Advent with Barth: The Gracious Judgment of the Nativity

Monday, December 17, 2018

But how far is it the ex virgine (of the virgin) that points to this penetration and new beginning?

Virgin birth means birth without previous sexual union between man and woman. Speaking generally, it is what it lacks that distinguishes the birth of Christ, that marks it as the mystery of God, the penetration and new beginning within humanity.

But what is it in this lack that acts as a sign?

Here we cannot consider the quite un-biblical view that sexual life as such is to be regarded as an evil to be removed, so that the active sign is to be sought in the fact that this removal is here presumed to have taken place.

But if, to be precise, we add that it is not the natural but the sinful element in sexual life which caused it to be excluded here as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ, we still do not give a valid account of the ex virgine.

It is not because of the sin actually involved in all sexual life that man is altogether a sinner who continually lives in disobedience by living it out.

He is altogether a sinner from birth, who all through his life lives out the disobedience in which his life is already involved.

And so all sexual life is involved in sin as well, and is itself sin.

Thus the exclusion of this sinful sexual life does not mean the exclusion of sin in the sense of peccatum originale (original sin),and so this exclusion is still as unsuitable as ever to be the sign of the penetration and new beginning in the existence of Jesus Christ, to be the sign of His sinlessness.

In the form of the natus ex virgine (born of the virgin) sinful sexual life is excluded as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ.

But this is understandable and significant only if we keep in mind the fact that the limitation of man achieved in the ex virgine, the meaning of the judgment on man therein expressed, cannot be discerned at all from the side of that which is limited or judged, that is, of the sin of man, but only from that of Him who limits or judges, that is, of what God is, wills and does here in excluding the sinful life of sex.

The mystery of revelation and reconciliation consists in the fact that in His freedom, mercy and omnipotence, God became man, and as such acts upon man.

By this action of God sin is excluded and nullified.

And to this particular action of God the natus ex virgine (born of a virgin) points.

It is the sign that the sinful life of sex is excluded as the origin of the human existence of Jesus Christ.

In that God in His revelation and reconciliation is the Lord and makes room for Himself among us, man and his sin are limited and judged.

God is also Lord over His sinful creature.

God is also free over its original sin, the sin that is altogether bound up with its existence and antecedent to every evil thought, word, and deed.

And God–but God only–is free to restore this freedom to His creature.

This freedom will always be the freedom of His own action upon His creature, and so the negation of a freedom of this creature’s own.

Since it lives by His grace, it is judged in its own will and accomplishment.

If the natus ex virgine with its exclusion of the sinful life of sex points to this gracious judgment of God, it really signifies the exclusion of sin in the sense of peccatum originale.

That it does actually point to this gracious judgment of God, we realize when we consider that in the birth without previous sexual union of man and woman (of which Scripture speaks), man is involved in the form of Mary, but involved only in the form of the virgo Maria (Virgin Mary), i.e., only in the form of non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign man, only in the form of man who can merely receive, merely to be ready, merely to let something be done to and with himself.

This human being, the virgo, becomes the possibility, becomes the mother of God’s Son in the flesh.

It is not, of course, that she is this; but she becomes it.

And she does not become it of her own capacity; she acquires capacity by the act of the Son of God assuming flesh.

It is not as though this non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being as such can have brought anything to the active God as her own, in which her adaptability for God consists.

It is not as if virginity as a human possibility constitutes the point of connection for divine grace.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, pages 189-191.

Advent with Barth: A Judgment Upon Man

Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2018

In the ex virgine (of the virgin) 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.

If he has this power–and Mary clearly has it–it means strictly and exclusively that he acquires it, that it is laid upon him.

In this power of his for God he can as little understand himself as Mary in the story of the Annunciation could understand herself as the future mother of the Messiah.

Only with her Ecce ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaiden of God) can he understand himself as what, in a way inconceivable to himself, he has actually become in the sight of God and by His agency.

The meaning of this judgment, this negation, is not the difference between God as Creator and man as a creature.

Man as a creature–if we try for a moment to speak of man in this abstract way–might have the capacity for God and even be able to understand himself in this capacity.

