Barth on Anthropology: look no further than Christ

Barth.CrispThe ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. So long as we select any other starting point for our study, we shall reach only the phenomena of the human. We are condemned to abstractions so long as our attention is riveted as it were on other men, or rather on man in general, as if we could learn about real man from a study of man in general, and in abstraction from the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. In this case we miss the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity, and therefore the one possibility of discovering the ontological determination of man. Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter. It is not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to answer the question of the true being of man from any other angle (Church Dogmatics, III/2, 132-33).

Barth is such a great example of the twentieth century shift in theological anthropology from the doctrine of creation to Christology. Later Pannenberg would propose an eschatological orientation, then Zizioulous and others would retrieve from the church fathers a home in the doctrine of the Trinity. Honestly, when I read Barth I find him so incredibly persuasive (darn him), but I still have misgivings about this move. Anyone want to comment on Barth’s move to dogmatically order anthropology in the doctrine of Christ?


15 thoughts on “Barth on Anthropology: look no further than Christ

  1. I’m not that fond of Barth. And would reformulate this.

    The human-ness of Jesus, might in effect not mean just 1) that all humans must be exactly like him, and that Anthropology must be based on Jesus. It 2) might just as well partially validate, allow into theology, a few new human/divine insights on ultimate truth. For we are “all sons of God”; and share the “Freedom of Christ.” If he was human and could speak for God, then … perhaps an ordinary guy or lady, could do that too now and then; with extreme and due caution, of course. New charisms. (Though God help us: not speaking in tongues. WHich originally probably just meant, speaking other languages; not one “UR” language magically understood by all).

    So that the humanity of Christ, does not necessarily just 1) dictate the obedience of Anthropology to Christ. But opens up 2) Christianity to the best, seemingly human influence.

    Or opens up a careful dialectic, between these two poles; 1) traditional theology, and 2) the best and most productive, human enterprise and scholarship.

    By the way Barth: 1) smoking a pipe is bad for you.

    And incidentally, 2) Anthropology does not really just study “man in general”; today’s Anthropology is composed far more of individual case studies, that eschew the grand generalizations of Barth’s day.

    I like Roland Barthes much better. Any relation?

    • Joe,

      I must admit you lost me at your first sentence fragment. I’m also not entirely sure how your discussion adds to the over-arching discussion of Barth’s anthropology.

      A friend of mine and I have a classification for discussions like the one you put forth. We call it “amateur hour.” I’m certain you have seen this in class or in some sort of academic setting, but it is when a person makes some erroneous and incomprehensible statement for the sake of having their voice heard. And subsequently, the statement sups the life out of any generative dialogue that may have been occurring.

      Joe, both of your comments on this post seem to be doing this…

  2. I like Barth’s move. Following upon Aquinas and Augustine, it became easy to formulate a depiction of anthropology that looked at the triune life rather than Jesus’ life. If we do not look to Jesus for what humanity should be, then where else is more justified?

  3. It seems like this is where the biblical witness goes, Kent. With Christ as the “principle.”

    Grenz too was moving here at the end of his life, grappling for a way to work the Trinity into each loci (and ethics, not to mention methodology), and then beginning to access this via Christ as “Imago Dei,” for the unifying center.

    I think Kathryn Tanner’s stuff on this notion, “Christ The Key” (CUP, 2010) will break some further ground here, though Tanner’s arrangement (as you might imagine) makes too far of a move beyond anthropology for my liking, potentially even absolving distinct humanness in the raw data of created material.

    With Webster’s recent efforts on creation ex nihilo (he did some of this at St A last week, but I also heard some at Tyndale this summer), it seems like the Christology is what is missing (though perhaps he’ll get there?). Perhaps you’re aware of reasons for this absence, and your hunch may come from the same impulse he’s presently working with?

    So…. what’s your problem with Christology for accessing the Trinity?

    PS – love the Barth pic! Some day I want to paint as good as Oliver Crisp!

  4. There 1) are thousands of more typical human beings and cultures in the Bible; most of them quite interesting. God has been mediated to us by many voices. Or 2) if we follow Jesus, then note that Jesus often hinted that his own being depended in part, on being validated by society, and events in nature: “who do you say I am?” “Don’t believe in me; believe the works.”

    Smoking a pipe IS bad for you :(-o

  5. As I understand it, what Barth achieved by moving the discussion of anthropology away from creation per se to the particularity of Messiah Jesus as the focus of God’s purpose for the world was the appropriately integrate creation and redemption. Humanity studied under the heading of creation apart from Christ makes the human being and its relationship with the world an end in itself. The point of redemption is to address the human condition but it is difficult to avoid salvation and the New creation being understood as plan B

  6. Cyb:

    The 1) Jews indeed, under the “law,” were also under in effect, the rules of a more severe Nature, world, or “Creation”; life was hard in ancient times, and the penalty for messing up was more often death, than it is today. Due to starvation, disease, murder, etc.. In a severe Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

    But it was 2) thanks to the growth of man and civilization, early agriculture and so forth, that we were increasingly able to create a less severe situation. And at that moment, it seemed appropriate that our god assumed a more human – and easy-going – face. Since human things were indeed making a difference.

