2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 5

Reading Romans 1:3-4 Axiomatically: Karl Barth’s Resurrection Exegesis

By Nathan Hitchcock

Time has shown that there are many ways of approaching Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans – and precious few that take him seriously as a biblical exegete. There is the possibility, however, of understanding him as a genuine commentator even while recognizing his crucial theological foci. In this vein I want to contend that he interprets Romans 1:3-4 axiomatically, as the interpretive center of the epistle, and that the resurrection of the dead (which is axiomatic in speaking of God) governs the dialectical activity in all of 2Ro. God’s gloriously disruptive gospel is that which concerns “His Son, born out of David’s line according to the flesh, and powerfully appointed the Son of God according to the Holy Spirit through His resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” For Barth these verses ground and guide the content of the epistle.

The present essay starts with a historical-biographical argument for this inquiry, showing how Barth, at the same time he is writing 2Ro, makes the resurrection of the dead the interpretive center of 1 Corinthians, and that the crosspollination of 2Ro and RD is evident. Next, by diagramming the text of Romans 1:3-4, I want to draw out what Barth was seeing, viz., a Pauline statement about the forceful sublation inherent in revelation. Some exegetical observations will make clear how Barth understood the resurrection axiom to set the stage for 2Ro.

The Interpretive Center of 2Ro and RD

Much of Barth’s work in the 1920s was a search for the heart of the text. Disenchanted by the degeneration of pietism and Neo-Protestantism, and having rediscovered for himself the strange, new world of the Bible, he longed to hear the scriptures speak out of their alien power, out of their from-Godness. Reading the scriptures meant for Barth a discerning of the Sache, the subject matter. He sought neither to extract the kernel of truth from its husk, nor to isolate an abstract principle by which the epistle’s actual content could be weighed as valid or not. Instead Barth believed in the discovery of a theme, a red thread, a sustaining note ringing throughout the text. To detect this is to detect the gospel itself. Moreover, while all scripture is God-breathed, sometimes the subject matter is especially close to the surface in a particular verse or chapter.

The most outstanding example of an axiomatic passage is found in Barth’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians. Here the fifteenth chapter is not arcane speculation on revivification. Rather, “[t]he ideas developed in I Cor. xv. could be better described as the methodology of the apostle’s preaching, rather than eschatology, because it is really concerned not with this and that special thing, but with the meaning and nerve of its whole, with the whence? and the whither? of the human way as such and in itself” (RD, 109). The entire epistle is an outworking of ethical and doctrinal matters in light of the radical reconstruction effected by God’s world crossing into ours. We – our lives, thoughts and capacities – are the dead, and God is the resurrection. But the Bible speaks of the resurrection of the dead: having encountered Him in revelation, believers are the dead who nonetheless live in God.

While Barth’s class lectures of 1923 were published as RD in 1924, a resurrectocentric approach to reading scripture was operative several years earlier. In November 1919, a startled Barth wrote to Eduard Thurneysen about his study on 1 Corinthians 15, saying, “The chapter is the key to the whole letter . . . and out of its last wisdom comes disclosures about this and that, striking several of us lately like pulses from an electric ray.”[2] Soon after, he was so bold as to call resurrection “the common theme” of the Bible, the word “which occupies the central point of importance in the New Testament . . . the word that contains in itself what the whole of Christianity really is.”[3] And were it not for some incompleteness in his notes, Barth indicated he would have lectured on the resurrection of the dead– “the presupposition [Voraussetzung] of Christian theology” – even earlier in his professorship at Göttingen.[4] All this to say, the thought of resurrection-as-presupposition culminated at the same time as Barth’s writing of 2Ro, which was prepared from 1919 to 1921 and published in 1922.

Textually this can be seen in the overflow of RD’s thoughts into 2Ro. At times one wonders if Barth is saying that 1 Corinthians 15:50 – “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” – is the thesis verse of Romans![5] Reciprocally, at the crux of Barth’s argument in RD is a thorough correlation with the sub-themes of the book of Romans (RD, 118-9). There are patent differences between 2Ro and RD, but these are attributable to a shift in genre, from expressionistic commentary to more lecture-friendly prose. Their thematic-methodological center is one and the same.

Still, the fact being that Paul’s letter to Rome did not come with the Corinthian letter attached to it, one would expect to find a specific epicenter in each, laying out the same axiom. I suggest that one does, at least according to Barth’s commentating.

