Sunday, April 18, 2021

Barth on PSA

I am a very slow reader of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. I tend to read a few pages when on holiday at a favourite holiday location and it must be getting on for twenty years since I started and I am only a little way over a halfway through volume II.1. Very slow.

Of course the actual act of reading those few pages at a time is "slow reading" as far as words per minute and pages per hour go, because Barth cannot be read fast. Well, I cannot read Barth fast. And even when reading slowly I cannot often say that I understand him well. There is also the matter of beginning to feel sleepy when he takes a long time to say something, which seems quite often.

But there is much to appreciate in Barth - taking a long time to say something, for instance, is also to be painstakingly thorough, to meet and to head off all possible objections. Along the way there are his famous excursi (because in smaller typeface, because often long and interesting essays in their own right) and often these are thorough surveys of the whole of Scripture on the matter at hand. I happen to also like the way in which he draws the best - as he sees it - out of both Luther and Calvin.

Anyhow, this past week, while on a break I read through the first two parts of chapter 30 in II.1, The Perfections of the Divine Loving (pp. 351-406, in the edition edited by Bromily and Torrance), with part 1 on The Grace and Holiness of God and part 2 on The Mercy and Righteousness of God.

What particularly fascinated me in these pages is the way in which Barth is bold and unembarrassed to speak of the wrath of God, the substitution of Christ for ourselves as the object of that wrath and the making of ourselves righteous before God. Barth doesn't use the words "penal substitutionary atonement" in one phrase at any point but he does expound the doctrine albeit (and this is very important) always and everywhere on these pages in terms of God's mercy-and-righteousness. Never one without the other, never one before the other.

Over the years on this blog, especially around Holy Week, some of my interest in "the wrath of God" has been around the controversial line in the popular recent hymn, In Christ Alone, which we sing:

The wrath of God was satisfied.

In this line is an expression of the teaching known as "penal subsitutionary atonement." 

What struck me reading Barth this past week is that his starting point in respect of God's wrath is not God's wrath but God's righteousness. And his primary concern about God's wrath is not that God's wrath is satisfied but that the problem of our unrighteousness is resolved. And - noting that Barth is very keen on holding lots of things together so "and" is critical to his theology - the problem of our unrighteousness is very deep and very dark, so the death of Christ in our place is a forsakenness beyond words, beyond (in my reading) a short sentence such as "the wrath of God was satisfied" neatly and succinctly describing the forsakenness. And yet "the wrath of God was satisfied" is, within the Barthian narrative of our plight and God's rescue, true, though Barth doesn't come near to saying those words (as far as I noticed ... though I may have gotten a little sleepy.) Rather he says something which I think would be summed up differently than in the line of that hymn.

But first, so what does Barth say? There are lots of words, so I am picking out something of a representative set of passages:

"The meaning of the death of Jesus Christ is that there God's condemning and punishing righteousness broke out, really smiting and piercing human sin, man as sinner, and sinful Israel. It did really fall on the sin of Israel, our sin and us sinners. It did so in such a way that in what happened there (not to Israel, or to us, but to Jesus Christ) the righteousness of God which we have offended was really revealed and satisfied. Yet it did so in such a way that it did not happen to Israel or to us, but for Israel, for us. What was suffered there on Israel's account and ours, was suffered for Israel and for us.

The wrath of God which we had merited, by which we must have been annihilated and would long since have been annihilated, was now in our place borne and suffered as though it had smitten us and yet in such a way that it did not smite us and can no more smite us. The reason why the No spoken on Good Friday is so terrible, but why there is already concealed in it the Eastertide Yes of God's righteousness, is that He who on the cross took upon Himself and suffered the wrath of God was no other than God's own Son, and therefore the eternal God Himself in the unity with human nature which He freely accepted in his transcendent mercy." [pp. 396-97]

"The fact that it was God's Son, that it was God Himself, who took our place on Golgotha and thereby freed us from the divien anger and judgement, reveals first the full implication of the wrath of God, of His condemning and punishing justice. It shows us what a consuming fire burns against sin. It thus discloses too the full impliation of sin, what it means to resist God, to be God's enemy, which is the guilty determination of our human existence." [p. 398]

In a passage which engages with Romans 3:5, "Is God not unjust to exercise His wrath?", Barth writes movingly of both God's love for us and of the love which substitutes Himself for us (with my paragraphing):

"And - necessarily almost - the question arises in regard to the Old and New Testaments, whether God's reaction of wrath as it is attested to us in the Bible really stands in intelligible relation to man's opposition to God, to man's sin and guilt? And how natural it is to propose this question especially when we find or feel ourselves affected gy God's token judgments! "Is God not unjust to exercise his wrath?" (Rom. 3.5). Have we really deserved it? Are we really as guilty as all that, that we should have to suffer it? 

