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 (A Brief Reflection on the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ)

Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

Sally Lloyd-Jones wrote The Jesus Story Book Bible several years ago. This is a great volume for all parents who desire to teach their children about how the Bible points us to Jesus and his salvation. But when one begins to read the Bible, we immediately see that the world is different than we expect it to be. Karl Barth has said that the world we see in the Bible is “a strange, new world.” It is a world filled with God breaking into our reality doing things that are beyond the grasp and understanding of human reason. Jesus is God in the flesh, and this means that God has acted miraculously within this person.

As we look at the Christmas story, we cannot escape the miracle that is the Virgin birth. But we cannot act as if this story of a Virgin bearing a son is foreign to the Bible. The Bible is filled with stories of women, who were unable to conceive children, miraculously becoming pregnant and bearing a child of promise. In Genesis, we see Sarah giving birth in her old age to Isaac. We see Jacob’s wife, Rachel, giving birth to Joseph, who became a child of promise. So, when Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit, we should not be overcome with doubt. Instead, we should see that this is business as usual for our God.

But the Virgin womb isn’t just a miracle of biology. This is a foreshadowing of what God is truly up to. Karl Barth says that the Virgin womb of Christmas and the empty tomb of Easter are no accidents. The miracles of the Virgin Mary bearing the Christ child and the tomb from which Christ is resurrected belong to one another. These two miracles, according to Barth, show us that the existence of Christ is purposeful and not accidental. Instead, the existence of Christ begins and ends with what we experience as life and as death. We cannot understand the Virgin birth nor the resurrection fully within our reason, but we know that both point to something outside of ourselves – something greater and something more majestic than we can understand. Both point us to the reality that Christ breaks into our reality and overcomes all the limitations that sin and death impose upon us. It points us to the reality of salvation and the power of God. And as we live our lives from the womb to the tomb, we see that God can do things that we cannot ever imagine or think.

This Advent season is filled with opportunities for us to understand and realize that the “strange, new world of the Bible” does “whisper” the name of Jesus in every one of its pages as well as our lives. May we realize that from birth to death, our lives bear witness to the great miracle of life that we have in Jesus Christ. And may we live filled with the assurance that this Christ that was born from both a Virgin womb and empty tomb is all we need to encounter the world around us. Amen.

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

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

word-made-flesh

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.