Barth chastises the early Barth
April 26, 2014
For those who have read widely in the Church Dogmatics, you know that Barth will occasionally refer to his earlier work, prior to the CD, in order to partially chastise his former self. One such occasion is during his discussion of God’s eternity, located near the end of II.1. I will first set-up the discussion. In God, there is “a readiness of eternity for time” because God is the “prototype and foreordination of time” in his very being (611-612, 618). This “readiness of eternity for time” is Barth’s way of expressing that: creaturely time is wholly contingent upon eternity for its being as time, but God’s time-in-eternity is not dependent on creation for its reality in God’s own life. This readiness “does not compel Him to actualize it” (618).
The “concrete form” of this readiness is then expressed through the categories of pre-temporality, supra-temporality, and post-temporality. In relation to creation, God “precedes its beginning, He accompanies its duration, and He exists after its end” (619). In an excursus, Barth deals with the way in which different periods of Protestant history have prioritized one or an other of these three. The Reformers were too one-sided in their emphasis on pre-temporality, therefore making human life “a kind of appendix” (632). In reaction to this, the modernists made the “far more dangerous” move of emphasizing supra-temporality (God’s present accompaniment), which was duly followed by the late 19th / early 20th century reaction through emphasizing post-temporality (apocalyptic readings of Jesus and Paul).
It is in this last group that Barth recognizes his early work, as a reaction to liberal optimism. As he explains, “In the attempt to free ourselves both from these early forms of one-sidedness, especially from that of pietistic and Liberal Neo-Protestantism, and also from the unsatisfactory corrections with which our predecessors had tried to overcome them, we took the surest possible way to make ourselves guilty of a new one-sidedness and therefore to evoke a relatively justifiable but, in view of the total truth, equally misleading reaction…” (634). Barth then continues with an example, which I love because it perfectly captures what I disliked about his Romans commentary:
Expounding Rom. 8:24, I even dared to say at that time: “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgment and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men of hope, or anything additional?” Well roared, lion! There is nothing absolutely false in these bold words. I still think that I was right ten times over against those who then passed judgment on them and resisted them. Those who can still hear what was said then by both the religious and worldlings, and especially by religious worldlings, and especially the most up-to-date among them, cannot but admit that it was necessary to speak in this way. The sentences I then uttered were not hazardous (in the sense of precarious) on account of their content. They were hazardous because to be legitimate exposition of the Bible they needed others no less sharp and direct to compensate and therefore genuinely to substantiate their total claim. But these were lacking. If we claim to have too perfect an understanding of the Gospel, we at once lose our understanding. In our exposition we cannot claim to be wholly right over against others, or we are at once in the wrong. At that time we had not sufficiently considered the pre-temporality of the Reformers or the supra-temporality of God which Neo-Protestants of all shades had put in such a distorted way at the centre. Hence we had not seen the biblical conception of eternity in its fulness. [634-635]
“Well roared, lion!” You gotta love that. He then recognizes that these early writings were why Bultmann and Tillich could once think of him as a comrade. Of course, Barth is not entirely disowning these early apocalyptic and existential notes, just their capacity to distort the truth of God’s prior and present relationship to creation.
Image: This is my own retouching of a photo of Barth reading. I removed a significant amount of “noise” in the image (dust and cracks) and slightly brightened it.