Reflections on CD IV/1 (Part II)

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In $59, The Obedience of the Son of God Barth writes:

“If the Old Testament history was this type, this history has been an additional attestation of its fulfillment in the one Israelite Jesus. The Son of God in His unity with this man exists in solidarity with the humanity of Israel suffering under the mighty hand of God. He exists as one of these Old Testament men…He is silent where Job too had to be silent before God. But, again, there takes place here something quite different from what took place there. In Him God has entered in, breaking into that circulus vitiosus of the human plight, making His own not only the guilt of man but also his rejection and condemnation, giving Himself to bear the divinely righteous consequences of human sin, not merely affirming the divine sentence on man, but allowing it to be fulfilled on Himself. He, the electing eternal God, willed Himself to be rejected and therefore perishing man. That is something which never happened in all the dreadful things attested in the Old Testament concerning the wrath of God and the plight of man” (CD IV/1, 175).

I have a couple of thoughts. First, what does Barth mean that both Job and Christ remained silent before God in the midst of their suffering? Aren’t both profoundly vocal about their own protests? Zizek especially connects both stories together, but in his atheistic theology it is Christ who cries loudest ultimately revealing the inexistence/impotence of the big Other. Also, it is not merely Christ’s cry on the cross, but also his protest in the Garden that suggests anything but silence. In fact, the cry of dereliction almost seems to drown out the “not my will but your will be done” capitulation to God’s will in the Garden. I’m also reminded of the course I listened to at Union taught by Christopher Morse on Calvin’s Institutes. While discussing Barth’s theory of election, Morse poses the question: who is damned in Barth’s theology? Who is not saved in Barth’s doctrine of election? The answer: Jesus Christ is not saved. It is Jesus Christ who is reprobate. It is Jesus Christ who descends into the pits of hell. But it is also Jesus Christ who God raised from the dead and who is the emancipator and victor over evil, Satan, and death itself. This is Barth’s last point in the quote. Namely, that this situation differs drastically from the Hebrew Bible because on the cross God Himself in Christ absorbs his own wrath and becomes the accursed, despised One (Galatians 3:13) so man will be spared.

“The death of Jesus Christ was, of course, wholly and altogether the work of God to the extent that it is the judgment of death fulfilled on the Representative of all other men appointed by God. The way to the cross and death in which the judgment took place is indeed the work of the Son of God obedient in humility. But it is also the work of the obedient man Jesus of Nazareth in His identity with the Son of God, just as his condemnation and execution, although it was determined and willed by God, was also the work of the sinful of men who put into effect the decision and will of God, the Jews and Gentiles into whose hands Jesus of was delivered, or delivered Himself. As the judgment of God, the event of Golgotha is exclusively the work of God. Its fulfilment is ordained by God in every detail. But all the same it has a component of human action – both obedient and good on the one hand and disobedient and evil on the other. In light of this part we can say of the event of the cross that it has a “historical” character, that it can be understood and interpreted in the pragmatic context of human decisions and actions, although, of course, in this case it will be misinterpreted and misunderstood, and its real meaning will not be perceived” (CD IV/1, 300).

Here’s where the rubber meets the road, and this is where I must part way with Barth. His refusal to emphasize the importance of the historical context fails to recognize the theological implications of these historical events. That Jesus of Nazareth was crushed by empire and tortured publicly does reveal very important theological information. I don’t think a focus on this perspective “from below” somehow cancels or diminishes the importance of the view “from above” (I should note, parenthetically, that CD IV/II does take up this view “from below” more rigorously). Basically, the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was tortured and executed politically ought to suggest something about God’s relation to state power and the principalities. This, of course, was the context of the early church. I think it is also why someone like Gregory of Nyssa could understand the atonement as a ransom in which God dupes the devil and ultimately liberates man from his enslavement to Satanic powers and sin. I’m right now reading through Johnson’s She Who Is. She really does a great job of advocating a Christus Victor view in which Jesus in solidarity with oppressed who liberates them from the powers of evil and oppression. Barth’s strong commitment to forensic metaphors and the omission of Satan from this story ultimately weakens the political nature of his doctrine of reconciliation. So while I agree with Barth that one does miss out on the theological significance of atonement if one does not recognize this “view from above”, I think he is wrong to suggest that it will be misinterpreted if “viewed from below”. Jesus the liberator ultimately does get killed, but God’s “Yes” to Jesus at the resurrection is simultaneously a commanding “No” to Satan and death that no longer have dominion over mankind.

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2 Responses to “Reflections on CD IV/1 (Part II)”

  1. Wesley Says:

    I agree with your departure from Barth on the theological versus historical character of the crucifixion. I fear, however, that if we affirm a theological importance of the crucifixion, that we drown out the historical importance (the opposite of whist Barth is arguing, I guess). In other words, can we affirm a theological characteristic of the cross that doesn’t emphasize the blood of Christ and the violence of crucifixion, a destructive mindset, to say the least? I’d love to hear your thoughts on a theology of the cross that doesn’t fall into the penal substitution role or derived from it’s historical character.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Let me try and flesh out my departure.

    I don’t think Barth completely neglects the historical context of the crucifixion, bur rather I think he doesn’t take it seriously enough in a theological sense.

    Three things:

    A) I’ll hopefully have a better response to you after I do my study of atonement next year

    B) I think we can emphasize the blood and suffering of Christ without fetishizing it. I just finished Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is (which I highly recommend). She offers the suffering God as hope-inspiring image in the face of grave evil. However, she and other feminist theologians are right to argue that sometimes suffering through evil (i.e. crucifixion) serves as a very unhealthy image because it extols suffering, which has clearly been a destructive paradigm for women. So many women have been commanded to silently and patiently suffer through abuse (e.g. domestic violence) for the sake of the family to imitate the crucified Christ.

    C) I think some views like Christus Victor offer a helpful paradigm through which to understand the crucifixion. In this view, Christ triumphs over death and suffering to liberate us from our chains of oppression (i.e. sin, evil, death, Satan). Christ goes to hell and opens up that place of death to free us from our own bondage and the bondage of oppressive structures. A problem with penal substitutionary view is that Satan has no proper place in this reading. Instead of God being in solidarity with Christ against Satan, we’re offered a view of a wrathful God who opposes humanity and demands blood or satisfaction for the offense of sin. I’d recommend Weaver’s the Nonviolent Atonement, which is a re-reading of the cross from a Mennonite perspective. The best part, in my opinion, is not his proposal but rather the literary review of liberation theologians (black, feminist, black feminist) on atonement.

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