The Intensive Presence of God’s Future: Karl Barth and the Christological Goal of Old Testament Revelation

Many people criticize Swiss theologian Karl Barth for presumably being overly Christocentric in his approach to interpreting Scripture and doing theology. Barth, so it is argued, forces biblical texts and dogmatic concepts into an ostensibly prefabricated Christological mold, thus “seeing Christ” in places where he actually does not appear. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not it is even possible to be too Christocentric, this kind of criticism simply does not hold up to scrutiny, especially when we consider the exegetical sections that Barth intersperses between larger blocks of theological exposition in the Church Dogmatics. The following passage, taken from CI/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004, 95-101), demonstrates how Barth is willing to let the Old Testament speak for itself without applying a flat Christological hermeneutic. In fact, it is precisely as Barth seeks to listen to the Old Testament on its own terms that he finds himself compelled to acknowledge the “intensive presence” of “God’s future” which culminates, ultimately and only, in Jesus Christ. In order to see this, it is (unfortunately) necessary to quote a rather lengthy section, yet one that rewards a full and careful reading. Barth writes:

There is an eschatological thread in the Old Testament in line with which, as the Old Testament recognises and explicitly states, the covenant of God with man comes to be realised, and the hiddenness and revelation of God beyond the actual event attested in the Old Testament is primarily future event. The eschatological character of the divine reconciliation and revelation does not mean any negation of its presence, either here or in the New Testament…. [I]s not God’s future the most intensive presence, incomparably more intensive than anything we regard as present? We have seen with what intensity God’s covenant and hiddenness in the Old Testament point to God’s coming. In this very intensity they are already present, and Abraham, Moses and the prophets are recipients of revelation in the full sense of the term. But we still have to put it in this way, that they receive the revelation of Yahweh as those who wait for it and hasten toward it….

The point is this. Of a whole series of ideas which have decisive significance for the world of the Old Testament, we may safely say that to understand them correctly in the sense of the texts, we have to know them from two aspects, like the winged altars of the Middle Ages. In front there is presented to us a definite aspect of the covenant and of the hiddenness of God in a definite present of historical time. But from behind there is Screen-Shot-2014-01-07-at-3.45.55-PMpresented to us at the same time, in terms of the same or related concepts, the corresponding aspect of fulfilled time, the finished work of God to come….

When, for example, the Old Testament speaks of the “people” or of “Israel” or of “Judah”, the primary meaning is, of course, the sum-total of the descendants of the sons of Jacob, with whom as such the covenant was made at Sinai. But at once the separation of the ten northern tribes from the two southern suggests that this primary idea of “people” will not carry all that is meant in the Old Testament by God’s people, the chosen people. A people within the people, as it were, is the people which is meant in the divine covenant and participates in its fulfilment. But we are still involved only with the primary idea if we regard Judah-Benjamin as this people, compared with whom North Israel finally disappears from history. For Judah-Benjamin is not this people, but as their own prophets say, a converted “holy remnant,” spared in the judgment. Who belongs to this remnant? Who are now God’s people? The adherents of a prophetic community of disciples? A community of the faithful congregating about the temple? The few righteous who walk in the way of Yahweh’s commandments? Yes and No. Yes, because actually such a people is discernible in the foreground; No, because prophetic exhortation and hope do not remain with this people, because later prophets like Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah speak again of a “people,” of Jerusalem, even of Israel as a whole. The people within the people, the genuine Israel, is obviously not identical either with the sum-total of Jacob’s descendants or with any section of this sum. But the genuine Israel, elect, called and finally blessed by Yahweh, is merely typified in both, and remains a goal beyond the history of either. In the strictest sense this people is ahead of itself in time. It has still to be seen what this people really is.

When the Old Testament speaks of the “land” promised and then given to this people, the primary meaning, of course, simply is the land of Canaan commended to the fathers by God. But, again, whatever the qualities of this geographical entity may have been at that time, as such they are wholly unsuited to exhaust the full meaning that lies in the conception of the promised land. When we look beyond the conception of a land “flowing with milk and honey,” to the promises associated with it (particularly when things were really not going well in this land), our gaze is necessarily directed to the paradise lost and restored which is to be the dwelling-place of this people, to the miraculously renewed earth upon which this people will some day live amid the other happily and peaceably united peoples. Thus the “land” is certainly Palestine, but with equal certainty, in and along with this land, there is meant the quite different land which is not actually visible in the history of Israel, because it is its goal, because it is therefore outside it. The one land is waiting for the other.

