Into the Far Country: Jesus and Israel in the Theologies of Barth and Torrance

The order of salvation, Christ's Life for usI thought I would repost this since Israel is in the news once again. In this instance we are taking a more theological look at the place of Israel vis-à-vis Jesus; but I thought it might be vitalizing to think Israel from within the context of God’s covenant and through a Christological lens.

I just finished reading Mark R. Lindsay’s book Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel. Lindsay’s treatment was highly stimulating, and represents a stellar contribution to Barth studies. The topic of this book was especially intriguing to me, particularly because of the role that the nation of Israel plays in God’s salvation-history as the covenant people through whom he mediates salvation to the world. Also, given my background, growing up as a dispensationalist, and thus a Christian Zionist, Israel has always played a unique role in my vision of the Bible, politics, and ethics. I have since repented of my former dispensationalism, nonetheless, Israel, both ethnically and theologically have a dominant role in my thinking; particularly because Jesus was from the Galilee, the man from Nazareth.

This will not be a full book review (Ben Myers wrote a book review back in 2007 here), but you can take what I write here as a recommendation for you to tolle lege, take up and read Lindsay’s book (if you can get your hands on it, it is an academic title which means it is exceedingly expensive). What I want to cover for the remainder of this post is to touch on Barth’s understanding of Israel in reconciliation. Lindsay provides good coverage of this, among so many other important things; including some intriguing historical nuance relative to the Jewish situation in Nazi Germany.

As we have covered more than once here Thomas F. Torrance sees a fundamental place for the nation of Israel, a perduring and irreversible place for the nation of Israel as Yahweh’s covenant people who mediate salvation to the nations (Romans 9–11). As such the Jesus we get is not an abstractly conceived human, but a particular human for all humans (pro nobis) from within the concrete and cultic matrix provided for in the history and making of the nation of Israel. This aspect is in Barth’s theology as well; Mark Lindsay explicates that this way as he gets into Barth’s CD IV/1 and Barth’s development of reconciliationisraelbarth:

The Jews in the Far Country

The first major section of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation in which he discusses Israel is §59.1, the subject of which is the divine condescension (exinanitio) of the Son of God. We are faced, then, with the particular history of Jesus of Nazareth. More exactly, perhaps, we are faced with the ‘aspect of the grace of God’ according to which, while not ceasing to be God, God—in Jesus Christ—‘goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and [which is] against God’ [CD IV/1, 158].

In earlier Reformed dogmatics, a distinction was made between Christ’s exinanitio  and humiliatio, the former treating Jesus’ ‘birth and burdensome life’, with the latter referring more specifically to Christ’s death and subsequent descent into hell (descensus ad infernos). In Heppe’s volume, the humiliatio is accorded far weightier significance than Jesus’ birth and life. For Barth, however, the emphasis is reversed. Barth’s overarching theme is that, in the condescension of the Son of God, God became ‘flesh’. Far more illustrative of Christ’s humiliation than any descent into hell is that the Son of God assumed ‘the concrete form of human nature and the being of man [sic] in his world under the sign and form of Adam—the being of man as corrupted and therefore destroyed, as unreconciled with God and therefore lost’ [CD IV/1, 165]. But Barth goes further to argue that, within this context of the assumption of human nature, ‘there is one thing we must emphasise especially … The Word did not simply become any “flesh” …It became Jewish flesh’ [CD IV/1, 166].

The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaninglessness to the extent that [Jesus’ Jewishness] comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of the New Testament Christology may have been shaped by a very non-Jewish environment. But they relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfils the covenant made by God with this people. [CD IV/1, 166)

For Barth, it is central to the Christian message that a Jew stands at the heart of the kerygma. Only as a Jewish man does Jesus also come into the world with a message for the world. It is only from within the sphere of Israel that Jesus can truly be what Israel’s vocation was always to be, that is, a ‘light to the nations’ (Is. 42:6). This is why Barth is so strongly critical of Marcion, the Socinians, Schleiermacher and Harnack, all of whom, in their own ways, tried to de-Judaize the humanity of Jesus and thus the essential Jewishness of the gospel, ‘to the great detriment…of this very heart of the Christian message’ [CD IV/1, 167].[1]

Far from being a supersessionist who believes that the church in Christ has superseded Israel, Barth sees ethnic Israel, as God’s covenant people, as inimical to the particularity of Jesus’ mission as Savior of the world. Thomas Torrance emphasizes the same thing in regard to the centrality of Israel’s vocation in mediating the Son of God, Jesus Christ to the world as its prophet, priest, and King (triplex munus). Torrance writes, and fleshes the implications of this out even further:

Thus the knowledge of God, of Christ, and of the Jews are all bound up inseparably together, so that when at last God came into the world he came as a Jew. And to this very day Jesus remains a Jew while still the eternal Son of God. It is still through the story of Israel, through the Jewish soul shaped by the hand of God, through the Jewish scriptures of the Old Testament and the Jewish scriptures of the New Testament church, the gospel comes to us, and that Jesus Christ is set before us face to face as Lord and saviour. Apart from this Old Testament prehistory and all the biblical revelation through Israel, we would not have the tools to grasp the knowledge of God; apart from the long history of the Jews we would not be able to recognise Jesus as the Son of God; apart from the suffering and agony of Israel we would not understand the cross of Calvary as God’s instrument to atone for sin and to enact once and for all his word of love and pardon and grace. Apart from the covenant forged in sheer grace with undeserving and rebellious Israel, and the unswerving faithfulness of the divine love, we would not be able to understand the mystery of our restoration to union with God in Jesus Christ. Apart from the context of Israel we could not even begin to understand the bewildering miracle of Jesus. The supreme instrument of God for the salvation of the world is Israel, and out of the womb of Israel, Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth — yet he was no mere instrument in the hands of God, but very God himself, come in person in the form of a servant, to work our from within our limitations and recalcitrance, and to bring to its triumphant completion, the redemption of mankind, and our restoration to fellowship with the very life of God himself.[2]

For Torrance and Barth the nation of Israel has significance for always and eternity; from the beginning to the end; from the Alpha to the Omega. Without the nation of Israel, in the theology of Barth and Torrance, Jesus would be nothing more than an accident of history, a demiurge or instrument of the ethereal and abstract who showed up to point people to a God concept; something like we see in Gnosticism and now neo-Gnosticism (think of much of what we see in so called ‘Jesus studies’). With the nation of Israel, though, there is an intelligibility, a theological acuity and context for Jesus to enter into in the fullness of time (Gal. 4). Jesus has a salvific context, what the old Reformed triplex munus captures in the Prophet, Priest, and King triad. With the nation of Israel, Jesus as her son has real reach into the vastness of the universe as God’s regent in bringing salvation to the nations and all of creation (Rom. 8).

As Lindsay hits on over and again, with reference to Barth (but he does bring up both David and Thomas Torrance), the nation of Israel is not just some theological locus that Barth posits to make his doctrine of election work. No, the nation of Israel is a concrete people who as all of humanity find their place, significance and vocation in Jesus Christ. But as Lindsay argues, and Barth emphasizes, the people of Israel are a particular and peculiar people in God’s unfolding plan that cannot and should not be metaphysicalized or made into an abstract idea. What an astounding reality, the Apostle Paul thought so,

33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?”  35 “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?”  36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.[3]

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 93.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 53-4.

[3] Romans 11:33-36.