Friday, December 03, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 4

Pauline apocalyptic and political nihilism: Jacob Taubes and Karl Barth
By Benjamin Myers

‘Here is a Messiah who is condemned according to the law.
Tant pis, so much the worse for law.’ —Jacob Taubes


The Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes (1923-87) is surely one of the most eccentric figures of twentieth-century philosophy. A political thinker of the far left, Taubes’ greatest intellectual debt was to the arch-conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt. An ordained rabbi, his work was driven by a lifelong engagement with Christian theology, in an attempt to lay bare the roots of modern political power. With Schmitt, Taubes believed that in today’s world everything is theological – except perhaps the chatter of theologians (ACS 34). He began his career with a doctoral dissertation on the secularisation of Christian apocalyptic – a response to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on the same theme – and ended his career, just weeks before his death, with lectures on the explosive political impact of Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

At the centre of Taubes’ work is an attempt to rehabilitate radical Paulinism in the interests of a Jewish messianic politics. In this connection, Taubes returns again and again to Karl Barth, and he develops an independent and idiosyncratic appropriation of Barth’s theology. He regards Barth’s interpretation of Paul as ‘perhaps the most significant contribution to the general consciousness of our age’ (CC 177); Barth’s Römerbrief ‘gave voice to man’s self-estrangement long before philosophy had taken notice of it’ (CC 198). For Taubes, Barth’s political theology plunges us back into the world of Paul’s Jewish apocalypticism. Every worldly power is set under the enormous shadow of the impending judgment of God. The existing political order is not so much critiqued as utterly relativised; one’s hope lies not in any alternative political system, but in the fact that time will come to an end. The new messianic age sets itself against the totality of this world.

Although Taubes is not a Christian, he reads Paul as a Jewish messianic thinker and describes himself as ‘a Paulinist’ (PT 88). That Paul’s letters could be turned into the basis of formal doctrines of political authority, or as the justification of human projects to either stabilize or overturn the status quo – this Taubes sees as an astonishing betrayal of Paul’s apocalyptic vision. In contrast, Barth’s theology brings the ghost of Paul back into the world of modern politics. Barth reverses the trend in which Paul’s ‘nihilistic’ impulse was translated into doctrines of positive ‘social’ or ‘political’ engagement (CN 270). In other words, what the early Barth was widely criticised for – his apparent negation of everything human before the inexorable majesty of an alien God – Taubes sees as the point at which Barth’s theology reveals its real political potential. Barth’s devastating repudiation of Kulturprotestantismus should now be repeated as a repudiation of modern political order. With Barth, Taubes wants to recover the ‘totally illiberal’ Paul of the first century, the ‘fanatical’ Paul (PT 24), the alien and offensive figure who speaks not so much to our political concerns as against them.

To highlight the distinctiveness of Taubes’ appropriation of Barth, I want to explore the way both thinkers strategically mobilize Romans 13 as an apocalyptic-political text, before considering the way Taubes’ reading of Paul issues in his critique of law and, finally, his critique of theology as such.


While entire ecclesiastical traditions have assumed that Romans 13 propounds a positive doctrine of political authority, Barth’s Römerbrief immediately dismantles this assumption by arguing that Paul’s discussion of worldly rulers in chapter 13 is an extension of his passage about enemies in chapter 12. Paul’s fundamental attitude towards rulers is entirely negative: the rulers are a subset of the wider class of ‘evil’ and ‘enemies’ (12:20-21). This is the most important point of Barth’s whole interpretation of Romans 13; as soon as Paul’s view of rulers is understood under this dark aspect, much of Barth’s apocalyptic reading will ineluctably follow. For a start, any interpretation which claims a positive legitimation of authority cannot be admissible; it would contradict the whole message Romans. Worldly powers are ordained by God, Barth argues, only in the sense that they ‘bear involuntary witness’ to the true order of God, an order which stands over them in absolute judgment (RII 485). In relation to worldly authorities, the Christian is someone who ‘has so much to say against them that he no longer complains of them’; his behaviour as a good citizen ‘means “only” the judgment of God’ (RII 488).

