirit in us is the subjective reality of this revelation – God is at work in us to fulfill his revelation.

 But Jesus as the objective realityof God’s revelation stands outside of us. As such, we are always talking about a mystery, what Barth calls “the prime mystery.” Jesus Christ cannot be pinned down by us. We are dominated by this Someone who is above us.

And yet, he is one of us. The Creator of this world is a member of this world. The Maker of human beings has become a human being. In Jesus Christ, God is both revelation to us and our reconciliation with him. God shows us who he is by becoming one of us, and in becoming one of us, he restores us to relationship with him.

Even in this relationship, we cannot say that we know him (like we might be bold enough to say about our spouses after a few years). The best we can do is acknowledge him; we confess him as very God and very man. The prime mystery of God’s revelation remains a mystery to us. But the miracle of Christmas is that he is no longer a stranger. He is our Bridegroom. Amen.

Advent with Barth: Revelation and Reconciliation


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

“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 has already taken place is the content of the Christmas message.

But even in the very act of knowing this reality and 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 realization 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.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 173

Advent with Barth: Jesus is “Very God and Very Man”

The nativity

Monday, December 3, 2018

(God’s revelation in its objective reality is the person of Jesus Christ. This revelation becomes the object of our knowledge by its own power and not by ours.)

The act of knowing it is distinctive as one which we actually can achieve, but which we cannot understand, in the sense that we simply do not understand how we can achieve it.

We can understand the possibility of it solely from the side of its object, i.e., we can regard it not as ours, but as one coming to us, imparted to us, gifted to us.

In this bit of knowing we are not the masters but the mastered.

It is when we are in the act of knowing God’s revelation, amid the objective reality of it, in the act of knowing the person of Jesus Christ, that this must be said.

If we do not know this person, if we are unaware of the reality of “very God and very Man,” we will certainly not say this, but confidently ascribe to ourselves the possibility of knowing it.

If we are aware of it and declare that it is true, we will also be aware and will not hesitate to declare, that it can be manifest to us in its truth only by its own agency and not because of any capacity belonging to us; just as a man justified by faith in Christ, and he alone, is aware and confesses that he is a lost sinner, whereas one who has not received forgiveness will definitely regard himself as a man with power to justify himself.

Thus it is in the act of knowing revelation that it will always be and become a mystery to us.

It is indeed the prime mystery, because strictly, logically and properly, it is only of this object, of the person of Jesus Christ, that all this can be said.

That is the outcome of our Christological foundation and it remains for us now to make its content quite explicit and understandable.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 172

Advent with Barth: God’s Revelation is Jesus Christ


First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

God’s revelation in its objective reality is the incarnation of His Word, in that He, the one true eternal God, is at the same time true Man like us.

God’s revelation in its objective reality is the person of Jesus Christ.

In establishing this we have not explained revelation, or made it obvious, or brought it in the series of the other objects of our knowledge.

On the contrary, in establishing this and looking back at it we have described and designated it a mystery, and not only a mystery but the prime mystery.

In other words, it becomes the object of our knowledge; it finds a way of becoming the content of our experience and our thought; it gives itself to be apprehended by our contemplation and our categories.

But it does that beyond the range of what we regard as possible for our contemplation and perception, beyond the confines of our experience and our thought.

It comes to us as a Novum (a new thing) which, when it becomes an object for us, we cannot incorporate in the series of our other objects, cannot compare with them, cannot deduce from their context, cannot regard as analogous with them.

It comes to us as a datum (a piece of information) with no point of connection with any other previous datum.

It becomes the object of our knowledge by its own power and not by ours.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 172

Our Advent-ing God

Rev. Adam S. Borneman is a dear friend to Homewood CPC and currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife Jessica and daughters Maggie and Hanna. He will be contributing to the HCPC blog regularly beginning with this post.


If there’s one time of year that reminds us that God is the primary agent, subject, actor, or any other term that highlights God’s initiative over ours, its Advent. We didn’t “figure out” God from our lived experience. Our lived experiences only reveal to us our limited capacity for knowing God and the necessity for God to move toward us if we are to know him at all. “Ex nobis, pro nobis, in Christo,” (Outside of us, for us, in Christ) Martin Luther once put it.

And so, the eternal triune God, who is above, beyond, and outside of us, graciously creates us and perennially moves toward us in love. With this in mind, we begin to see more clearly that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the only “advent.” It is a – or perhaps the – climactic moment in the life of Triune God who is always advent-ing toward each of us and toward the whole world in ways that are mysterious, beautiful, and often difficult to grasp. The season of Advent is simply an opportunity for us to focus on how God reveals to us that he is, in a sense, always coming to us.

God has always been showing up on his own initiative in “fleshy” ways: at creation taming the waters, walking in the garden of Eden, as three men at Abraham’s door, as Jacob’s wrestling partner, an angel on several occasions, and as a “Word” that “comes” to various patriarchs, kings, and prophets. And may we not overlook Israel’s designation as “the Son of God,” called to embody and give witness to God’s grace, justice, and steadfast love before the nations. These are all very “fleshy” movements of God toward the world in love. Whether these instances mark appearances of the second person of the Trinity in some form is a conversation for another day, but we would do well to keep them in mind was we reflect on God coming to us.

It’s easy during Advent for us to slide into the temptation of thinking “I need to get closer to God this Advent.” My advice would be to stop trying so hard. Sure, pick up that advent devotional, light a wreath, sing hymns. Yes and Amen. I’m doing the same. But these are only ways of acknowledging that God has always been moving toward us and that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has come become supremely, shockingly, and intimately close. Mary initially thought it impossible, and I think we still do. God’s movements toward us often happen in ways we don’t anticipate or expect, but always in ways that are ultimately for our good and the good of the whole world. What’s more it’s all God’s initiative, not ours. And that will always be the case. So take a deep breath, know that the Son of God is drawing close, and rest in the grace of God’s advent.