Paul among the Evangelicals, §4: Barth on Rom. 5 (4.3)

4.3. Barth’s Contribution to the Evangelical Debate

Barth’s potential contribution to the question of universalism in Rom. 5:12-21 is at least threefold: (1) focusing the debate on the theological issues at stake, rather than on purely textual interpretation; (2) the reintegration of the wrath and grace of God within the overarching concept of divine righteousness; and (3) the critique of the “human, historical, subjective side.”65 I will briefly look at each of these in turn.

Regarding the first, Barth’s commentary explodes many of the stereotypical divisions between universalist and non-universalist interpretations of the Pauline text. For example, Barth accepts the interpretation of Rom. 5:18-19 which says that Paul speaks of those “in Adam” and those “in Christ.” In speaking in this way, Barth at least formally agrees with some non-universalists who use this interpretation as an argument against universalism. Barth, however, sees in this interpretation grounds for his dialectical universalism, in that all creaturely life is “in Adam” and “in Christ”: “There is no man, who as a man and as he really is, is not—in Adam. . . . In the light of [Christ’s] act of obedience there is no man who is not—in Christ.”66 The universality of Barth’s interpretation certainly falls on the side of the universalists, but his rigorously theocentric conception of faith and his emphasis on rejection and condemnation—as divine acceptance and reconciliation—is quite foreign to much, if not all, of the evangelical universalist literature. Since the text in question is not itself decisive, Barth thus focuses the debate on theological questions, without simply resorting (as many do) to other texts which one does believe to be decisive.

Second, Barth’s integration of wrath and grace is another testament to his ability to resist oversimplification. The wrath and grace of God are both manifestations of the righteousness of God, and because all are brought under the aegis of divine righteousness, the wrath and grace of God are not poured out upon different groups of people but the same group—all men and women. In his later works, particularly in Church Dogmatics II/2, Barth would give this inchoate insight a christological grounding such that the wrath and grace of God are concretely located in the person of Jesus Christ as the actualization of God’s wrath against sin and God’s gracious justification of sinners. The dialectical anthropology developed in Romans is later replaced by a christological dialectic, in which the antithesis of divine and human nature is established in the dialectically structured being of Jesus Christ.67 But the basic insight is the same: the No of God serves the Yes of God; there is not a No to some and a Yes to others on the basis of a decretum absolutum or some meritorious work of faith which distinguishes certain individuals from others.

Third, in his comments on Rom. 5:20-21, Barth engages in one of many rigorous critiques of religion. He is well aware of one potential criticism of how he handled the previous verses: viz. that he developed an entirely non-historical interpretation of Adam and Christ which has little if any contact with the everyday confessing Christian. Barth’s exegesis, one might say, has no traction. Barth responds by suggesting that such a criticism trades in the figures of Adam and Christ for a “third figure—Moses!” In other words, the concern about the subjective dimension of Christianity ends up domesticating “the dialectical balance between sin and righteousness,” turning the “vast, objective, invisible, new world” into a healthy religion where everything is visible, concrete, manageable, and—most importantly—possible.68

Certainly, this is a rebuttal to which many of Barth’s hypothetical evangelical interlocutors are vulnerable, in that they tend to subsume the objective dimension within and under the subjective. Of course, there is another sense in which the later Barth would come to disagree quite strongly with the position taken here in Romans II, and this is no where more evident than in his interpretation of Rom. 5:19. The verse speaks of Adam’s disobedience in contrast to Christ’s obedience, the former leading to the “many” becoming sinners and the latter leading to the “many” becoming righteous. Barth gives virtually no attention to the aspect of obedience within the text,69 an element which has become central to debates on the interpretation of πίστις Χριστοῦ.70 Barth’s rejection of the “concrete, comprehensible, and historical”71 dimension of religion stems from his concern about the dangers of a subjective emphasis, one that ends up distinguishing between humans and thus relativizing the more primal distinction between God and humanity. His concerns are not abandoned but maintained when Barth later grounds the subjective dimension in the obedience of Christ,72 such that the objective history of Jesus Christ is established as the ontic and noetic basis for our own subjective history.73

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65. Romans, 183.

66. Ibid., 181, 182.

67. Cf. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, 370-71.

68. Romans, 183.

69. It is interesting to note that even in his later study, Christ and Adam, Barth still gives almost no attention to the place of obedience in the text. Of course, he speaks clearly of the work of reconciliation which Christ has accomplished, but the category of obedience makes almost no appearance in the text. This is most definitely not the case in Church Dogmatics Vol. 4, where Barth defines faith as the “humility of obedience” and speaks at length about Christ’s obedience as the defining characteristic of his existence, not only as the incarnate Jesus, but also (and as a result) as the eternal Logos.

70. See Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

71. Romans, 184.

72. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 194-96.

73. Cf. ibid., 629-30: “It happened that in the humble obedience of the Son He took our place, He took to Himself our sins and death in order to make an end of them in His death, and that in so doing He did the right, He became the new and righteous man. . . . As the One who has done that, in whom God Himself has done that, who lives as the doer of that deed, He is our man, we are in Him, our present is His, the history of man is His history, He is the concrete event of the existence and reality of justified man in whom every man can recognise himself and every other man—recognise himself as truly justified.”