To be constantly preoccupied with the problems and inadequacies of an existing political order is therefore no longer possible for the believer, who sees not merely the specific imperfections of all human endeavours but ‘their pure and complete negativity’ (RII 488). Even at its best, worldly power serves a strictly negative role: it sets up an absolute contrast to the righteousness of God. In this contrast between God’s order and worldly order – a distinction much more fundamental than the more familiar contrasts between good/evil and justice/injustice – the powers can be affirmed as ‘good’ only in the negative sense that they reluctantly and accidentally become shadows which preserve the lineaments of God’s apocalyptic righteousness (RII 488).

In a nutshell, Barth’s position consists in a dual negation, both ‘Nicht-Revolution!’ and ‘Nicht-Legitimität!’ (RII 477). Barth admits that his commentary has little to say against the politically conservative notion of legitimation; after all, Barth’s readers will hardly be tempted to draw conclusions about the legitimacy of the political status quo! The real danger, he thinks, is that his ‘emphatic insistence’ on negation will be misunderstood as a call to some ‘positive method of human behaviour’, a means of self-justification through ‘the Titanism of revolt and upheaval and renovation’ (RII 478).

Paul’s injunction to ‘overcome evil with good’ demands a refusal of any action in relation to worldly power. The overcoming of evil takes the form of a complete cessation of every human triumph. ‘And how can this be represented except by some strange not-doing [Nicht-Handeln] precisely at the point where human beings feel most powerfully called to action?’ (RII 481). The real vocation of political subjects is to bear witness to the action of God. Such witness is a self-effacing act, a penitent turning-away from their own ‘justifiable action’. It is in ‘not-doing’ that the human turns back to the apocalypse of divine action; in not-doing, one makes way for the righteousness of God, refusing to grasp at any human righteousness.

Subjection to the ruling powers (Rom 13:1), therefore, is a ‘purely negative’ act: ‘It means to withdraw and make way; it means to have no resentment, and not to overthrow’ (RII 481). This refusal to act on God’s behalf is itself the most devastating criticism of the social order in its entirety. It is a sheer refusal to entertain the worldly powers’ pretensions to an immanent legitimacy, and it is likewise a deprivation of the ‘pathos’ by which these powers perpetually nourish their own sense of importance. To be in subjection to the rulers is an act ‘void of purpose’, an act which springs solely from obedience to God as human beings leave room for God’s own righteous judgment (RII 483-84).

Where the first Römerbrief had insisted that Christians should find themselves on ‘the extreme left’ of the political spectrum (RI 508), by the second edition Barth is thus able to accept – though still himself a socialist – that it is largely irrelevant whether believers lean towards the political left or right, as long as neither position is taken with any final seriousness, and as long as both are understood as having nothing to do with the righteousness of God. Christian radicalism and Christian conservatism are alike resolved into the single posture of ‘the not-doing of our relationship to God’ (RII 489).


Jacob Taubes seeks to follow the broad lines of Barth’s ‘ingenious’ (PT 52) interpretation of Romans 13. The problem with most readings of the passage, Taubes notes, is that they fixate on the topic of obedience to worldly authority instead of grasping the text’s underlying apocalyptic logic. ‘If you stare at the topic of authority as if it were a predator, then it’s hard to see how to get out of there’ (PT 52). The real point of Romans 13 is to raise the question, ‘In what epoch are we living, what sort of present time is this’ (PT 53)? Paul’s answer is stark and arresting: ‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than we became believers’ (Rom 13:11).

For Taubes, then, Romans 13 functions in the same way as Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: ‘from now on, let those who have wives be as though [hos me] they had none...and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor 7:29-31). Now that God has acted, all natural and social ties are completely relativised. Walter Benjamin’s proposal that the task of politics is to strive nihilistically for the world’s ‘total passing away’ is, for Taubes, a profound insight into Paul’s political vision. Paul is ‘nihilistic’ because he has seen the reality of God. ‘This is why you can’t make Lutheran deals with Romans 13, unless you give up the entire frame...Here we have a nihilistic view of the world, and concretely of the Roman Empire’ (PT 72).

