Anew Barth has been discovered by some theologians. They date this change from 1952, when Barth’s famous article on Rudolph Bultmann appeared.
Barth accused Bultmann of being too subjective (Theologische Studien, Heft 34), and of being concerned only with man’s understanding of himself (Idem, p. 37). In opposition to Bultmann, Barth urges us to interpret man, not in terms of himself, but in terms of Christ. This Christ addresses us in his Word, the Scriptures, telling us that in Christ we are reconciled to God (Christ and Adam, p. 21, in Theologische Studien, Heft 35), and that our salvation is “objectively complete” in Christ (Idem, p. 23). We are told that faith cannot be subjective only, that faith must not project itself “Prometheus-like into the void” (K.D. IV: 1, p. 375); it “must spring from the Christ-Event. The decisive element in the texts of the Gospels is surely that the disciples did find themselves faced with an incontrovertable fact, a fact which led to the awakening and development of their faith” (Idem, p. 374).
It is in Geschichte rather than in Historie that Barth looks for the objectivity that he seeks over against Bultmann. What he means by Geschichte as against Historie is difficult to define. Barth tells us that it is the realm where our ordinary understanding of space and time has no application (IV:2, p. 370). Geschichte has a space and time of its own. For Barth Geschichte overlaps and in some measure enters into Historie but always with the understanding that fully real transaction between God and man takes place in Geschichte, not in Historie.
Barth On The Resurrection
The resurrection event, says Barth, must explain our faith. Bultmann puts the cart before the horse when he would have our faith explain the event. But this is not all. Our faith must be based on the memory of a datable time (I:2, p. 127). If Christ is not risen in the same concrete manner in which he died, then our faith is vain (IV: 1, p. 389; cf. also IV, p. 377). The resurrection is an event in time and space (p. 371).
At this point, evangelicals might assume that, over against Bultmann, Barth defends Christ’s resurrection and believes in the resurrection because he submits himself to the teaching of the Scriptures.
The fact is, however, that Barth does not submit himself to Scripture as a direct revelation of God.
And, likewise, he does not think of Jesus Christ as a direct revelation of God. He is still devoted to his basic principle that, while revelation is historical, history is not revelational. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is therefore not that on which he relies for an answer to subjectivism; to do so would for Barth be a denial of one of his most basic principles.
To some readers, this may seem confusing. Either Barth believes, or he doesn’t believe! But the matter is not so simple. It is true that Barth seeks a resurrection in space, and time, and that he seeks the Christ and his resurrection in Scripture. But he finds the resurrection in a Scripture which he asserts to be “full of obscurities and indissoluble contradictions” (IV: 1, p. 377). He finds the resurrection to be an actual event in history even though in all history God is said to be wholly hidden as well as wholly revealed. When, in opposition to Bultmann, Barth seeks for an actual Easter-Event from which faith must proceed, he is not for one moment proposing to find this where evangelical theology finds it. Why was it necessary, Barth asks, to attest the concrete objectivity of the Easter narratives? He answers very plainly: “Certainly not in order to explain the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a historically indisputable fact” (IV: 1, p. 388). The “incontrovertible fact” which led to the resurrection faith is primarily an event in Geschichte rather than in Historie, in this ‘real’ history as against ordinary history. The resurrection may, perhaps, best be said to have taken place in Prae-historie (IV: 1, p. 371). Usually, Barth speaks of Geschichte.
Here we deal with a peculiar sort of history. When we turn from the passion narratives in the Gospels to the resurrection accounts Barth says we sense that we are “led into a historical sphere of a different kind” (IV: 1, p. 369). “The death of Christ can certainly be thought of as history in the modern sense, but not the resurrection” (Idem, p. 370). The resurrection happens “without our being able to ascribe a ‘historical’ character to it” (Idem, p. 331). When we deal with the resurrection, we do not deal with something that happened in the past (Idem, p. 345), for, says Barth, if we did we would be back in historical relativism. This is indeed a strange dilemma: to escape subjectivism, we must avoid an objective resurrection! To escape relativism in history, we must avoid history!