This murmuring, this question of Job's, is silenced - but only really silenced - when we remember how it is that God judges the world (Rom. 3.6), that is, His relentlessness against Himself as we have described it, His allowing Himself so to feel the pain of our sin that He spared not His only Son, but delivered Him up for us all. What do we know of God's righteousness, of what is worthy of Him, and therefore of what, when He confronts us as our Creator and Lord, He necessarily and rightfully has against us? 

It is here, where He guarantees - but in His love for us and therefore utterly on His own initiative - that he is not against us but for us (Rom. 8.31), that we have to learn what is His righteousness and our unrighteousness. And it is from this point of view, as a token of the righteousness of God manifested here, that we have to appraise and interpret the righteousness of the Law, of the threats and judgments of the Old Testament, and of those of world history and of our own life. 

It is here that we come to know of what we are accused and guilty, what our trespass is and means. It consists in an alienation from God, a rebellion against Him, which ought to be punished in a way which involves our total destruction, and which apart from our annihilation can be punished only by God Himself taking our place, and in His Son taking to Himself and bearing and suffering the punishment. ... Our position is such that we can be rescued from eternal death and translated into life only by total and unceasing substitution, the substitution which God Himself undertakes on our behalf." [p. 399]

That is, I think Barth's preference to "The wrath of God was satisfied" would be:

"The righteousness of God was satisfied."

On the matter of "penal substitionary atonement", the passages above (or otherwise in this chapter but not cited here) never use the phrase but Barth is very clear that our sin deserves punishment, that God in Christ substituted himself for us on the cross and our being made right with God is through the substitutionary action of the righteous-and-merciful God in Christ in receiving what we deserve.


Unknown said...

An Easter topic! Why? Christ was first released from both bondage to the powers and the penalty of sin in being raised from the dead. Union with Christ, we in him and he in us, is how we ourselves are released. The reformers knew this (cf Calvin, Institutes, 3.1, 3.10) but in the past century or two pieces of the NT whole have been fetishised, usually along tribal lines. But see Lutherans like Tuomo Mannermaa and Reformed like Richard Gaffin.


Anonymous said...

When we read the Song of Songs, ww are aware that a lusty reading of the text is plausible, but this never stopped rabbis and fathers from treating desire as a metaphor. Yet when Romans mentions wrath, we tend to treat it as real, not as pointing to something ineffable in the Father. This despite a scholastic tradition of caution about speaking of God's emotions.

So those phobic about authority wince at what they hear as divine trumpiness, and those who miss authority raise a glass to law and order. Viscerally, the wrath seems more real to many than God.


Jonathan said...

I agree, BW, re the wrath of God at least sounding as loudly, for some, as the love of God. And attached to this the thought that (for some theologies) the downstream effect of Adam having sway for larger numbers of folk than the downstream effect of Christ and the Cross. And attached to this the thought that the eternal suffering of most people (for some theologies) somehow glorifies God, who presumably continues to give existence to these suffering people. I haven't read a word of Barth but am halfway through Douglas Charles' Pauline Dogmatics (around 790pp total), and he draws on Barth, Hauerwas and Torrance extensively. Like your experience of Barth, Bp Peter, Douglas is slow but very engaging and so far I have found his discussions of a number of challenging topics uplifting.

Father Ron said...

Indeed, Bishop Peter; is this why God had to become representatively human (Incarnate) so that God could 'satisfy' the standard of human righteousness God's divinity required of us? I have always loved the FACT that in the parable of the Pharisee and the sinner, it was the sinner who was accounted 'righteous' by Jesus - not because of the sinner's own intrinsic righteousness, but because of God's mercy and forgiveness. It was God's righteousness that was to be satisfied by the God/man, Jesus, through his willingness to 'suffer for the sake of ALL humanity'. Christ is Risen, Alleluia! HE IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA!

Thanks be to God!

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter, I think today's 'Thought' from Pope Francis would meet with the approval of Dr. Barth:


“Sin brings torment; evil has its price… Of ourselves, we cannot remove it. Only God takes it away, only He by His mercy can make us emerge from the depths of our misery… We need to let ourselves be forgiven, to ask heartfelt pardon of the Lord. We need to open our hearts to being forgiven. Forgiveness in the Holy Spirit is the Easter gift that enables our interior resurrection. Let us ask for the grace to accept that gift, to embrace the Sacrament of forgiveness. And to understand that Confession is not about ourselves and our sins, but about God and His mercy.”

Pope Francis

Peter Carrell said...

Indeed, Fr Ron!