Taubes recognizes that such apocalypticism is not ‘political’ in the usual sense of the term. Apocalyptic expectation ‘does not refer in the first instance, or exclusively, to the existing social order.’ It is ‘at first not concerned with changing the structure of society’, nor is it revolutionary, since it knows nothing of ‘replacing an existing society with a better one’ (OE 9). The Pauline community represents a new form of ‘pneumatic’ collective. All members of this community ‘have severed...their natural, organic allegiances’, so that they are bound together solely by the ‘inorganic’ life of the spirit (OE 64). Such a collective thus represents not an alternative form of society alongside others, but an alternative to society as such. It is the instantiation of a ‘new creation’ (Gal 6:15) in which the present order as a totality is set aside by the action of God.


In the same way, Taubes’ reading of Paul stresses that the continuing submission of believers to the law is a sign not of law’s continuing significance, but of its redundancy and ultimate powerlessness. Jewish Christians are to keep the law only because it is part of the fashion of this world which is passing away. Submission to law shows that the believer relies solely on the apocalypse of God in Christ. ‘As it is the task of Christ on his return finally to dispose of this world, a world which is already passing away, the believer should not act on his own authority to bring about [vorgreifen] the eschatological events and suspend the old order of things’ (OE 68). Paul’s injunction for each to ‘remain in the condition in which you were called’ (1 Cor 7:20) reflects this apocalyptic logic. At the same time, Gentile believers must resist law-observance at any cost; for them, submission to the law would be a rejection of Christ (OE 68). Thus law-observance by Jewish Christians and non-observance by Gentile Christians are alike founded on the same conviction: that nomos is the foundation of an old world that is passing away. One might sum up Taubes’ view in the Pauline formulation: neither observance nor non-observance counts for anything, what counts is a new creation.

In Taubes’ reading, Paul turns the law on its head, producing a ‘transvaluation’ of all worldly values. Christ’s death is the dissolution of law – or rather, it is the total relativisation of law under the light of God’s advent. ‘It wasn’t nomos but rather the one who was nailed to the cross by nomos who is the imperator!’ Compared to this insight, Taubes says, ‘all the little revolutionaries are nothing’ (PT 24). The crucified messiah is ‘a total and monstrous inversion of the values of Roman and Jewish thought’; this inversion represents ‘the inner logic of the messianic’ (PT 10). It is for this reason that Taubes regards Paul as the quintessentially Jewish thinker, the architect of a messianic politics. The point here is not that the messianic community embodies lawlessness: after all, Paul still commends observance to Jews just as he commends non-observance to Gentile believers. The messianic community is founded on a different principle altogether. It is generated negatively, one might say, by its sheer lack of any worldly legitimation. It is sustained not by anything in this world, since it lives from the other side of the end of time.

It is true that this militant critique of nomos owes more to Walter Benjamin than to Barth. Barth himself retains a positive doctrine of the dialectic between law and gospel – a law that remains operative precisely by being fulfilled. But Taubes’ interpretation does, I think, stand in broad continuity with the apocalyptic vision of Barth’s Römerbrief. Law represents demarcation and division; it draws lines within communities, nations, states and peoples. It forms and orders the world according to a system of antitheses – most fundamentally, the antithesis between Jew and Gentile. The problem with such divisions is not that they have been drawn in the wrong place (so that one could simply make the appropriate adjustments), but that they are rendered meaningless by reference to the real antithesis between God and world. Where the righteousness of God stands over the world, the entire structuring logic of nomos is obliterated – not necessarily because it is inherently blameworthy, but because its time has passed. To cling to the law while standing under the righteousness of God is like trying to retain your shadow in the midst of a solar eclipse. God’s righteousness dissolves the law not because it is against law but because it is infinitely more than law; it is an annihilating fulfilment.


For all his indebtedness to Barth, Taubes nevertheless subjects Barth’s theology to a Pauline critique – not so much for the content of Barth’s thought as for the bare fact that it is theology. Even though Barth wants to recover Paul’s apocalypticism, Taubes argues that a theological ‘abyss’ (CN 270) separates Barth from Paul. For Paul, the old age has already passed away, the time of the messiah is already upon us. Barth’s theology, by contrast, ‘unwittingly reveals the crisis of Christian theology in a world that does not pass away’ (CN 272).

