By David W. Congdon
Barth’s Der Römerbrief needs no introduction. It fundamentally changed the landscape of modern theology. The first edition, published in 1918, set forth the basic contours of Barth’s break with 19th century liberalism. But it was the explosive second edition (hereafter referred to as Romans II, and from which I will exclusively cite), published in 1921 and translated in 1933, which established Barth’s lasting reputation.1 However, as important as it has been and continues to be, one easily forgets that Barth’s Romans is a biblical commentary.2 People tend to view it as a theological treatise, but Barth always intended it to be an exegesis—certainly, a theological exegesis—of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.
With this in mind, I want to focus on Barth’s interpretation of the first chapter of Romans, specifically the latter half of this chapter (vv. 16-32). Specifically, I want to address two issues: (1) the way Barth reads Romans as a letter against the liberal historicism of his time, and (2) Barth’s handling of Rom. 1:20 and the problem of natural theology.
The No-God of Modern Liberalism
The story of Barth’s break with German liberalism is well-known, as is the central place of Barth’s Römerbrief in this theological revolt. There is, unfortunately, a lot of confusion about the nature of this revolt. What exactly is being rejected? The common response, based on Barth’s later writings regarding the analogia entis, is natural theology. But this is an anachronistic misreading of Romans II in light of the Barmen Declaration and the Church Dogmatics. Natural theology was not really on the radar at all for Barth in 1921. This can easily be seen by the stark difference between his treatment of Rom. 1 in this commentary and his treatment of the same passage in his Shorter Commentary on Romans, which began as lectures in 1940-41 and was published in 1956 (ET 1959). The later commentary directly addresses the issue of natural theology and remains, in my opinion, the best and most succinct argument against finding natural theology in Paul’s letter. The earlier commentary, however, says nothing about this topic. I will address what Barth does say later, but for now it will suffice to point out that Barth’s commentary has a different polemical target in mind.
F. W. Graf calls the break with liberalism the “anti-historicist revolution” in Protestant theology, and this insight helps to specify what it is that Barth is so angry about in Romans II. The issue is not with natural knowledge of God; that target would arise later in his dealings with Erich Przywara and Roman Catholicism. The issue here is with the liberal historicization of God, or more accurately, the objectification of God. “Historicism” has its basis in 19th century German theology and philosophy, but it reached its apotheosis in the work of Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch takes the historical-critical method as his starting-point, which, as he says, “relativizes everything,” and then he subjects Christianity to this method. He doesn’t reject religious absolutes; he simply identifies this absolute as the telos of the immanent historical continuum. The absolute arises out of the progress of history. Not everyone followed historicism to Troeltsch’s logical conclusion, but at the very least what made theology liberal was this subjection of Christianity to historical-critical research. That is, liberalism grounds the Christian religion on “objective” realities which can be established by “neutral” scientific methods. Most importantly, liberalism makes the so-called “historical Jesus,” as opposed to the Christ of orthodoxy, the basis for Christian faith.
Liberal theology thus implicitly presupposes what Rudolf Bultmann, in his well-known 1924 essay, calls a “pantheism of history,” in which God is given to us directly in social history as an object available for our investigation. It is this “givenness” of God within the nexus of social relations, human personality, and scientific history that defines liberalism. The consequence of this view is that revelation becomes a historical-psychological phenomenon, Jesus becomes a great religious personality (Persönlichkeit), and faith becomes a religious “feeling” (Gefühl) or “sense of value” aroused within the human conscience. In short, liberal historicism leads to the idolatrous deification of humanity.
We cannot understand Barth’s Romans if we do not see his commentary as an attempt to read Paul’s letter as a response to modern historicism. Now, before I demonstrate how this affects Barth’s interpretation of Rom. 1, some might object that this does violence to Paul’s text. A brief word on biblical hermeneutics is thus in order. In 1962, Krister Stendahl famously distinguished between “two senses” of meaning in a biblical text: “What did it mean?” and “What does it mean?”3 For Stendahl and others, the present meaning of a text is merely the application of its past meaning, with the latter established purely on the basis of descriptive-scientific exegesis. Barth completely (and rightly) rejects this scheme, preempting Stendahl by some forty years. In the preface drafts to the first edition of his commentary on Romans, Barth repeats a central and radical axiom throughout: “Whoever does not continually ‘read in’ because he participates in the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ either.”4 Exegesis is not possible without a certain kind of eisegesis—a participatory involvement in the subject matter (die Sache) of the biblical text.5 In the published preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief, Barth says that “our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours” (1). And later in the same preface he says: “The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and to-day becomes impossible” (7). Barth’s theological hermeneutic is the basis for his exegesis, and we can only assess what he says later once we acknowledge this interpretive starting-point.
