Monthly Archives: September 2021

Karl Barth – The Great Positive Possibility

Continuing with his Romans 13; v8- 14 commentary. If subjection to the authorities in this world is the negative possibility that one conformed to God must endure with its ‘not-doing’ of rebellion, then what is the flip side? The great positive possibility, continues Barth, is love. Love conquers evil and in the words of Jesus “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” is the law by which Christian must live. This means that to every man we should owe love. It is not permitted to excuse ourselves for the absence of love by saying that since we live in the shadowy region of evil, we can only bear witness to the coming world by ‘not-doing’. Love of one another ought to be undertaken as the protest against the course of this world.   Quoting Barth directly: “We are thinking of a general ethical way of behaving – not just a single act. By love we do the ‘new’ by which the ‘old’ is overthrown and we breach the wall of the incomprehensible ‘not-doing’. Love is the outpouring of the Spirit, that reality by which men know God and lay hold of Him as the Unknown Hidden God. Love is thus human religious impossibility apprehended as the possibility of God. Love is the fulfilling of the law. To love thy neighbour in practical terms means that Thou shalt not kill; Thou shall not steal; Thou shall not covet… That men should thus be confronted by other men is the riddle that is presented to us. If we in the unknowable neighbour, apprehend and love the unknown God then who then am ‘I’? Be thyself the neighbour and there is no need for any further question. Love is the good work by which evil is overcome. Love is that denial and demolition of the existing order that no revolt can bring about. If therefore, as a protest against the course of this world, I cease to love, I therefore simply do not love God. We spend our years as a tale that is told – this is the secret of time which is known as the ‘Moment’ of revelation, in that eternal ‘Moment’ which always is, and is not. Time is the irrevocable way of the past and the relentless approach of the future. Facing, as it does, both ways, each moment in time is a parable of the eternal ‘Moment’. Every moment in time thus bears within it the unborn secret of revelation, and every moment can be thus qualified – This do, knowing the time. And so, the known time – apprehended and comprehended in its transcendental significance – provides the occasion for the incomprehensible action of love. Wherever a moment in the past or in the future has been qualified by the Now of revelation that lies in the midst between the two, there is the opportunity for the occurrence of love – for its ‘living regiment’ (Kierkegaard). And faith which sees revelation is the fulfilling of the law. Love as the great possibility has become a command!”

April 1962 Edition
Great and timeless Mr. Barth!

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Karl Barth – The Great Negative Possibility

German stamp showing Karl Barth

In his Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth advises readers of Romans not to start with the 13th chapter. If one does not understand the book as a whole, you will not well understand what he has to say here.

Chapter 13 deals with Paul’s advice on how to deal with positions expressed by Church, State, the Law and Society as a whole.  Barth argues that one who has been transformed to God already has “the answer” and therefor could develop somewhat negative attitudes towards these bodies because they too profess to have “the answer”. Their rules and ordinances may impinge or conflict with one’s freedom to seek after God and his Order. If one already has “the answer” in God why bother with other “false God” answers? “In such cases should one rebel or not?” asks Barth.

Revolution against an authority is bad concludes Paul because after all it is God that has permitted these authoritative bodies to be established in the first place. So when you resist their edicts, rules and commands, you are resisting God’s work at least in an indirect way.

But this is justified you say when the ruler or government uses Evil to usurp what is good to impose their control over people. Is it not justified to harbor resentment against such an order? Of course it is tempting, but argues Paul and Barth, in adopting his plan, the revolutionary allows they themselves to be over come by evil. They set themselves up to be the “grand inquisitor”. They forget that they are not the One who judges all, but only God can do this.

We must overcome evil with good, not with more evil says Paul.  When we resist the temptation to be angry, to assault, to rebel against authority even when it is an unjust one, we are using good to overcome evil Barth emphasizes. ‎And that is the appropriate path we must take as Christians. Sort of humble passive submission. Else we ‎succumb to the great negative possibility.

This position of humble submission of Barth’s was to severley challenge him in the events leading up to the 2nd World War. The German Christian Movement had corrupted church government making it subservient to the state and had introduced Nazi ideology into German Protestant Churches that contradicted the Gospel. Barth rejected this influence and was the lead author of the Barmen Declaration that said allegiance to Jesus Christ gives the church the impetus to resist influence of other lords such as the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. He mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. Hence the limits of passive complicity in this world do have their limit. It is all about the supremacy of God.

Deutsche Bundespost stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration – scanned by NobbiP, Public Domain,

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