The Resurrection, History and (the problem of?) Karl Barth

Dr. Blosser (aka. The Pertinacious Papist aka. “my dad,” but I refer to him as “Dr. Blosser” in this context out of respect for his office) has written an appraisal of “post-Chrisian” theologian Hans Kung on his blog “Scripture and Sacred Tradition”

The problem with Hans Kung is that, like the rest of that part of the post-Christian world that has been reluctant to let go of its sentimental attachment to Christianity, he wants to change the meaning of Christianity to conform to his post-Christian commitments rather than to admit that his beliefs are no longer, in any traditionally recognizable sense of the term, Christian.

Regarding Hans Kung’s fascination with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, Blosser makes an interesting point that may take some by suprise:

[Kung’s] Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection shows that he was already interested in drawing converging lines between Catholic and the secularized Protestant theologian, Karl Barth. I realize that many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, hold Barth in high esteem, viewing him as a champion of “Neo-Orthodoxy” in contrast to the “Liberalism” of demythologizing thinkers such as Rudolf Bultmann, and I realize that they might find my labeling of him as a “secular Protestant” offensive. Yet I make my remarks advisedly. Barth is deceptive. He writes and talks as if he believes in the traditional Christian doctrines. But he doesn’t. As University of Edinburgh Professor J.C. O’Neill writes in his chapter on Barth in The Bible’s Authority:

Barth begins from from the starting-point that none of the miracles in the Bible actually happened. . . . Opponents of Barth like Bultmann were infuriated by Barth’s seeming to say that he believed that the resurrection happened (in the normal sense, by which he grave became empty and the transformed body of Jesus left this universe) when he did not believe anything of the sort–but Barth never really concealed his actual position from those who took care to read carefully what he wrote. (p. 273)

Karl Barth on History and the Truth of the Gospel

Dr. Blosser’s description of Barth as a “secularized Protestant” is indeed suprising, given portrayal as a champion of God’s revelation and the objectivity of theology against the liberal subjectivism of Bultmann and 19th century liberal Protestantism. My theology professors in college portrayed him (and praised him) in exactly those terms. But in researching Barth further, I found much to back the credibility of Dr. Blosser’s assertion

In a survey of “Scripture: Recent Protestant and Catholic Views”, Avery Dulles describes Barth’s view of scripture as follows (Theology Today Vol. 37, No. 1. 1980):

The period between the two world wars was marked by a return to the authority of the Bible without the dogmatic rigidities of classical orthodoxy. The prevailing mood was best expressed by the neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth and his associates, who developed a highly Christocentric view of revelation. According to this school, the word of God was to be identified with Jesus Christ and him alone. The Bible was not itself the word of God but a witness to that word. Christ, however, could address the community through the word of Scripture, and when he did so the Bible became, in a genuine sense, the word of God. The believing community could encounter Christ personally through that word.

In Barthian neo-orthodoxy the classical theses of Protestant orthodoxy were notably modified. Inspiration was no longer a property of the biblical authors or of the books taken in themselves. Rather, it was “the promise of God and the Holy Spirit to be present among the faithful when these writings are used in the common life of the church.” Inerrancy, as a property of the texts, was vigorously denied, yet a genuine authority was ascribed to the Bible insofar as it became, on occasion, the word of God. In spite of the errors of the human writers, God acts with sovereign efficacy to lead the believing reader to an authentic faith-encounter.

But it’s one thing to say that Barth held to a view of scripture unlike that of his fellow Protestants, quite another to charge that he did not believe in the resurrection in the traditional sense of the term. Consequently, I’d like to devote this post to exploring 1) Karl Barth’s thought of the Resurrection itself (as a literal event); 2) Barth’s understanding of the resurrection as an event in history; 3) the possible consequences of Barth’s views on this subject.

Did Barth believe in the Resurrection?

Writing in First Things, Ralph C. Wood tells of an evangelical reporter who is alleged “to have asked Karl Barth, when he was visiting this country in 1962, whether he had ever been saved. “Yes,” Barth is rumored to have replied. “Then tell us about your salvation experience,” the reporter eagerly requested. “It happened in a.d. 34, when Jesus was crucified and God raised him from the dead.” (“In Defense of Disbelief” First Things 86 (October 1998): 28-33).