So with that said, how does Paul’s letter become a polemic against liberal historicism? Barth finds the key in Paul’s emphasis on the gospel (euangelion), a word which appears three times in the first chapter alone (1:1, 9, 16) and is more or less the theme of the entire opening to the letter. For Paul, the gospel is “apocalyptically revealed” (apokalupto) in Jesus Christ as the power of God (1:16-17). The gospel of God sets Paul apart for his particular vocation as an apostle. The gospel constitutes the church as a missionary community serving a missionary God, who sent Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to reconcile the world. This gospel is therefore not some new piece of wisdom teaching, because it “brings salvation” to those who are otherwise dead in their transgressions (1:16; 6:23; cf. Eph. 2:1-5); nor is it a secret message about the spiritual world, because as Paul makes clear throughout the letter, the gospel calls us to a this-worldly life of obedience and love (1:5; 13:10; 16:26); nor is it a self-evident truth which could be established on extra-revelatory grounds, because the gospel is the subversion of everything that was previously self-evident. It is the scandalous truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. It is a truth that remains “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), even while reconciling them both to God.
For these reasons, Barth declares in Romans II that “the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths” (35). Anticipating Bultmann’s critique of liberalism, Barth also says that the gospel of God is “not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. . . . The Gospel is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended” (28). God is not one god among many, nor is the gospel a truth among many other truths. The gospel of God’s resurrecting power is instead a gospel for which one cannot be ashamed, which needs no external justification. God does not compete within the world as a person or thing among other persons and things clamoring for attention and authority. God, in short, does not need the world. As Barth puts it, “no divinity remaining on this side the line of resurrection; no divinity which dwells in temples made with hands or which is served by the hand of man; no divinity which needs anything, any human propaganda (Acts 17:24, 25)—can be God” (35-36). The god which needs the world—i.e., the god which is the ideological and infinite projection of human needs—is the No-God, the non-deity, the golden calf, the object of Babel.
All of this leads Barth to present a full-scale attack on metaphysics as a form of quasi-theological propaganda. The No-God of this world is the metaphysically-derived deity of religion. It is important to realize that Barth is operating with a very specific definition of metaphysics, and that this definition is historically situated in the context of his battle against liberal historicism. To flesh this out, let us examine Barth’s commentary. Directly following the passage last cited, Barth continues in his exegesis of Rom. 1:16 by stating that “the power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted force, known or knowable. The power of God is not the most exalted of observable forces, nor is it either their sum or their fount. Being completely different, it is the krisis of all power, that by which all power is measured . . . . It is the Primal Origin (Ursprung) by which they all are dissolved, the consummation by which they all are established. The power of God stands neither at the side of nor above—supernatural!—these limited and limiting powers. It is pure and pre-eminent and—beyond them all” (36). As Barth says elsewhere, God is not “the extension of nature into a super-nature or a behind-nature (metaphysics).”6
The problem with supernaturalism is that it actually fails to live up to its promise. Supernaturalism claims to make God distinct from the world, but in fact turns God into an extension of it. The “supernatural” is epistemologically (and ontologically) dependent upon the “natural.” That is, we can only define what is supernatural on the basis of our prior knowledge of the natural world, which means that God is limited and determined by something external to God. The being of God is thus not sui generis, but rather the extension of something that is already given. God becomes an objectifiable datum that we can extrapolate from other data accessible outside of any revelatory encounter with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This act of divine objectification occurs even—or perhaps especially—when we endow God with the highest metaphysical attributes. As Paul Tillich rightly puts it, in relation to God, “superlatives become diminutives.”7 The supernatural, infinite god remains bound in a polar relationship with the natural, finite world. The infinite god needs the finite. Omnipotence is simply the extension of our limited creaturely power, and omniscience the extension of our limited creaturely knowledge. In every respect, the metaphysical-mythological deity is nothing more than a devout human projection in the manner of Feuerbach. It is the No-God of religion, the pious object of Babel: “In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves” (44).