When the Old Testament speaks of the “temple,” by that is assuredly meant the house in Jerusalem which David wished to build for the Lord and which Solomon did build for Him as His abode, and therefore as a place of prayer and sacrifice for this people. But this temple could be destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again, without losing anything of the intensity of its significance. What it is and is not in the foreground is governed by the temple of the future in the background, which, built according to Isaiah not by men but by God Himself, will stand and shine upon some quite other mount of God, to which some day not only Israel but the nations will make pilgrimage. It is from the standpoint of its future that the temple at Jerusalem is what it is.

What does “lordship of God” mean in the Old Testament? First, of course, the present fact, as such apparently of infinite significance, that this people belongs to Yahweh, is ruled, punished and rewarded in its destinies by Yahweh, has therefore as a whole and in all its members to obey Yahweh’s instructions and commands. Can there be anything more here, a supreme background? Yes, here particularly, and it is quite understandable that attempts have been made to concentrate in the idea of the “complete lordship of God” the entire eschatology of the Old Testament. For at this very point everything present is to be regarded from the standpoint of its own future. Is it not at present bounded on all sides by what is before our eyes, the fact that this people belongs to Yahweh, that He exercises power over them, that they have to listen to Him? Does not the hope necessarily arise of the Kingdom without end? Not only does this hope actually arise, but it clearly gives power and possibility to faith in God’s lordship even in this very present moment. It is by future accomplishment that God’s people lives even in the imperfection of its present situation and government. And it never sees its fulfilment. Its presence seems, on the contrary, to grow more imperfect on every side. At all events, the political equivalent of the Kingdom of God in the external power and position of this people grows more and more insignificant. But in the same proportion it seems to be the more definitely aware of that which is the goal and boundary of His ways, namely, that God shall put all His enemies under His feet. His lordship is to be established as much over the innermost heart of His people as over the whole world.

What is the meaning of “judgment” in the Old Testament? In the first instance judgment is executed quite concretely and with disturbing frequency in the form of great national disasters, from the plague of serpents in the wilderness to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the dreadful picture in the foreground, from which according to the Old Testament very few generations of this people were entirely spared. But apart from the very real picture of slaughtered and burned towns and villages, of fields full of slain, of long processions of exiles—apart from all this there is no knowledge of what “judgment” means in the Old Testament. And yet the Old Testament thought of judgment does not derive its seriousness and gravity from this source. For something far more dreadful is at the back of it all, the end of God’s love, the rejection of Israel, and over and above, the burning wrath of God upon all nations, the judgment of the world. This is not present; strictly speaking, it is future. But it is a matter of this future in the present. The prophets look beyond the flames which, kindled by hostile men, destroy Samaria and Jerusalem, but also in the end Nineveh and Babylon, to see this quite different, unquenchable flame. And they were speaking of it, of this background, of this future judgment, when they referred so threateningly and definitely to the foreground.

The most important of the ideas we have to mention is that of the “king.” The king is in the first instance and as such the autocrat who rules at a given time in Jerusalem, one of the smaller or smallest among the many of his kind in the Near East of that day. But we have already been told that the king is at the same time one of the outstanding instruments of the divine covenant. If any figure stands strikingly in the shadow of the divine hiddenness, it is that of the king. That is to say, this figure, too, points beyond itself. It is probably an old tradition that David already conceived of himself as the type of the righteous man, one “that ruleth over men, that ruleth in the fear of God, and is as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, a morning without clouds, when the grass springeth out of the earth through the clear shining after the rain” (2 Sam. 23:1–7). This righteous king, who is at once threatened and promised in the future by the existence of the present king, is the Messiah, the king of Israel, nay the world king “at the end of the days.” Once more selection is effected as in the case of the “people”; for the kings of Samaria do not share in this hope, but only those of Jerusalem. Even here the lineage of David seems often enough to be broken as regards this preparation for the coming king; the king for the moment, even if counted among the “good” kings, frequently seems to be little more than a symbol of this lineage of David….