In a passionate sermon “Threatened by the Resurrection,” Karl Barth describes the resurrection of Christ as

not a miracle, but the miracle, the miracle of God – God’s incomprehensible, saving intervention and mercy, the all-inclusive renewal that leads from death to life that comes from him, God’s life-word, resurrection from the dead!

Resurrection – not progress, not evolution, not enlightenment, but a call from heaven to us: “Rise up! You are dead, but I will give you life.” That is what is proclaimed here, and it is the only way that the world can be saved. Take away this summons, and make something else of it, something smaller, less than the absolute ultimate, or less than the absolutely powerful, and you have taken away all, the unique, the last hope there is for us on earth.

In the same sermon, Barth goes on to challenge those who would reduce this fundamental doctrine of Christianity to something other than it is, interpreting it “not in its literal sense, but . . . a symbol or a human idea”:

We may be satisfied with this sort of resurrection. We may get along very well for some time with the comfort that death is not so terrible: “One must just not lose one’s courage!” We may be satisfied for a long time with the romantic reappearing of the blossoms and the rejuvenation of spring, and thus forget the bitterness of present reality. It may be that, even as we stand beside the graves of loved ones, we find contentment in the thought of a spiritual continuation of this life. But the remarkable thing about it is that the real truth of the resurrection seems to be too strong for us, because it will not suffer itself to be hidden or concealed in these harmless clothes. It always breaks forth; it rises up and shouts at us, asking: “Do you really think that is all I have to say to you? Do you really believe that is why Jesus came to earth, why he agonized and suffered, why he was crucified and rose again on the third day, to become merely a symbol for the truth – which really is no truth – that eventually everything will be all right?”

No cultural education, no art, no evolutionary development helps us beyond our sins. We must receive assistance from the ground up. Then the steep walls of our security are broken to bits, and we are forced to become humble, poor, pleading. Thus we are driven more and more to surrender and give up all that we have, surrender and give up those things which we formerly used to protect and defend and hold to ourselves against the voice of the resurrection’s truth.

Those who would allege that Barth did not believe in the truth of the resurrection, as a physical event, as the bodily resurrection of Jesus the Christ, will have to wrestle with these words and this sermon — it seems to me that the burden of proof is on them. However, it is with respect to the resurrection as an event in history that we encounter the problem raised by Dr. Blosser.

The Resurrection – a Historical Event?

In Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection, William Lane Craig briefly describes Barth’s view of the subject:

. . . Liberal theology could not survive World War I, but its demise brought no renewed interest in the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, for the two schools that succeeded it were united in their devaluation of the historical with regard to Jesus. Thus, dialectical theology, propounded by Karl Barth, championed the doctrine of the resurrection, but would have nothing to do with the resurrection as an event of history. In his commentary on the book of Romans (1919), the early Barth declared, “The resurrection touches history as a tangent touches a circle — that is, without really touching it.”

What were Barth’s motivations for such a radical claim? According to Gregory W. Dawes (The Historical Jesus Quest Revisited”), Barth’s intentions in defending the resurrection as a suprahistorical event — outside the grasp of historical investigation — were, to say the least, honorable. Barth’s intention was “to undo the damage brought about by historical criticism. . . . [to] reject the idea that a theology could be built on the results of historical research.” In particular, says Dawes, Barth was reacting to the claims of liberal theologians like Ernst Troeltsch, that, as simply one religion among others, one cannot take Christianity’s claims to authority for granted but must rather submit them to modern historical criticism.

Barth and Bultmann, on the other hand, regarded Troeltsch’s approach as a betrayal of the properly theological task. They also realized that it was doomed to failure: once Christianity came to be seen as merely one religion among others, its claims to authority would soon be undermined. They, therefore, opposed this development from the very outset. Theologians, they argued, were faced not with “a religion,” to be understood in historical terms, but with a divine revelation. Just as there is an “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and the world, so there is an infinite distance between Christianity as a religion and the revelation of which it is a vehicle. The historian might understand the religion, but he or she has no access to the revelation. Revelation can be expressed and understood only in the terms that God himself has provided.

