Anhypostatic Ecclesiology and the Christian Religion in Barth

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?


14 thoughts on “Anhypostatic Ecclesiology and the Christian Religion in Barth

  1. I think this is key to understanding Barth’s ecclesiology and his ethics and am intrigued to think further about the appropriateness of the “appropriation of theological concepts [such as anhypostasis] from one doctrinal locus for use in another.” I wonder if church as body of Christ affords Barth some legitimate right to extend anhypostasis (in a properly conditioned analogical way) to ecclesiology.

    I think your final two points raise definite advantages of looking at it Barth’s way. In the first case, I wonder how quickly it might be allowed to be a cop-out for churches which allow them to avoid answering the hard questions about their responsiblity as it pertains to visibility. But my worries are calmed when I consider the fact that for Barth they exist as witness (not only to the world but to one another) and so their responsibility is stronger in that they are responsible to what they witness and not simply to the mixed perceptions of them (in either their sinful state or their misunderstood saintly activity). In the second case, I think these “uncomfortable questions” about our penchant to fixate on “spiritual truth” divorced from religious (and social) concreteness are entirely in order.

    thanks for the post.

  2. There is “true religion”? But only in the sense there are “justified sinners”? Which is, but is “not just,” an analogy? This occasions a remark about a particular kind of style, found in much of Theology.

    What I don’t like about Barth, and the entire linguistic mode or style of theology, is the continuous use of a semantic trick that more honest Logicians reject: his continuous use of what Logic calls “Weasal Words.”

    What does Formal Logic mean by “Weasal words”? As exemplified here and throughout much of allegedly “higher” Theology, we see the continuous use of words and phrases, whose meaning can be in biblical language, “twis”‘ed semantically. Words are twisted, or presented in such a way as to have two or more meanings. This is done until any word can be made to mean, whatever you want to claim it means (as Alice in Wonderland complained).

    In particular, statements are created that have two, polysemic – and often opposite – meanings. In this quote above, Barth could be read as 1) confirming that the Christian Church is absolutely true; or 2) as criticising that church. As being inferior to a “revelation”; one that is thought to come directly from Jesus himself; Jesus perhaps seen moreover as particularly, a human being.

    This style cleverly says two things at once; and can never be pinned down therefore. But is this extreme indirection still necessary or good in our own era?

    No doubt in historical times, when the subject of our discourse was as explosive as it was, some veiling of discourse, some poetic indirection, is necessary. But in our own franker time, perhaps it is high time to get a little more clear on … signs of real sins in our oldtime religious tradition. One way this is (IMO) better handled in academic discourse today, is not by using double language. But by speaking of say, logical and biblical “problems in” this or that position or theology.

    Beyond stylistic matters? In particular I am bothered by a particular problem with the specific topic: the humanization project, now advanced everywhere (in albeit equivocal language). Specifically”: to 1) note Humanity, meaning human sins, in our holiest men and angels, seems useful. But I’m troubled by 2) the other, consistently possible reading of this project: that suggests that Humans are God. That side of the movement, seems to fall victim to the classic sin of vanity and hubris.

    Whatever style we present, shouldn’t it always be clear that whenever we back Humanity, or the Human side of Jesus, we are not ever suggesting that human beings are therefore, infallible?

    Regarding the all-too-human institutions of the churches in fact? Personally I regard them as so corrupt – so implicated in dishonest use of language for example – that it is more moral to oppose than support them.

  3. Perhaps the “saying two things at once” is how Barth can present as both right-and not right at the same time, and without specific definition offers the slippery slope of giving permission for a brand of Christianity that borders on the heretical or has completely changed the definition of what a Christian is. What follows for me is the question of how Barth has impacted current faith practice, since even a complete negation of his philosophical thought will have processed a change. For example, the more the “far left” speaks out, the more the “far right” becomes firm in their practice of what they believe, and vice versa.

  4. Steve, thanks for this good report as I haven’t read this section of the Church Dogmatics.

    I think you are reading this section exactly right when you discern that Barth is going to stress the visibility of the church and the task of the church is to witness later in the Church Dogmatics. That is good attentive reading by you!

    And the comment by Jon Coutts is also very good–he is right to point out the body of Christ (IV.1 pp. 661-668) the significance of witness for alleviating its temptation to be too abstract (IV.3 p. 813-817).

    You might find the Karl Barth Blog Conference of interest. Consider for example the nice discussion about Hauerwas’s ecclesiology vs. Barth’s
    I try to make a few summary comments throughout for those skimming and trying to make sense of it all. It will also introduce you to a number of us other Ph.D.-students-in-theology-bloggers.

    In short, there are a number of people who use Barth to argue against religion. They are with “Brettongarcia” in opposing the “all-too-human institutions of the churches.” They insist that the church is always in need of reform and they are of course right about that.

    But as you notice here and as I would argue, Barth himself is not against Christian religion, church, mission or evangelism. And you will be relieved to learn that he is much more explicit and clear about this in volume IV of the Church Dogmatics when he writes about the church (§ 62, 67, 72). “The community” is his preferred terminology for church. And “Brettongarcia”, who might not like the content as much as Der Römerbrief, will appreciate that in vol. IV there are far fewer of the weasel words that are so maddening in his dialectic flourishes earlier.

    Of course it is all great to read but you can read about the “visibility and invisibility” of the church in IV.1 pp. 652-660; and then again in IV.3 pp.722-728. See also the references above about Jon’s comments.

    • Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ll look forward to tracking some of these themes as I keep plodding through Church Dogmatics. I may drop by the Barth Blog Conference website at some point and spend a bit more time looking around at what’s happening there.


  5. I’m reasonably sympathetic to the plight of critical theologians who have decided to remain within the system of the churches. (In part for financial remuneration; but perhaps in order to change them from within). I know that to survive in this situation,many have learned to speak a “double tongue.” Better to tell the truth in a veiled “poetic” undertone, than never tell it at all.

    Granted. At the same time however, to speak with forked tongues, is not a wholly admirable thing. So that I note that the Bible speaks of a time, one day, when “double”ness and “confusion” in language or “tongues” will be lifted; in favor of something far more “plain.” A day that may be quite soon, actually.

    Until that day though, the problem with the double tongue, like the critical side of Barth’s doubletalk is that is is, in final balance, never noticed by most people. It is massively outweighed by his more visible, constant appearance of supporting the conventional oversimplifications of the churches. So that in net effect? Barth strengthens corruption.

    Those like Barth, who speak this double language, are like grumbling but effective collaborators in a corrupt regime; in spite of veiled grumblings, the net effect is that they give the overall appearance of,and in actual practice have the effect of, in balance, really supporting corrupt institutions. A few snide comments in polysemic asides, never quite outweighs the constant public appearance of support.

    In the days of the “New Atheists,” something a bit more direct is called for. If you can afford it. If you can leave family and friends, and take up the cross for Truth.

    In the meantime, to be sure, a double existence has its usefulness. But it is not wholly admirable. And something a little more up front, will finally be called for.

    In the present case? An “anhypostasied” Jesus seems be be, say, “what we are headed for.”

    • Perhaps you should consider 1) that theologians operating in the fellowship of and for the benefit of the church don’t necessarily feel stifled by the church and instead sense that they are given focus by its worship and mission and that they are appropriately accountable to its confessions and its spiritual leaders and 2) that your version of “taking up the cross for truth” is really the easy way out and ends up missing the intent of that dominical teaching as it concerns sacrificing niceties in service to others. It’s far less messy to try to do theology and the Christian life ex nihilo, outside the communion of saints. It’s far easier (and far less fitting) to speak of the church only in the third person and to criticize it in a detached manner. Perhaps the really cruciform way of doing theology is the way of participating in the life of the church even when its members seem not to care about robust theology.

    • Yeah, I was able to view it. I’m not sure why the system is being strange right now. You’ve made two replies, right (one on the Barth material and one on moderating comments)?

  6. Which reminds me, here is my comment about the moderation of comments that I have given to other people:

    Do you have to make all comments be moderated? I think that is a big pain for commenters. It really ruins conversation when you have to wait for your comments to be posted. The blog doesn’t have moderation and that is one reason why threads take off. When I comment at a blog where the comments are moderated, I am flooded with the following thoughts: “How long until my comment get posted? Did I write anything (like an HTML) that will cause thing to be sent into their spam folder? What do they think people are going to write that is offensive? What are they afraid of? What is the point of a blog and comments if they are moderate? Isn’t the point of a blog to launch a conversation?” Basically, it makes me frustrated and I can’t imagine any other reaction. Will any commenter think to themselves: “I’m really glad the comments are moderated on this blog before they get posted.” If you have rules about comments, like no foul language, just say that. That way as well if there are time changes between Europe and the USA, etc. or people are posting early in the morning or late at night, the conversation can continue.

    I use TypePad and it catches most stuff. If something gets through and posted on my blog, I just delete it when I open up my email and see it. In other words, I clean up rather than prevent. I think this is so much better because then you can let real conversation go on through the night when you are sleeping, etc. It is so satisfying to comment and then see it immediately posted on the blog. It is frustrating to post something and then have to keep going back and checking if it indeed “got through.” The login and CAPTCHA should be enough to catch the main spam.

    In Blogger, go to:
    in the Dashboard . . . go to Settings . . . Comments . . .

  7. One reading of Barth here, would be that “true religion” is what Christianity is; but finally Barth says, the idea of a “true religion,” only holds he says, in the same sense that “a justified sinner” holds. But what does Barth mean?

    Obviously, a “justified sinner,” means something like “a good bad person.” But that is a logical self contradiction. So therefore, what is Barth’s opinion of the church and religion, therefore? In one reading, it seems to be that religion is a contradiction.

    So what finally would THIS reading have Barth say? Most people refuse to embrace incoherency, inconsistency, or self-contradiction; these are obviously bad things. And, given that, many might simply have Barth finally labelling the notion of “true religion,” and the church that supports it, as … simple, obvious falsity.

    THis is one reading of Barth, above: which has him labeling religion as obvious self-contradiction, and therefore, falsity.

    THis is my question: 1) do you perceive that reading? And second, 2) if you see that reading, do you accept it? And finally, 3 )if you see that reading, and accept it, then… BY WHAT LOGIC would you continue to support or follow the Church, and its “religion”?

    A simple love of self-contadiction?

  8. Which is a contradiction, after all.

    Note too, that Jesus on the cross supposed himself that, when God allowed him to be killed, Jesus had been abandoned by God. Jesus thereby calling the whole contradictory paradigm into question. Himself.

    Thus there are biblical contra-indications to the common, all-too-easy acceptance, of what seems to be the prevailing Theology: the quasi-Existential deification of Contradiction.

  9. Pingback: links for 2010-12-07 | The 'K' is not silent

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