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.


bisaal said...

"an event on the horizon of history, creating and sustaining history"

What does that mean?.
Were early Christians converted by the belief in an actual resurrection or by "an event on the horizon of history"

Ben Myers said...

Hi Bisaal. Yes, the early Christians (and Barth, of course) believed in an actual event -- but they believed that this event was eschatological, i.e., that the end of history had arrived in advance in the resurrection. So you could perhaps describe that as "an event on the horizon of history".

george hunsinger said...

I think it is a mistake to say that for Barth God's being is "identical" with his act. While there is an occasional text that would support this interpretation, Barth more often takes the considered view that God's being is "in" God's act. The relation between God's being and God's act is not one of simple identity but rather of unity-in-distinction.

When God's being in and for itself is then blurred with God's being for us, the first mistake is compounded, gravely, by a second.

Nothing in the created order can possibly be a "ground" for God's eternal trinitarian being, or on the same order with it, not even God's act of raising Jesus Christ from the dead.

The death of Jesus brings not a threat to the Trinity – an absurd idea – but the dissolution of death itself – the death of death in the death of Christ, as John Owen rightly phrased it.

The resurrection is not "primordial" but contingent. It does not "actualize" God's pre-temporal act of election in any constitutive sense. It is in no way the event of God's "self-constitution."

Errors of this order will not lead to any creative theological advance, but only to a dissolution of the gospel.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think Barth is right to insist that the resurrection is not an ordinary historical event but a history changing one. However, I have always thought that his desire to protect the resurrection from those who think of it as just another historical event leads him to go too far--such as saying that the empty tomb is irrelevant and that there is no historical basis for belief in the resurrection. Without meaning to do so, this move always made Barth appear to fail to recognize that this history changing, cosmic event came IN history--in the same world in which we humans live, move, and have our being.

The empty tomb may not create faith (one can alway explain it away), but a full tomb would have negated faith, because no first century Jew would have called a non-physical afterlife for Christ by the term "resurrection." Barth's view here is not the insubstantial one that Bultmann's was, but he tended to overreact to fundamentalist historicism in ways that made him seem to many (most?) evangelicals as removing the resurrection from history.

There has to be a way to protect Barth's really valid concerns without making the same moves. It is here, Ben, that I think Pannenberg is most on the right track.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Michael -- yes, I think you're right. And of course, in his mature work, Barth himself was much more emphatic about the fact that the resurrection really happened in our own space and time (even though one can only describe this event using literary forms like "legend" and "saga").

The "empty tomb" is a good index of the way Barth developed here. As Dawson points out in the book, Barth's earlier work characterised the empty tomb as irrelevant, but by the time of the Church Dogmatics Barth was insisting that the empty tomb is "indispensable".

Anonymous said...

Thanks - Barth's Resurrection of the dead is one of my favorite commentaries.

Alan said...

Dr. Hunsinger - Could you still affirm that "the resurrection is indeed grounded in the reality of the immanent Trinity"? Meaning that Jesus' humanity, as the humanity of God, cannot remain dead, cannot be held by the pangs of death? The resurrection would then, in some sense, be an intra-trinitarian movement becaue Jesus' humanity is hypostatically united to the second person of the Trinity.

byron said...

Much discussion of the trinitarian being of God here (thanks for yet another review Ben!), yet it is all about the Father and Son. Does Dawson discuss the role of the Spirit in resurrection for Barth? Does Barth have much to say on this point? Another well-rehearsed criticism of Barth is the relative paucity of his comment on the Spirit.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for raising this point, Byron. Although I focused on Dawson's point about the generation of the Son (since I thought this was his most interesting proposal), he also has a lot to say about the Spirit. On the one hand, he disagrees with the view that Barth has an underdeveloped doctrine of the Spirit; but on the other hand, he argues that Barth should have also offered a specific account of the Spirit as the one who "effects the once for all transition from death to life" in the resurrection of Jesus (pp. 223-27).

On the whole, though, Dawson views Barth's doctrine of the Spirit very sympathetically -- and in any case, he rightly emphasises (following George Hunsinger) that Barth's full doctrine of the Spirit was never written anyway, so that it's a bit underhanded to criticise his dogmatics for lacking a comprehensive pneumatology!

A deacon, by the grace of God, said...

I really appreciate this post on Barth, as well as past ones that I'm working my way through. I have only a dilettante's knowledge of Barth, so I'm very grateful for the education!

george hunsinger said...

To Alan,

The New Testament makes it clear that that Jesus was and remains the victor over death, and that it could not have been otherwise.

But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:24).

Death could not possibly hold him: in him was life (Jn. 1:4).

Therefore, when he took our sin and death to himself, it was not he who was destroyed, but they which were destroyed in him -- at inconceivable cost. This is the mystery of our faith.

Nevertheless, it seems best to say that the resurrection was more nearly the work of God's sovereign freedom than the outworking of some ontological principle. Yes, the resurrection is grounded in the glory of the Father (Rom. 6:4), and therefore in the divine trinitarian life, but all the more in power and freedom of the living God (1 Cor. 6:14). For it was finally a matter not so much of the divine being as it was of the divine being in act.

David Sky said...


George Hunsinger seems to be suggesting that you have misread Barth's doctrine of God. How do you respond to his his substantive first comment?

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