What Barth thought of the resurrection can be gleaned further from “Conversational Theology: The Wit and Wisdom of Karl Barth”, by George Hunsinger:

. . . Barth’s understanding of Christ’s resurrection was a recurring topic of interest. An especially interesting exchange took place in an extensive conversation with theology students from Tübingen (pp. 33-52). Curiously, however, one theme never surfaced, even though for Barth it was perhaps the matter of greatest “objective” significance. Unencumbered by modernist arguments about “historicity” (whether pro or con), Barth proposed that, ontically, the significant matter was not so much that the resurrection event was “historical” as that Christ had been elevated from time into an eternal mode of existence without losing his essential temporality. Consequently, the risen Christ, in his saving significance, was able to be the Contemporary of each and every human being, in all times and places. In and through the living Christ, crucified and risen, God related to the entire human race. God’s affirmation and judgment of the human race in the life-history of Jesus Christ was the beginning and end of all things.

When the question of “historicity” took center stage, however, as it did with the Tübingen students, then, in effect, Barth would advance the proposition that Christ’s resurrection was indeed a historical event, and yet it was unlike any historical event that we know. Over against theologians like Bultmann and Ebeling, Barth affirmed that, yes, Christ’s resurrection was really a bodily event. It was really “spatio-temporal:” “somatic, visible, audible, tangible” (p. 34). “It was a matter of the same human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who had previously been among them, and who was now seen in his glory” (p. 35). Over against theologians like Pannenberg, on the other hand, Barth contended that, no, modern critical methods of investigation are not germane to this event in its essential uniqueness (p. 45). Poetic or even mythic elements are ineffaceable from the biblical depiction, precisely because this event is, by definition, a mysterious conjunction of historicity and transcendence (pp. 46-47).

Barth rejected the search for the historical Jesus, because he did not believe him to have been lost. “As if there were any other life of Jesus than that of him who was raised at Easter!” (p. 36). The Easter Jesus, as attested by the apostles, was the only Jesus there has ever been.

We can judge by Hunsinger’s account (and by the words of Barth himself) that Barth did believe in the resurrection, that it was indeed a historical event, but that in light of its utter uniqueness as a “conjunction of historicity and transcendence” it was rendered impervious to subsequent historical investigation. Barth’s intent was to counter the negative effects of historical criticism and a liberal Protestant theology that demeaned the truth of the gospel.

Perhaps Barth did not anticipate the full implications of his view, or the damaging consequences it was bound to have in succeeding generations of Christian thought. Nevertheless, as Gregory Dawes contends:

The work of Karl Barth in particular represents an extraordinary theological synthesis. But its effect on religious thought has been almost entirely pernicious. For Barthian theology has encouraged a “retreat to commitment”, a style of thinking which is prepared to defy even the most minimal standards of rationality, standards on which the entire academic enterprise depends. Even on theological grounds, its defiance of historical claims seems untenable, if belief in the incarnation is to be taken seriously. The Jesus of history matters, not just to the historian, but also to the believer.

Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Real Jesus – Shades of Karl Barth?

The Barthian perception of history and what Dawes describes as a “retreat to commitment” bears a remarkable similarity to the conclusions of Luke Timothy Johnson regarding the gospels and historical research, as expressed in The Real Jesus (Harper, 1996) – subtitled: “The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels”:

. . . if the resurrection means, as defined here, the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God, then by definition it is not “historical” as regards Jesus, in the sense of a “human event in time and space.” By definition, the resurrection elevates Jesus beyond the merely human; he is no longer defined by time and space — although available to human beings in time and space. The Christian claim in the strong sense is simply not “historical.” The problem in this case is, however, not with the reality of the resurrection. The problem lies in history’s limited mode of knowing. Yet, to make one final turn, the resurrection of Jesus in this strong sense can be said to be historical as the experience and claim of human beings, then and today, that organizes their lives and generates their activities. That is the resurrection has a historical dimension as part of the “resurrection community” that is the Church.

