Apocalyptic Christological Ethics Through the Dogmatics

"Hope does not lie in a way out, but in a way through." (Robert Frost)

I'm very sympathetic to requests for help refining down the amount of Barth's Church Dogmatics one has to read to get a certain point. It's like being a sherpa for groups looking to climb Everest. I feel like reaching a point where I could do that myself has taken up most of my graduate career!

I recently had such a request from someone looking for advice on Christology and ethics in Barth. Which is fine; I was once asked where to find Barth's doctrine of the Trinity. These are reasonable requests, in any other theologian. But when the thing you're looking for is so basically structural to Barth's work, there are two answers to such a question. The first is that you have to pan out far enough to see the whole thing. And the second is, "what are you really interested in?"

And the answer that came back this time delighted me, because it offered me a chance to show someone the road I wish I had taken. The refinement that came back involved the doctrine of scripture, and apocalyptic. Thank God for Phil Ziegler, pushing people to think in apocalyptic terms about theologians we thought we already knew! These four things still point to a massive chunk of the Dogmatics in their intersections, but they're workable. (I should know; I've been working them!)

There is, as far as I'm concerned, a preferable path for these things through the Dogmatics. It helps fix certain errors of perception I find common in the field. And I'm going to try and walk it for you right now, as much for the help of those who want such a thing as for the correction of those who may know better.

Setting Out

First, it should be noted that these four things are not merely tangent or coincident at small points. As I keep trying to say, the whole CD is performed while standing squarely in the domain of ethics, for the sake of people for whom the proclamation of the church and its action aren't separable in practice. And even if Barth isn't a "Christomonist," one cannot do ethics in Barth without Christology because Christ is the embodiment of our true nature in action for God and neighbor, just as he is also the revelation of God's true nature in action for us. And none of it can be done without scripture, but the threefold doctrine of the Word of God and its connection to the vestigium trinitatis means that you can't fully grasp Barth's Christology without making the connection to the Word of God that is God in God's self-revelation. And as to apocalyptic, how else does one properly describe the constant critical contradiction that Word of God presents to everything that we know? How else, most specifically, does Barth overcome the tendency to do theology from the world?

One is tempted to suggest volume IV for Christology. But you won't find all of the other things there, nor will you understand the Christology Barth sets out in volume IV properly without them. So this is a path up the mountain to volume IV.

Starting the Climb: The Doctrine of the Word

The path starts basically in the place you'd expect a tour of the Church Dogmatics to start, in volume I.1. But you can skip the opening arguments about theology as its own proper science. If you hit a point where you just can't see how Barth can justify saying the things he says without appealing to a modern, non-religious worldview as the foundation for them, then you'll need to read this. But chances are if you're tackling the CD as a sympathetic reader of Barth, you already think we can do theology as the church. And at best, you're reading Barth because you are actually trying to do theology in the church. In which case, this material can definitely wait until you turn to apologetics.

So: jump to section 3, page 47. You're going to read all of chapter 1, which is sections 3-7, and also the first section of chapter 2, which is section 8. This is about 300 solid pages. It will give you the necessary grounding in the nature of the Word of God that is embodied in Christ, especially as a speech-act with two parties. This is why, when you get to II.2 on election, Bruce McCormack is quite right to stress the fact that Christ is both the electing God and elect humanity—because in Christ the whole speech-act is embodied. Jesus Christ is the speaking God and the responding humanity, which is something Nigel Biggar will tell you with his emphasis on call, vocation, and invocation as a major theme. And these six sections will also teach you the nature of your job, and the context in which you do it. This is where the real nature of the command of God is stated, because the command is only an implication of the Word as it impacts us. The command of God shares the same exact nature of the Word of God which is seen in Christ. It is the fact that God speaks to us which demands response, and the nature of the speech which determines the appropriate response.

Now, for Christology it may well be helpful to read the concise Trinitarian bit in sections 10-12, especially for the person and work of Christ in section 11. That will help set you up with the idea of volume IV, and it's about 50 pages by itself. But you can definitely come back to this later. Jump to volume I.2 instead. Pause to admire the bit of Luther that stands "in place of a foreword" and remember that Barth is marching off to theological war. You're only going to read about half of this volume right now. Start with sections 13-15, "The Incarnation of the Word," which explains God's being-for-humanity in Christ. Remember that in the next three sections, 16-18, this Christology reaches its completion in pneumatology, and that Christology is not an end in itself. Note that the following three sections make a concerted effort to explain the nature and role of scripture in the church, and move past them to the last three sections, 22-24. This is the ethics of the Word of God in the church.

