Karl Barth’s theology is often accused of being obscurantist and ‘liberal’, but when the theologian presses further into Barth’s theology it quickly becomes apparent just as any theologian, Barth is working out his theology within his own particular time and context. This holds true when it comes to Barth’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The accusations levied against Barth, when read against the actual grain of Barth’s theology just do not hold up. Throughout the rest of this post we will look at a sketch of Barth’s thinking on resurrection, and then offer up some post-reflection.
In Robert Dale Dawson’s published PhD dissertation The Resurrection in Karl Barth he writes this of Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:
Particularly in his early work Barth has been accused of espousing such a diastasis between Creator and creation that any meeting of the knowledge of the creature with that of the Creator is impossible. His thought has been described variously as ‘a deobjectification of theological statements and a surrender of this-worldly reality, into the supraterrestial and suprahistorical world of transcedence’, as an ‘ultra-realism’ with all the character of Heilsgechichte, or even as a form of historical skepticism. Indeed, the view that Barth’s understanding differed little from Bultmann’s seems almost unshakable.
Yet the particular divine-human historicality of the resurrection served an important purpose for the early Barth as he attempted to free himself from the psychologism and historicism of Liberal Protestantism. Christian faith was not primarily to be derived from religious feeling as it was for Schleiermacher. Nor could it be reduced to the moral teachings of Jesus as it was for Barth’s teacher Wilhelm Hermann. Nor could the Jesus of history be abstracted from the Christ of faith as it was for Ernst Troeltsch. Rather Christianity was founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the free and real act of God in history and upon history. This decisive and unique action of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, breaking into and transforming the sphere of human history and action, was, for Barth, the great offence and stumbling block for liberal theology, as well as the fundamental content of Christian life and witness.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ for Barth in his The Resurrection of the Dead has to do with the transition, the crossing of the infinite gulf, from God’s eternity to human history – but a transition which involves not merely an entrance into the stream of history (as might be said of the virgin birth) but also a decisive transformation of the whole of historical reality. Whereas the incarnation embraces the particular history of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the resurrection is the reality of Jesus Christ which includes and affects all history and every historical moment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the event of existential import for every other human being. Apart from this transition there is no sure and reliable revelation of God to humankind. Religion and even the Christian witness is pitilessly nothing more than the dream of human wishes, and the whole of the theological enterprise falls to the Feuerbachian critique as being nothing more than a pretence – anthropology in guise.
Barth’s qualitative difference between time and eternity is subsumed by the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. The “impassible” impasse between Creator and creature is suffused by the life of God elect to be human, in the singular and particular person, Jesus Christ (Deus incarnandus). I love this point in Barth’s theology! The idea that God’s covenantal Triune life of grace precedes all else, and that creation itself is conditioned by this telos by its purpose in Christ is transformative.
God’s elected history in Christ is history. This reorients things away from rationalist and apologetic concerns (concerns that most of Western theology is concerned with – i.e. proofs of God, etc.), and places Christian thought upon a genuinely Christian foundation, ‘in Christ.’ This changes things; we aren’t starting from ourselves as an abstract people, as an abstract creation working our way to a concept of God. In Barth’s framing we are starting with the reality of God that Godself has provided for in his humiliation as God become man. We aren’t starting with a religious experience, or a sense of ‘feeling’ of the transcendent which Jesus captures for us; for Barth we are truly starting with God extra nos outside of us, as both the objective and subjective reality we have to do with as Christians (and non-Christians). For Barth there isn’t a distinct abstract conception of history, wherein it is possible for there to be a ‘Jesus of faith’ versus a ‘Jesus of history’; the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history, indeed He is history. The resurrection closes any loops here for Barth. How? Creation’s protology in Christ, post-lapsum, is subsumed and given its final word in the eschatology of God’s life as he re-creates creation in the seed of the resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The image of God, Jesus Christ, in his vicarious humanity is re-created in resurrection, and now we as images of the image can live life out of his re-created life.
There are many more implications we could talk about, but these are some that stand out to me. I will report back further as I continue to read Dawson’s book.
 Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 5-6.