God Was In Christ: Karl Barth on the Significance of God’s Being in his Act of Reconciliation

While explaining, in a recent post, why T.F. Torrance considered the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement to involve an implicit heretical Christology (Nestorianism, to be precise), I touched on the critical importance of Scripture’s affirmation that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). This was to make the point that when we realize that in Christ incarnate and crucified we have to do with the act of a single divine Subject, we can no longer think of his humanity solely in terms of its historical particularity and individuality (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth), but we must also give due weight to the universal solidarity into which he entered with all human beings when he assumed the flesh that they all share. Only by ignoring this latter dimension of the doctrine of the hypostatic union (i.e. the concept of anhypostasis which is necessary to keep Nestorianism from rearing its heretical head) can the atonement be conceived as fully availing only for a select group of human beings.

A related implication of 2 Cor. 5:19 – which is the topic of this post – is the relation of God’s being to his acts, especially in the work of atonement. Like his student T.F. Torrance, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth never tired of emphasizing the inestimable significance of God’s being in his act and his act in his being. Now this is a phrase whose meaning, for some readers less familiar with Barth, might initially seem opaque. What exactly does it mean to affirm the union, or better the total coinherence, of God’s being and act, at least with what pertains to the atonement? This is precisely one of the questions that Adam Johnson masterfully answers in his book entitled God’s Being in Reconciliation. Although Johnson 6dfff7d7f66ee75c9ce7f1ec48d0a7f6takes the entire length of the book to make his argument, he offers the following summary at the end of his introduction which seems to well capture Barth’s basic contention:

Barth’s exposition of God’s being in act is a theological exercise designed to prepare us for contemplating God’s history with us by first dwelling on the more general fact that God is a living God. That is to say, God reveals himself by means of his act, by means of repeating his own proper (immanent) triune life in his (economic) saving fellowship with us. The event of God’s activity and fellowship with us is not foreign or accidental to his own proper being, but is rather a repetition or overflowing of the life he enjoys within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the fullness of the divine perfections. The life that God shares with us, however, is not equally manifest in all of God’s acts because God has elected that the history of his relationship with us (and therefore the fulfilment of the repetition of his being as self-determined by his election) have a centre: namely, Jesus Christ. The person and work of Jesus Christ, and particularly his death and resurrection, form the concentrated point at which God brings his own living essence to bear upon our sinful condition so as to restore us to fellowship with himself in fulfilment of his covenantal purposes.

Because God’s triune being in the fullness of the divine perfections is concentrated precisely on the fulfilment of his election in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we properly understand that decisive event only in light of the fullness of God’s being or essence acting in that event. It is only as we think of the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday as the being in act of the triune God in the living fullness of the divine perfections that we can grasp the full meaning of this event. Only through the doctrine of the Trinity can we understand Christ’s passion, only by means of sustained integration of the doctrine of the divine perfections with that of reconciliation can we comprehend the meaning and significance of Christ’s work on the cross. Apart from such doctrinal interconnections, without a robust affirmation of God’s being in act precisely at this crucial point, we deprive ourselves of the most vital resources at our disposal to truly appreciate the meaning and significance of Christ’s death and resurrection: the event by which God decisively dealt with our sin and its consequences, reconciling all things to Himself. Apart from the mysteria divinitatis (divine mystery) there can be no proper investigation of the beneficia Christi (benefits of Christ) (CD II/1, 259): the key to the doctrine of the atonement is reading the events of Christ’s passion in light of the doctrine of God.[1]

In Western Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant alike), we have the tendency to emphasize the acts of God in salvation in a way that downplays the significance of the being of God in these acts. This is a consequence of what Torrance identified as “the Latin heresy” (but that is a topic for a different post!). Other than affirming that Jesus had to be fully God in order to act as Mediator, we tend to spend little time or energy unpacking the full scope of what this means. Yet for the apostle Paul, like the other writers of the New Testament, the importance of the full divinity of Christ could hardly be overstated. Everything hinged on the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). That is to say, the efficacy of the atonement as an act of reconciliation depended fundamentally on the divine being who accomplished it. Had it not been God who was in Christ – not just in act but also in being – then his death on the cross would have been no different than that of any other common criminal executed by the Romans. Had not God brought the fullness of his own being to bear on the work of atonement, then it would not have constituted an act of reconciliation.

This means, as Johnson underscores, that we cannot but think out the atonement in Trinitarian terms. If God was in Christ in the work of reconciliation, then he was there in the fullness of his Triune being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not to say, of course, that it was the person of the Father or the Spirit who hung on the cross in human flesh – that would be the error of modalism or patripassianism. It is to say, however, that we cannot think of the Son’s work of atonement in isolation from his eternal and unbreakable perichoretic (i.e. interpenetrating, coinhering) relationship with the Father and the Spirit.

Thus, we cannot think of the Father as sitting back and uninvolved, as it were, observing Christ as he died for the reconciliation of the world and awaiting the outcome before giving his approval. Although it was not the person of the Father himself on the cross, he was nevertheless (and this is the mystery of the Trinity!) fully present and active, along with the Spirit, in the accomplishment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Paul is categorical: it was not simply the Son who was in Christ, but God – God in the Triune fullness of his divine being. This undermines any notion that Christ offered a “payment” to the Father, or that he had to “appease” the Father, or that the Father “accepted” the atonement only after Christ had fully “satisfied” his predetermined demands. All of these ideas (rather crassly stated, I know) cannot gain any purchase unless a fundamental separation is assumed to have existed between God the Father and Jesus Christ, for how could the Father await “payment” or “appeasement” or “acceptance” if he was already fully present and active in Christ reconciling the world to himself?

When we ponder the amazing, incomprehensible truth that it was none other than God – God in the fullness of his eternal Triune being – who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then the only possible response, as Torrance would say, is to clap our hands over our mouths and fall down before him in adoration and thanksgiving, for the more we ponder this mystery, the more we discover how great indeed was the love of God toward us. In the atonement, God did not keep back, as it were, part of himself pending the outcome of his Son’s obedience. Had he done so, then the cross would not have been, as the New Testament repeats over and over, the greatest and most graphic revelation of the love that God had for us while we were yet his enemies and sinners (Rom. 5:8). Had God held himself back in some form or fashion, we might be tempted to doubt whether or not he really, truly, and fully loves us, and will forever love us, as his own beloved children. However, when we understand that, as Torrance beautifully put it, “God loves [us] so utterly and completely that he has…pledged his very Being as God for [our] salvation” in Christ, then no such doubts can remain.[2] In Christ, God has not just given us something external to himself, he has given us his very self, totally, utterly, completely, and unreservedly. In Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God committed the fullness of his eternal Triune being to our reconciliation so utterly and absolutely that he cannot go back on that act without denying himself. What love! What grace! What assurance!

I hope this post will help you apprehend a bit more, as did Torrance and Barth, how glorious and good is the news that God’s being is in his act, and that his act is in his being. Indeed, the gospel is precisely this: God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

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[1] Adam J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth J. Webster, I.A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., (London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.51-52.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ. (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), p.94.

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