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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11316278

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