In Paradise there would have been no need of the sign ex virgine to indicate that man was God’s fellow-worker.

But the man whom revelation reaches, and who is reconciled to God in revelation and by it, is not man in Paradise.

He has not ceased to be God’s creature.

But he has lost his pure creatureliness, and with it the capacity for God, because as a creature and in the totality of his creatureliness he became disobedient to his Creator.

To the roots of his being he lives in this disobedience.

It is with the disobedient creature that God has to do in His revelation.

It is his nature, his flesh, that the Word assumes in being made flesh.

And this human nature, the only one we know and the only one there actually is, has of itself no capacity for being adopted by God’s Word into unity with Himself, i.e, into personal unity with God.

Upon this human nature a mystery must be wrought in order that this may be made possible.

And this mystery must consist in its receiving the capacity for God which it does not possess.

This mystery is signified by the natus ex virgine.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 188-189

Advent with Barth: The Revealer of God

Saturday, December 15, 2018

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, is a miracle.

That is to say, it is an event in the 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.

It is a sign set up immediately by God, and can only be understood as such. 

But just because like all biblical miracles the ex virgine is essentially a sign, in our interpretation of it we ought not to be content merely to make clear its discontinuity, its “supernaturalness.”

Miraculous and marvelous as such, indispensable though that is, we still remain in the sphere in which there are marvels according to heathen religion and cosmology too, marvels with a strong resemblance to the biblical marvel, even to the natus ex virgine itself.

The way in which the natus ex virgine appears in the New Testament and the way in which it has been expounded in the Early Church give us no right to abide by that founding and to regard the marvelous as the original motive of the dogma.

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 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.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 187

Advent with Barth: The Word Became Flesh

Friday, December 14, 2018

God Himself and God alone is Master and Lord.

This cannot be stated strongly enough, exclusively enough, negatively enough against all synergism or even monism.

It must not be so stated, however, that what is simple and definite is forgotten or obscured.

It is he, man, who is central in this event.

It is not an event in the loneliness of God, but an event between God and man.

Man is not there only in a supplementary capacity.

In his own place, his own sharply defined manner, he participates in the event as one of the principals; not as a cipher or as a phantom, but as the real man that he is.

The Word became flesh.

He participates in it as a real man can, where God Himself, God alone is the Subject, Lord and Master. 

It is not that he is not in it.

But even more refined and precise statements we make regarding the sovereignty of God in this event can only describe how real man participates in it and to what extent he can do so.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 186

Advent with Barth: The Real Son of a Real Mother

Thursday, December 13, 2018

But we must at once make it clear that the negative in the first clause also includes a positive, a very important, positive assertion.

It does not speak only of something utterly enigmatic that becomes an event within human reality, and therefore of the sovereignty of God which has to be borne in mind in view of this event.

It also speaks of the human reality of Jesus Christ, although it speaks of it with unheard-of limitation, and by the proclamation of pure enigma.

Otherwise it would not describe this mystery, the mystery of Christmas, the sovereignty of God manifested in the fact that here God’s reality becomes one with human reality.

By is natus ex Maria it states that the person Jesus Christ is the real son of a real mother, the son born of the body, flesh and blood of his mother, both of them as real as all the other sons of other mothers.

It is thus that Jesus Christ is born and not otherwise.

In this complete sense, He, too, is a man.

In this complete sense, then, He is man in a different way from the others sons of other mothers.

But the difference under consideration here is so great, so fundamental and comprehensive, that it does not impair the completeness and genuineness of His humanity.

Thus in the words natus 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.

That and nothing else is the act of the divine sovereignty which we call the mystery of Christmas.

Only because that really happened is it the mystery of God’s revelation to us and of our reconciliation to God.

It is important for the whole concept of revelation, grace, faith, and in the last analysis for all departments of theological investigation and teaching, to be quite clear that this natus ex Maria is included in the dogma, that the miracle of Christmas has as one of its elements the not at all miraculous reality of man.

If Emmanuel is true the miracle is done upon him.

It is man who is the object of sovereign divine action in this event.