Johnson proceeds from his observation regarding the limits of historical knowledge to the striking conclusion that history itself can be dismissed in proving the claims of Christianity:

Christianity has never been able to “prove” its claims except by appeal to the experiences and convictions of those already convinced. The only real validation for the claim that Christ is what the creed claims him to be, that is, light from light, true God from true God, is to be found in the quality of life demonstrated by those who make this confession. . . . the claims of the Gospel cannot be demonstrated logically, they cannot be proved historically. They can be validated only existentially by the witness of authentic Christian discipleship.

I first read Johnson’s book in college, and it was a welcome find just at the time I was taking some courses on New Testament biblical scholarship and studying (or being force-fed) the findings of “The Jesus Seminar.” As it stands, The Real Jesus provides an excellent critique of scholars like Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan and Bishop Spong who promote a “historical Jesus” completely divorced from the traditional gospel account.

At the same time, I found myself utterly disappointed by Johnson’s conclusion pertaining to history and the demonstratable truth of the Gospel. Johnson’s emphasis on Christian action is laudable, as is his insistence that one cannnot investigate the veracity of the gospel accounts exclusive of the creedal claims of the Church. However, Johnson’s explicit dismissal of history and identification of gospel truth with “the experiences and convictions of those already convinced” — a blatant retreat into subjective experience as the sole arbiter of religious truth — must be questioned and firmly rejected.

I could be going out on a limb here in noting the similarity between Johnson and Barth, although I expect Johnson was certainly acquainted with his writings. In any case, I was pleased to read that Richard B. Hays expressed similar reservations about Johnson’s conclusions in his review for First Things June/July ’96).

The Heresy of Modernism and the Resurrection

While researching this topic I came across the Catholic Enyclopedia‘s entry on “The Resurrection”, the last section of which addresses the resurrection in light of the heresy of Modernism,associated in part with the French theologian and biblical scholar Fr. Alfred Loisy (1857-1940). The underlying propositions of modernism were summarized and condemned by Pius X in the 1907 decree Lamentabili Sane, and in greater depth in Pascendi Dominici Gregis). Among the condemned propositions was the assertion that “[t]he Resurrection of our Saviour is not properly a fact of the historical order, but a fact of the purely supernatural order neither proved nor provable, which Christian consciousness has little by little inferred from other facts.” According to the Catholic Enyclopedia:

This statement agrees with, and is further explained by the words of Loisy . . . [according to whom], firstly, the entrance into life immortal of one risen from the dead is not subject to observation; it is a supernatural, hyper-historical fact, not capable of historical proof. . . . This faith of the Apostles is concerned not so much with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as with His immortal life; being based on the apparitions, which are unsatisfactory evidence from an historical point of view, its force is appreciated only by faith itself . . .”

Loisy’s beliefs were criticized by the Catholic Enyclopedia, which maintains that:

the denial of the historical certainty of Christ’s Resurrection involves several historical blunders: it questions the objective reality of the apparitions without any historical grounds for such a doubt; it denies the fact of the empty sepulchre in spite of solid historical evidence to the contrary; it questions even the fact of Christ’s burial in Joseph’s sepulchre, though this fact is based on the clear and simply unimpeachable testimony of history.

Of course, one cannot lump together Modernism with Liberal Protestantism. John L. Murpy points out in Modernism and the Teaching of Schleiermacher (The American Ecclesiastical Review July, 1961), while the propositions condemned in Lamentabili are rooted in Liberal Protestantism, there remains an important difference between the two movements:

The Modernist attempted to bring into harmony both the traditional Catholic faith and these principles of Liberalism; this would naturally result in a rather distinct system. Obviously, because of the opposite directions taken by the underlying philosophical principles of both systems, this attempt could not possibly have succeeded. It was in reality an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, and it could only have ended by the abandonment of one or the other element: either accept the condemnation of Pius X or forsake the Catholic Church.

Modernism predates Barth, and the whole of Barth’s work is typically depicted as an effort to combat the principles of theological liberalism. Nevertheless, I find it interesting how Loisy’s “flight from history” — denying the relevance of historical investigation in testifying to the truth of the gospel — is repeated to some degree by Karl Barth, and how Barth’s theology has contributed to what Dawes criticizes as a “retreat to commitment,” such that even Luke Timothy Johnson ends up soundling a lot like Barth himself.

