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Berkouwer and Barth : Christ at the Centre

For Barth, Christ is the key to understanding our human life. If Christ, God’s revelation, is taken away, man is thrown into an abyss of meaninglessness. Man cannot, by himself, bring meaning to his life. Christ alone can reveal to man the meaning of his life. This insight lies at the heart of Barth’s radical distinction between religion and revelation (Church Dogmatics (CD), Vol. I, 2, Section 17, “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion”, pp. 280-361). Religion is anthropocentric. Revelation is Christocentric. Religion is man’s attempt to impose meaning on a meaningless existence. Revelation is God’s way of showing to man the meaning of his existence.

Berkouwer agrees with Barth’s affirmation that Christ is the key to understanding our life. It is only in Christ that the meaning of our life can be properly understood (General Revelation (GR), Chapter VI, “The Nature Psalms”, pp.117-134). Without Christ, man gropes in the darkness. Even man’s religion is, without Christ, a groping in the darkness, a groping after the light of the world (GR, Chapter VII, “Revelation and Knowledge”, pp. 137-172). There is, however, an important difference between Berkouwer and Barth. This difference revolves around the distinction between noetic and ontic thinking (Man: The Image of God (Man), pp. 96-97),

In his discussion of the relation of anthropology to Christology, Berkouwer makes an important contribution to the understanding of the difficult distinction between ontic and noetic thinking. He contrasts the ontic thinking of Barth with the noetic thinking of Calvin and Bavinck (Man, pp. 87-98). Each of these theologians bases anthropology on Christology (Man, pp. 87-89 - Calvin and Bavinck, pp. 89-96 – Barth, pp. 96-98 – comparison of the two approaches). There is, however, an important difference between Barth’s use of Christology and that of Calvin and Bavinck.

Barth’s method is derived “from the idea that we cannot understand ‘man’ apart from his relation to God” (Man, p. 93), In Berkouwer’s view, this position is “unassailable” (Man, p. 93). Barth’s view is described thus by Berkouwer: “”Man’s being, man’s nature, is to stand in grace, God’s grace; this is the truth we discern in the election of the man Jesus Immanuel (God with us) … his essence is to be an object of God’s grace. This essence is indeed covered and hidden by sin, but how can something which has its basis in God’s grace be wholly destroyed? There is and remains a ‘continuum, an essence unchanged and unchangeable by sin’” (Man, p. 91, citing Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD), Vol. III, 2, pp.43-50, 54-55 as a general reference). The ontic element in Barth’s view is found in this emphasis on “an essence unchanged and unchallenged by sin (cited in Man, p. 91).

At this point, Barth’s approach differs from that of Calvin and Bavinck. They approach the image of God in man via the renewal of that image through Christ (Man, p. 96). This renewal takes place in the context of “man’s fall through guilt” (Man, p. 97) as man enters into “communion with Christ” (Man, p. 98) “through faith” (Man, p. 101). This renewal “has nothing to do with a ‘natural’ state of affairs in the relation between God and man, but rather shows forth the wonder of the new birth … through which the life of the creature can once more exhibit God’s image” (Man, p. 102. Berkouwer places inverted commas round the word ‘natural’ to indicate that he is not implying that Barth teaches salvation by nature rather than by grace. He uses the word ‘natural’ to raise pointedly the question whether the way in which Barth emphasizes salvation by grace provides a proper perspective concerning the “through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) context in which the divine salvation reaches man.).

Barth’s idea that this renewal has taken place in ‘mankind’ by virtue of the incarnation has led R Prenter to describe Barth’s position as “creation docetism” (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), p. 25; source given by Berkouwer at p. 250, n. 68). While acknowledging Barth’s intention to emphasize the unbreakable unity of creation and reconciliation (TG, p. 250, emphasis original), Berkouwer recognizes the validity of Prenter’s criticism of Barth (TG, p. 250). Berkouwer is concerned that the decisiveness of history is not endangered (TG, p. 250).

Emphasizing “not the ontic qualities of man, but what he does with these qualities” (Man, p. 56, emphasis original), Berkouwer remarks critically that “Barth is concerned not only with a noetic problem … but also with an ontic problem” (Man, p. 96; see also TG, p. 54). He notes that Barth speaks of faith as an “objective, real, ontological inevitability for all, for every man” and of unbelief as “an objective, real ontological impossibility” (KD, Vol. IV, 1, p. 835; cited in TG, p.266, emphasis in Berkouwer).

Berkouwer observes that Barth’s notions of the ontological inevitability of faith and the ontological impossibility of unbelief are grounded Christologically in his view of God’s election (TG, Chapter IV, “The Triumph of Election”, pp. 89-122).

While objecting strongly to the concept of objectivity implicit in such conceptions, Berkouwer does not intend to lead theology towards a subjectivized understanding of divine grace. Rather, he seeks to understand objectivity and subjectivity not as polar opposites but as inter-related elements which are harmonized in a proper understanding of the relationship between grace and faith.

