Barth on Revelation and History
March 4, 2015
This is a rather technical theological discussion. You are forewarned.
In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In this commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). Barth recognizes, in the CD, that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.
In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.
And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:
I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]
You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:
Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]
In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.
But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.