Exegeting Romans 1:3-4 with Barth

Of course, resurrection appears as an important idea in Romans at several junctures (4:16-25; 5:9-11; 6:1-11; 8:9-11; 8:18-25). But in 2Ro Barth calls attention to the resurrection right away, in Romans 1:3-4, insinuating that it structures Paul’s thought from the very fore. Easter (conceived as a consistent eschatological event) is the miraculous frontier of all contact between heaven and earth: “The Resurrection from the dead is . . . the transformation: the establishing or declaration of that point from above, and the corresponding discerning of it from below” (2Ro, 30). There is a hard distinction between God’s world and our own made by the resurrection even as it transformationally connects the two.

How Barth arrives at this delineation and unity is derived from the text itself. He is more attentive than most exegetes to the parallelism of the verses, which I have diagrammed below in the Greek and a fairly literal English translation.

A tou huiou autou

B tou genomenou

C ek spermatos Dauid

D kata sarka,

B' tou horisthentos hoiou theou en dunamei

D' kata pneuma hagiōsunēs

C' ex anastaseōs nekrōn

A' Iēsou Christou tou kuriou hēmōn

A His Son,

B who came

C from the seed of David

D according to the flesh,

B' who was appointed the Son of God in power

D' according to the Spirit of holiness

C' from the resurrection of the dead,

A' Jesus Christ our Lord

Barth’s fresh translation of the Greek into German (2Rö, 3) shows, I think, greater attentiveness to this layout than what is conveyed in most translations, including the one substituted by Hoskyns in the English version.[6]

A seinem Sohn,

B geboren

C aus Davids Geschlecht

D nach dem Fleisch,

B' kräftig eingesetzt als Sohn Gottes

D' nach dem Heiligen Geist

C' durch seine Auferstehung von den Toten,

A' von Jesus Christus unserm Herrn

Which can be translated back into English as:

A His Son,

B born

C out of David’s line

D according to the flesh,

B' powerfully installed as the Son of God

D' according to the Holy Spirit

C' through His resurrection of the dead,

A' Jesus Christ our Lord

The first noteworthy thing in these verses is the singularity expressed. Everything said here is held together by a single person. Barth brackets out these verses under the name of Jesus Christ, who is the content of the gospel, for “[i]n this name two worlds meet and go apart” (2Ro, 29). This singularity is called for by the text, since A and A' form an inclusio. For all of the iconoclastic negativity with which readers are battered in 2Ro, Barth’s key assertion is positive and unitary: God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. He is risen! – meaning this selfsame man from the fleshly line of David, the Son of God – this One. By extension this suggests another singularity, that we who are caught up in the one revelation of God remain ourselves (indeed, can only be our true selves) in the grace of God.

Nevertheless, Barth’s translation makes sure to point out the contrast between the two worlds, the differentiation precipitated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life in the Spirit is a powerful (kräftig) installation, and so stands out in bold relief against Jesus’ identity as the (ohnmächtig?) seed of David, which, for all its religiosity, is earthly, inglorious, limited, sinful, characterized by death. It is kata sarka, the visible world known to us, whereas the invisible world, kata pneuma, is that Primal Origin which is unknown even in its being made known. The resurrection creates and facilitates this diastasis. The two worlds cannot be conflated.

Third, and most importantly, Barth finds here a radical transformation in the event of revelation. Observe how much Barth reads out of horisthentos (B'). His translation and use of the verb suggest an elevation, a re-positioning of Jesus through the resurrection. He is “appointed,” “installed,” “ordained,” “raised up to prominence.” This is surprising at first, since Barth goes on to speak of the resurrection mostly in the noetic, revelational, seemingly non-ontological sense (“declared”). Something more is afoot. Jesus’ crossing from Good Friday to Easter is an active transposition of that which is flesh as it meets the frontier of death, which by grace is also the frontier of the Spirit. For us the revelation of God means that our religious, historical-psychological human lives must be “dissolved” [aufhebt] and “established” [begründet] in God.[7] It seems to me that Barth is using einsetzen as a kind of composite synonym for the aufheben/begründen pair. We in all our worldliness are dismantled and taken up – appointed – by the grace of God. The limitations of the English language are most apparent with the verb aufheben, the semantic range of which leads to renderings like “to dissolve” or “to abolish.” A better, precise reproduction would be the technical “to sublate.”[8] The crisis Barth has in mind is not supposed to result in an extinction of the historical. Sublation is not an obliteration, but a “taking up” of the negated object into a higher synthesis in which the negated thing is not lost. This is why Barth keeps the positional sense of horisthentos: because resurrection is an active election by God in which He conquers the world of the flesh in order to reconstitute it divinely. This sublation is utter miracle, total paradox. It means we are what we are not. It means the knowledge of the unknown God. It means justified sinners. It means the resurrection of the dead.