In his criticism of the ontic thinking undergirding Barth’s theology, Berkouwer commends Barth for his concentration on Jesu Christ which gives his theology a “triumphant and joyful character (which) did not arise from a superficially optimistic attitude to life” (TG, p. 212. This is borne out by Barth’s preference for the phrase, “Jesus is Victor” rather than the expression, “the triumph of grace”, CD, Vol. IV, 3, pp. 173-180).

Berkouwer, whose own theology is thoroughly Christocentric (Man, p. 107. The centrality of Christology in Berkouwer’s thought is observable throughout his “Studies in Dogmatics”. His theology is no less Christocentric than Barth’s, though he uses Christology differently from Barth.), suggests that Barth’s use of Christology has become highly speculative (TG, p. 222).

In his insistence that the significance of history must not be devalued (TG, pp. 250, 256. By questioning the capacity of Barth’s theology to ascribe decisive significance to history, Berkouwer does not “wish to accuse Barth of being guilty of subscribing to a consistently idealistic conception of history in which history serves only to illustrate an eternal idea” (TG, pp. 256-257, emphasis original), Berkouwer is not suggesting that human sin should be taken more seriously than divine grace (see also J Jocz, The Covenant: A Theology of Human Destiny, p. 217). Rather, he seeks to elucidate the precise nature of the relationship between divine grace and human sin.

Concerning divine grace, Berkouwer writes, “there can never be a question of too strongly accenting the grace of God. Rather the question is, how shall we lay the proper emphases and how can we most purely praise this grace. It is never the full accent but the wrong accent that obscures the gospel of God’s grace” (TG, p. 349, emphasis original).

He rejects both “an accentuation of the grace of God in such a manner that this grace hardly seems to be other than a deterministic casual system” and an interpretation which pleads “for human freedom and for the significance of human decisions only to end in synergism” (TG, p. 349).

Insisting that the Gospel comes to man in contexts of “calling and invitation, of proclamation and admonition”, Berkouwer maintains that “It is not possible to speak meaningfully about God’s grace in Jesus Christ outside of these contexts” (TG, p. 369).

Emphasizing that “This context is unable to function, however, when the gospel is overshadowed by an objective message about election which bears no vital relationship to the proclamation” (TG, pp. 369-370), he insists that “When we have a proper regard for Jesus Christ as He is revealed to us in Scripture, no conclusions are possible or warranted which are drawn outside of faith” (TG, p. 368. Berkouwer is concerned to emphasize the unbreakable bond between reality and relation (see Man, p. 35). It is the reality of God’s salvation that is known in the relation of faith. It is precisely in this relation that this reality is known.).

The problem which is raised by Berkouwer’s rejection of Barth’s ontic approach is whether he has not retreated into a kind of dualism which contains no real perspective concerning the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality.

Aware of this difficulty, Berkouwer insists that “The New Testament … does not speak less but rather differently about the vanquishing of the demons than Barth does” (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), p. 371, emphasis original).

He emphasizes that “The problem of how rightly to evaluate the power of the demonic host can never be solved abstractly and theoretically. It can be resolved only in Christ, in faith, love and prayer” (TG, p. 378, emphasis original).

(At this point I made more comments on the phrase “in Christ”. Feeling that they would break up the flow of this article, I have posted them separately – as an ‘appendix’ to this post.)

According to Berkouwer, “the triumph of grace … transcends any possibility of human usurpation” (TG, p. 382, emphasis mine). He emphasizes that “in the triumph of the kingdom all human self-elevation, all phariseeism, can only be radically condemned” (TG, p. 382, emphasis original).

The sovereignty of God over the whole of reality may be viewed as the demonstration that salvation is salvation in God’s way – by grace through faith. When salvation in God’s way – by grace through faith – is properly understood, the believer understands that the sovereignty of God's grace "is the victory about which we cannot speak abstractly, but only in terms of the conquest of our own rebellious hearts" (TG, p. 383, emphasis mine).

This view does not represent a retreat from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to the sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. Rather, it represents the sovereignty of God over man. God's way of salvation - by grace through faith - is vindicated over against man’s attempt at achieving salvation through his own works.

This view of God’s gracious sovereignty over the whole of reality does not require us to posit either the inevitability or the probability of universal reconciliation (I have some other comments which I will post as a second ‘appendix’ to this post.) Rather, it maintains that reconciliation is God’s work, accomplished in God’s way. Thus, the emphasis is placed on the Biblical proclamation of salvation by grace through faith rather than the more speculative idea of universal reconciliation.

When the integral relation between grace and faith is upheld against every tendency to see grace and faith as competitors, theology will “not permit itself to use a ‘principle’ (that of the sola gratia) as a point of departure for all manner of deductions” (TG, p. 274, brackets original). Rather, it will be “guided by the message of the Scriptures … that called urgently to faith and warned against unbelief” (TG, p. 294).

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