Barth’s Doctrine of ‘Nothingness’, Evil, das Nichtige

Karl Barth’s doctrine of evil and nothingness has been no little source of controversy; of course! The German he uses to describe it is famous das Nichtige (‘nothingness’); and the tradition he thinks from within is rather traditional, i.e. privatio (or the absence of God’s righteous life). But of course we are dealing with Barth here, and he is not content to allow the traditional understanding of evil (and as corollary, sin) as privatio to remain standing; he reformulates, or in this case starts from scratch as he thinks his doctrine of evil from within his Christ concentrated lens—and in particular, penciledbarth2from his doctrine of election.

Mark Lindsay in his book Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel provides an outstanding description of Barth’s das Nichtige, and so I would like to share that with you all in toto. Thankfully I have found a Pdf version of the chapter I am reading in Lindsay’s book, and so I will link you to the whole essay in full; but here we will have a long read of his helpful description of a doctrine of ‘nothingness’ in Barth’s theology. Lindsay, for his purposes, is providing this sketch, in context, in order to evaluate how Barth’s doctrine of sin stands up to the scrutiny of the Holocaust; in other words, Lindsay evaluates Barth’s doctrine in a way that attempts to see if Barth ‘nothingness’ provides an adequate theological account that has explanatory power to describe the evil that was on display in the death camps of Nazi Germany. Lindsay also, in this section, is asking whether or not Barth may have allowed a bit of natural theology into his theology in light of doing theology in a post-holocaust context (you’ll have to read the whole essay I link to to see what Lindsay concludes on that point).

Here is Lindsay’s very helpful description of ‘nothingness’ and evil in the theology of Karl Barth:

Barth begins by contending that, alongside the existence of God and His creation, there exists a “third factor” that can only be comprehended as an alien element at the margins of creation and providence. The malignant character of this alien factor is attested, immediately and without reservation, when Barth depicts it as “an entire sinister system” that exists only in the form of “opposition and resistance”. Although das Nichtige is “unable to overwhelm and destroy [humankind]”—for reasons we shall shortly come to— “it constantly threatens and corrupts it.” As John Hick has noted, Barth perceives evil in its full seriousness as “the object of unqualified fear and loathing” which “takes the forms of sin and pain, suffering and death.”

We have not yet, however, arrived at a definition of what this alien element is. Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which “is”. In strictly ontological terms, “[o]nly God and His creature really and properly are.” This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist. Indeed, Barth is singularly outspoken in his insistence that Nothingness has a terrifyingly real existence. Alan Davies is correct, therefore, to state that neo-orthodox theology, of which Barth was a founding member, “was named after the old orthodoxy…partly because it resurrected the hoary orthodox doctrine of original sin…” So, irrespective of whatever faults Barth’s doctrine may contain, “its author cannot be accused of taking too mild a view…”

Nevertheless, Nothingness cannot be regarded as having an existence that merely parallels that of creation in an antithetical sense. Such an assumption would imply that Nothingness is simply that which is not. Barth, however, rejects this suggestion, because the “nots” of creation are essential to creation’s perfection. “God is God and not the creature, but this does not mean that there is nothingness in God. On the contrary, this ‘not’ belongs to His perfection.” Similarly for the creature, the fact that it is the creature and not God is intrinsic to its creaturely perfection. Within the realm of creation, there exists light and dark, land and water. There is, in other words, a negative side as well as a positive side. There is

not only a Yes but also a No; not only a height but also an abyss; not only clarity but also obscurity…; not only growth but also decay; not only opulence but also indigence; not merely beauty but also ashes; not only beginning but also end…

This shadow-side is, however, as much a part of the perfection of creation as the positive side. To equate it with Nothingness is no less than blasphemy.

In what sense, therefore, can we speak of Nothingness as an existing reality? According to Barth, the ontic context of its existence is the divine activity of creation grounded in election. In CD III/1, §41, Barth posits the view that the work of creation is presupposed by God’s decision of election. Thus, he regards “creation as the external basis of the covenant”, and the “covenant as the internal basis of creation”. Later on in this volume, he explains that “God the Creator did not say No, nor Yes and No, but Yes to what He created…Creation as such is not rejection, but election and acceptance.”22 It is this understanding that informs Barth’s concept of the existential content and being of Nothingness. This does not mean that it is possible to explain the origin of evil in the world, as though it had an independently legitimate existence.23 Rather, it is that which God did not elect to create but, rather, passed over. It is that “from which God separates Himself and in the face of which He…exerts His positive will.”24 Put in another way, it is the object of permittere—God’s permission—rather than of efficere, which is God’s direct production. In electing and, therefore, in subsequently creating what He elected, Nothingness was passed over by God, as that which He did not will and thus did not create. “God elects, and therefore rejects what he does not elect. God wills, and therefore opposes what he does not will. He says Yes, and therefore says No to that to which He has not said Yes.” It is on the basis of this non-willing that Nothingness exists. It exists, that is to say, as “what God did not, and does not and cannot will. It has the essence only of non-essence and only as such can it exist.” Precisely in this way, however, it does exist.

