Advent with Barth: The Miracle of Christmas

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018

The assertion conceptus de Spiritu sancto must now be protected from an imminent misunderstanding.

It does not state that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Holy Spirit according to His human existence.

On the contrary, it states as emphatically as possible–and this is the miracle it asserts–that Jesus Christ had no father according to His human existence.

Because in this miracle the Holy Spirit takes the place of the male, this by no means implies that He does what the male does.

Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, it does not, therefore, mean–or can mean only in an improper sense–that He is begotten by the Holy Spirit.

The idea is completely excluded that anything like a marriage took place between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

The Holy Spirit by whom the Virgin becomes pregnant is really not a kind of divine spirit, and therefore not in any sense an apotheosized husband, but He is God Himself and therefore His miraculous act is to be understood as a spiritual and not a psycho-physical act, not in any way analogous to the effects of creaturely eros.

The positive fact which fills the space marked off by the natus ex virgine is God Himself, i.e., in the inconceivable act of creative omnipotence in which He imparts to human nature a capacity, a power for Himself, which it does not possess of itself and which it could not devise for itself; in the inconceivable act of reconciling love by which He justifies and sanctifies human nature in spite of its unrighteousness and unholiness to be a temple for His Word and so for His glory; in the inconceivable act of redeeming wisdom in which He completely assumes His creature in such a way that He imparts and bestows on it no less than His own existence.

Here, as so often, it is not true that such statements by early dogmaticians are the products of an idle and irrelevant scholastic cleverness.

Rather is it the case that in the statements an attempt is made as a spiritual understanding of the spiritual; and no one who at this particular point takes the trouble seriously to think himself into the task set him will deny that in the decisive issue this was the right line to take.

In conclusion, let us remember that it is particularly this positive factor in the miracle, expressed in the conceptus de Spiritu sancto, that belongs to the sign of the miracle of Christmas which the dogma aims at stressing.

Noetically, i.e., for us to whom this sign is given, who have to recognize it in and by this sign, the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh stands or falls with the with the truth of the conception de Spiritu sancto.

But it could not be said that ontically, in itself, the mystery of Christmas stands or falls with this dogma.

The man Jesus of Nazareth is not the true Son of God because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

On the contrary, because He is the true Son of God and because this is an inconceivable mystery intended to be acknowledged as such, therefore He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

And because He is thus conceived and born, He has to be recognized and acknowledged as the One He is and the mystery in which He is the One He is.

The mystery does not rest upon the miracle.

The miracle rests upon the mystery.

The miracle bears witness to the mystery, and the mystery is attested by the miracle.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 200-202

Advent with Barth: The Prototype

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018

But why is it precisely God the Holy Spirit who is named here?

The answer to this question follows from what we have to learn from Holy Scripture of the significance of this the third person or mode of God’s being for the act of divine revelation or reconciliation, understanding it in terms of what the Church has expressed and laid down as right knowledge of Scripture in its dogma of the three-in-oneness of God and particularly in its dogma of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of divine reconciliation.

In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action.

Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader.

In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation.

The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere–gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself–is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is the freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognize the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church.

The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost.

Here, then, at this frontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God.

And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word.

Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God.

Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God.

Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him.

As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Corinthians 3:17 is Himself the Lord.

The specific mention of the Holy Spirit as a more precise determination of the sign of the Virgin birth is obviously significant in a twofold sense.

In the first place, it refers back the mystery of the human existence of Jesus Christ to the mystery of God Himself, as it is disclosed in revelation–the mystery that God Himself as the Spirit acts among His creatures as His own Mediator, that God Himself creates a possibility, a power, a capacity, and assigns it to man, where otherwise there would be sheer impossibility.

And the mention of the Holy Ghost is significant here in the second place, because it points back to the connection which exists between our reconciliation and the existence of the Reconciler, to the primary realization of the work of the Holy Spirit.

For it is on this ground that the same work, the same preparation of man for God by God Himself, can happen to us also, in the form of pure grace, the grace manifested in Jesus Christ, which meets us and is bestowed upon us in Him.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 198-200

Advent with Barth: The Freedom of God

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

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 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 (original sin).

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, 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 be ready, merely 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, page 191-192.

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: 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.