Identifying with Judas as Much as Peter: A Case Study, part 4

The fourth Judas reference Barth makes in the Church Dogmatics seems at first to be a trivial one, situated in its own self-contained excursus. This is the last reference to Judas in CD I.2, and it comes seven whole sections later than the material we last handled, appearing in section 21.2, "Freedom Under the Word." And there are some real translation issues here, over and above those I habitually correct by appropriately neutralizing gender bias and restoring emphasis from the German, so today it's all me for translation.

Subsections like this don't usually get their own big bold thesis statements—and this one actually starts with an excursus rather than a large-print paragraph—but the first paragraph of large print here serves very nicely to meet the need:
"The church as the space and sphere of the freedom of the Word of God is a gathering of people—not of people who have gathered themselves, but rather of people who were and are gathered, yet nevertheless: of people, whereby the Word of God that has gathered them is indeed concurrently a word about people. |

As that freedom in the church pertains now to this divine and human Word that has gathered them, if it is true that this Word has the power to assert itself in the world and to keep itself pure, to prevail and continually to establish itself anew and so to found the church, to maintain and to govern it, then it cannot be otherwise: where this power is recognized and experienced as such, where it is not only endured as judgment but also at the same time is believed as grace and finds obedience, and where therefore the witness of scripture is accepted, there arises and subsists—relatively, indirectly, and formally, completely and utterly dependent upon that acceptance and based entirely upon it, but within these limits also entirely real—a human power and freedom corresponding to the power and therefore freedom of the Word of God. |

Indeed, the people gathered in this space and sphere cannot then escape what by virtue of the freedom of the Word of God happens in their midst. That it should not determine them is impossible. It is about them. It shares itself with them. They may and must for their part say "yes" to it. It will become and has become—in the complete separation of humanity from God and in their complete dependency upon God—not only God's, but as God's business also their own business. |

We saw in the preceding paragraphs that the testimony of scripture cannot be accepted unless the people gathered in the church are each also ready and willing, in its interpretation and application, to listen to one another. Which, correspondingly, is to say that this testimony cannot be accepted unless those who accept it are ready and willing to undertake the responsibility for its interpretation and application themselves. This readiness and willingness to accept one's own responsibility for the understanding of the Word of God is freedom under the Word." (KD I.2, §21.2, 779–80; ET 696)
Freedom and responsibility to the Word of God. That's where we are, and it sounds familiar—but defining it is always a tricky thing, and Barth's approach is far from traditional. And maybe you're asking yourself, where does Judas come into this context? Thus far he's been an agent in his own right: in his own personal relationship with Jesus, in his own encounters with the Word of God, in his own failures. Are we about to talk about Judas as an agent of this human power and freedom, too?

Not exactly. We're about to talk about you as an agent of this human power and freedom, as an agent in the same situation, responsible to God in a relationship God constitutes with you. But you're not that far from Judas—and if you think you are, or should be, Barth is about to try and convince you otherwise.

Obedience to the Word of God

Once upon a time, in a seminar on world religions and interreligious dialogue, it was suggested to me that Barth was for all intents and purposes a fundamentalist. Knitter certainly treats him as an exemplar of rigid fundamentalist exclusivism, and from his standpoint and range of concerns I can see how Barth's lack of respect for any other religion than his own might come off that way. Nostra Aetate, for all its problems, makes vastly more use of a (colonialist and therefore intentionally fuzzier) notion of "other lights" and their relation to the one true light, and Catholic inclusivism has always therefore appeared friendlier as it goes about trying to plant its flag in the language and forms of other religions.

Ah, but I'm getting off track; the point is that for all Barth's adamant insistence upon believing what scripture tells you, he's equally adamant about the authority of scripture as something that cannot be appropriated by any religious group or agenda. God doesn't work through institutions. God does not depend on us as mediators, and God's Word absolutely doesn't require some mediating apparatus between it and the believer. Relative to any functional definition of fundamentalism, Barth is a critical, liberal, radical individualist. And he has this in common with the Reformers! You, personally, are responsible to the Word of God, and that means that you, personally, are responsible for its interpretation and application. And that means that you, personally, are responsible for listening to and critically questioning others about their interpretations and applications.