What is involved in Messianic expectation is not an intensifying but a sheer transcending of present political experience. It comes to this, that the conception of the king in particular can be described as the central form of Messianic expectation, but as such it is clearly too narrow to express all that is to be said of the expected bringer of salvation. The “servant” in Deutero-Isaiah is much less a king than a prophet, and the son of David in Ps. 110 and the tsemach in Zech. 6 is priest and king at once. The “son of man” appearing in the clouds of heaven in Dan. 7 shows all the characteristics of a ruler, but, naturally, the ruler who makes an end of the world powers and of world power as such. If the interpretation of the Book of Enoch is applicable, he is no less than the first man returning in glory—first also in a supreme sense even as compared with Adam. And the functions of the expected One, namely, a victory which is not preceded by a struggle (the Messiah does not Himself take part in the Messianic woes which precede Him, but when they are finished He appears), a rule of peace without end, the rooting out of sin, the judgment of the world, supreme sway not only over human spirits but also over a renewed world of nature—all these can be summed up under the concept of rule, but only in such a way that the functions of an earthly king obviously fall very far behind, having really become a mere parable….

We have seen that along with the idea of the king there are other ideas with which Old Testament expectation is linked; nation, land, temple, the lordship of God, judgment. At the same time it cannot be denied that all these other ideas, or the expectations linked up with them, culminate and become concrete in this one, the idea and expectation of the king of the end of time. The Messiah is already “the hope of Israel,” so far as all Israel’s hopes point to an historical event on earth, an event altogether introduced by God, breaking into all other history from above, but actually within history, a real historical event. The analogy between present type and coming reality does not break down, because the reality to come will also be a man ruling in the name of God—ruling, of course, in quite a different way. And with his appearance all that is now expected will be quite different, the true Israel, the land of promise, the temple on the mount of God, the Kingdom without end, the judgment of the world.

This, then, is the explicit expectation of the Old Testament. It must be held together with what is said about the covenant concluded but not fulfilled and about the revealed but not realised hiddenness of God in the Old Testament. And what was said about the covenant and about the hiddenness of God receives confirmation from the presence of this explicit expectation. It is only  from the recollection of fulfilled time, from the New Testament point of view, that we can say that in respect of this expectation the Old Testament is the witness to divine revelation, so that its expectation is no illusion, but the kind of expectation when the expected One has already knocked at the door and is already there, though still outside.

Mere expectation, therefore, or abstract expectation, an autonomous time of preparation, is excluded. Is there fulfilled time and expectation? Has the Messiah appeared? Later Judaism, the documents of which were not adopted into the Old Testament Canon, more than once thought so, and every time the end was a bitter disillusionment. And when Jesus Christ arose in Galilee and Jerusalem, the same later Judaism, represented by the authorised experts in the canonical Old Testament and the official bearers of the sacred tradition, looked right past Him, in fact rejected Him outright and smote Him on the cross. If He was the Messiah to come, if He was the revelation attested by the Old Testament in expectation, as the Christian Church confesses it, then we can only say that it had to be so, that rejection was possible in spite of the fact that Holy Scripture of the Old Testament lay open straight in front of these men’s eyes and was read by them with genuine industry and attention. Revelation does not speak directly even in its most definite testimonies—i.e., not by way of a demonstration that can be carried out by experiment and logic. The expectation of revelation in the Old Testament is prophecy, not prediction to be controlled experimentally by logic. That is why it was and is possible to look past it. That is why it could and can be rejected. How could it be otherwise? It is self-attested by the fact that this expected revelation is really revelation, that the Old Testament present participates in a future which is really God’s future. That is, one may be offended by it; it can only be believed in; it speaks only in the way revelation speaks….

[I]f [the Church] recognises revelation and lives by revelation, that is unmerited grace, as Paul says in Rom. 11:20f. The mystery of revelation, which is the mystery of free, unmerited grace, includes the Church of the New Testament inseparably with the people whose blessing is attested for us in the Old Testament as expectation of Jesus Christ. And this very mystery acts not only as a barrier but as a bond between Church and Synagogue which, like the impenitent sister with seeing eyes, refuses to see that the people of the Old Testament really expected Jesus Christ and in this expectation was graciously blessed.

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