The Christian movement was founded by an event that was understood to be cosmic and apocalyptic in its significance: the death of Christ destroys the present evil age and brings about a new creation. The mere fact of writing a theology testifies to the disappearance of this apocalyptic imagination. The world did not end as expected; the church resolved this problem by assuming its own institutional legitimacy, its position as one of the powers of the current age. Theology’s entire history is thus tragic, Taubes argues, since the establishment of a Christian tradition necessarily erases the footprints of its own apocalyptic origins. Taubes views Barth’s dogmatics as a particularly impressive symptom of this malaise. Having deftly sidestepped the history of theology in order to glimpse the world-negating apocalyptic vision of Paul, Barth later retreats back into the safety of the Christian tradition:
‘No religion can have the luxury of theology without paying a price for it...The history of the development of Christian theology is a tragic history because there is no “solution” to the conflict between eschatological symbols and the brute fact of a continuing history. One may admire the achievement of theology but at the same time be aware of the price involved in such an achievement’ (CC 196-7).

In a remarkable text from 1954, Taubes thus predicts that the Christian tradition will eventually domesticate even the wild apocalyptic energy of Barth’s Römerbrief. In order to assume a place among the powers of this world, the church produces its own self-justifying and self-legitimating tradition. More than anyone else, Barth has exposed the fact that the church denies its own proclamation when it becomes ‘a part of the powers and principalities that rule the world here and now’ (CN 272). But theology is no match for the church. Barth’s fate, Taubes predicts, will be his ultimate absorption into the self-justifying apparatus of the Christian tradition; he is doomed to become a ‘classic’ figure of that very tradition whose legitimacy he strove so hard to negate. Here Taubes compares Barth’s political theology to the fate of Augustine. In the City of God, Augustine set the power and virtue of the Roman empire against the righteousness of the heavenly city. Augustine was ‘the “nihilistic” critic of Roman virtue’ (CN 270), but his thought was soon absorbed into the fabric of churchly tradition, becoming a theoretical underpinning for the ideal of a Christian civilisation. His ‘nihilistic’ critique of Rome was translated into an invincible legitimation not only of empire but of a holy Roman empire, a worldly power directly authorised by God. And so Taubes asks: ‘Is it too bold to imagine that Barth’s theologico-political tracts might have a similar destiny, finding their place on the shelf of “Great Books” of a Western civilisation that Barth has constantly rejected?’ Might Barth in the end share ‘the tragi-comical fate’ of Augustine’s City of God (CN 272)?


Whatever one might think of these criticisms, one can scarcely deny that Taubes’ remarks have proved to be uncannily prescient. Barth’s work is widely read today as a sort of theological classic, a particularly impressive achievement within the larger trajectory of a Christian intellectual tradition whose basic legitimacy is taken for granted. Indeed, Taubes’ half-joking prediction that Barth would become one of the ‘Great Books’ of western civilisation has been fulfilled in the most remarkably literal way: in 1990, Barth was included in a new volume of Encyclopedia Britannica’s series of the Great Books of the Western World. Barth’s apocalypticism is thus celebrated as a cherished contribution to the ongoing project of western intellectual tradition. Things are not much better in the current discipline of theology, where Barth’s thought is routinely invoked as a self-legitimating standard of orthodoxy; while many of us – young scholars like myself especially – are tempted to turn Barth’s work into the fodder of cultural respectability in the form of academic publishing and the careerism that drives it. In short, Taubes challenges us to consider whether Barth’s theology – including his critique of worldly power! – might not itself be undergoing a hideous metamorphosis into one of those very principalities and powers by which the interests of the status quo are protected over against the righteousness of God.

But even if there is good cause for reserve about the contemporary use of Barth’s theology, it’s also true that his work retains the seeds by which its own cultural legacy might yet be subverted. After all, Barth’s theology strikes continually at the church’s pretensions to institutional self-justification, what Donald MacKinnon has called the ‘ecclesiological fundamentalism’ by which the mere existence of the church is equated with its divine authorisation. Just as Taubes’ messianic vision issues in a ‘nihilistic politics’, so Barth testifies to what might be described as ecclesiological nihilism – a refusal to see the church as one of the powers of the world, or to view the church immanently, apart from its relationship to the coming kingdom of God.

