The Fullness Of God Was Pleased To Dwell
[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. [Jesus Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile . . . all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:15-20
But did it not appear to escape us by quite a distance that the deity of God – and we certainly wanted to deal with [the living God] – found its meaning and its power only in the context of [God’s} history and of [God’s] dialogue with [humanity], and thus in [God’s] togetherness with [us]? Indeed – and this is the point back of which we cannot go – it is a matter of God’s sovereign togetherness with [humanity], a togetherness grounded in [God] and determined, delimited, and ordered through [God] alone. Only in this way and in this context can it take place and be recognized. It is a matter, however, of God’s togetherness with [humanity]. Who God is and [God] is in [God’s] feity [God] proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-[God], but precisely and euthentically in the fact that [God] exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of [humanity], though of course as the absolutely superior partner. [The God] who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which [God] does that is [God’s] deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which rightly understood, includes [God’s] humanity. – Karl Barth, “The Humanity of God”, in The Humanity Of God, pp. 45-46
In a day I’ve jumped from reading some of Barth’s earliest theological reflections to those offered at the end of his long life and career. Time-jumping like this can be a bit overwhelming, particularly if the reader isn’t at all familiar with the course of Barth’s thought over the decades. Here, at the end of all important things for Barth, he confesses both the zeal and blindness of the beginning of what was then “a new direction” in European Reformed theology. In the manner of St. Augustine’s Retractiones, Barth’s “The Humanity of God” is a mea culpa not only for youthful over-enthusiasm, but actual blindness. In so doing, Barth offers a model for all who are on the journey of faith. It is one thing to celebrate not only what one learns; it is yet another to consider oneself the bearer of some kind of revolutionary message, a message that sweeps away what is patently old and, in many deadly ways, failed; it is still another, however, to come to the conclusion that some, at least of the baby was tossed out with the bathwater.
Among the adjectives one could assign to the Swiss Doctor, “humility” is not one that comes to mind. For example, there was little of the grace of which he wrote so voluminously in his rejection of Emil Brunner’s attempt at a rapprochement at the end of Brunner’s life. Barth’s silence in the wake of pleading from the Hungarian Reformed Church for support during the 1956 uprising against communist rule, something that Reinhold Niebuhr for example called him out for, showed both political naivete and – dare I say it? – theological cowardice on his part. For each of these acts, however, Barth not only did not back down; he defended with his usual vigor actions that to many lacked the kind of nuance and attention to ethical seriousness with which he offered his Church Dogmatics. To find, then, this instance of an apology for what was, in many ways, a very important and necessary course correction in European theology is all the more stunning considering the background sketched above.
Yet apologize – or more properly retract as St. Augustine did – is precisely what he does. For all that so much of late European liberal theology had become – let’s not guild any lilies – tiresome, expositions upon human feeling rather than Divine action, and too silent on the ethical task of the Church; for as much as Barth himself saw the shallowness and weakness of his German teachers, in particular the great historian Adolf von Harnack, who actually wrote the defense of the war Kaiser Wilhelm II gave in Berlin (in a picture of the crowd at that speech, a very young Adolf Hitler can be seen all too clearly, his eyes alight with just a tad too much joy), he now almost half a century later admits there was a recognition of the immanence of the Divine/human encounter that was cast aside far too briskly. Perhaps, indeed, with a bit too much contempt.
Over the course of his long theological journey and academic career, Barth not only rediscovered the theological history of the Scriptural witness. He also highlighted – as did his great late adversary Friedrich Schleiermacher – the centrality of the Incarnation for any beginning of understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God. That Barth and Schleiermacher understood and defined that Incarnation in very different terms; that later liberal/romantic/ethical theologians and historians of religion would emphasize more the sense of religious feeling than the objective reality of the Divine life encountered in Jesus Christ was, perhaps, a symptom of bourgeois comfort, something Barth acknowledges, rather than any drift toward a Christian humanism. A close reading of Barth’s Dogmatics offers readers a glimpse of this gradual change over the years, as Barth more and more places the reality of the Incarnation and its implications at the center of his thought.
In the epistle to the Colossians, we read a beautiful hymn to the Incarnation. It’s center is the declaration “in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile . . . all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” So much of our subsequent doctrine and theology, our prayer and worship, our teaching and our mission, flows from this powerful statement. All of us, I think, who feel compelled like Jacob to wrestle with the angel during our endless night, would do well not only to remember that even someone as influential and important as Karl Barth could admit an error – not just of love but of pride – and see fit to make clear the character of that error and offer a way back toward integrating what came before with what is now. In this Colossians passage we have the best Scriptural guide to remembering ours is a faith in which transcendence and immanence, the glory of the Father and the self-emptying of the Son, death and life all come together, existing not in tension but in mutual giving and taking. It is a reciprocity rooted in the same Spirit that is the love that binds Father and Son, humanity to the Triune life, and the Church to its Head.
Rather than arguing over abstruse theological matter, or demanding doctrinal conformity, perhaps we need to return to the Bible as the young Barth and his friends did. Perhaps we need to remember that no matter how fully we believe we have discovered something True and Beautiful, we might yet not have discovered the Truth. As Barth himself said, we must always live as if we know the truth. We must never, however, claim to have the truth. In that way lies our humility, a willingness listen rather than speak, and an openness to both new and old movements of the Spirit within our midst.