Barth on What We May Believe
Every now and then you come across sections of Karl Barth's thought that stump you. They call to question if you have fully understood his theology and the minor points that have led to a specific sentence or paragraph. One such section comes in the final lecture of The Faith of the Church.
Barth is concluding his series of lectures on The Apostle's Creed as taught and instructed in John Calvin's Geneva Catechism. The points where Barth offers criticism of Calvin are noteworthy. Occasionally Barth challenges Calvin's own internal consistency. Other times Barth challenges Calvin's understanding of the creed or a particular Scripture. One such time occurs when discussing the closing belief in "life everlasting." Though the section is rushed it caused me to stop and think pointedly about Barth's theology of faith, being, and existence. I quote the concluding paragraphs at length without further introduction:
"According to Calvin, the Creed does not speak of hell and eternal death because it's author was nice enough to be willing to speak only of comfort. But Calvin, as if to restore things, reminds us that there is also hell, although the Creed did not mention it. I think that, here too, Calvin must be slightly corrected. It is not only out of kindness, out of good nature, that the Creed does not mention hell and eternal death. But the Creed discusses only the things which are the object of the faith. We do not have to believe in hell and in eternal death. I may only believe in the resurrection and the judgment of Christ, the judge and advocate, who has loved me and defended my cause.
The Creed discusses the things to be believed. To believe. It is important to finish with faith. We believe in the Word of God and it is the word of our salvation. The kingdom, the glory, the resurrection, the life everlasting, each one is the work of rescue. Light pierces through the darkness, eternal life overcomes eternal death. We cannot 'believe' in sin, in the devil, in our death sentence. We can only believe in the Christ who has overcome the devil, borne sin and removed eternal death. Devil, sin, and eternal death appear to us only when they are overcome.
I fear that much of the weakness of our Christian witness comes from this fact that we dare not frankly confess the grandeur of God, the victory of Christ, the superiority of the Spirit. Wretched as we are, we always relapse into contemplation of ourselves and of mankind, and, naturally, eternal death comes up no sooner than we have looked on it. The world without redemption becomes again a power and a threatening force, and our message of victory ceases to be believable. But as it is written: 'The victory that triumphs over the world, this is our faith' (1 John 5:4). " (The Faith of the Church, 172-174)
There are a couple cruical things to state here. Barth is clarifying that "faith" pertains to the work and person of God as revealed in the redemption in history performed by Jesus Christ. This is the object of faith. Thus, man is not to turn inwardly upon himself to make declarations of "faith" nor is he to have "faith" in the elements of God's rejection (e.g. eternal damnation, hell). This is not Barth saying that these things do not exist, but that because of their existence being rooted in God's eternal No they cannot be "believed."
The final point is what is crucial to understanding Barth's speech about the Devil, hell, demons, and even sin. When Barth speaks of sin as the "impossible possibility" in man there can be frowns of confusion. Barth is speaking about the negative existence (for lack of better terminology) of sin and things formally rejected by God.
Hans Urs von Balthasar does me a service of explanation when he clarifies this portion of Barth's thinking in The Theology of Karl Barth:
"Thus Barth comes to the conclusion that evil in its cosmic power is superior to men as a creature but as a force inferior to God as Creator and Redeemer. Evil is a 'reality' in as much as it is the correlate to God's No but is in 'unreality' inasmuch as is no does not equal the balance of God's Yes but is only a byproduct of that Yes.
Nor does Barth grant the same ontic density to the demonic 'spirits' as to the angels. Just as the angels are the pure expression of God's will, so two are the devils nothing but the expression of his rejection and reprobation. Because faith presupposes a positive relation to what is being believed, it is illegitimate to speak of a faith in devils.
They are, in everything and to their very core, the Lie: they are the Lie when they purport to be existent, since they are unreal. They are the Lie when they purport to be nonexistent, since they have a reality as a lie. As a lie, vanity has 'something like substance and personality, vitality and spontaneity' (7, 618). But as such they can claim the corner of the truth. Just as one cannot say that God created them, for God hates nothing, so one cannot say that he maintains them: their reality consists in being the expression of rejection and thus destined for the eternal fire of nothingness (7, 611). " (The Theology of Karl Barth, 231-232)
Everything in God's rejection and reprobation is a "lie" at the core of its rebellion against God's eternal Yes. It is against the order of God and as such qualifies as vanity and ultimately "nothingness."