Paul among the Evangelicals, §4: Barth on Rom. 5 (4.1.1)

4.1.1. The faithfulness of God

Barth shifts the center of gravity in justification from individual, subjective faith to the faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. This is a shift from a direct vision or apprehension of revelation to an indirect vision: “in Jesus revelation is a paradox, however objective and universal it may be.”[39] Regardless of its universal dimension, revelation (as reconciliation) is always a dialectical event that occurs in the “critical ‘Moment’”[40]; it never becomes a “thing” that one may possess (“I have the promise of salvation”) or a predicate that can be attached to a name (“John is justified”), without involving its dialectical opposite. Barth shifts faith from a direct relation to God to an indirect relation, from a direct and unqualified notion of salvation to an indirect and paradoxical salvation. He is motivated in this by the concern of undermining any grounds for spiritual pride. That we are “saved” is a notion that opens the door to religious self-justification; it becomes the basis for the most insidious form of sin: the sin of believing one to be in the right with God while others are in the wrong. Barth does not deny that reconciliation has occurred in Jesus Christ; he merely argues that this “is not, and never will be, a self-evident truth . . . because it is a matter neither of historical nor of psychological experience, and because it is neither a cosmic happening within the natural order, nor even the most supreme event of our imaginings.”[41]

The effect of Barth’s radical move is that evangelicals are wrong insofar as they insist on turning faith into a subjective reality, something that humans do in order to procure divine justification. Barth argues that this is simply a pious form of self-justification. Faith is indeed “the radically new disposition” of the human person “naked before God,” but Barth is keen to add: “Faith is the faithfulness of God.”[42] Consequently, “faith is not a foundation upon which men can emplace themselves”; it is not a solid basis upon which humans can move beyond the crisis of their condemnation and into the safety of religion.[43] By defining faith as a divine reality, Barth has denied faith as a possibility latent within humanity as such. Faith is, instead, “the absolute Miracle,” because “it is defined by God” alone.[44] On this point, as a Reformed theologian, Barth stands resolutely against certain strands of contemporary evangelicalism which share more with Schleiermacher in terms of the efficacy and centrality of human faith in Christ.

For the outline of the complete series, click here.

39. Barth, Romans, 97-98.
40. Ibid., 165.
41. Ibid., 98.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid., 110.
44. Ibid., 145.