The Resurrection in Karl Barth. By Robert Dale Dawson. Hampshire: Ahsgate, 2007, 246 pages. Reviewed for Koinonia Journal.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is of central importance to Barth’s theology. It is therefore striking that Dawson’s is the first book-length study in English to focus solely on the resurrection in Karl Barth. Dawson takes the first step toward addressing this lacuna by providing a series of close readings of key texts in Barth. Through the course of this exposition, Dawson advances the thesis that Barth consistently understood the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. Dawson traces this theme through five major discussions of the resurrection spread over Barth’s career.
Before delving into these expositions, Dawson reviews the literature concerning the resurrection in Karl Barth. He correctly argues that its systematic significance is seldom acknowledged, let alone understood. He organizes previous accounts of Barth into three categories: the historical-hermeneutical, the theological, and the developmental. The first category is represented by Peter Carnley and Richard R. Niebuhr, who mistake Barth for a historical skeptic because they are guided by themes foreign to Barth’s own thought. The question of the historicity of the resurrection must be understood within the larger theological significance of the resurrection as the movement of Jesus Christ to others. As such, it is special kind of history, though certainly not a-historical as many of Barth’s critics suggest. The second category includes many of the major interpreters of Barth (Berkouwer, Balthasar, Torrance, Jungel). Each falls short in expounding Barth’s doctrine of resurrection by either over-emphasizing some other aspect or failing to develop their insights. The third category focuses on the developmental work of Bruce McCormack. Dawson suggests that McCormack’s four-phase developmental scheme must be refined in light of what Barth says concerning the resurrection at different points in his career. For instance, Barth’s early eschatological time-eternity dialectic is not so much replaced by the Christological God-humanity dialectic as it is transposed into the soteriological Christ-others dialectic. Although it is unlikely that these sorts of developmental arguments can be sustained by the mere exposition of selected texts, Dawson at least underscores the genetic-historical significance of Barth’s resurrection discourse.
In order to establish Barth’s consistency, Dawson begins with Barth’s 1924 exegetical study of I Corinthians, The Resurrection of the Dead. He argues that the work cannot be pressed into received eschatological categories but must rather be understood as Barth’s “discovery” of the centrality of the resurrection in Paul’s theological method. Dawson expounds the centrality of the resurrection in terms of its primordial function, its revelational character, and its realistic status. Although there are some hints here of the theme of movement, it is far from dominant, calling into question the place of this chapter in Dawson’s developmental argument. But, as a stand-alone exposition of Barth’s text, it is accurate and illuminating and therefore contributes to an understanding of the resurrection in Karl Barth.
Dawson turns next to a brief study of Church Dogmatics III/2, §47.1, “Jesus, Lord of Time.” Here the theme of movement emerges clearly in terms of the contemporaneity of Jesus Christ achieved in his resurrection. Dawson’s focus on the theme of Christ’s forward movement to others leads him to overlook Barth’s fascinating discussion of Jesus’ pre-existence (CD III/2, pp. 474-85). Perhaps this chapter could be read as a background study to the main body of the book dealing with CD IV. Yet Dawson explicitly places it within his larger developmental argument as an examination of “Barth’s most important mid-career depiction of the resurrection” (p. 81). He refers to this material “the first extended treatment of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the Church Dogmatics” (p. 65). This is a misleading statement, given the significance of resurrection discourse throughout CD I/2. The twenty-year leap from The Resurrection of the Dead (1924) to Church Dogmatics III/2 (1948) renders suspect Dawson’s developmental claims. Of course, Dawson’s thesis cannot be reduced to its developmental aspect. However, the extent to which his developmental argument serves to tie together his series of studies endangers the coherence of the book as a whole.
Dawson is at his best when discussing the transition sections of Church Dogmatics IV, the exposition of which makes up over half of the book. Here is where the theme of movement comes to fruition. Within the doctrine of reconciliation, the resurrection functions as the movement of Jesus Christ to others, the transition from the Christological to the anthropological sphere. Although reconciliation between God and humanity is fully achieved and actual by means of the life-history of Jesus Christ culminating in his death, the resurrection opens up this inclusive reality by revealing it to other human beings. This revelatory movement calls forth a new human way of living in correspondence to the true humanity of Christ. After summarizing these themes in chapter four, Dawson reiterates and unpacks them through independent close readings of the three transition sections: “The Verdict of the Father” (CD IV/1, §59.3), “The Direction of the Son” (CD IV/2, §64.4), and “The Promise of the Spirit” (CD IV/3.1, §69.4). In so doing, Dawson highlights the architectonic significance the transition sections in CD IV, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. His exposition would have been made even stronger by greater attention to the role of transitional language (verdict, direction, promise) as organizing motifs in Barth’s survey of the doctrine of reconciliation (§58). Dawson also speaks of the problem of faith and history as a “pseudo-problem,” by which he means that the problem has already been solved by Christ, but this gives the false impression that Barth was unconcerned by the issue. Here Dawson’s analysis would be enriched by placing Barth in his historical context, both in terms of his liberal forebears and his ongoing debate with Bultmann.
In a final chapter, Dawson ties together some critical comments scattered throughout the foregoing exposition. He argues that Barth should have made a more consistent distinction between Auferweckung and Auferstehung in order to indicate in what senses the resurrection does and does not “add” something to the crucifixion. The Auferstehung (self-revealing presence) of Christ is primarily noetic and therefore does not “add” to Christ’s finished work. The Auferweckung (awakening from the dead) of Christ is the ontic work of God and therefore completes the passion of Christ. Whether or not driving a wedge between these two terms ultimately helps or hinders the main theme of movement, this line of criticism does raise important questions about the complex interrelationship between death and resurrection in Barth’s thought.
Less fruitful is Dawson’s attempt to develop a trinitarian theology of resurrection. With reference to the Father’s role in the resurrection, Dawson is both too radical and not radical enough. He argues that the “resurrection of the Son of God is nothing other than God’s reassertion of his own eternal trinitarian being.” (p. 219). He is too radical in that he reduces resurrection to “nothing other” than this divine self-referential action. He is not radical enough in that he explicates this divine self-referential action in terms of mere self-affirmation. Perhaps the notion of God corresponding to Godself would help sort out these difficulties. With reference to the Spirit’s role in the resurrection, Dawson criticizes Barth for not giving an independent agency to the Spirit. This sort of criticism signals a clear break from Barth’s own trinitarianism. Barth never wavers in his commitment to God’s singular subjectivity in the midst of God’s triune self-differentiation. God is God in three modes of being, not three independent agents. Does the distinct role of the Spirit in the Father’s raising of the Son require a more thorough development than Barth provides? Yes. Does such a development require one to abandon Barth’s most basic insights into God’s triunity? Not necessarily. Perhaps one might come to such a conclusion, but only after a serious attempt to understand what talk of the Spirit’s role in the resurrection would look like in terms of Barth’s own trinitarianism. Here Dawson has identified a very interesting problem, even as he takes the wrong road in trying to solve it.
Detailed exposition of Barth’s texts is always valuable, even when the larger developmental and constructive arguments they serve are less than compelling. Dawson performs a great service to Barth studies simply by exposing the sheer quantity of resurrection discourse in Barth. Identifying the movement motif as the key to Barth’s mature theology of the resurrection is also a significant contribution. Only Barth specialists, on account of the cost of the book as well as its workmanlike style, will likely appreciate Dawson’s contribution. Such limitations in audience are to be expected in light of its genesis as a dissertation. With these limits, this book is a major investigation into the significance of the resurrection for Karl Barth and is therefore a must-read for those who wish to converse with Barth in the ongoing task of theology today.
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