What becomes clear in these passages is the radical distinction or diastasis between God and creation. Critics of Barth often misinterpret him to mean that God exists in a kind of static, abstract transcendence, as if God is “out there” and the world is “in here.” They usually make reference to the famous image of the tangent that touches the circle without touching it (30; Barth’s math is wrong, but we get the point), drawing the conclusion that Barth’s God is so beyond the world that God has no real relationship to creation. Barth is effectively a deist, or some kind of über-metaphysician. These kinds of critiques miss the point. Throughout the letter, Barth is at pains to emphasize the existential nearness of God, the God is other than us precisely as the one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine). Barth’s rhetoric regarding the “infinite qualitative distinction” serves not to make God distant from us, but to subvert the attempt on the part of historicism to objectify God as a given entity that can be analyzed and assessed apart from God’s gift of faith—that is, apart from the gospel that is “apocalyptically revealed” in Jesus Christ.
Metaphysics, as Barth defines it, is the theological program of liberal historicism. The No-God is the religious object constructed by metaphysical-historicist reasoning. By contrast, Barth’s method of theological exegesis is the hermeneutical antithesis of metaphysical liberalism.8 The God to whom Barth witnesses does not negate nature or reject reason, as some claim. The God of the resurrection is not a scandal to human rationality simpliciter. Such a god would in fact be a demon—the destroyer of creation instead of its reconciler. On the contrary, the God of Jesus Christ is a scandal to reason and nature in their bondage to sin and death, in their captivity to the ideological powers and principalities of this world. John Howard Yoder makes this point well in a theopolitical context when he writes the following:
The behavior God calls for is not alien to us; it expresses what we really are made to be. Yet, unfortunately, later Catholic strategy has foreshortened the critical potential of that vision by confusing the “nature of things” with the way things are now in the fallen world, especially in ethnic and national definitions of community and patriarchal definitions of order. When society has been defined as the nation and social order as patriarchy, then it is no longer true that grace completes nature; in the face of that definition of “nature,” the word of YHWH has to be like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. Yet when the “nature of things” is properly defined, the organic relationship to grace is restored. The cross is not a scandal to those who know the world as God sees it, but only to the pagans, who look for what they call wisdom, or the Judaeans, who look for what they call power. This is what I meant before, when I stated that the choice of Jesus was ontological: it risks an option in favor of the restored vision of how things really are.9We might translate Yoder for our purposes by saying that the “faith seeking understanding” which God calls for is not alien to us, but expresses what we really are made to know and believe. In the face of a metaphysical attempt to objectify and historicize God as a given entity for our intellectual control, the gospel of God has to be like an all-consuming fire, an “exploding shell” which leaves behind a crater-like void (29). Yet when we are seized by divine grace and reconciled to God through the gift of faith, the relationship between the Wholly Other God and the natural world is made clear. With Eberhard Jüngel, we can speak of a “more natural theology than so-called natural theology” (Christ, Justice and Peace, 26). God no longer seems like a distant supernatural thing, but a loving Creator who is existentially near to us. The cross is only a scandal to those who look for a god they can posit on the basis of a rationality which has not submitted in obedience to Christ. The cross is a scandal to those who are looking for a god to justify and affirm the power-structures of this world. The event of Jesus Christ is an epistemologically and ontologically determinative event: it simultaneously reveals and constitutes the way things truly are meant to be.
God’s No as Existential Anxiety
At its heart, the No-God of the modern world is the result of a “secret identification of ourselves with God,” which means that “[m]en have imprisoned and encased the truth—the righteousness of God; they have trimmed it to their measure, and thereby robbed it both of its earnestness and of its significance. They have made it ordinary, harmless, and useless; and thereby transformed it into untruth” (45). But as Barth goes on to say, “the situation might . . . have been very different” (47).
We come, then, to the controversial text of Rom. 1:19-21, in which Paul writes: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (NRSV). As numerous commentators have noted, it is deeply problematic to proof-text this passage and assume that Paul endorses a kind of general revelation in nature. Read in context and in light of his other letters—especially 1 Cor. 1:18-29—it becomes clear that if the traditional interpretation of this passage is correct, Paul is in serious contradiction with himself. How can Paul say that the pagan Gentiles “knew God” but “did not honor him as God,” and then later in the same letter, state that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8)? Moreover, Paul consistently speaks of the “power of God” in relation to the cross and resurrection of Christ as a strictly soteriological—and thus christological and pneumatological—reality (cf. Rom. 1:4, 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18, 1:24, 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:7, 12:9, 13:4; Phil. 3:10; 1 Thess. 1:5). In other words, the power of God is something which must be “apocalyptically revealed”; it is an act of divine revelation and redemption, not something self-evident and objectifiable. For all these reasons and more, an alternative reading of Rom. 1:19-21 is necessary if we wish to respect the intelligence and authority of Paul the apostle.10
Barth certainly offers an alternative reading, but he seems utterly unaware of the debates over theologia naturalis in Paul. The contested verses would not become a source of concern until his 1934 wrangle with Emil Brunner. Instead, as I’ve already said, the issue in Romans II is with liberal historicism. And he responds to liberalism with his unique version of theological existentialism.
