Karl Barth on the Idolatry of God’s Wrath

I came across this passage in Barth’s Epistle to the Romans recently and thought it was too good not to share. Here Barth expounds Romans 14.13–15. In the contemporary North American context, appeal is often made to God’s wrath (or, in more polite company, God’s justice) when folks (generally of the more conservative variety) want to marginalize or stigmatize something by means of their religious convictions. How’s that for putting it generally? I’ll let you, gentle readers, fill in the details. This is what Barth has to say on the subject. Those who have ears to hear…

Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 516–17. Bold is mine; caps are Barth’s.
We are exhorted in the Epistle to the Romans to a particular line of conduct, not in order that we may adopt the point of view of God, but that we might bear it in mind, consider it from all sides, and then live within its gravity. To judge involves the capacity to assign guilt and to envelop an action in wrath. God has this capacity and exercises it continuously. But, as the capacity of God, it is invisibly one with His forgiveness and with the manifestation of His righteousness. Our action in judging possesses, however, nothing of this double-sidedness. We do not possess the divine freedom of rejecting AND electing. When we permit ourselves to judge others, we are caught up in condemnation: the result is that we merely succeed in erecting the wrath of God as an idol. . . . When God rejects and hardens there is hope and promise. . . . How different it is when men, putting themselves in God’s place, put stumblingblocks in the way of other men. They seek only to harden, and not to liberate; only to bind, and not to loose; only to kill, and not to make alive. . . . Here once again the supreme right is the supreme wrong, if we suppose that right is OUR right.



Kevin Davis said…
Really fantastic stuff! Of course, I hasten to add -- "marginalize" and "stigmatize" is something done especially well and with vigor on the left, in the name of religious (ideological) convictions.
I recommend this article to all, "Judging without being Judgmental": http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/199704/092_judging.cfm
Interesting, William.

Kevin, I've noticed something of a trend with you along these lines (on your blog, etc.). I would simply suggest that one rarely finds such 'marginalizing' or 'stigmatizing' from the "left" (as you say) justified with reference to God's wrath.
Kevin Davis said…
As power shifts, you will see more of it.

Yes, "God's wrath" is too medieval and mythological for most, but James Cone manages to use it abundantly for his opponents.

My own "trend" may very well be just a "mood" that I am going through, but there are real convictions and concerns at play. In the mainline churches, I have a front row seat, so to speak, for how liberal ideology uses the same power plays around language and norms ("techniques of power" to borrow Foucault) as conservatives have done in the past.

I do hope that you bare with me, Travis, as I have benefited immensely from your blog and theological endeavors.
I'm perfectly willing to say that perhaps I just don't hear this rhetoric. This is a very live possibility given that I'm ensconced these days within a rather conservative demographic...

In any case, I would suspect that it is one thing to label particular folks or groups as standing under God's wrath, and another thing to say that particular folks or groups are wrong on this or that issue. I take it that the former (in Barth's mind) involves something like assuming knowledge of the target's eternal mailing address, whereas the latter does not. If one, like Barth, thinks that sin is something that God deals decisively with in Christ (a little anachronistic given the text we're looking at now, but this could also be translated into more chronologically appropriate terminology), then one can say the latter without saying the former.

What I'm getting at is that what I hear from the right is something like "You're going to hell" and what I hear from the left is something like "You're wrong so get the hell out of the way." Make sense?

In any case, I'm glad you've benefited and hope that you continue to. :-)
Kevin Davis said…
I really don't hear any evangelicals, certainly not in my age group or younger, use the "eternal destination" card. The older evangelical focus on "getting saved" and avoiding hell is widely disparaged or, at least, targeted as insufficient and myopic. Evangelicals today are all about shedding the "other worldly" interests of the past for a "this world" focus -- I'm thinking of Jamie Smith, N. T. Wright, and also some of the Gospel Coalition folks, namely Keller.

So, on the gay marriage debate, I will hear about homosexual acts as "sins" and opposed by God -- which I agree. But, "hellbound" is just not in the discourses that I'm hearing and in which I have partaken -- and I've got close friends in the PCA, SBC, E-Free, and other very conservative denominations. It should go without saying, there are fringe evangelicals who get the attention of the media (Westboro, most obviously, or dumb statements by Piper), but I'm really not interested in that.

Back to my original point, the power shift we are seeing has resulted in a marginalization and stigmatization of those with conservative beliefs and practices. This was abundantly obvious when I worked in electronics retail (for 6 years) where I saw civil rights language emerge as the categories by which to stigmatize conservatives on social issues. I hear this over and over from church members and others who work in banking, law, realty, engineering -- pretty much any business sector with over-bloated HR departments. We are, in short, little better than 1950's segregationists. Thus, you can demonize without employing the language of God's "wrath" or jump to eschatology.
I think Stephen Ray gave an interesting analysis of how this idea plays out back in 2002 with the publication of his Do No Harm (Fortress Press). In said book, he considers how the language theologians use can often (inadvertently) stigmatize/essentialize the idea of sin into "another" demographic -- thereby, in some ways, exempting their "group" from God's wrath. I found it to be a challenging and instructive read.
We'll leave JKAS out of this for now, but i have lots of theologically problems with the sorts of folk you named. Perhaps unsurprisingly. :-)

But I'm glad that you aren't hearing what I'm hearing (and I'm not hearing what you're hearing). That means we all may grow out of all this after a while.