History As Presence
Barth therefore turns to the idea of Geschichte in order to avoid what he thinks of as the relativities of Historie. If we were to speak of the resurrection as taking place in Historie, Barth argues, we should have to say that the resurrection is an event in the past and not in the present. We would then have to say that Jesus went from the Jordan to Golgotha. But this is not sufficient for our need. What we need is a God who in Christ is present with us. And this idea is expressed in the notion of Geschichte. In terms of Geschichte we can say that God goes with us now from Jordan to Golgotha (Idem, p. 345). In Jesus Christ as man’s substitute with God, his time is made into the time “That always was where men lived—always is where men lived, and always will be where men will live.”
The facts are plain. Barth does not seek objectivity for the Gospel message by the method of evangelical orthodoxy. Barth says clearly that what he cannot understand in Bultmann is what he cannot understand in the “entire old orthodoxy” (Bultmann, p. 14).
Barth wants neither the old orthodoxy nor Bultmann, neither the objective historical revelation of the one nor the subjectivism of the other. How then can subjectivism be overcome?
In the very volume in which he seeks to establish a true objectivity against the subjectivism of Bultmann, Barth insists on discarding the calendar. To answer Bultmann, Barth is apparently convinced that he must also destroy evangelical orthodoxy.
To fail to place Barth’s view of the resurrection of Christ in the framework of his theology as a whole is to misconstrue it. If Barth were to identify the resurrection of Christ with an event in ordinary history, as Luther and Calvin did, he would have to take into the bargain the whole orthodox scheme of things which he abhors as much today as ever. And he would have anything but the kind of objectivism that he wants in order to answer Bultmann.
Barth needs an Easter-Event in which God is wholly revealed. It must be that, in order to be the Event that lights up all other events (IV: 1, p. 331). Precisely for this reason, Barth says it cannot be identified with any fact of ordinary history (Idem, p. 333). For history is not revelation. God is wholly hidden as well as revealed in history.
To have the true objectivity of grace set forth in the resurrection, we must say that the being of Christ as God, as man, and as God-man consists in his work of having completed the work of reconciliation of all men (Idem, p. 139). And that can only be if the resurrection is primarily an event in terms of which Christ is present to all men, past and present, in the divine Presence. “God allows the world and humanity to take part in the Geschichte of the inner life of his Godhead, in the movement in which from and to all eternity He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore the one true God” (Idem, p. 236). “The resurrection of Jesus Christ makes that to be true which is real in his death; the turning of all men to God in him” (Idem, p. 349). To do this the resurrection cannot be identified with a fact of ordinary history.
If, in conclusion, we ask whether Barth has found a really objective basis from which to answer Bultmann, the answer must be in the negative. On his own basis, all history hides as it reveals. On his basis history is utterly ambiguous.
Worse than that, it must be plainly stated that Barth’s position is as subjective as that of Bultmann.
In Barth’s theology, no less than in that of Bultmann, faith must, Prometheus-like, cast up its anchor into the void. Barth’s theology, no less than that of Bultmann, is a reinterpretation of the Gospel in terms of the self-sufficiency of man.
To say this is not to judge the personal faith of either Barth or Bultmann. Bultmann is no less anxious than Barth to bring the Gospel to modern men. But neither of them has any Gospel in the evangelical sense of the term. Rejecting the “old orthodoxy,” they continue still in the wastelands of consciousness theology with its relativism and subjectivity.
Cornelius Van Til is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He holds the Th.M. degree from Princeton Seminary and the Ph.D. from Princeton University. He is the author of The New Modernism (1947), Common Grace (1954), The Defense of the Faith (1955).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingRussell Moore: I Already Miss Tim Keller’s Wise VoiceThe late pastor theologian gave strong counsel to me and so many others in ministry.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickBecome a Shadow of Your Future SelfManifesting isn’t the answer. Consenting to holiness is.