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 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.