Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Faith in CD IV.1

Continuing with the last few weeks, as I’ve been writing my way through parts of Karl Barth’s volume IV.1 of the Church Dogmatics, today I’ll be attempting to present Barth’s doctrine of faith. This comes towards the end of IV.1. I’ve been curious myself to learn more of what Barth means by faith, and so in one sense this is compiled mostly for my benefit, though I hope you may also learn from it.

(As before all page numbers refer to the Hendrickson edition of 2010.)

Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Faith in CD IV.1

In typically dialectic manner, Barth begins defining faith as that which “has to be done” by the individual, but which “cannot be done naturally.” (P. 614) As such, faith is a human work, as the response to God’s work in Jesus Christ, yet it is a unique human work unlike all others. (“Work” here is not “self-justification,” as Barth later explains. Instead, work means simply faith is a human act.) This work is unique in that we cannot perform it, but we must. We cannot have faith, but we must. Similar to speaking of God and the task of theology, another human act we cannot do naturally, so it is with faith. Since in Christ God has spoken to us we must speak of God; so it is with faith. Although we cannot naturally have faith, we must because the object of faith (Jesus Christ) is faithful to us. The faithfulness of Jesus requires a corresponding response. It is not a faithfulness that takes place over our heads or behind our backs, so to speak, and therefore it confronts us and demands response. Faith is this response, however inadequate we are to make it in ourselves. This brings to mind what the apostle Paul has said, that faith is a gift (see Eph. 2:8).

Simply, faith is a divine work which is at once a human work. (Cf. p. 615)

Faith Cannot be “Self-Justification”

From here Barth continues to develop the negative side of faith, that which it cannot be. Faith cannot be a form of self-justification in which man saves himself. Barth writes, “It is not in and with all this that a man justifies himself, that he pardons himself, that he sets himself in that transition from wrong to right, from death to life, that he makes himself the subject of that history, the history of redemption. There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation…” (P. 616)

Faith, instead is “wholly and utterly humility.” (P. 618)  And as humility it cannot be self-justification as this would ultimately be another form of human sin which is pride.

This is how Barth begins to define faith under the heading “Justification by Faith Alone.” In general terms he does two things with this. He at once affirms faith as the response of mankind to Gods faithfulness, and yet he takes the center of faith away from man and places it upon the objective grounds of Jesus Christ. Faith is what we must do though cannot do, yet in Christ that which has been done in our place, that which we take part in.

After this Barth brilliantly continues not with further describing faith, but with the community of faith. I found this section to be one of the most compelling, especially in the overly individualize American culture I grew up in. Because for Barth, faith is the faith of a human community. It is essential that faith is not an abstract principle, an individual act, but that which is done in the community of Jesus Christ: the church. As faith is a human act, so it must be an act within community. Barth writes, “A private monadic faith is not the Christian faith.” (P. 678) Because, as Barth writes later, “By nature humanity means fellowship. …Since faith is his free human act, he cannot perform it without his neighbors…” (P. 778)

To be human without community is not to be human at all, therefore a faith without community is not Christian faith. Accordingly, faith is the act within the specifically human community of Jesus Christ, His body, the church. Barth writes to great length about the being of this community.

Faith and Its Object

After this Barth picks up the subject of faith again in the final section of the volume, section 63 called, “The Holy Spirit and Christian Faith.” This section has two headings, first on Faith and its Object, second on The Act of Faith.

Faith is not for Barth a general term, but means particularly faith in Jesus Christ. It is only true faith in relation to its object upon which it is based. These two distinctions are essential.

Faith is faith only in relation to its object, Jesus Christ. As Barth puts it, “Faith stands or falls with its object.” (P. 742) Faith is faith only in this relationship.  Barth presents a beautiful picture for this:

“Faith does not realize anything new. It does not invent anything. It simply finds that which is already there for the believer and also for the unbeliever. It is simply man’s active decision for it, his acceptance of it, his active participation in it. This constitutes the Christian. In believing, the Christian owes everything to the object of his faith. … This distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian. The object [think Jesus Christ] is like a circle enclosing all men and every individual man [and woman]. In the case of the Christian this circle closes with the fact that he believes. In the case of the non-Christian it is still open at the point where he ought to believe but does not believe, or no longer believes. The unbeliever has not accepted the relationship which is in relationship to him. He is abnormal in this respect. Faith is the normalizing of the relationship between man and this object.” (P. 742)

Barth seems to be saying here that all humanity is enclosed within this circle, within the object, and the only difference is that a believer is normal and accepts this while an unbeliever abnormally does not. Wonderfully, this could be said another way. Jesus Christ is in relationship with all humanity, we cannot make this happen ourselves. Yet those who accept this respond with faith. While those who do not still remain within this circle. A similar conclusion was made in my book, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News.

Barth continues by defining this object:

“…The ‘object’ …is Jesus Christ, in whom God has accomplished the reconciliation of the world.” (P. 742)

The second consideration is to say further that faith is not only in relation to Jesus Christ, but it is “based upon [Him].” Barth says that while faith is genuinely a human act, the most genuinely human act in fact, it is “also the work of Jesus Christ. It is the will and decision and achievement of Jesus Christ the Son of God that takes it takes place as a free human act…” (P. 744)

Finally, Barth reaches this conclusion of Faith and its object.

“The Son makes a man free to believe in Him. Therefore faith in Him is the act of a right freedom, not although but just because it is the work of the Son. A man does not have this freedom unless the Son makes him free.”

Here Barth continues with the Holy Spirit as the awakening power which confronts man, illuminating what is true. He writes, “The Holy Spirit is the power in which Jesus Christ the Son of God makes man free, makes Him genuinely free for this choice and therefore for faith.” (P. 748)

Then in my favorite quote from this section he says this. “Faith is at once the most wonderful and simplest of things. In it man opens his eyes and sees and accepts everything as it—objectively, really, and ontologically—is. Faith is the simple discovery of the child which finds itself in the father’s house and on the mother’s lap.” (P. 748)

The third and final thing comes when faith takes on the form of constituting a new Christian subject, a “new creation.” This is what faith sees, that God in Christ is for me, that I belong to Him, that I am His beloved child elected in Christ Jesus. Faith as such has a cognitive character and not a creative one. It does not produce this new man, but recognizes him. (Cf. pp. 751-5)

The Act of Faith

After all this, Barth ends finally with the act of faith. Notably, this is a remarkably short section, just under twenty pages. In a book of nearly eight-hundred pages it’s interesting to me that only twenty of these are spent discussing the actual act of faith, what we do in response to God. Beautifully, the emphasis is on the work done in Jesus Christ, the work of reconciliation.

Since Barth has been brief here, so will I. Simply, for Barth, the act of faith is acknowledgement, recognition, and confession.

The emphasis of faith is not on our response to God, but on God’s faithfulness that generates and grounds that response. Thomas Torrance often used the analogy of a father holding his child’s hand. The father is the one holding onto the child, and she may be holding on as well, though who’s really holding onto who? Obviously the father is far more capable and responsible for holding onto his child’s hand than this child is responsible for holding his. So it is with our faith. The object of our faith and the ground of it is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who gave Himself for me and for the world. This is what God has done for us. God has embraced us in the reconciliation of Christ; faith is merely our humble response to His outrageous faithfulness. We are like children holding our Father’s hand.

There is obviously more that could be said about Barth’s doctrine of faith. Generally speaking however, this is how I understood Barth as I read and pondered him in the final sections of CD IV.1.

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