A final observation is that the whole process is resurrection-facilitated. Barth identifies the resurrection of the dead as nothing less than the linchpin of all human knowing and being. The human world and God’s world touch only at the frontier it patrols. Barth’s translation calls attention to this. Notice how he treats the preposition of C', ex, as the Greek dia, translating it “through” (durch). The resurrection is the pivotal instrumental power by which the human Jesus is appointed and presented to us as the Son of God. And it is the event by which we as human recipients are negated and re-posited on a new foundation. Breaking the parallelism of C and C' actually underscores the resurrection, setting it apart, making it the arbitrator of the two katas and the whole sublational process. But this emphasis comes at the cost of adding confusion as to whether the resurrection is a predicate of the Son or the Spirit. Just whose resurrection is “His” (seine) resurrection? The Son’s or the Spirit’s? And if the both (and ours, for that matter), then how?[9] The risk involved with Barth’s axiom is that it becomes too axiomatic, thereby too generic a concept for Trinitarian dogmatics. But for the Romans commentary it has real utility. The resurrection of the dead offers the possibility of hanging the many Yeses and No’s of God, indeed, all of Paul’s theology, upon a central hinge.


The scope of this essay has not charted how Romans 1:3-4’s formal structure plays out in the rest of 2Ro. Suffice it to say that resurrection-shaped revelation is that which sublates all natural knowledge of God and every pretension of religion; as that by which believers’ forensic status becomes always a iustificatio impii; how ontologically the everlasting life is a disclosure of all that has been dissolved in God; and how, grounded in the resurrection, ethics can only be freedom exercised in the gracious disturbance of the Other. Each of these thrusts are patterned on the miracle of the resurrection, which draws a hard line between our world and God’s even as it makes them touch.

What has been presented more intentionally is that we have every reason to think that Barth wrote 2Ro in the same basic impulse as RD. The resurrection of the dead is a kind of governing method of interpretation for the early Barth, which leads him to identify 1 Corinthians 15 as a kind of skeleton key to its epistle, and, as I’ve argued here, the same is true for Romans 1:3-4 vis-à-vis its own content. The concept in these verses is axiomatic, a foundation and lens through which readers may understand the jarring content of that which follows. I am not arguing that Barth uses these verses as a constant prooftext to buttress his points. He does not. But I am contending that the resurrection of the dead, which pervades his commentary formally and materially, is best encapsulated in these verses.

Such a conclusion extends R. Dale Dawson’s premise that the resurrection is of “radical systematic significance” for Barth’s theological architecture.[10] This study also joins those who are reevaluating him as a serious student of the Bible. Though not without its problems, Barth’s “dialectical” interpretation of Paul’s letter is hardly arbitrary. If Barth has identified the Sache, and if his procedure is grounded in the text itself, there can be little force to his critics’ complaint that his method in 2Ro seems to “hang in the air,” unconditioned by history or psychology. Is that not the point?, Barth retorts. Is not the epistle borne aloft by its own axiom?

[1] For expediency I have opted to abbreviate Barth’s texts. B-Th = Barth-Thurneysen Briefwechsel; 2Rö = Der Römerbrief (1922); 2Ro = The Epistle to the Romans, sixth edition (virtually identical to the second edition); RD = The Resurrection of the Dead; WGWM = The Word of God and the Word of Man; CHS = Come Holy Spirit. Footnotes have also been kept to a minimum, although full references are available from the author upon request.

[2] Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 11 Nov 1919, in B-Th I, 350.

[3] WGWM, 86; CHS, 164-5.

[4] Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 16 Feb 1921, in B-Th I, 469.

[5] More accurately, this verse is the center when paired with its epistemological adjunct, Mt 16:17, that flesh and blood does not reveal the divine incognito (e.g. 2Ro, 98, 102, 181, 281, 290). Or consider how at one point Barth even dares to suggest that 1 Corinthians 15 is the guiding light of Paul’s epistle to the Romans (RD, 5).

[6] 2Ro, 27. Hoskyns generally chooses to use preexisting English translations in the place of a re-translation from Barth’s German (2Ro, xiv-xv), an oversight in this instance.

[7] E.g. 2Ro, 30, 35, 36, 79, 139, 141, 158, 162, 165, 218, 289, 298, 344, 417.

[8] This misleading terminology is Garrett Green’s chief reason for retranslating CD §17 (Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green [London: T&T Clark, 2006], viii-ix. With Hoskyns (2Ro, xiv) I do wonder if the English “dissolve” at least holds the potential of being helpful when understood in its chemical sense, as when a solute is dissolved in a solution, the former preserved (or not?) as it is restructured in the latter.

