“Salvation is from the Jews”: An Assessment and Critique of Karl Barth on Judaism and the Jewish People
It has often been said that, over the centuries, more than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people. The idea behind this expression is that Jewish practice is a key factor in the preservation of the Jewish people. Perhaps this should not be all that surprising to us. After all, as we read about the definitive formation of the Jewish people in the book of Exodus, God’s declaration that the Israelites shall be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6) is followed by God’s giving of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2–17), which serve as shorthand for the way of life that is to be embodied by this special nation.
In fact, the very calling to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is preceded by the statement that “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exod 19:5). It is clear that God’s calling on this people is to be manifested through a particular way of living that God stipulates for this people. In the same way that an elected official is elected to perform a task (and not just enjoy the special status of having been elected), the election of the Jewish people is accompanied by a set of directives about what that election actually means.
Orthodox Jewish thinker Michael Wyschogrod clearly expresses this connection between election and calling. According to Wyschogrod, “to be a Jew means to labor under the yoke of the commandments. . . . The point is that once someone is a Jew, he always remains a Jew. Once someone has come under the yoke of the commandments, there is no escaping this yoke. . . . In fact, nothing that a Jew can do enables him to escape from the yoke of the commandments.”1
Lutheran-turned-Catholic theologian Bruce Marshall agrees with Wyschogrod. In a post-Holocaust world that is attempting to be post-supersessionist, Marshall reminds Christians that affirming the ongoing election of the Jewish people also necessarily entails affirming the ongoing practice of Judaism. In Marshall’s words, “the Jewish people cannot continue to exist in the long run without Judaism… . The irrevocable election of the Jewish people evidently requires the permanence of their religion…..Without Judaism, the Jewish people would surely, if slowly, disappear from the earth,
as other ancient people have done. They would cease to be a distinct people, and vanish into gentilitas, as medieval Christian theologians called the mass of us not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”2 To put it succinctly, Marshall posits that “in permanently electing Israel, it seems that God has also permanently willed the practice of Judaism.”3
As we endeavor to describe the situation and discern the calling of those who, among the Jewish nation, recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world, we are confronted by a number of important issues and complex questions. What does it look like for us to live out our faith in Christ within the context of our Jewishness? How do we embody the liturgies, rituals, and life cycle of our various traditions and the contours of Jewish life? How are we to make sense of, let alone live within, the deep schism that now stands firmly entrenched between Judaism and Christianity? How does our biblical hermeneutic inform our practice?
As we seek to address these important questions, I wish to suggest one theological resource that can aid us in our journey. I would like to focus on the theology of Karl Barth, particularly as it pertains to Judaism and the Jewish people. In a book entitled Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology, