Jesus Christ and the Modern Sinner: Karl Barth's Retrieval of Luther's Substantive Christology

By Marga, Amy Ellen | Currents in Theology and Mission, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Jesus Christ and the Modern Sinner: Karl Barth's Retrieval of Luther's Substantive Christology


Marga, Amy Ellen, Currents in Theology and Mission


Despite Karl Barth's lasting commitment to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin, it is the thought of Martin Luther that casts a long shadow over Barth's theology. As George Hunsinger points out,

At certain vital points Barth follows Luther not only, broadly speaking,
against Calvin and the Reformed tradition, but also against the main
lines of the Lutheran tradition. There are points, in other words, where
Barth actually retrieved Luther in order to stand with him not only
against modernity, but also against the rest of the Reformation. (1)

If we refocus the historical lens upon Barth and Luther, they can be seen to stand like bookends on the shelf of the modern age, with Luther standing at the beginning of what historians now call "early modernity" and Barth standing at its end. (2) Barth looked back for the sake of looking forward and in so doing engaged in intense study of Luther. Barth absorbed aspects of Luther's theology that allowed him to articulate Christian theology in deeper and more sophisticated ways over against modernity, which had through the course of the Enlightenment set the criteria for how we know what we know and thus how we articulate the sinner's relationship to Jesus Christ. As Hunsinger has noted, Barth "almost alone among modern theologians" granted "uncompromising precedence to the Reformation over modernity itself." He did not reject modernity, but he "refused to allow secular epistemologies to set the terms for the validity of the gospel." (3)

Barth's mature Christology, seen in his Church Dogmatics, vol. IV, published in the early 1950s, has been a central channel into comparisons of his theology with that of Luther. Both Karin Bornkamm and Gerhard Ebeling have demonstrated that Luther and Barth share a Christocentrism in the best sense; clearly this was one thing Barth learned from Luther. Bornkamm has shown how Barth transformed Luther's conception of the offices of Christ as priest and king for the sake of forging a relationship between Christology and soteriology. (4) Ebeling traces the christological impulses that Barth took from Luther, even while Barth formed his own criticisms of the Reformer in the Church Dogmatics. (5) But Barth had already begun retrieving aspects of Luther's Christology almost thirty years earlier. One example of this is a lecture that Barth gave in 1929 in Munster on theology and ethics titled "The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life." After a decade that included two lecture cycles in dogmatic theology and intense engagement with Roman Catholic theology, Barth dove into the works of Augustine, Calvin, and Luther. The result was a lecture on theology and ethics titled "The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life" that displays Barth's deepening understanding of Luther's Christology.

In this essay I briefly present Luther's Christology from his 1535 Galatians commentary (6) and show how Barth reached back to retrieve this for his own theology despite the drastically different epistemological landscape of the two thinkers brought about by the Enlightenment. Barth reached over Enlightenment notions of rationality and morality to retrieve Luther's substantive Christology, and in so doing he left behind the psychological and historical interpretations of the person and work of Christ by thinkers such as Werner Elert and Karl Holl. Luther's theology provided Barth with the resources to pull Christology out of the grip of Enlightenment understandings of the individual as an autonomous agent and show that reconciliation of the human to God by God and through God alone need not be beholden to modern theories of rationality or morality.

Martin Luther's Christology in the Galatians commentary

The richness of Martin Luther's Christology has provided scholars with a wide variety of angles from which to analyze it. Ebeling has tried to capture its expanse under the terminology of a "forensic-antithetical" Christology. …

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