Monday, February 20, 2006

Book Review - The Humanity of God

Barth’s work in this book does not focus on just one issue. On the contrary, the book is an answer for three major issues within Christianity: 1) The role of Theology, particularly in this case with 19th century theology; 2) Christology and the question of the humanity of God; and 3) Human freedom and the issue of Christian ethics. Each one of these issues is strongly connected but at the same time they can exist in complete independence and separation from each other.
Karl Barth is considered the greatest theologian of the 20th century not only because of his great works, especially Church Dogmatics, but also because he brought Christianity back to the near-forgotten orthodoxy. Barth wrote about 19th century theology (from Schleiermacher to Ritschl) and shed light on their theology by pointing out where they failed as theologians and the reasons for why that happened. Barth was aware of the cultural context where those theologians were involved, and how that particular culture negatively influenced the construction of a sound theology. Theologians of the 19th century were “first animated and nourished by Herder and the Romantics, as well as by the religious and national awakening of the Napoleonic era” (pg. 13). For Barth, theology had “turned into philosophy of the history of religion in general, and of Christian religion in particular” (pg. 13). He also says, “There was scarcely a theologian who did not also consider himself a professional philosopher” (pg. 21). Barth then moves towards several minor criticisms of the aspects of that theology, from ethics to spirituality, from the apathy of the Christian life to evangelistic zeal. Barth’s major resistance was against the thought of an exaggerated anthropocentrism that permeated and influenced many, if not all great theologians of the 19th century. Clearly the key word for this first essay would be anthropocentrism. It is here where all the difference is made. The question that rises when you approach 19th century theology could be who you will focus your attention upon the most, on man or on God?
Karl Barth’s second essay entitles the book. Although, for a distracted reader the subject discussed in this essay appears to have nothing to do with the first one. But in reality, there are connections between both essays. Actually, Barth’s Christology can be better compared to theologians from the age of reformation or even earlier than that, but it is in total disparity from the theology of the 19th century. Therefore, this essay could be seen as the orthodox or in Barth’s case the “neo”-orthodox response to the theology of the 19th century. His major thesis in this chapter is undoubtedly the doctrine of Christ, His humanity and His deity. For Barth, the knowledge of Christ’s humanity and deity cannot be derived from one another. They are strictly interrelated. He says on page 46, “It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity.” For Barth, Jesus is the perfect expression of God. He says, “In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man” (pg. 46). And his humanity is the perfect link between God and man, “even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father” (pg. 53). In Barth’s articulation of the glorious salvation provided by God to all men, he enters into a concept that can lead someone to think that he is defending universalism. On page 60 he states that “the human spirit is naturally Christian.” One may charge Barth as a defender of universalism. Even he recognizes the closeness of his teachings with the doctrine of universalism. He closes his view about salvation in Christ and the issue of universalism by saying that “we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” (pg. 62).
He also brings up the concept of outsiders and insiders when he says that “the so-called ‘outsiders’ are really only ‘insiders’ who have not yet understood and apprehended themselves as such” (pg. 59). This essay contains some key words. The most evident ones are humanity, and deity. But we can also say that the word relationship plays a great role in Barth’s teaching of the humanity of God, especially among the persons of the Trinity.
Following a logical sequence, Karl Barth takes us to his last essay of the book. Now we come to the application of what has been discussed so far. We come to the issue of Christian freedom. He starts speaking about God’s own freedom, and then he moves towards man’s own freedom. For Karl Barth, the freedom of man is totally tied to the freedom of God. For him, God’s freedom is the source of human freedom (pg. 71). In relating human freedom to God’s, Barth erases the thought of an “I can do whatever I want” type of freedom. He says that “God’s freedom is essentially not freedom from, but freedom to and for” (pg. 72). And he connects this type of freedom with human freedom. Personally, I think that Barth’s idea of “human freedom is freedom only within the limitations of God’s own freedom.” does not make me feel totally comfortable. I cannot think of a God that is limited in any circumstance, even by His freedom. But, on the other hand, I agree with him when he limits man’s freedom. This is why this major thesis of human freedom breaks up in the minor thesis of Christian ethics. Freedom is related to the grace of God, and grace upon man. Barth says, “Human freedom is the gift of God in the free outpouring of His grace” (pg. 75). And he concludes by saying “the gift is total, unequivocal, and irrevocable. It remains the gift of freedom even though it may be turned into man’s judgment if misunderstood or misused” (pg. 76). Perhaps the reason that Barth ties men’s freedom with God’s freedom is to not leave room for the possibility of sin. Indeed, Barth says that “in human freedom there is no room for sin by fiat” (pg. 77). Furthermore, Barth will say that human freedom is to accomplish the causa Dei in the world. This will be the mission of each Christian, as he says, “this is the meaning of God’s covenant with man…this is the freedom of discipleship bestowed upon him” (pg. 81).
As a second part of this third essay, Barth concentrates on Christian ethics and its implications after his teachings on human freedom. He states that “ethics is reflection upon what man is required to do in and with the gift of freedom” (pg. 87). For him, a proper understanding of the freedom offered by God to His children, will determine a correct manner to proceed in all nuances of life. A misunderstanding of this freedom, will compromise human conduct and relationship with the One who deliberates this freedom.
He concludes by speaking about the “special ethics” of free theologians, and all the implications that follow this concept. He calls this theme “the ethics of theology itself and the ethos of the free theologians” and for him it is a “small and often neglected area” (pg. 89). It is interesting to notice that he starts the book with an overall view on 19th century theology and theologians, and finishes it by talking about theologians and theology as well. Barth points out five characteristics that make a free theologian complete. For him, a free theologian will always begin his thinking at the beginning (talking about the resurrection of Christ), will be scripturally supported, will not be ashamed of his philosophical views, will think and speak in the context of the Church and will always be in communication with other theologians.
Undoubtedly, the word free and freedom play the major role in Barth’s last essay. He articulates with talent all the implications of these two words in the life of the people of God, bringing a full understanding of this controversial issue.

Rodrigo Serrao

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