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Barth on Atonement

Our second reading in my atonement seminar was paragraph 59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which deals with his doctrine of atonement. Each week all seven of us do the reading, and then one of responds to it with an assessment paper, which is read and discussed in class along with the reading. This week was my turn, so I logged in a lot of hour struggling with Barth and trying to respond to him sympathetically and critically, in light of his concerns and intended meaning. The focus of my response paper dealt with Barth’s understanding of the nature of God’s Self-revelation in the incarnation, which I took to be his primary interest throughout the first section, “The way of the Son of God into the Far Country.” I applauded Barth’s defense of the extra-Calvinisticum but raised the issue of whether Barth makes God’s revelation determinative of his being (issues at play in the McCormack vs. Hunsinger/Molnar/van Driel debate). I stated my concern that Barth’s laudable concern to preserve the full deity of Christ at times drives him to language which could be interpreted to obscure or downplay a robust distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity. At the end of day, however, I’m still not exactly sure how read Barth here.

We also spent a lot of time in the second section of this paragraph, “The Judge Judged in our Place,” and where Barth’s doctrine of atonement stands in relation to classic Protestant expressions of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Barth seems to affirm a strong doctrine of PSA in his initial definition of the mechanism of atonement: “the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgment under which we had passed” (222). And there are legion quotes to this effect in the forty or so pages that follow, and numerous references to Christ as our “Representative” and “Substitute” with capital letters. Christ’s quotation of Psalm 22 while hanging on the cross is given great significance for Barth, and he even quotes approvingly Luther’s quip about the imputation of sin onto Christ:

In substance Luther’s drastic commentary on this exchange is quite right, that God the Father said to God the Son: “be thou Peter that denier, Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and, briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them.”

But then on pages 252-254 Barth distances himself from classic substitution views, especially those stemming from Anselm. He acknowledges that the concept of punishment is present in Isaiah 53, but denies that it is present in the New Testament (a puzzling assertion, since he has used the term himself just earlier [223]). He then says this:

The decisive thing is not that He has suffered what we ought to have suffered so that we do not have to suffer it, the destruction to which we have fallen victim by our guilt, and therefore the punishment which we deserve. This is true, of course. But it is true only as it derives from the decisive thing that in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ it has come to pass that in His own person He has made an end of us as sinners and therefore of sin itself by going to death as the One who took our place as sinners. In His person He has delivered up us sinners and sin itself to destruction (253).

Earlier on the same page Barth also denies that the concept of satisfying God’s wrath is present in the New Testament. Thus my takeaway is this: Barth affirms a version of PSA, but not propitiation; and for Barth the penal element is peripheral, not central. The main thing for Barth is that Christ deals with our sin itself (and destroys it) by taking our places as the judged. Also, Barth’s version of PSA seems more oriented to Christ’s entire incarnate life, just just his death – this, and his frequent arguments from Christ’s “solidarity” with the world make his version of PSA sounds more compatible with a kind of recapitulation theme, as found in Irenaeus. Thus despite the similarity of language, at a very crucial juncture I think Barth’s doctrine of atonement must be seen as in a quite different category than classic PSA views in the reformed tradition. While I think some of his assertions stand in an ambiguous relationship with Scripture, I do find him an enlivening theological sparring partner, especially on the nature of the incarnation.

Here is an interesting video I discovered in the course of my preparation in which Barth discusses his view of revelation. How interesting it would have been to sit down and have a conversation with him!

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