Friday, December 02, 2016

Solus Christus: Once Again with Barth at Bremen

And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up on the mountain alone to pray. Now when evening came, he was alone there (Matt. 14:23).

Heinrich Himler, Hitler, and Victor Lutze perform
the Nazi salute at the Nuremberg rally, September 1934.
(From German federal archives, via Wikimedia Commons
What are the practical implications of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus? In his Bremen sermon of 1934, Karl Barth depicts the church as the sphere of Christ's sovereignty and of the believer's obedience to him. As he probes the passage further he asks: Is this situation unique to the church or is it duplicated elsewhere -- that is to say, in the civic and secular world?

The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, trans. Chrisopher Asprey, ed. Kurt I. Johanson (Regent College, 2007). Fürchte Dich nicht! Predigten aus den Jahren 1934 bis 1948 (Munich, Germany: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1949), pp. 18-31)

Indeed, there are hierarchies in the outside world, there are powers that be, there are laws, and there is submission to them. Why is Christian discipleship different from all that? What -- or who -- guarantees that the way of obedience in the Christian life is a path of freedom rather than an oppressive and dehumanizing servitude? For Barth, it is a question of identity, of whose we are.
It is not because of the people in the church, or their state of mind, or the way they act, but because of the one who is sovereign (der Herr) in the church and sovereign over these people (p. 47).
The passage, for Barth, hinges upon the adverb "alone" (allein): Jesus was alone on the mountain.
In the gospels we often read about Jesus Christ being alone like this. And whenever we read about it, it is an indication of that Jesus is the one who is always utterly alone (der immer, der ganz und gar allein); and indeed, he is alone, alone in the way that God alone is.
The power and diginity of leaders points to something beyond them; it signifies. Not so with Christ: "Jesus doesn't signify (deutet). He is (ibid.)." For Barth, Jesus' power is neither primarily charismatic nor institutional. Rather, it is Christological -- it is grounded in his identity as the Son of God incarnate, fully divine and fully human. In this identity, he is alone -- sui generis. Moreover, his action of prayer is unique, not because of some potent religious quality that resides within him, but simply because of who he is.

This high Christology is vintage Barth, of course. No surprises here. But what is the import of this teaching in the context of pre-war Germany, just months after the National Socialists had come to power?
We talk of a sovereignty (Herrshaft), a command (Gefehl), an obedience (Gehorsam), a willingness and allegiance (Gefolgshaft) unlike any other. When Jesus rules God rules. When God rules Jesus rules. That is why this sovereignty is quite unlike any other sovereignty, and why there is no other obedience on earth like this one (p. 48, emphases mine)
These words naturally point the listener and reader back to the first article of the Barmen Declaration, adopted by the Confessing Church the previous year:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
It's little wonder that the one who spoke these words would soon be forced to vacate his position as a university professor and civil servant under the Third Reich.

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