Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Reflections on Karl Barth and the Virgin Birth

Below are some notes I took on Karl Barth and the Virgin Birth a couple of years back. But be forewarned:
  • they are old
  • they are unpolished
  • they are mostly preliminary thoughts
  • I may or may not still stand by what I wrote
Take that as you will.

Church Dogmatics I/2 – The Doctrine of the Word of God
Ch. 15 – The Mystery of Revelation
15.3 – The Miracle of Christmas

In this earlier treatment of the Virgin Birth, Barth looked at the Christmas miracle from the perspective of Matthew and Luke. A few observations can be made:

  • First – although the texts have a thinness, the virgin birth cannot be dismissed on exegetical grounds (174-176).
  • Second – the miracle of Christmas denotes the mystery of revelation.  God himself does this act of incarnation and provides the grounds of reconciliation (177).  Thus, an affirmation of the virgin birth is not offering a theological explanation for the incarnation but an acknowledgement of its holy mystery.
  • Third – like the empty tomb, the empty womb cannot be separated from what it signifies (178f). 
  • Fourth – it cannot be understood in terms of natural theology and unlike Brunner it should not be rejected as a poor biological attempt at explaining the incarnation (180-184). Barth:  “The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life, and marked off in the first instance, not by our own understanding or our interpretation, but by itself” (182).
I propose Barth is arguing that the Virgin birth and empty tomb are a single sign “to describe and mark out the existence of Jesus Christ, amid the many other existences in human history.”  The sign and the thing signified must be held together.[1] For Barth, the virgin birth signifies five things:

  • First, Jesus was born as no one else was (185).
  • Second, he was born as a real man (186).
  • Third, it is a judgment on the limitations of sinful humanity (187).  The virgin birth was necessary in that “human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ” (188).  That is to say that the natural form of conception was not possible to produce the motherhood of Jesus Christ as an entry into this world.
  • Fourth, positively it is the start of a new beginning for human life (189f).
  • Fifth and finally, this new beginning comes not from human will but from the grace of God (190ff).[2] 
On the exclusion of the male, Barth writes:  “The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man.  No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.” (192)  Here, Barth seems to be avoiding an Augustinian view of original sin.  Jesus Christ was from a Virgin, not to avoid the contamination of sin, but because otherwise Jesus Christ’s birth would be the result to human efforts and not divine revelation.

Church Dogmatics IV/1 – The Doctrine of Reconciliation
Chapter 14 – Jesus Christ, The Lord as Servant
Paragraph 59 – The Obedience of the Son of God
59.1 – The Way of the Son into the Far Country

In a similar, albeit abridged form to what we found earlier, in IV/1 The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Barth once again picks up his defense of Jesus Christ’s virgin birth in an excursus in his chapter on the way of the son into the far country--that is Jesus Christ, being true God, humbled himself by becoming a servant.  Naturally this speaks of the incarnation in flesh of Jesus Christ and thus the Virgin Birth. Because the focus of Barth’s steady gaze is on the doctrine of reconciliation proper, periphery subjects such as the Virgin Birth only receives a scant glance.  However, Barth does in fact affirm and defend it.[3] 

First, the Creeds affirmation concerning the Virgin Birth is “a first statement about the One who was and is and will be the Son of God.  Second and closely related, “It is not a statement about how He became this…it is a description of the way in which the Son of God became man.”

This is significant, the chief concern of both the Biblical birth narratives and the Creedal statement is not of the Virgin Birth per se, but of Jesus Christ as revealed to us.  Thus, Barth’s second point is quite correct:  in the Creed the statement concerning the Virgin Birth describes the way into which God stepped into history as a man by being born of a Virgin.  It is not a description of the ontological sonship of Jesus Christ.  Closely related to this is Barth’s observation “it might have pleased God to let His Son become man in some quite other way than in the event of the miracle attested as the Virgin Birth.”

Of course this opens up questions – have we been mistaken?  As Witherington later articulated – such a birth was certainly unexpected.  If Christ could have become man by some other way, why this way.  Is the theological import the same if the Virgin Birth was in fact false?

Not necessarily.  The reason being – the further qualifying statement of “conceived by the Holy Ghost” adds further description to the mystery and miracle of the Virgin Birth.  As expressed in I/2, Barth writes the work of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation “consists of a creative act of divine omnipotence, in which the will and work of man in the form of a human father is completely excluded from the basis and beginning of the human existence of the Son of God, being replaced by a divine act which is supremely unlike any human action which might arise in that connection, and in that way characterized as an inconceivable act of grace.”  The Virgin Birth, therefore, is a testament to the free movement of God in loving grace toward the creature.  In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the way of the Son in the Far Country, is the grounds of reconciliation.  This reconciliation cannot be understood but a gracious and free gift of the triune God and even the means of this gift, the condescension of God is grace.