Barth is absolutely on about this happening in the context of the church, but what he means by "church" has as few dependencies upon human realities as possible. It is not in any way a mediating institution, responsible for the interpretation and application of scripture as though above you and for your sake. To the extent that an institution claiming the status of the church in the world performs that function, it does so under its own responsibility to the Word of God, teaching because it has heard, without relieving you of your equal and direct responsibility to the Word of God. "The church," to the extent that it has a necessary existence for Barth, is very much as defined above: a space of human responsibility created by the impact of the Word of God, which is God in God's self-revelation. The Word, which is Godself, does the gathering. The Word constitutes the assembly much in the way a gravitational singularity constitutes its own accretion disc. But the church is absolutely a human phenomenon; it is the accretion disc and not the singularity, and the assembled mass of the church therefore has an obligation to be shaped by what has gathered it.

An attentive reader of Barth has to say that we are therefore obligated to the shape of the Bible and its witness, of scripture as a form of the Word of God—but not in any simple way. Barth is not a fundamentalist (a good look at his critics among the Dutch Reformed, especially in America, should easily disabuse you of that notion), but he's also not a Liberal in the sense of Harnack and Ritschl. This is where he and Bultmann (and the host of lesser scholars in his vicinity) always part ways ... and usually wind up butting heads. We don't get to arbitrate what is and is not the scriptural witness; we don't get to weed out parts of it for corruption as though there were any parts that were pure. To say "the Word of God" is always for Barth to speak of God's self-revelation, of Jesus Christ first and foremost, and then only secondarily of scripture as its human witness, with all its intrinsic human foibles.

Submission to the Witness to the Word of God

Those human foibles, the real character of that witness in scripture, are part of the point of our being bound to scripture as a form of the Word of God in CD I, and that's where we come to our last Judas reference in this volume:
"It is suggested that, at one point, Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrügge (1803–75) responded to the question of when he had been converted with the laconic, 'at Golgotha.' This response was not, in its basic content, something in the way of a witty, embarrassed retort from a non-convert, but rather the only possible and quite unpretentious response of a true convert. The events of the faith in our own lives can indeed be none other than the birth, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ, his ascension and resurrection; the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the exodus of Israel from Egypt, its caravan through the wilderness, and its entry into the land of Canaan; the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the mission of the apostles to the heathen. Every verse in the Bible is virtually a concrete faith event of my own life. |

Accordingly, I am asked by the Word of God—which from all of these and in all of these and with every particular verse gives me testimony about the revelation of God—whether it actually is so: whether I, with my own life, was present at this and this event that is here witnessed to me. Next to this, what can the various more or less reliable insights mean, which I can have concerning myself apart from these particularities? Is there a miracle-story that can be told about me which, right when it should be genuine, does not completely dissolve into the divine miracle-story, the telling of which is therefore not worth the effort particularly and in abstracto? Have I anything to report about myself such that I would not be infinitely better off if I made even the simplest component of the Old or New Testament witnesses my own? Have I experienced something more important, more radical, more serious, more presently relevant than this: that I have most personally been present for and involved with the passage of Israel through the Red Sea, but also with the adoration of the golden calf; with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, but also with the denial of Peter and the betrayal of Judas—that it has all happened today, here, with me? If I believe, then this must therefore have its veracity. |

But if this has its veracity, then for what other kinds of faith-events in my life should I or could I go looking around? What then becomes of the bold claim with which I enlist first this and that turning point and highlight, and then little by little my entire life, as a kind of second salvation-history? And what then becomes of the stubborn and apprehensive doubt and despair of all exalted and uplifting moments and, eventually, my entire existence? However high or low the waves of life-events may rise or fall, as they are seen from our perspective, from within and from below, the actual movement of my life—the life-events in which it becomes evident to me that I belong to God in the entire expanse of my existence—is secured in the flood- as in the ebb-times from the other side, namely by the Word of God itself. And we will have to give an answer on that score: whether we have not, after the Word of God has secured the provision of this movement for us, in some way escaped it." (KD I.2, §21.2, 795; ET 709)
Freedom under the Word is never, and can never be, freedom from the Word or freedom over against it. But unlike the petty, perfectionistic moralisms of the fundamentalists, Barth isn't therefore interested in making scripture's claim over us into anything like a law code, or a set of propositions to be believed. No; if we read it correctly, if we take its witness to heart, we will see that the scriptures are very much like us, and we will find in them all the same struggles we face with the responsibility of freedom under the Word of God. We will find, with Barth guiding us, that to claim the truth of these witnesses is not to claim anything about their infallibility, their unsusceptibility to error. And we will find in turn that our efforts to be true witnesses and faithful expositors also imply no such things about us. If we cannot do better than scripture—and Barth believes we cannot—it is not because its authors are superior as people.