[9] According to Barth’s rendering, I sense that the main truth of the resurrection is not so much that the Son came out of the realm of the dead but that the Holy Spirit is the One through whom all mortal things are lifted to their Origin. It is His resurrecting of the dead. The resurrection is revelation, which belongs to the activity of the Spirit. But even after Barth’s overcompensating shift to a more Christocentric paradigm and a delineation between the objective basis and subjective basis of revelation, the resurrection remains overly pneumatic and noetic in that the locus of activity is in us. However much it stems from Christ, the resurrection is a manifestation of His eternal-historical being to us; the Holy Spirit is the risen Christ’s prophetic arm stretching out to us, etc.

[10] R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 17.

Response by John Drury

Resurrection is at the heart of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. In his essay, Nathan Hitchcock reminds us of this crucial fact by linking it with the particularities of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4. He claims that this particular passage is axiomatic for 2Ro as a whole.[1] I would like to respond by challenging this central thesis. Although I am in complete agreement with Nathan that the resurrection of the dead is axiomatic for 2Ro, I remain unconvinced that Romans 1:3-4 in particular is axiomatic. Instead, I would suggest that Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 substantiates the larger thesis that resurrection is axiomatic for 2Ro. I believe that Nathan has proven this much, and that this is sufficient for advancing his objectives.

My reason for challenging the axiomatic status of Romans 1:3-4 is that Barth does not explicitly assign it such status, like he does to I Cor. 15 in RD. I welcome Nathan’s historical observation that Barth discovered the axiomatic status of I Cor. 15 in 1919 while working on 2Ro. This observation corroborates the claim that the resurrection of the dead is axiomatic for Barth’s exegesis and dogmatics during this period. I would even add that it is not limited to this earliest period, as Barth advances the same thesis in Phillippians, a publication based on lectures from the Winter semester 1926/27 in Münster, concurrent with the beginning of his second cycle of Dogmatics lectures.[2] All three of these commentaries in their own way advance the thesis that the resurrection of the dead is at the center of the Pauline epistle under investigation. However, 2Ro is more like Philippians inasmuch as each advances this thesis without identifying a particular chapter or verse as axiomatic. RD is unique in this regard. So it seems to me more appropriate to claim that 2Ro shares with RD the axiomatic status of the resurrection of the dead, and that Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 is the first place where this axiom appears in the text.

However, my reframing of Nathan’s thesis is not intended to undermine his insights into the significance of this passage for Barth. First of all, Nathan underlines Barth’s exegetical savvy. Barth shows his attention to detail by translating Romans 1:3-4 in way that highlights the parallelism of the original language. This sort of reading the Bible alongside of Barth helps to overcome the continued prejudice against taking him seriously as an exegete, and has greater potential to yield constructive results than interpreting Barth exclusively as a dogmatic theologian. Secondly, Nathan has shown how the sublationist logic of revelation in 2Ro is intertwined with Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. The dialectic of revelation in Barth’s early period is easily misunderstood when it is abstracted from the embodied dialectic of resurrection. Nathan’s discussion of Barth on the verb horisthentos serves to overcome this common misunderstanding. Thirdly, Nathan rightly identifies the weakness in Barth’s early doctrine of resurrection: that resurrection tends to be a function of revelation, rather than vice versa.[3] Now Nathan and I differ on the extent to which Barth’s later Christocentrism overcomes this problematic tendency.[4] But we concur on the great utility and great danger of Barth’s close identification of resurrection and revelation in 2Ro. If there’s one thing we can learn from Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4, it’s that Jesus Christ in his resurrection by the Holy Spirit is the site of God’s disruptive grasping of his creature, and so Easter is the prototype and model for all God’s gracious dealings with us and our knowledge of him. We ought to keep this in mind as we read Scripture along with and beyond Barth.

[1] I have adopted Nathan’s abbreviations: 2Ro = Romans, 2nd Ed.; RD = Resurrection of the Dead.

[2] Karl Barth, Erklärung des Philipperbriefes (München: C. Kaiser, 1928); ET: The Epistle to the Philippians, translated by James W. Leitch; introductory essays by Bruce L. McCormack & Francis B. Watson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). For the timing of these lectures, see Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 171f.

[3] Probably the clearest instance of Barth’s identification of resurrection and revelation is tangent/circle passage, at the head of which Barth states, “The Resurrection is the revelation,” (2Ro, p. 205).