In this regard, we are faced squarely with the paradoxical situation whereby, as Mallow has correctly perceived, the only context in which Nothingness can exist is that of ontological impossibility. God has neither willed nor created it, nor does it have any source of existence independent of God (for as Barth insists, God “is the basis and Lord of nothingness too”). Nevertheless, it exists. Certainly, it exists in its own sui generis form of malignancy and perversion, and as that of which “God is wholly and utterly not the Creator…” As an objective reality that threatens the creature, however, its existence cannot be gainsaid.

In moving from generalities to specifics, Barth regards the great evil of Nothingness as being, in its most exact formulation, the enemy of divine grace. Once again, this is most readily perceived if we recall the loci of election and creation as the presuppositions for any discussion of das Nichtige. Because God’s activity as Creator is founded on His decision to elect, this decisive activity, as His opus proprium, is the work of divine grace. But Nothingness exists as that which is non-willed and, therefore, rejected. Evil “is”, in other words, only in its determination as that which is opposed to grace. As the reality which “God does not will [but] negates and rejects”, it exists only as “the object of His opus alienum.” As such, it is the “being that refuses and resists and therefore lacks His grace.”

Two corollaries follow. First, as that which resists and hence lacks grace, Nothingness is the truest embodiment of evil (with the caveat that, once again, we are confronted with an oxymoron; Nothingness is “true evil” only in the sense that it is the most authentic representation of falsehood).  In spite of the ontic possibility in which Nothingness exists, we cannot argue that evil as such is rendered harmless. On the contrary, in its form of evil and death, Nothingness encounters humanity as “affliction and misery”, in face of which “the creature is already defeated and lost.” According to Barth, there can be no avoiding the fact that the evil of Nothingness is constantly poised at the frontier of creation, threatening it and making it its victim. We must not be guilty, Barth says, of “an easy, comfortable and dogmatic underestimation of its power in relation to us.” “The conquest of evil does not have that “matter-of-courseness” for man [sic] which it has for God.” It therefore becomes clear why Barth so rigorously critiques Leibniz and Schleiermacher who, in Barth’s opinion, are guilty of precisely this underestimation. Leibniz’s definition of metaphysical evil as merely the imperfection of the creature represents, for Barth, a domestication of the adversary; because this imperfection is natural to the creature and thus belongs to its creaturely perfection, evil comes to be regarded simply as “a particular form of good…” Similarly with Schleiermacher, evil is “correlative to good”. It exists in radical but not autonomous opposition to grace, in such a way that it is given “a legitimate standing” as the “counterpart and concomitant of grace.” Nothingness is, therefore, to be understood positively, and as that without which grace could not exist. To the extent that Schleiermacher understands it this way, as an indispensable counterpart to grace, it is not evil with which he is concerned. In the face of these two views, the genuinely and dangerously evil character of Barth’s das Nichtige stands out in sharp relief.

The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,

We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.

Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

Following this helpful description, Lindsay offers various critiques of Barth’s doctrine of radical evil or nothingness. What stands out most to me is the critique that Barth ends up making evil, and subsequent sin, such a thing of the past—as God in Christ confronts and negates it at the cross—that in light of the evil perpetrated at the Holocaust, or now in other genocidal and terrorist tragedies, Barth’s doctrine of nothingness doesn’t have adequate explanatory power. In other words, a critique might also be, that Barth has de-historized and transcendentalized evil to the point that it has no real meaning or concrete place in Barth’s theology.

As Lindsay points out, though, Barth, even though he sees evil and then sin hollowed of its real bite, it still has not been vanquished of its reality as a non-existent that really does attempt to thwart the Kingdom of God. Lindsay reiterates that for Barth there is still yet an eschatological putting away of evil and sin that will come at the eschaton of Christ.

I find Barth’s doctrine helpful, and as usual, I think that all things are relative to Christ, particularly the nothingness of evil and sin. In other words, nothingness has been put in its place in Christ, and yet we are still waiting, as the Apostle Paul says, for the final enemy to be put under Christ’s feet—we are waiting for death to finally die.

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

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4 comments

  1. I was excited when I saw this because I’ll be writing a paper on Barth and evil for an apologetics class this semester, but then I realized I’d already run across the linked article. Oh, well.

    Either way, good post!

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