The Postmodern Appropriation of Karl Barth

A further sign of concern is the fact that some Protestant scholars have revived (should I say resurrected?) an interest in Karl Barth, not as a defender of traditional Christianity, but as a foundation for “postmodern” theology.

In Barth and beyond” (Christian Century May 2, 2001), William Stacy Johnson explores the work of various Protestant authors who have appropriated Barth, announcing:

A number of theologians of late, myself included, have been arguing that Barth inaugurates a theological movement that has some affinities with the intellectual currents running through postmodernity. With the revision and republication of the second edition of his Epistle to the Romans in 1922, Barth sounded with piercing clarity the theme that God is simply greater than all the attempts of theologians — whether liberal or conservative, whether modern, premodern or postmodern — to capture God within the confines of a single, self-contained framework of linguistic meaning.

And in an earlier article, The ‘postmodern’ Barth? The Word of God as true myth (Christian Century, April 2, 1997), Gary J. Dorrien goes into detail how once the “outdated” [“neo-orthodox”] categorization has been discarded, certain elements of Barth’s theology can then be used to bolster a postmodern Christianity:

Long after he relinquished the expressionist tropes of his “crisis theology” period, Barth’s theology remained a rhetoric of freedom. He refused to reduce God to one element of a system; he rejected every kind of philosophical foundationalism; and his theology blended too many patterns to be reducible to any single theme. . . . Though his massive Church Dogmatics took on the appearance of an old-style dogmatism, his theological vision throughout this epochal work remained distinctively pluralistic and open-ended.

Barth insisted that Christian theology can be healthy and free only if it remains open to a multiplicity of philosophies, worldviews and forms of language. Nor is there any hierarchy among theological topics, he argued; there is no reason why a dogmatics should not begin with the Holy Spirit or salvation or eschatology: “There is only one truth, one reality, but different views, different aspects: just like the sun shines on different places.”

By resisting the colonization of theology by philosophy or any other discourse, Barth prefigured the postmodern critique of all universalizing or “totalizing” discourses. The recognition of real differences is obliterated by universalist claims . . .

“Open-ended”, “pluralistic”, anti-hierarchical and anti-dogmatic — such terms are obvious warning signs of entry into a quagmire of postmodernism which eschews a traditional understanding of religious truth. Dorrien made his case for a postmodern reading of Barth in The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons, which in turn received a brief mention in First Things:

“This is the significance of the “theology without weapons” in his subtitle, which refers to an autopistia or faith that stands on its own without support from philosophy, natural theology, historical demonstration, or ecclesial authority. The upshot, according to Dorrien, is that Karl Barth is in fact a fellow–traveler with the anti–foundationalists of contemporary postmodernism.”

The reviewer counters Dorrien by appealing to “students of Barth such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Robert Jenson . . . [who] interpret and react to his work with quite different intentions” — but one must nevertheless wonder: is there something in the theology of Karl Barth itself that contributes to this dangerously postmodern reading?

* * *

I admit that since my conversion I have made little effort to keep up with Karl Barth or subsequent Lutheran theology, this post being a rather novel venture into such territory. However, Karl Barth once said “I cannot say that I consider it “cricket” when people talk about something without having properly studied it.” And fearing I may be precisely such a person in these circumstances, it is out of deference to Mr. Barth (God bless his soul) that I bring this to a close.

This post was originally conceived as a supplement to (and spinoff from) Dr. Blosser’s “The Problem with Hans Kung”, and I hope his readers might find these further notes helpful. Given the nature of the topic, I would certainly be delighted if perhaps one of our Lutheran (or former Lutheran) bloggers weighed in on this discussion as well — or even corrected me, if it happens that I erred in my understanding of Barth.

I leave you with this amusing fictional dialogue I came across: “How Historical is the Resurrection?”, by Daniel L. Migliore (Theology Today Vol. 33, No. 1, April 1976 — thank God for online archives), beginning:

BARTH: Have I ever told you my joke about modern theologians? Bonhoeffer is good beer; Tillich is beer; Bultmann is foam. . . .

(In my next post I’ll briefly look at Barth’s friendship with another Catholic scholar, not Kung, but von Balthasar).


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