That said, I think the burden of proof is quite difficult to surmount when a group that has been privileged for quite a long while (all recorded Western history? a little hyperbolic, maybe, but...) wants to call "marginalization" or "persecution." It seems to me that such a group could well be so marginalized or persecuted (in the manner they feel that they are now; I'm not for calling out the lions or anything) for quite a while before the scales start balancing out. Then there is the bit about whether said group is in fact being "marginalized" or "persecuted." It seems to me that the definition of these things is increasingly, "I'm marginalized b/c I no longer get to exercise what has always before been my birthright, namely, imposing my views upon others."

Now, the topic that we have not yet broached, and to which all this comes down, is as follows: Which side is right?

Gay marriage and homosexuality? I thought we were talking about teetotalism!


I'm always happy to host a Fortress book plug. :-)

Of course, essentialization is precisely the issue.
Kevin Davis said…
Well, "imposing my views on others" is just as much a liberal, as it is a conservative, venture. In fact, liberals do it better because they are better educated on the ways that societal norms can be subjugated and changed by "soft power" (yes, I am way too influenced by Foucault). By contrast, conservatives have been naive and, as a result, completely caught by surprise.

Anyway, I know we disagree, Travis, on these social issues -- namely, I think feminism is a theologically impoverished ideology -- but at least we agree that the Gospel Coalition is a mess!
Show me: where are churches being told what to preach by a government who penalizes their speech? Show me: where are 'conservatives' unable to find employment? Show me: where are their rights to function as full members of society being curtailed?

This whole thing about marginalization and imposition of views is just special pleading, Kevin. It is one thing to say something like "The country is going in a direction that I disagree with," but it is another thing to say "I'm being marginalized for my views." The latter is clearly not the case.

As for your comment that feminism is a "theologically impoverished ideology," much will depend on what you mean by "theological," "impoverished," and "ideology." But much also depends on what you mean by "feminism." That said, anything like the "functional complementarity" of the genders or the "functional subordination" of women or the "spiritual headship" of men is absolute bunk and pernicious "theological" (and I use that term here only in the loosest of ways) confusion. (I would call it a heresy, but heresy is the overemphasis on one aspect of truth to the exclusion of others and I wouldn't even grant these views that much credibility).

But, yes, the GC is very problematic. :-)
Kevin Davis said…
I was not alluding to anything that obvious. I was speaking of how society determines the values that are accepted and the norms that are lauded. I don't expect any real persecution of Christians any time soon -- which is why I intentionally avoided the term, "persecution" -- but I don't rule it out. The closest stories that I've seen are wedding planners (or photographers, cake companies, etc.) that refuse to do a gay wedding and are prosecuted under civil right discrimination legislation. So, yeah, I don't rule it out. I also have concerns about the HHS mandate -- concerns shared by many conservative Catholics.

As far as "marginalization," it is pretty hard to deny that this doesn't happen to conservatives in academic settings, and I felt the pressure in work environments to, at the least, not voice conservative opinions among certain managers for fear of reprisal (hours, promotions, etc.). Of course, this is far from real persecution, just to be clear, and it is the sort of thing for which conservatives have obviously been guilty.
Kevin Davis said…
As for feminism, I did a fairly academic treatment in January on my blog, "Gender and Theology series," using Serene Jones and Karl Barth (plus Charlotte von Kirschbaum) as my dialog partners. I agree with Barth and Kirschbaum's account of subordination, which is both similar and dissimilar to how that term is understood in evangelical circles. It is dissimilar insofar as Barth is not working with natural law "essentialism," but he is working with a natural ordering given in the covenant of grace -- which is perfectly congruent with Barth's entire project of locating creation within covenant.
As a concluding comment, I'll just say that that's Barth's worst material.
Kevin Davis said…
Ha! I thought you would say that. I'm happy to have Barth in my corner on this one.

I think his worst material is CD IV.4 on baptism!
Unknown said…
Very interesting post. And very true. I think there is a tendency for conservative evangelicals (my tribe) to focus way too much on the wrath of God. For example, Wayne Grudem's systematic textbook (a go-to book for evangelicals) has the wrath of God in the list of God's attributes. The logic goes something like this: "Since God is inherently wrathful [or something like this], then it is ok for us to emulate this attribute of God. Thus, we can hate and show wrath towards certain sins." Unfortunately, this sort of logic inevitably leads to judgment and self-righteousness; we pick out certain sins, and thus sinners, to show our wrath towards (gays, liberals, etc.). Instead of tearing down dividing lines, we build up fences and walls.

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