“Wake me up inside…” (part 2a): Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (iv.1.58)

(iv.1.58.1)*: Barth begins by discussing the “Grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Barth explains that […]

Lauren R.E. Larkin / 9.10.10

(iv.1.58.1)*: Barth begins by discussing the “Grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Barth explains that reconciliation offered to us by Jesus Christ is the “fulfillment of the covenant of grace, as in the covenant of grace itself, we have to do with a free act of the grace of God”. God is not bound to what has gone before, thus, in reconciliation He makes a “new start” because He is the “free subject” of the reconciliation. In the act of reconciliation “[God] acts to maintain and defend His own glory”. God is not forced by any external factor to maintain and defend His glory in this specific way; he is unconstrained to act in this fashion. While God could—in all senses of right—have left humanity in their sinful filth and regarded the covenant as broken and invalidated, He does not. It is purely His will to reconcile humanity through Jesus, it is His undetermined choice to continue the covenant with humanity. It is in this free, unbound choice of God that humanity has the assurance of its permanence, “They will see the connexions and in them they will find the constancy of God, the divine will which is preconceived and unalterable and which is therefore necessary and triumphant in this happening”. Through this free choice and God’s free will, by its eternal and inflexible nature, God’s grace is made manifest and God’s glory defended, which is His mercy. By the atonement and, thus the reconciliation of humanity to Himself, God demonstrates that He is a God of grace and mercy. Essentially, atonement by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s pure speech-act, a declaration that He is not any other god, but the One God, this very God who is of this kind.

The atonement is the starting point for knowledge about God, humanity, and what sin is, “[it] is the place and the only place from which as Christians we can think forwards and backwards…It is here that Christian preaching and instruction and pastoral care and dogmatics and ethics can begin with their own Yes and No, their pro and contra” (italics Barth). As an event that has happened, that is eternal and inflexible it never becomes incapable of being our starting point, “our knowledge can never get beyond it”. In the atonement we are faced with the eternal and inflexible (and gracious) command: “to realize fearlessly and indefatigably in all its aspects the possibility of life and knowledge given us with the atonement made in Jesus Christ”. All of our knowledge grows forth from this event and we are encouraged and directed in this way in all our knowing. There is no other starting point or fount of knowledge. We cannot change our axiom from the atonement to something else; thus, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is a blind and audacious attempt to escape the reality of the atonement as the essential starting point. Essentially, Descartes is wrong; one cannot know themselves from within them but only from the eternal, inflexible, sovereign event outside of oneself on one’s behalf. So, we should say, “Jesus is the perfect propitiation for my sins, therefore I am” or “He acts and declares sovereignly, therefore He is, therefore I am.” In God’s sovereign action and declaration of the atonement, He is the one who crosses the distance between humanity and Him. By the atonement, God’s being is made manifest by His activity.

…the one who constantly surpasses himself in His constancy and faithfulness, and does everything in order, who could not be more powerfully holy and righteous than when by His Word and in His Son He calls us who are His enemies His children, when He causes us to be His children because in His freedom to do that He is truly the Lord. Reconciliation is God’s crossing the frontier to man: supremely legitimate and yet supremely inconceivable—or conceivable only in the fact of His act of power and love.

In Decartes’ formula—having our starting point as ourselves “I” and our activity “Think” directed back toward ourselves “therefore I am”—causes humanity to be stuck in an isolated and vicious cycle within ourselves, reducing our being to a temporal and flexible event alienated from God’s grace and mercy. Our thinking does not make anything concrete, but God’s sovereign declaration and activity is truly creative and permanent (“God said, let there be light and there was light” (Gen 1: 3)). In reconciliation, in the atonement, we come face to face with God and hear the declarative word and see His self-determined action of grace and mercy; and we are drawn out of ourselves to Him and we become: justified, lovable, His forever.

*The reference iv.1.58.1 is the standard way when referring to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It is short hand for: volume four, part one, section 58, part one (!!!). The fourth volume of Church Dogmatics is The Doctrine of Reconciliation, and this series is based on a section within the first part of that volume. Also, I’ve removed page numbers for ease of reading, if you would like to see where I’ve pulled quotes or how I’ve used my words to explain what Barth is saying, please do not hesitate in asking me for them.