Demythologizing the Theology of Karl Barth: On the Unhistorical Nature of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

I’m going to get back to posting more on Barth’s theology once again; and with that a series of posts, scattered about, on modern theology and the value I see in it for the evangelical churches. This will be the first post of many with these sorts of emphases as the fund. In this post I want to briefly highlight an aspect of Barth’s theology that is often caricatured and thus misunderstood; indeed it is an aspect that has been used against him to paint him as a heretic, and someone not to be trusted by the evangelicals. I am referring to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. The claim is often made that Barth rejected the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and as such, the logic goes, he should be understood as a liberal theologian not to be affirmed. The first time I ever heard of Barth (much before I went to bible college or seminary) was probably back in 1994 on Christian radio; the person talking brought up Barth, and how, indeed, he denied the resurrection of the Christ. This was the very first time I had ever heard the name of Karl Barth, and because of that whenever I heard his name latterly my antennae would go up and I would immediately think “heretic.” I’m thankful that since then I have received teaching that has led me in the more accurate way in understanding Barth’s actual theology, and the superstructure supporting it.

In the following we will hear from Bruce McCormack and his quick sketch of how Barth thought of resurrection. You will notice that Immanuel Kant is mentioned, and you will see how Barth’s theology of resurrection is intended to respond to the Kantian categories; indeed, to respond in a way that uses Kant’s categories, but in such a way that it reifies them by allowing the living God to populate them with the theological cogency and urgency that the ground establishing reality of the resurrection provides for as the prius that makes all things new in a theological epistemology (as that is grounded in a theological ontology). McCormack writes of the Romerbrief Barth:

For the Barth of the second edition of Romans, the resurrection event is revelation. But the resurrection is an event which is “unhistorical.” By this, Barth did not mean that the resurrection occurred in some other realm than that of the space and time in which we live. The resurrection was already understood by him at that time as a “bodily, corporeal, personal” event. That which happens to a body (whether living or dead makes no real difference) happens in space and time. In stressing the “unhistorical” character of the resurrection, then, what Barth meant to say was that it was not an event to be laid alongside other events. It was not an event produced by forces operative in history. History does not produced something like a bodily resurrection—not in our experience, anyway. For that, an act of God is required. But an act of God is just as unintuitable as the being of God. We may see its effects, but we do not see the thing itself; hence, Barth’s insistence that the resurrection event has no extension whatsoever on the historical plane known to us; hence, also, his insistence that Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as a problem, as a myth. Seen in material terms, Barth’s solution to the problem created by Kant was to suggest that the unintuitable divine power which was at work in raising Jesus from the dead cast a light backwards, so to speak, on an event which is intuitable, namely, the event of the cross. Light is cast on this event, a power is exercised, so that without setting aside or altering the human cognitive apparatus as described by Kant, the limitations inherent to that apparatus are transcended. The unintuitable God is revealed to faith through the medium of an intuitable event. Revelation reaches its goal in the human recipient, and knowledge of God is realized.[1]

As I noted, Barth, especially the early Barth, was working in and from Kantian categories; albeit from a Schleiermacherean theological tradition (as far as theological epistemology goes). And so this should help explain why Barth places his doctrine of resurrection on a different plane than ‘normal’ history works and thinks from. Barth sees resurrection as revelation which by the miracle of faith, for the believer, becomes the objective ground upon which knowledge of God and his reality can be known. This is why McCormack keeps bringing up ‘intuitable’ and ‘unituitable,’ this was the dilemma or at least the categorical matrices which Kant presented Barth and the moderns with; i.e. the dualist idea of the ‘phenomenal’ and the ‘noumenal.’ Barth sought for a way, under these pressures, to outthink Kant, by thinking with Kant through Christological realities that would “satisfy” the Kantian categories by using the theological categories of Deus absconditus (‘the hidden God’) and Deus revelatus (‘the revealed God’) as the corollaries of the Kantian noumenal/phenomenal to throw these very categories into Christian theological refreshment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As McCormack develops further while Barth, in Romans, was moving in the right directions he still did not have a robust response to Kant; not a fully christologically funded response anyway. This negligence, according to McCormack, wouldn’t start to be addressed, and thus flourish, until we get to the Göttingen Barth where the patrological categories of an/enhypostasis come into vision of Barth’s theological optics. As we leave Barth in Romans all he has resource to, as far as closing the gap between the noumenal (unintuitable) and the phenomenal (intuitable) is to refer to the power of God. What an/enhypostasis supplies the Göttingen Barth with is a way to round out the person of Christ as the fertile ground upon which resurrection gains the required theological ontology in order for a theological epistemology to rise that is fully Christ concentrated and thus pneumatologically resourceable in regard to making sense of how the hidden God could remain hidden in the incarnation and at the same time knowable. We will have to develop these themes later.

What I really wanted to underscore was that for the contextual Barth there is much more to the story than the caricatures portend. As McCormack has helped us see, for Barth, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was bodily, corporeal, and real; it’s just that it is unable to be explained by referencing normal historiographical lenses precisely because, on Barthian terms, the resurrection itself is history-granting. We leave in this vein with a quote from Robert Dale Dawson, which fits in well with some of the insights we’ve already gleaned from McCormack:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 29-30.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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