Friday, 13 April 2007

R. Dale Dawson: The Resurrection in Karl Barth

R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 246 pp. (review copy courtesy of Ashgate)

In this latest addition to the Barth Studies Series, Dale Dawson offers the first full account of Karl Barth’s theology of resurrection. Dawson views the resurrection as “the theological a priori” of Barth’s theology (p. 3), and he argues that the resurrection has “radical systematic significance” for the whole structure of Barth’s thought (p. 12). Dawson thus traces Barth’s work on the resurrection from early Göttingen lectures through to the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

One of the strongest parts of the study is the chapter on Barth’s 1924 exegetical lectures on The Resurrection of the Dead. In these early lectures, Barth engages in polemic against historicising approaches to the resurrection – he insists, for instance, that the “empty tomb” is irrelevant, and that there is no historical basis for belief in the resurrection. But Dawson rightly observes that Barth’s intention here is not to deny that the resurrection actually happened; instead, Barth is “combating an inadequate historicist interpretation” of the New Testament (p. 55). Knowledge of the resurrection is not the apprehension of one historical object alongside others, but it is a knowledge “of the relatedness of God to the entire scope of history, a knowledge which apprehends the ending of history,” and so it is a knowledge of “God’s primordial and definitive reality” (p. 59). In the resurrection, God reveals his relationship to all space and time, to the living and the dead alike. The resurrection-event, therefore, is not “a past event with present historical implications”; it is rather “an event on the horizon of history, creating and sustaining history” (p. 63).

Central to these 1924 lectures is the idea that the resurrection makes the existence of Jesus Christ contemporaneous with all other times and histories; the particularity of Jesus’ existence is universalised in the resurrection. On the basis of this insight, Dawson argues for an underlying continuity between this early resurrection-theology and the mature accounts of the resurrection in volumes III and IV of the Church Dogmatics.

In his discussion of the CD, Dawson emphasises the dogmatic character of Barth’s resurrection-theology. Barth is not concerned primarily with the usual philosophical questions of history or hermeneutics (e.g. Lessing’s ditch, the subject-object problem, etc.), but with the dogmatic question of how the reconciling action of Jesus Christ moves into the history of all other human beings. While Dawson’s point here is important, I think the significance of Bultmann’s approach to the resurrection should not be underestimated. Indeed, one could read the entire CD IV as a massive attempt to overturn Bultmann’s project – not by engaging with Bultmann, but by refusing to engage with his questions, and by foregrounding instead the dogmatic question of the mode in which Jesus Christ becomes contemporaneous with our existence. So while it’s true that Barth’s concern is theological rather than hermeneutical or philosophical, I think it’s also the case that the development of Barth’s mature dogmatic approach to the resurrection is best understood in the context of a radical conflict with Bultmannian hermeneutics.

Dawson is right, though, when he argues that Barth’s resurrection-theology undermines the much-rehearsed criticism of “christomonism” – that is, the claim that the subjectivity of Jesus Christ in Barth’s theology simply overwhelms and eliminates the proper subjectivity of human agents. Against such an interpretation, Dawson points out that Barth’s resurrection-theology is precisely an account of Jesus’ transition “from the narrower christological sphere to the anthropological sphere” (p. 172). In his resurrected life, Jesus Christ himself bridges the gulf between God’s reconciling agency and the effectiveness of this reconciliation in the lives of specific human agents.

Admittedly, the discussion of the resurrection throughout the main body of this book (chapters 1-7) is not exciting or theoretically creative – it is not, for instance, on the same level as John Webster’s brilliant essay on the topic (“Eloquent and Radiant,” in Barth’s Moral Theology [1998]), or as David Ford’s acute analysis of the primacy of Jesus Christ (Barth and God’s Story [1981]). But it is nevertheless a solid and workmanlike interpretation of a prominent aspect of Barth’s thought, and it fills an important lacuna in the study of Barth’s dogmatics.

In the final chapter, however, Dawson changes gears, and he offers some profound critical reflections on Barth’s theology. In particular, he suggests that Barth gives insufficient attention to the reality of the divine being in the resurrection. While Barth focuses on the soteriological function of the resurrection (as the movement of Jesus Christ to others), he doesn’t take the next step of extending the Father’s resurrection-work “into the trinitarian dynamic of the Father’s begetting of the Son” (p. 216). If the resurrection is indeed grounded in the reality of the immanent Trinity itself, and if God’s act is indeed identical with God’s being, then, Dawson argues, we should conclude that “the resurrection is an act of God of the same character and effect as that of the eternal trinitarian self-differentiation of his own being” (p. 216).

According to Dawson, the death of Jesus brings “the threat of dissolution to the Trinity,” so that the resurrection is God’s triumphant reaffirmation of his own self-differentiated life; it is “the reaffirmation, in the face of utter nothingness and dissolution, of God’s self-determination to be God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (p. 216). Thus the resurrection is the Father’s vindication of God’s own trinitarian being – and in this movement of God’s self-vindication, the second person of the Trinity emerges as “inextricably bound up with human being,” in “a union which entails the resurrection of humanity in him” (p. 221). In short, therefore: “The resurrection is the outward form of God’s reaffirmation of himself as trinitarian being” (p. 222). This strikes me as an excellent proposal for the contemporary reception of Barth’s theology, and as a necessary radicalisation of Barth’s own christological commitments.

The only improvement I’d suggest on Dawson’s proposal is that a connection be drawn at precisely this point between resurrection and election. If Jesus Christ is already the subject and object of God’s own trinitarian self-determination, and if God is therefore already eternally the “human God” in Jesus Christ, then we might also say that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the primordial actualisation of God’s decree. It is the event of God’s own self-constitution, the unfolding of God’s being as a being-towards-humanity. Or, to put it in a more explicitly anti-metaphysical form: the event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the self-elected locus of God’s being as Father, Son and Spirit.

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