reading Barth on Romans

The judgment of God is the end of history, not the beginning of a new, a second, epoch. The difference between that which lies beyond the judgment and that which lies on this side of it is not relative but absolute: the two are separated absolutely. God speaks: and He is recognized as the Judge. By His speech and by His judgment a transformation is effected so radical that time and eternity, here and there, the righteousness of men and the righteousness of God, are indissolubly linked together. The end is also the goal; the Redeemer is also the Creator; he that judgeth is also he that restoreth all things. The disclosure of non-sense is the revelation of sense. What is new is also the deepest truth of what was old. The most radical ending of history, the negation under which all flesh stands, the absolute judgment, which is the meaning of God for the world of men and time and things, is also the crimson thread which runs through the whole course of the world in its inevitability.

— Kark Barth beginning to exposit Romans 3, in his The Epistle to the Romans. I am reading this book for the first time in at least a quarter-century, and in the intervening decades a great deal has happened in New Testament scholarship. I have only read a tiny fraction of that scholarship, but enough that the positions Barth takes throughout this famous commentary now seem utterly archaic, on the other side of some kind of intellectual and exegetical divide. I keep thinking how existential Barth is, how abstract his arguments seem in comparison to — to take only the best-known example relevant to the passage I’ve just quoted — N. T. Wright’s work on the New Creation and how that New Creation is complexly rooted in visions and arguments articulated in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 29, Ezekiel 34-37, Jeremiah 31, Daniel 9).

And yet how radical Barth seems in comparison to many more recent exegetes — and their followers. Three cheers for our new emphasis on history and the material world and all, but you can sometimes get the sense that if we’re just a little greener or rather more communal-minded God will be greatly pleased with us. Reading Barth makes me wonder whether, in the eyes of our green communitarians, the Second Coming is only required for some touch-up work on the worthy labors we’ve already performed….

Untrue and unfair, I know. Still, there’s something wonderfully bracing about Barth’s relentless insistence on the otherness of God, the force with which he reminds us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Paul’s statement that to God “our righteousness is as filthy rags” seems to strike Barth as far too kind: in his vision the most glancing encounter with God would vaporize those rags and the unfortunate one who happened to be wearing them. And then there’s the equally relentless dialectical method, the refusal (seen clearly above) to let no statement stand without its counter-statement immediately appearing, fiercely juxtaposed.

Since eventually everything old is eventually new again, I wonder if it is yet time for our history-minded, embodiment-minded, worldly-minded exegetes and disciples to find value in Barth — to accept his radical Krisis hermeneutic as something that we might profitably encounter not just in our statements of general theology but in our very encounters with Scripture … and with one another.

(More reflections on Barth may be coming, as I read my way through this holiday season.)