You should now understand how the nature of the command flows from the nature of the Word, and what that means for us by itself. Read Gerald McKenny for good secondary literature on this. He gets it. We're now going to jump over most of volume II, straight to chapter 8, sections 36-39, which is the second half of II.2. Don't be tempted to start II.2 from the beginning, with the doctrine of election. We'll get to that, but in a different sequence. Election is the middle of a process that begins in creation, and I highly recommend reading it right-way-to. For the moment, it is important that you follow up the ethics of volume I with the ethics of volume II, and understand the nature of the command of God beyond its simple existence in the Word of God. The trick is that you can actually treat these four sections at the end of volume II as a direct continuation of and expansion upon the doctrine of the Word. So we'll make camp here.

Stage Two: The Doctrine of the World

[To use a very, very different analogy that belongs to the Romans commentary, we are following a bomb to its target. We began with understanding the nature of the materiel, and observed its origin, its being-dropped, and the characteristics of the bomb in flight. Now, before it hits, we need to understand the target. But we begin to understand even the target itself, first, from the perspective of the bomb. We only truly know the world when we know it from the perspective of what strikes it from outside. Now, back to the climbing metaphor!]

To understand the terrain for this portion of the ascent, grab volume III.1, and at least read the first two sections, 40 and 41. It's one big happy apocalyptic re-reading of the Genesis creation stories from a theological ground. Augustine did this several times in his career, for similar reasons: theological problems grounded in a given reading of the creation texts must be answered by correcting the reading, first. For Barth, apocalyptic is the answer to the question of natural theology, because it lets him break the assumption of continuity between the world as we see it and the true nature of the creation. This is the same way in which Christ is our true humanity, which you'll find in III.2.

Reading section 42 is optional at this point. It's important to understand that Barth's apocalyptic is grounded in an original and absolute "Yes" to the creature as created, so that when you get to the eschatology, you will understand the resolution governed by that same "Yes" embodied in Christ. As long as you take the point of it, however, you can come back to the material in 42 at any time. To continue the anthropology strand, jump to III.2, sections 43-45. Here we zoom from the whole schematic of creation down in on humanity, specifically the human creature in and for creation. Here Barth shows us what it means to be that creature, and the revelation of God's intention for the whole creation, in the one man Jesus Christ.

Once you have this understanding, and it is a crucial one, there are now two places to go to understand how the existence of this human creature is determined. It is now important to jump ahead and read III.4, on how true human nature is rightly ordered in its intended existence (as Barth understands it). After that, it is important to jump back to the first half of II.2 and the doctrine of election, to understand the eschatological determination of humanity in Christ, and what happens to the impossible fact that our existence in the world is in contradiction to our essence. (III.3 will then be useful if you want more detail on the nature of this impossibility and self-contradiction as Barth understands it.)

Stage Three: Reconciliation ... thataway

None of this has handled the conversion of sinful humanity toward responsible obedience. Remember that that part belongs to pneumatology, and would have been handled in volume V on redemption if Barth had lived and taught classes long enough. The thing to understand is that Christology in Barth is about the brute facts, not the processes of becoming-in-accordance-with-them. To the extent that those processes begin in Christology, that's the doctrine of reconciliation.

And that's where we are now: standing at the doorstep to volume IV, ready to proceed through Barth's in-depth explanation of the person and work of Jesus Christ as God the Reconciler, as well as the person and work of humanity as reconciled to God. Pay close attention to the differences between this humanity, in accord with its nature in Christ, and the humanity presupposed in volume I ... to which you and the church bear much closer resemblance. The apocalyptic is implicit here, but if there are orders to be followed in the world, they are the orders of reconciliation, not any so-called "orders of creation."

This is also where I hand you off to other sherpas who know the terrain better than I do. John Webster's book, Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation, is a good support for how we got here and what to do now. For an alternative perspective, also grab Hans Vium Mikkelsen's book, Reconciled Humanity: Karl Barth in Dialogue. Adam Neder's book, Participation in Christ, is much shorter on the front end, but much more detailed on volume IV. And that's just for starters. But having walked this particular path, you may now have different ideas about what comes next, than they do. That was, in fact, the point! Any reading of the first three volumes can be judged by what it makes of volume IV. And for now, I can only point you ... thataway. I know where, but I haven't determined exactly what quite yet.