Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing

Comment from a reader: I hope to see in a subsequent post the question answered as to whether Barth has a place within orthodoxy if he denies that God moves from wrath to grace in the history of the believer.

Response: Ah, Barth reminds me of my previous life when I wrote my doctoral thesis on him 30 years ago. Sadly, I have not continued my engagement with Barth since coming back to Malaysia. I just simply could not find someone who is interested even to survey the imposing theological Alpine Mount Blanc (yes! Barth was a Swiss, not German) from a distance using a telescope, much less climb its treacherous cliffs and dizzying heights. No one can theologize alone. Hence not much Barthian rumination in my life for the last 28 years. Pastoral necessity forced me to stay in the lowly valleys and grasslands of theology. To theologize Barth would indeed be an indulgence. But then why not once again for a change? Maybe just a quick shot at the problem?

Barth sounds like an evangelical when he talks about the cross. He deploys words like judgment, wrath, representation and substitution. He writes, “the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgment under which we had passed. That was why He came and was amongst us.” (Church Dogmatics CD 4.1.222). Barth adds, “His doing this for us, in His taking to Himself – to fulfil all righteousness – our accusation and condemnation, in his suffering in our place and for us, there came to pass our reconciliation with God.” (CD 4.1.223) But then in his usual and confusing dialectics he differentiates his position from that of Anselm’s satisfaction theory.

But we must not make this [the concept of punishment] a main concept as in some of the older presentations of the doctrine of the atonement (especially those which follow Anselm of Canterbury), either in the sense that by His [Christ’s] suffering our punishment we are spared from suffering it ourselves, or that in so doing He “satisfied” or offered satisfaction to the wrath of God. The latter thought is quite foreign to the New Testament. (CD 4.1.253)

Bruce McCormack alerts us to why Barth’s understanding of atonement is different from evangelicals even though he applies the same theological terms. Barth is not talking about an event in human history (an elusive concept within the Barthian framework) where substitution takes place at the historical crucifixion and imputation is used in the manner Calvin describes it. Barth refuses to frame or limit the substitutionary work of Christ in terms of human experience of death since the death of Christ is ultimately an event between God the Father and God the Son. Barth’s grounds his understanding of substitution in the pre-temporal election of the Son within the intra-Trinitarian life. McComarck shares a glimpse into Barth’s pre-temporal Trinitarian perspective:

[On the object during divine substitution] “So the logic of penal substitution is not that the Father does something to his “eternal Son” (as the charge of “cosmic” child abuse would suggest). Barth seems to view substitution in terms of Christ’s entire incarnate life, and not just his death. McCormack summarizes Barth’s position: He describes the object of substitution “This is a human experience of the Logos. Therefore, it is an event between the eternal Father and the Logos as human. The “object” of the action is, therefore, the Logos as human. What happens in the outpouring of the wrath of God by the Father upon Jesus Christ is that the human experience of the “penalty of death” that humans have merited through their sinfulness is taken into the very life of God himself.” [Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement’ in The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III eds. (IVP, 2004), pp. 364].

 McComarck explains how Barth’s has a different understanding from Calvin regarding the phrase “made sin” used in substitution theory. For Calvin this is the mechanism for imputation. But for Barth,

Thus Christ is “made sin” already in election. His embrace of the full consequences of human sinfulness (suffering, death, and perdition) is the concrete realization in time of what the God-human already is in pretemporal eternity—by way of anticipation. Moreover, Christ’s embrace of the full consequences of sin is the medium by means of which God takes these human experiences up into himself in order there, in his own being as God, to bring an end to them. In putting it this way, I am suggesting that sin is not simply “paid for” but indeed destroyed. [Bruce McCormack, “Can We Still Speak of “Justification by Faith’? An In-House Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul” in Galatians and Christian Theology, ed. Mark Elliot, Hafemann et.al (Blackwell, 2014), p. 181]

[On the subject during divine substitution] “The subject who delivers Jesus Christ up to death is not the Father alone. For the Trinitarian axiom opera trinitas ad extra sunt indivisa means that if one does it, they all do it. So it is the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) who gives himself over to this experience. And that also means, then, that the Father is not doing something to someone other than himself. The triune God pours his wrath out upon himself in and through the human nature that he has made his own in his second mode of his being — that is the ontological significance of penal substitution. The triune God takes this human experience into his own life; he “drinks it to the dregs.” And in doing so, he vanquishes its power over us. That, I would submit, is the meaning of penal substitution when seen against the background of a well-ordered Christology and a well-ordered doctrine of the Trinity.

Barth thinks his Trinitarian perspective on substitutionary atonement escapes the charge of violence: “God’s action in punishing sin on the cross…It is not an action of one individual upon a distinct individual…a well-ordered penal substitutionary theory (one that gets its ontological presuppositions right) does not portray this even in terms of a violent action of God (conceived of as one individual) upon his son (conceived of as a second distinct individual)…It justifies nothing on the plane of human-to-human relations, and the moral charge against penal substitution cannot be finally sustained. [Bruce L. McCormack, “The Ontological Presuppositions of Barth’s Doctrine of the Atonement” pp. 364-365]

This is giddy stuff. Is Barth historicizing the Trinity or is he idealizing the atonement event (in the sense of locating the substitutionary atonement beyond history)? Or do we have here an example of the early Barth described at the height of his apocalyptic theologizing that at the cross and resurrection? – “The new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it. And, precisely because it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier — as the new world.” [Karl Barth. The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford UP, 1968/1933), p. 30] Try figuring out this.

Conclusion: It is clear by now, Barth’s substitution is not penal. There are also indications that his soteriology reflects the recapitulation theme taught by Irenaeus. We cannot take Barth and interpreted him like an evangelical. Barth and evangelicals are operating with different theological paradigms, each with distinctive theological terms for discourse. Nevertheless, my plea to evangelicals is not simply to categorize Barth as a “non-evangelical” and then put him aside ‘safely’ elsewhere. No, theological critique should not be limited to drawing confessional boundaries. It should include the willingness to explore boundaries because one is confident about one’s confession of faith at the centre. Evangelicals would be impoverished if they ignore Barth. They should take up the challenge to immerse themselves in Barth, be dazzled but not seduced, learned from his mesmerizing insights and attempt robust internal critiques, if possible. We must go through and beyond Barth. We may yet gain a much larger theological horizon and new vistas in plumbing the unsearchable riches of God’s great salvation.

Postscript: I am pretty sure that 90% of my readers in Malaysia have no clue about what I have written above. Now you know why I did not explore and engage with the latest research on Barth for the last 28 years?

Question: Does serving in one’s home country/mission field require bearing the cross of dying to one’s theological self? Do I have a choice?

1 thought on “Is Barth’s Understanding of Atonement Evangelical? An Excursus and Indulgence in theologizing”

  1. Thank you! If you are willing to set up some sort of “Barth Tutorial” over a period of a year or two, please let me know.

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