The apocalypticism of the early Barth continues to animate the dogmatics, not least in the motif that the church is defined solely by witness. The church’s kenotic vocation is to witness to a divine act that remains absolutely distinct from the church itself. One of the most remarkable features of Barth’s prolegomena to Church Dogmatics – though it tends to attract little attention – is the denunciation of both Catholicism on the right hand and Protestantism on the left. Far from looking to the self-validating practices and beliefs of any specific Christian community, Barth begins by insisting that the church as such – in both its great western traditions – is part of the world’s rejection of revelation. The problem, Barth argues, is that these traditions have succumbed to the arrogant illusion that the church stands ‘in an immediate relationship to the direct, absolute and material authority of God’. Both the Catholic and the liberal Protestant are thus always ‘on the way to a pantheistic identification of Church and revelation’; their assumed legitimacy is a flight from the righteousness of God. In this way the church itself becomes another demonic principality, ‘a representative, like all other worldly constructs, of the darkness in which the world will necessarily lie if God has not been revealed’ (CD I/2, 544-45). To live by the righteousness of God is to live solely by the vocation of witness. Whenever the church bears witness to God, it brings charges against itself. Its witness to divine action is simultaneously an acknowledgment of its own absolute poverty.

For Barth, therefore, the church possesses no security in the world. It has no proper work to do in the world, only that ‘peculiar not-doing’ (RII 481) which is encapsulated in the concept of witness. It exists ‘between the times’, a refugee with no proper place in the world. Its existence (in so far as it exists at all) is altogether contingent, unnecessary, gratuitous – upheld by an anarchic, unprincipled grace.

According to Taubes’ political stance, we are to ignore the powers of the world and instead to ‘engage with all the questions and afflictions which are left by the established order of the world,’ thus taking the side of ‘those who are cast out and despised’ (OE 39). The principalities’ and powers’ triumphant march through the world leaves behind an unsightly trail of refuse. It is this useless remainder that forms the site of a messianic politics. In the same way, for Barth the church’s peculiar existence stems from the fact that it is ‘left over’ in the world, that it has no proper place or work in the world, no nomos that could bind it to the world, nothing except the hopelessly vulnerable and superfluous gesture of witness.

If Christian theology is to be undertaken at all – Taubes is, I think, right about this – it can only be as an expression of this appalling superfluity, a confession that the church is not essential to the world but is something ‘left over’. The genius of Karl Barth lies in the fact that he perceived this clearly, yet went on writing church dogmatics all the same – not in order to make the church stronger, but to show that the church has nothing in the world except its witness to the righteousness of God.


ACS: Jacob Taubes, Ad Carl Schmitt: Gegenstrebige Fügung (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 1987).

CC: Jacob Taubes, From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, ed. Charlotte E. Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)

CD: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark 2009)

CN: Jacob Taubes, ‘Christian Nihilism’ (review of Karl Barth, Against the Stream), in Commentary 18 (September 1954), 269-72.

Gould: Joshua Robert Gould, ‘Jacob Taubes: “Apocalypse from Below”’, Telos 134 (2006), 140-56.

OE: Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

PT: Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004)

RI: Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief (erste Fassung): 1919 (Zurich: TVZ, 1985)

RII: Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans [1922], trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933)

Response - Sovereign is He Who Does Not?: Or, Barth Against Bartleby by way of Carl Schmitt
By Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman

Taubes’s Barth is the theologian of krisis who sets off the bomb on the playground of his liberal fellows. For Taubes the Barth of the Römerbrief is nothing less than the Paul of Romans redivivus. He reads Romans II as, and for the purposes of retrieving an apocalyptic politics and reviving a messianic ethics. Romans II thus becomes the megaphone through which Taubes amplifies his own Paulinist “Nein! ” to modern Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians alike too easily accept a comfortable cultural synthesis (Kirchentum-Deutschtum-Judentum). Against such bürgerlich ethical monotheism Taubes opposes Barth’s radical rereading of Romans 13. Barth reads chapter 13 is an extension of, rather than an exception to Romans 12. For him, “The rulers are a subset of the wider class of ‘evil’ and ‘enemies’ (12:20-21)” (2). Romans 13 is longer a programmatic summary of political obeisance as in the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. “Subjection” to the lawful rulers now becomes subversion of the law’s rule. Subjection subverts by no longer taking the present political order with “any final seriousness” (3). Such subversion via subjection takes the form of a double negation: “Nicht-Legitimität” and “Nicht-Revolution,” (RII 477). And this double-not issues in a third: “Nicht-Handeln” (RII 481). Neither legitimization nor revolution; only non-action. This threefold not is what Taubes calls Barth’s “political nihilism,” his “Great Negative Possibility” of “not-doing” (RII 477).

Myers accepts Taubes’s account of Barth’s political nihilism more or less at face value, demurring only by saying that his Taubes’s own critical messianism “owes to Walter Benjamin than to Barth” (4). He therefore claims that, “Paul’s injunction to ‘overcome evil with good’ demands a refusal of any action in relation to worldly power” (2). Myers marvels at Taubes’s “uncannily prescient” prediction of Barth’s “hideous metamorphosis” into a classic of the Christian tradition and a great book of Western civilization (6). This, for Myers, is the real danger. “Ecclesial fundamentalism” rather than political activism is the contemporary temptation to “titanism.” Taubes’s nihilistic reading of Barth thus provides Myers with a cautionary tale against orthodoxy and virtue as forms of cultural respectability or worldly power. He therefore commends a further “ecclesiological nihilism” (6). Doctrine and congregation can only be a placeless remainder, a superfluous witness. He surmises, “The genius of Karl Barth lies in the fact that he perceived this clearly, yet went on writing church dogmatics all the same” (7). With this the author of Barmen becomes a theological Bartleby, the scrivener of Basel who sits in his study blithely penning dogmatics while the children of Israel are firing the furnaces of Auschwitz. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Eberhard Busch has shown, from the earliest pre-Barmen days to the last days of the Final Solution Barth busied himself resisting the Nazis and rescuing Jews. Myers’s nihilistic conclusions are untenable. They can account for neither the not-doing discussed by Paul nor that done by Barth. The great negative possibility of not-doing must be explained otherwise.

Myers fails to take notice of just what the “not-doing” of Romans 12-13 is and does. Romans 12 reprises the Sermon on the Mount and reiterates its command to love the enemy. This is a particular theopolitical not-doing: not harming enemies and not doing evil in order to do good. This new commandment suspends the primordial nomos of natural sociability: help friends, harm enemies. As Taubes realizes, Jesus of Nazareth is Christos Kurios and his nomos of love for enemies is nothing short of a declaration of war against the imperium of Rome and the sovereignty of every Caesar who follows (PT, 13). The theological suspension of the law’s rule necessarily is a political subversion of lawful rulers, a point not lost on Carl Schmitt. For Schmitt, as for Taubes, the friend-enemy distinction thus defines “the political” itself and determines the course of politics (CP, 7). Political sovereignty is the power to consolidate the nation-state (Volkstaat) through the friend-enemy distinction and the state of exception. As the first sentence of Schmitt’s own Political Theology announces, “Sovereign is he who decides the state of exception” (PT, 5). Sovereignty not only is the power to promulgate but also to suspend the law, in extremis to declare war. War is the ultima ratio of the political. As Charles Tilly grimly remarks, “War makes the stat and the state makes war.” Sovereignty is nothing other than the state’s decisionist power to declare the exception, “to demand from its own members the readiness to die and unhesitatingly to kill enemies” (CP, 46). This precludes the Christian command to love the enemy from any application within the realm of the political (CP, 28-29). Christians can love their personal inimicus, but not their political hostis. There can be no love for enemies of state.