Further, even the human role of this birth is a role of grace.  “It is He who gives to man in the person of Mary the capacity which man does not have of himself, which she does not have and which no man could give to her.”

Concluding the matter, Barth writes:  “This is the miracle of the Virgin Birth as it indicates the mystery of the incarnation, the first attestation of the divine Sonship of the man Jesus of Nazareth, comparable with the miracle of the empty tomb at His exodus from temporal existence.”

As I alluded to earlier, Barth is not unaware of potential challenges to such a position.  For Barth, the Virgin Birth is a noetic expression of the incarnation and not an ontological attestation.  Barth even goes as far to say “The question is pertinent whether His divine Sonship and the mystery of His incarnation are known in any real seriousness or depth when these attestations are unrecognized or overlooked or denied or explained away.”

We might also note what Barth doesn’t say:  the virgin birth was not necessary in an Augustinian sense.  That is to say, the Virgin Birth had nothing to do with Jesus Christ being contaminated with original sin.  For Barth, sin is an ontological impossibility.  Sin is foreign to the creation but a real reality nonetheless.  It is the nothingness that threatens God’s creation.  Further, the sinfulness of humanity is discovered only in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, vindicated by God in His resurrection, exposes the creature as “radically and totally guilty before Him both individually and corporately” (358).

Dogmatics in Outline – Chapter 14 – The Mystery and Miracle of Christmas

At this point it might be redundant, but Barth also addresses the topic in his dogmatic lectures on the Apostles Creed.  Concerning Jesus Christ’s Virgin Birth and conception by the Holy Spirit, Barth proposes:

“The truth of the conception of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit and of His birth of the Virgin Mary points to the true Incarnation of the true God achieved in His historical manifestation, and recalls the special form through which this beginning of the divine act of grace and revelation, that occurred in Jesus Christ, was distinguished from other events.”[4]

Once again there is the strong insistence that the Virgin Birth proves very little, if anything at all.  The Virgin Birth and conception by the Holy Spirit is a sign – it “points to the true Incarnation” specifically in that it places Jesus “in His historical manifestation”.

Barth cuts straight to the point.  Recognizing the controversy of such a confession, Barth asks “Must we believe this?”  Unflinchingly and joyfully, Barth answers “Yes.”[5]  But why?

For starters, it is the first in a series of pronouncements concerning the whole life of Jesus Christ.  This series of pronouncements are full of little words that are full of great meaning (e.g. “suffered”, “crucified”, etc.).  “Conceived” and “Born” are no exceptions.[6]

First, Barth that these two pronouncements assert “that God of free grace became man, real man…there is no question here of conception and birth in general, but of a quite definite conception and a quite definite birth.”  And again, for Barth this is a noetic utterance that stands alongside an ontic one.  “If in the Incarnation we have to do with the thing, here we have to do with the sign.  The two should not be confused.”[7]

Second, “conceived of the Holy Spirit” implies that the man Jesus Christ’s origin is in God alone.  His existence is founded in God.[8]  This does not mean the Holy Spirit is the Father of Jesus Christ but that “this human existence starts in the freedom of God Himself.”[9]  In fact, this has very little to do with procreation.  It is not an ancient myth.  God is the Creator, not partner to the Virgin Mary.

Third, “born of the Virgin Mary” reminds us this is a human child.  We are on earth.  Jesus is not only true God, nor an intermediate being, he is true man.[10]  In that the male being excluded pushes the male and his role and responsibility for direction the human species in retirement.[11]

In conclusion, Barth’s words here serve as a nice summary of his position:  “the true Godhead and the true humanity of Jesus Christ in their unity do not depend on the fact that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  All that we can say is that it pleased God to let the mystery be real and become manifest in this shape and form.”[12]

This DOES NOT give us license to disregard it as a mere sign.  The miracle that is the Virgin Birth is the visible form that the mystery of the incarnation took place.  As such, we are not free to disregard it at will as an ancient myth of no practical value or relevance today.[13]

[1] Bromiley, Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, 26.
[2] Bromiley, 26.
[3] Barth, IV/1, 207.  All subsequent quotes are from this page.
[4] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 95.
[5] Barth, DO, 95.
[6] Barth, DO, 95.
[7] Barth, DO, 96.
[8] Barth, DO, 96-97.
[9] Barth, DO, 98-99.
[10] Barth, DO, 97.
[11] Barth, DO, 99.
[12] Barth, DO, 100.
[13] Barth, DO, 100.

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