His exegesis seems to work like this: when Paul speaks of the Gentiles knowing God in 1:21, what is known about God, based on the context, is the wrath of God (cf. 1:18). There is no indication whatsoever that the Gentiles could have knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this wrath is an act of divine justice against the moral trespasses of the pagans. In short, the only real knowledge that pagans can have of God is that they stand guilty before the divine Judge. As G. K. Chesterton once said, original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” This pagan knowledge isn’t really a knowledge of God per se; it is knowledge of oneself, a self-understanding, as one who is held accountable before a Power or Being that is invisible and unknown. In existentialist terms, the knowledge that the pagan can have is a sense of her own existential anxiety. For this reason, when Paul says that “the invisible things of God are clearly seen” (1:20), Barth translates this in the following way: “The insecurity of our whole existence, the vanity and utter questionableness of all that is and of what we are, lie as in a text-book open before us” (46).
In his well-known book on The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich offers a helpful typology of existential anxiety, which he defines as “the awareness of one’s finitude as finitude.”11 Anxiety is the experience of the threat of nonbeing (or what Barth calls Nothingness, das Nichtige) upon our existence. He notes three ways in which nonbeing threatens us: ontic (the anxiety of fate and death), spiritual (the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness), and moral (the anxiety of guilty and condemnation).12 Barth is saying, on the basis of Paul’s text, that ontic, spiritual, and moral anxiety is indeed naturally perceivable—which, by the way, is quite different from saying that our “sinfulness” is perceivable (and for that reason, Chesterton isn’t quite right). We all, “by nature” so to speak, experience a sense of insecurity and questionableness. Every person recognizes that something is wrong with the world and with themselves in this world. According to Barth, the Gentiles stand guilty because they refuse to acknowledge this anxiety; instead of recognizing their need for something Ultimate, Primal, and Beyond, they take refuge in idols they can objectify and control.
Barth therefore makes a direct connection between the failure to acknowledge our existential anxiety, our utter questionableness, and human religion. The refusal to recognize our creaturely limitations results in the hubristic deification of humanity and the idolatrous objectification of deity. For this reason, “We make of the eternal and ultimate presupposition of the Creator a ‘thing in itself’ above and in the midst of other things, of that which is living and abstracted from all concreteness a concrete thing—no doubt the highest—in the midst of other concrete things, of the Spirit a spirit, of what is inaccessible and therefore so nigh at hand an endlessly uncertain object of our experiences. Rather than see in His Light—eternal and which no man can approach unto—the Light, we allow Him to become a light—no doubt the most brilliant and, indeed, immaterial and supernatural—at which we kindle our own lights and then, quite consistently, seek to find in concrete things their own light” (47). By making God a “thing,” the Spirit a “spirit,” the Light a “light,” we turn God into an object for our rational and religious manipulation. This is therefore the essence of metaphysics: an unwillingness to recognize our creaturely limitations which results in the attempt to grasp and control the divine apart from God’s apocalyptic self-giving in the event of Jesus Christ.
Barth’s reading of this passage may not have the exegetical rigor of Campbell’s, but it is certainly an improvement over the tradition. To turn Paul into an apologist for natural theology places him in contradiction with himself and does exegetical violence to the overall theological argument of Romans. In his brilliant virtuoso performance in Romans II, Barth offers an alternative interpretation within his existentialist and anti-historicist context.
I have sought in this brief essay to argue that Barth reads Romans as a letter directed against liberal historicism. Barth makes the central verses of Rom. 1:16-17 the interpretive key for the letter as a whole. His emphasis is on the apocalyptic power of God which is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything we say about God must conform to this unique concrete event. While Barth is unconcerned with the issue of natural theology, it is clear that this non-objectifiable conception of God has important implications for metaphysics and natural theology. As those who seek to think with and after Barth, we can certainly draw out these implications, but we must always keep in mind that Barth’s own interests lay elsewhere. Barth’s mind would later change, of course, but I would argue that the fundamental concern in this commentary—viz. that God is a non-objectifiable event, contra liberal historicism—remains basic to his entire theological enterprise. For this reason, we still have much to gain from returning again and again to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.