Despite this Myers neither considers the friend-enemy distinction nor confronts the state of exception, even where Barth himself does. That Schmitt’s Political Theology is determinative for Taubes’s is mentioned only in passing as part of Myers’s introduction. And Barth’s own treatment of these themes in “The Protection of Life” (CD III/4 §55.2) is not mentioned at all. There Barth considers the permissibility of killing. He makes the case for so-called presumptive pacifism, which “has almost infinite arguments in its favor and is almost overpoweringly strong” (CD, 455). But there he also makes explicit concessions to the state of exception, first for high treason and tyrannicide and then for war itself. The environing conditions within which these three types of killing become permissible are those of the Schmittian exception. For treason and tyrannicide, “What must be at stake in these cases is not the state in its stable and peaceful form, but the state convulsed and attacked and therefore in serious difficulties. It must be a question of absolute emergency when not just the bene esse but the very esse of the state and its members is at issue” (CD, 446-447). For war, “”[The possibility of Christian support] rests on the assumption that the conduct of one state or nation can throw another into the wholly abnormal situation of emergency in which not merely its greater or lesser prosperity but its very existence and autonomy are menaced and attacked” (CD, 461). Despite the strength of presumptive nonviolence Barth not only allows for the exception in general, albeit on the strictest terms of divine command. He further argues that it would apply specifically to “any attack on the independence, neutrality and territorial integrity of the Swiss Confederation” (CD, 462). While Barth refuses any freestanding Volksrecht of blood or soil, he does not reject the exception or the friend-enemy distinction absolutely.

What matters most in Taubes’s reading of Barth is not his caution against the theological self-legitimization of orthodoxy, no matter how prescient or pressing that criticism may seem. Far more important is that he raises the issue of the political itself as a theological problem. Taubes’s political theology challenges Barth’s view that the exercise of lethal power is an opus alienum of the state. He reveals that the modern state-form institutionalizes violence and is an institution of violence. Taubes reopens the possibility and necessity of political theology. Theological existence today is political theological existence. Christological counter-sovereignty is neither political nor ecclesiological nihilism. Apocalyptic rejection of political radicalism and violent revolution thus is not messianic quietism. Rather it is what John Howard Yoder calls God’s “original revolution.” The originally revolutionary not-doing of Paul is the refusal to return evil for evil. It is antinomian love even the enemy of the state. Paradigmatically it is the not-doing of the Messiah himself whose crucifixion according to the law is the un-doing of the law itself, even the law of sin and death which cannot but culminate in the state’s god-like command to die and to kill.


CD Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (T&T Clark, 1961)

CP Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (University of Chicago Press, 1996)

PT Carl Schmitt, Political Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1985)

PTP Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford University Press, 2004)

RII Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1968)

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Andrew Esqueda said...

Thank you both for these excellent posts.

As Ben stated, Taubes was indebted to Carl Schmitt, but I am wondering if Barth was influence by Schmitt at all?

I know they were contemporaries, but don't know to what extent they interacted - if at all.

christiancollinswinn said...

I echo Andrew in offering thanks to both of you for these excellent posts.

My question is primarily for Ben. I wonder if you could talk a little more about whay you mean by "ecclesiological nihilism"? It strikes me that you might be using this in a hyperbolic sense, but I just wanted to know. Part of my question probably revolves around what we mean by "nihlism" which is a term that can have such an extraordinary negative connotation. But I could see, when placed in a properly theological context, how that term could function positively. In other words, it seems like a great deal of difference to claim that the apolcaypse of Jesus radically dissolves, while simultaneously reconsituting the world and the powers, in which case they are given a relative value (I take this to be Barth's argument both in Romans and beyond, in regard to a whole host of phenomena, not the least of which is 'religion'); verses what might be described as a "flushing down the toilet" of the church tout court, which the phrase "ecclesiological nihilism" might connote. Which are you after?

On a different angle, I'm starting to wonder if the apocalyptic gesture of God's revelation does not find its ontological basis in the trinitarian relations in terms of the "not" that holds between the three. That is, the Father is not the Son, not the Spirit, and so forth. This "notness" is the gap that simultaneously allows for "otherness" while also constituting that otherness in its own integrity.

This last musing is coming out of the apocalyptic and theology discussion at AAR and the comment by Boesel about rooting apocalyptic in the triune God. I've been wanting to dicuss it with you, Nate, Ry, Halden, etc.

PAD said...

Ben and Derek -- Thanks for this.

DWL -- connecting Schmitt and Barth on war, tyrranicide, and reason in the state of exception is really interesting.