Identifying with the Witnesses to the Word of God

Honestly, reading this paragraph in the CD reminds me of nothing so much as entrance to candidacy, and all the proof they want that you have a legitimate call to the pastorate. Lutherans, especially lefty ones like mine, have never been as obsessed with conversion narratives, experiential stories of personal salvation and vocation ... and yet we ask for their equivalents just the same, in order to try and weed out people who want the job for whatever anyone might imagine to be the wrong reasons. But on any side of the question, what are we really trying to do with these self-stories? We're looking for some of the same things Barth approves of here; we're looking for the story of your responsibility to God, your dependence on the Word of God, your understanding that you live in this situation before God and have begun to get some sense of what that demands of you.

And when it comes to that, you don't get to take the good and leave aside the bad. Barth isn't interested in leaving Judas off to one side, marked off with caution tape, and telling you never to do that; he wants you to have been present there with him in that moment. He wants you to have been there with Peter in the forecourt when he denies Jesus three times, and the cock crows, and he realizes the depth of his failure—and not just with him on the mountaintop of transfiguration. When Barth says that the Word of God is not just a divine word, but also a human word, a word about humanity, he certainly means the gesture toward the divine-humanity of Jesus—but more importantly, right here, he means to remind you that the witness of scripture is not only to God in the high places, but also to humanity in all its depths.

If we run from that, if we attempt to deny and falsify that witness, to escape what it shows us as though God demanded that we do so, we're just going to wind up producing our own evidence against ourselves, regardless. And maybe we respond to that, if the problems we see in ourselves look small enough to run from, by trying to connect the dots of our best selves, trying to write our lives as paths that lead upward into the heights—"a kind of second salvation-history." But Barth is right: eventually that kind of theology of glory produces its own despair. There's a pretentious kind of unbelief, a real failure to have been converted by the grace of God, in the belief that we can transcend these moments, surpass them with stories of our own. And eventually its pretense collapses. But there's a profound humility to the faith that can accept that we have been personally present in the worst moments of human failure in scripture, that can endure the word of judgment and receive with it the word of grace.

Bearing Faithful Witness to the Word of God

If your doctrine of election doesn't do this, if election can be forfeit because of human action, if the object is to follow the success stories and dutifully escape the outcomes of the cautionary tales, then you maybe haven't been listening as attentively to scripture—and in particular, the gospel—as you should. And certainly the authors of scripture have been as bad at this as we have! If all you see is the judgment, and a demand for your obedience, and not grace, or if grace is something added to law and judgment to facilitate your obedience, what you have is neither the Word of God nor a legitimate demand for your submission to it. It is not the command of God, Barth will insist, unless it frees you. It is not the command of God if the scope it gives you is determined by the concern that freeing you might not be safe. And that comes later, those statements appear in II.2, but they are absolutely relevant to this section of I.2 in which Barth discusses the definite freedom you have under the Word of God.

There can be no real responsibility without real freedom. And real freedom is freedom to fail, because it is freedom guaranteed by that definite relationship with the God whose Word secures our lives from the other side. It is freedom because it does not involve the demand that we become responsible for securing our own lives from this side. Being in a relationship where our connection to the covenant is secured by the cycle of judgment, forgiveness, and active reconciliation by God is what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. The whole point of that atonement is missed if we're busy trying to do better, trying our hardest to escape ever being Judas, because we're terrified of failure!

I realize we're not into what some will insist is the truly "mature" part of Barth's mature dogmatics yet, so even I'm taking my assertion that reconciliation here is really part and parcel with what reconciliation will be in CD IV with a grain of salt—but election here at the beginning of this notionally third cycle of Barth's dogmatics isn't radically different from what it will become in CD II.2, either. Which is to say, you should be watching for the mechanism to change more than the effect. But we'll see as I keep moving forward through this case study.

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