[4] See footnote 9 of Nathan’s essay for an intimation of his position on the later Barth.



Thanks for drawing out the way in which the pattern of death and resurrection factors into Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1. I think that this pattern is absolutely essential to the question of the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, both in this passage and in general. For now, however, I want to say two things.

First, a question to you – how do you respond to Drury?

Second, a question to Shane – You have said nothing yet of my suggestion that Paul is glossing the early chapters of Genesis in this passage. I’m guessing that you reject this reading, but on what basis would you do so?
Thank you for your thoughtful response, John. I am happy to hear that we share the common conclusion that the resurrection of the dead is a revelatory structure principle for the early Barth.

To echo back: Your objection is that the concept of the resurrection of the dead is the only real axiom in Romans, not Rom 1:3-4 as such. Instead you say it merely “substantiates” the idea of the axiom. This seems fair enough at first blush: Barth does not centralize these verses in the same way he does 1 Cor 15 within its respective book. But I wonder if you’re not looking hard enough beneath the surface. For is it not the case with all possible verses that, being mere words, they cannot be axiomatic per definitionem? Is not even 1 Cor 15 a mere “substantiation” of a dialectical thesis that lies “beyond” the text? To speak of a textual center, then, means that we look for the clearest instance and representation of the axiom.

Literarily speaking, then, what I mean by an “axiom” is a passage that lays out the structural basis with special clarity, and without which the following argumentation would make little or no sense.

You might retort that this could be said of any section on resurrection. But consider how Barth calls special attention to 1:3-4 as presuppositional. When Barth closes out the all-important “The Author to His Readers (1:1-7),” he concludes that the gospel of grace is contained in the message that for us “the Son of man been appointed Son of God through the power of the Resurrection” (31). Then comes an explicit word: “May this presupposition occur ever afresh! May their peace be their disquiet, and their disquiet be their peace! This is beginning, theme, and end, of the Epistle to the Romans” (32). What, John, could Barth be alluding to if not vv. 3-4? And should we not be piqued by Barth’s insistence that these verses in particular lay out the “self-sufficient, unlimited . . . assumption” (36), “the line of intersection between time and eternity” (47), and the “qualification of man” (181) upon which Romans hangs?
JohnLDrury said…

Thanks for your response. I think you clarified for me the nature of your claim. Your retort about how a dialectical structure lies behind 1 Cor 15 is spot on, and that presses me to think through what it means for a particular passage (vs. the idea expressed therein) to be axiomatic. However, the lengths to which Barth goes to explicitly argue that chapter 15 as a text (and not only its content) is the heart of I Corinthians as a whole stands in stark contrast to the brief comments about Roman 1:3-4 as a presuppositional overture to the whole epistle. Provided these differences between RD and Ro2 can be taking into account, I don't see anything wrong in principle with stating that the resurrection-grounded dialectic of revelation comes to its clearest -- and so in some sense axiomatic -- expression in Romans 1:3-4. Such a claim would need to be substantiated by a comparative study of Barth's other sections on the Resurrection in Romans (esp. ch. 4 & 8), to show that 1:3-4 does in fact "lays out the structural basis with special clarity" in a way not found in the others. But I suspect such a reading could be so substantiated. It still sounds to me like a constructive "reading with and beyond" Barth, but alas that is what we should be doing! So I reiterate my kudos to your project despite my piddling.
John, your “piddling” is done in the right area. I’m willing to concede that the idea of an “axiomatic passage” is fuzzy at best – provided that Barth takes his fair share of the blame. He has this uncanny ability of throwing around words like “axiom,” “center,” “presupposition,” somehow claiming they are all compatible.

For example – to indict both him and me – notice how with the first edition Barth toyed with the idea that the pistis theou of 3:3 was “the key to the whole” (see Revolutionary Theology in the Making, 38). But Barth tells Thurneysen in 1921 that the first half of Romans 6 is the “axis on which the whole letter turns” (Ibid., 59), which Thurneysen apparently doesn’t buy into, since later he says that grace, and therefore Rom 1:16-17, is the “great theme” for Barth (Ibid., 19). *exasperated sigh*

I will wager this. I think Barth reaches the high, clear point of his early dialectical methodology in RD, and had 2Ro been written a year later, Rom 1:3-4 would have “popped” more, just like 1 Cor 15. But you might be right to suggest that in part I should shoot for a constructive proposal here. When it comes down to it, I think the dialectic rises to the surface best with the introductory passage in 2Ro.

Thanks again for your wise feedback. Kind wishes to you and the PTS crew this new school year.

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