Barth has several ways of declaring that divine revelation is the decisive criticism of religion. One of the most poignant is the statement that revelation is ‘the real crisis of religion’ (CD, I/2, 325, 331). As he expounds the manner in which revelation confronts human religion, Barth includes the Christian religion as it stands in itself, or ‘abstractly in its human existence’ (ibid., 328): ‘this religion, too, stands under the judgment that religion is unbelief’ (ibid., 327); ‘the judgment of revelation upon religion as such does actually fall upon the religion of revelation’ (ibid., 329). In light of this, Barth develops an analogy between the doctrine of the anhypostasis of Christ’s human nature (the belief that Christ’s human nature had no personal existence of its own but has personal existence only in the person of God the Son) and the life of the church:
The human nature of Jesus Christ has no hypostasis of its own, we are told. It has it only in the Logos. The same is true, therefore, of the earthly-historical life of the Church and the children of God, and therefore of the Christian religion….[The earthly body of Christ and His members] live in him, or they do not live at all (ibid., 348).
The historical existence of the church in the form of the Christian religion, for Barth, has no immanent legitimacy of its own but has its being and validation in its connection with the person of Christ. Barth reasons also that revelation must justify, sanctify, and adopt Christianity if it is to be the true religion (ibid., 326, 338, 339).
Yet, in spite of its precarious condition in se, Barth still calls the Christian religion the true religion:
There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners. If we abide strictly by that analogy – and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself – we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion (ibid., 326).
Later he writes, ‘God is really known and worshipped, there is a genuine activity of man as reconciled to God. The Church and the children of God and therefore the bearers of the true religion live by the grace of God’ (ibid., 344). For Barth, the reality and proclamation of God’s grace in the Christian religion dissolve the danger of Christian persuasion amounting to mere religious imperialism. When Christianity leans on the grace of God ‘as the truth of the Christian religion,’ ‘its mission is more than religious propaganda’ (ibid., 298).
Barth’s configuration of revelation, religion, and the church, is, in my mind, not without its liabilities. I don’t agree with all the details of his understanding of the revelation-religion relationship and I have reservations about the appropriation of theological concepts from one doctrinal locus for use in another (here, anhypostasis, justification, etc.), especially when they are viewed as more than ad hoc, illustrative analogues. However, there is something refreshing to me about Church Dogmatics here. First, it seems to encourage believers to identify with the visible church in all of its shortcomings and ambiguities. Second, it might pose some uncomfortable questions for Christians who are tempted essentially to disavow the Christian religion in inter-faith dialogue and evangelism in hopes of elusively discussing spiritual truth as if it weren’t peculiarly affiliated with one particular, albeit flawed, religion or in hopes of winning people to Christ without introducing them to the concrete, historical existence of Christ’s people.
What do you make of Barth at this point? Any thoughts?