Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Review of R. Dale Dawson's The Resurrection in Karl Barth

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.

Any thoughts?
What do you think is the best way to elucidate the theological significance of Christ's resurrection?
Is this a helpful review?
What impression of this book would your get by reading this review?
Any editorial or material comments?


klatu said...

Could the Resurrection of Jesus have meant that the living God is prepared to intervene directly into the natural world in a personal and yet abolute and irrefutable manner? That is the claim being made by a new interpretation of the moral teaching of Christ spreading on the web and this is no abstract argument. I quote from OVI and OpEdnews:

"Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle offering the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds to an act of perfect faith with a direct, individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception outside all natural evolutionary boundaries. Understood metaphorically, this experience of transcendent power and change is the 'Resurrection' and justification of faith."

For the first time in history, it would appear that a religious tenet exists offering access, by faith, to absolute proof for its belief.

If such a paradigm shift in the nature of religious faith proves to be authentic, and trials are now going on, history will has some frightening questions
to answer!

Join the trial and further information about this develpment at:

The Hitchcocks said...

Thanks, John. I think you're dialed in to the contributions of Dawson's volume, namely, that it supplies direly-needed expositional work to Barth studies and points out some critical points of engagement with Barth's conception of the resurrection. Likewise, I tend to agree with you that Dawson's arguments for a genetic thread in Barth are patchy, and that his trinitarian arguments, while provocative, lack a certain conclusive force. It's hard for me to be too demanding of this book, however. It accomplishes much within its patient, limited scope and cannot not be expected to cover all the bases.

A question for you: Do you think his adoption of Barth's contemporaneous states may create tension for Dawson when, in his last chapter, he wants to press for more direct involvement from the Father and the Spirit - and at the very place of the Auferweckung? It seems to me that Barth skirted the "resurrection instant" on Easter morning in large part because he did not want to detract from his making coincidental the states of humiliation and exaltation (thereby protecting the finished reconciliation of the cross). Getting into the details about the ontological change in the (dead) Son by the hand of the Father through the power of the Spirit threatens Barth's frontloading exaltation into the pre-Easter life of Jesus. Dawson may want to have it both ways.

Thanks for sharing the review.


JohnLDrury said...


These are some helpful thoughts. I agree that Dawson is slippery on the union of two states in Barth. I'm not sure the trinitarian musings cause this, however. Would you please expand?


The Hitchcocks said...

John, let me see if I can pick a little at this tangle. Let me say up front that while I think Dawson is misreading Barth and/or being overly generous to him, I find his points very fruitful and stimulating for my own work.

To repeat Dawson's thesis, we should see Barth placing the awakening of Jesus Christ within the work of reconciliation, not revelation, the Auferweckung as ontic and the Auferstehung noetic, for this helps us make better sense of the trinitarian dynamic and Jesus' victory over death.

Let us also recall Barth's intense protection of the work of reconciliation, limiting it to the life and death of Jesus Christ. The ontic and noetic distinction serves this agenda. So does his novel work on the contemporaneous states of humiliation and exaltation. In each case Barth forges an unbreakable bond between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. There is therefore no possible additional salvation in the resurrection age. Neither a believer nor a church can supplement Jesus' work. We share in the reconciliation bounty through the resurrection-presence of Christ (or Christ's Spirit), but the resurrection disclosure adds nothing to the finished work of justification and sanctification sealed in Christ's death. It makes sense when we find Barth denying that any ontic change happens to Jesus Christ in His resurrection, for this would suggest that salvation had not been completed, or that Jesus Christ had not done His work as vere homo vere Deus.

Now to the point. Dawson wants to call attention to the trinitarian dynamic, that is, the work of the Father and the Son, by including them in the reconciling Auferweckung. This would work well enough, except that it is incompatible with the contemporaneous states. If Christ's "crucifixion was His coronation," then nothing needs to be added after Christ’s death. Dawson squeezes IV/1 as hard as possible to extract Barth’s talk of the Father acting on the “passive” Son, though instead of reading this as justification in the noetic sense, Dawson reads it back into the ontic work of the cross: “Barth usually understands the reconciling being and action of Jesus Christ to come to its completion in his crucifixion and death so long as we understand his death to include his wholly passive reception of the Father’s gracious awakening of him” (213). Christ’s resurrection included in His death? How? Yet the trinitarian dynamic of the Father (and Spirit) acting on the immobile Son – a clear New Testament teaching – dictates a kind of ontological shift, so Dawson is forced to import the resurrection moment back into Christ’s reconciliation, therefore back onto His death. But this seems to fly in the face of Barth’s clearer moments, that with the overlapping states that nothing need be added to Christ after His death. In short: The trinitarian emphasis of the resurrection implies something ontic for Dawson, leading him to smuggle the resurrection back into Barth’s conception of a reconciliation hermetically sealed on Good Friday.

It seems to me that Dawson has tried to prioritize the ambiguous language of IV/1 over IV/2 and IV/3, the latter two which more clearly relegate resurrection to the noetic category. Would it be better to say that Barth in IV/1 is either being inconsistent or, perhaps, is understanding the Father’s justification in a purely noetic sense?

It also seems likely that Dawson reads death far more seriously than Barth himself does (though he gives him an overly generous reading in this respect). But that’s another longwinded paragraph or five. I’m more interested in hearing your take on IV/1, and just what is going on in the awakening of Jesus, and why Barth is so reluctant to spell it out.