The Love of Christ vs. the "Leap of Faith": Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

A few weeks ago, I offered an introductory post on Karl Barth's fascinating little book on Calvin's Geneva Catechism.
Tandem in freefall, over Chicagoland, by Douglas S. Smith
(Public domain. Courtesy
The genre is a little misleading, as is often the case in Barth's works of historical theology: The catechism often seems more like a convenient vehicle for Barth to articulate own critical and constructive commitments rather than simply an object of historical interest in its own right. We find this early in the text, where Barth offers a critical gloss on Questions 13-14. The topic: How do we attain certainty that God loves us?

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, Barth highlights the Christocentric focus of Calvin's answers, and spurns an abstract approach rooted in natural theology:

Calvin clearly indicates the origin of our knowledge of God's love. Note well: it is not a question of a general and abstract and philosophical knowledge, not a question of a treatise on the love of God in nature or on love in general; all this, all these abstract ideas are a piece of paper, a great noise, only ideas. The Gospel, on the contrary, tells us about realities (p. 37).

Along with this goes Barth's characteristic actualism:

The task of theological reflection and of preaching does not begin at all with abstract ideas, but with the reality of God's action. The love of God is not an abstract quality of God's; it is an act: God takes to heart our misery (ibid.)

Still, Barth notes, human reason and philosophy naturally resist this direct confrontation with divine love in Christ. Perhaps God's love can be conceived as a general phenomenon, or as an ideal that Jesus instantiates paradigmatically? Barth insists, rather:

For Calvin, on the contrary, Jesus Christ holds a central position. There is not an "essence" of God's love that one could know as such, and then a "manifestation" of such a love whose eminent representative is Jesus Christ. No distinction is made between the principle and the person, between the message and the messenger. Jesus Christ is what he brings forth. (p. 38, italics in original).

Finally, Barth never misses a chance to slam an existentialist emphasis on trust in God as a experiential leap of faith; nor is he warm to the notion of the cool-headed and rational Pascalian wager. He adds these additional remarks on the the theme of "the authority of the Word":

To "trust" in God is not taking a chance, leaping into the darkness, or gambling and betting. For the Word of God is the very revelation of God, and the revelation of God is the demonstration of God. On the basis of that demonstration we have this "trust" -- a "trust" that is not out of whimsey but an act of true wisdom (p. 39).


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