God Himself and God alone is Master and Lord.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 185-186

Advent with Barth: Born of the Virgin Mary

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Have we now proved the need for our dogma? Undoubtedly not.

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 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.

The most suitable starting-point is the quite unambiguous second clause: Natus ex Maria virgine (born of the Virgin Mary).

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 is 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 (conceived by the Holy Spirit), 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.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 184-185

Advent with Barth: The Virgin Womb and The Empty Tomb

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The mutual relationship between these two limits may perhaps be defined thus.

The Virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation.

It denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place — God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man.

In Jesus Christ, God comes forth out of profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us.

That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, but it is grounded upon the fact signified by the Virgin birth, that here in this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity.

It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter.

The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particularly the revelation of the mystery. 

It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He becomes active and knowable.

He has no need of human power and is free from all human caprice.

Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits to them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work.

That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living Go has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear.

Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One He is, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Savior.

The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by the mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.

And since this is so, the same objective content is signified in the one case by the miracle of the Virgin birth, in the other by the miracle of the empty tomb.

Once we have looked into this self-enclosed circle, we shall have to meet the attack upon the natus ex virgine (born of a virgin) with the further reflection that by it an indispensable connection is destroyed which is actually found in the creed, to that the tertia die resurrexit a mortuis (rose again from the dead), too, is actually called in question.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 182-183

Advent with Barth: Of Wombs and Tombs

Monday, December 10, 2018

Now it is no accident that for us the Virgin birth is paralleled by the miracle of which the Easter witness speaks, the miracle of the empty tomb.

The two miracles belong together.

They constitute, as it were, a single sign, the special function of which, compared with other signs and wonders of the New Testament witness, is to describe and mark out the existence of Jesus Christ, amid the many other existences in human history, as the human historical existence in which God is Himself, God is alone, God is directly the Subject, the temporal reality of which is not only called forth, created, conditioned and supported by the eternal reality of God, but is identical with it.

The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our understanding or our interpretation, but by itself.

Marked off in regard to its origin: it is free of the arbitrariness which underlies all our existences. 

And marked off in regard to its goal: it is victorious over the death to which we are all liable. 

Only within these limits is it what it is and is it correctly understood, as the mystery of the revelation of God. 

It is to that mystery that these limits point — he who ignores them or wishes them away must see to it that he is not thinking of something quite different from this.


from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 182

Advent with Barth: The Miraculous Mystery

Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

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 and 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?

According to the dogma the mystery of revelation is described as the occurrence of a miracle, “miracle” taken in the special concrete sense, not in the general on just mentioned above.

At this stage, we do not inquire into its special content: conceptus de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine (conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary).

We merely make the point that by these assertions is meant an event occurring in the realm of the creaturely world in the full sense of the word, and so in the unity of the psychical with the physical, in time and in space, in noetic (mental) and ontic (physical) reality.

It cannot be understood out of continuity with the rest that occurs in this world, nor is it in fact grounded in this continuity.

It is so unusual an event that it may be misunderstood subjectively as an error, illusion, poetry or symbol, or objectively as a creaturely mystery unexplained to begin with but explicable in principle.

It can be properly understood, however, only as a sign wrought by God Himself, and by God Himself solely and directly, the sign of the freedom and immediacy, the mystery of His action, as a preliminary sign of the coming of His Kingdom.

This is because in itself it really is nothing other than such a sign.

A sign must, of course, signify.

To do so it must have in itself something of the kind of thing it signifies; it must be in analogy with it noetically (mentally) and ontically (physically).

In this respect the miracle of Christmas is in analogy with what it signifies, the mystery of Christmas.

But it also consists in the fact that amid the continuity of the creaturely world, yet independently of it, both as regards our understanding of His action and as regards His action itself, God Himself has the initiative.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 179-182

Advent with Barth: Revelation of the Mystery

Saturday, December 8. 2018

It is the mystery of revelation that our dogma describes.

If revelation is a mystery and is understood as such, then it is at least possible in principle for the necessity of it to begin shining through.

But now we must emphasize the fact that it is the description of this mystery that is the purpose of the dogma.

Objections might, of course, be raised to what we have said up till now.

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 connections 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.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 178-179