We should all be grateful to David Congdon for his erudite analysis of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1. Indeed, it is something of a challenge to offer a critical response to it in that I am already in substantial agreement with all of the salient points. However, there are a few points that bear making, at least in helping to clarify and extend this analysis of Barth’s thought on the matter of metaphysics and theology.
What is perhaps most helpful in Congdon’s treatment is the way it exposes the early Barth’s true theological concerns. The tendency to read Romans through the lens of Barth’s conflict with Brunner has clearly impeded attempts to properly understand the nature of Barth’s early theological project, and indeed the way in which that trajectory informs his later developments. By situating Barth’s concerns in the problem of liberal historicism where they correctly belong we are able to see the real conflict into which the Romans commentary fell like a Molotov cocktail, and thus to discern the real importance of Barth’s theology on this point.
What emerges from properly situating the Romans commentary in the context of Barth’s dispute with liberal historicism is the crucial point that for Barth, the question of God’s relationship to history is of the utmost importance. For Barth it is utterly axiomatic that the God of Jesus Christ be distinguished from the No-God of liberal historicism. Indeed, as Congdon points out, it is precisely the sort of historical “givenness” that liberal historicism that is his primary target. What is vital for Barth is that any theology that identifies God with the movements of human history (which inevitably entails identifying God with our own movement in history) is a denial of the utterly free Triune God revealed in Jesus.
It is vital to situate Barth’s critique of metaphysics in this context. As Congdon helps us to see, the metaphysics that are in Barth’s crosshairs are those of liberal historicism. Barth is certainly not rejecting ontology as such, or even the investigation of “being” (though utter clarity about what that means is vital). Rather Barth is attacking what Nathan Kerr refers to as “the metaphysics of history” (Christ, History and Apocalyptic, 37). What is to be rejected is any metaphysical framework that locates and defines God within the immanent frame of human history. As Herbert McCabe might put it, Barth is opposed to any metaphysical vision in which God becomes a being among other beings, or where God and the universe could ever be conceived to add up to make two. God is not to be found within us—the idolatrous divinization of humanity—but rather as missionally coming to us from without. God’s action toward the world takes the form of a radical and unprecedented interruption. The interruption of grace. For Barth all of this turns on rejecting the ideological postulation of God’s givenness in favor of receiving God as an utterly singular apocalyptic gift.
It is precisely at this point that I would like to do what I can to extend Congdon’s excellent analysis of Barth’s attack on liberal historicism. As we have seen, what lies at the heart of Barth’s critique is the way in which liberal historicism circumscribes God, rendering God as a teleological positing of history. Barth’s apocalyptic Christology utterly forbids any such teleological frame of reference. God can never be identified as the “absolute” which “arises out of the progress of history” as its telos. As such, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism arises out of a fundamental concern that God never become a predicate of any earthly-historical reality.
This is the point I wish to expand on, even if only briefly. The claim I wish to introduce is that Barth’s attack on liberal historicism and his vigorous critiques of Roman Catholicism are of a piece. As we have seen, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism was rooted entirely in his concern that God not become objectified within an immanent, ideological frame. I would like to argue here that it is precisely the same concern that grounded his objections Roman Catholicism. For Barth the Roman Catholic construal of the church as the effective mediator of grace, and indeed, of Christ’s presence elides the singularity and freedom of Christ in precisely the same way as liberal historicism. For Barth, the Catholic perspective on how the office of Christ is exercised through the office of Peter is unacceptable precisely in that it turns the church into a kind of entelechy which makes Christ’s own agency a predicate of the historical-institutional church.
In a way that may seem ironic to many readers of contemporary theology today, Barth construes Roman Catholic holism and liberal historicism as two sides of the coin. Both, in different ways seek to securely “place” God within a stable framework and in doing so objectify God in a way that Barth found extremely dangerous. In a quest to secure God’s givenness from within a stable historical framework, both Catholicism and liberal historicism resist accepting the grace of God which comes to us not as a given, but as an apocalyptic gift. Whether or not one accepts Barth’s critiques of Catholicism and liberal historicism (and I think they have purchase), it is certainly vital that we all remain attuned to the ideological temptations that beset all attempts to do theology. The gift is ever vulnerable to our attempts to turn it into a possessed given. And in resisting this temptation the witness of Barth is a vital one indeed.