    So that the transition from early half-animal gods and even a severe God king, to a gentler Jesus, in effect acknowledges the success of humans, and human civilization; in creating an era of (relatively) greater Grace and prosperity.

    But with material, physical things increasingly being taken care of by civilization, still, folks like Buddha, Ecclesiastes The Preacher, rich guys like Solomon, found that material survival and wealth was not all to life: you could have lots of money, but still your mind or spirit is unhappy.

    And so out of Judaism, spiritual Religion was invented; concentrating not on the material side of life any more (which was increasingly being taken care of effectively by Roman technology anyway); but with our minds or feelings or “spirit”s.

    But here’s part of the problem, as CYB noted?: the scope of Religion is now limited. Now it is not our physical body that is “redeemed” or saved by Religion; but (allegedly), our unhappy mind or spirit. By assurances that God loves us; that we will never die; etc.. But that is plan B; spiritual salvation only.

    SO this spiritual Religion does at times seem like Plan B. In that our new religion does not really supply many material things at all (unless you are actually walking on water); and is only able to get “ghost”ly, mental/”spirit”ual effects. Religion today addresses only our spirit or soul; not so much, physical salvation: saving your physical life. For that, these days, we go first to an MD; not a priest.

    Can we get heaven and earth back together? SPirit and world? We like to say that Jesus “redeemed” the “world” to be sure. Thus “integrating creation and redemption” as you say. And in a sense he does. But perhaps best of all, I suggest, in that he thereby might give His approval to after all, a better material world too. The material world today being much better, easier, than it was 33 AD.

    Keep in mind that our “redemption” is supposed to be both spiritual and physical. ANd that saving our spirit is only after all, indeed, plan B. The halfway house of the “not-Yet,” fully realized kingdom of God … “on earth as it is in heaven.”

  7. Joe,

    I’m all for redemption being spiritual AND physical – Barth was too, he just had a funny way of showing it. I suggest that the way of bringing the Spirit and the world back together involves two risks.

    1) Allow the eternal Son to become a genuine creature (the royal son) in his own creation. This means allowing Christ Jesus to be not just the perfection of humanity but, in fact, the perfection of creaturely being in relationship to God and other creatures.

    2) Allow this perfection of the Lord Jesus to be eschatalogically achieved by God’s ministry to him and for him in the Spirit. The Spirit locates Jesus in time and space, enables him to live rightly with God and others and then preserves for him and absolute Sonship by raising him from the dead. The revelation of this absolute Sonship (not in an adoptionist way) comes as the Spirit opens the relationship between Father and Son to others who become known as the children of God. More so, all of creation is moved towards the ultimate summing up of all things in the Lord Messiah Jesus for “he is before all things and in him all things hold together.”

  8. Neither seems terribly offensive or “risky”; and both could be effective at once. Did you really mean to say these are risky propositions? If so, how?

    Maybe indeed there is the classic problem of the “already” vs. the “not yet”: if we suggest that the kingdom of spirit on earth, and/or the perfection of material things, is “already” realized in Jesus, then after all, everthing on earth should be the perfect kingdom now; “already.” But life on earth today is not fully as good as the advertised kingdom.

    Therefore, at the very least, yet another “second” coming of God to earth will be needed, before all is accomplished. And that might involve some other methods to accomplish this, than trying to wishfully jam through by sheer persistence and volume (repeated behind every pulpit for two thousand years) the questionable notion that Jesus fully realized everything, already.

    So that both these two options in fact, are “risky” or problematic.

    So: do you or Barth have another, better suggestion?

  9. Andy:

    My first remarks, were stemming from the hypothesis that in effect, Barth was speaking of a Humanistic theology; using Jesus’ humanity as a gateway between God and man, heaven and earth. But this relation is usually spoken of as being one way. As involving 1) simply the complete take-over of man by God; secular society by theologians; earth, by heaven. But 2) here I propose – just as a tenative thesis – the idea that this would be a two-way street.

    By the way: modern writing allows lots of sentence fragments. Like this one. To reflect the character of everyday speech.

  10. Bobby et alia.:

    Many of us are interested in – but unfamiliar with; and with no easy access to – the literature on this subject.

    Would people like to now and then contribute brief summaries – say 50-word summaries – of what they feel is the relevant point, in the works they cite? That would be helpful and educative.

    Not to be a burden; just a request.

    On the way to educating ourselves on this topic.

  11. We are used to thinking of God as speaking only from heaven; but also he speaks from Nature, the “depths” of the “earth.” Even perhaps from elements of human nature.

    So that we can learn from the heights so to speak; but also from a scientific study of Nature and human nature, some would say. Since God, his will, “fills all things,” in heaven “and earth.” From created things, we can understand the will of the Creator.

    We might learn from Anthropology too: studying the nature of man. And the person of Jesus gives us a justification for looking for the will of God, in specifically, men. Though with due caution, of course. Since not everything men do or think is good.

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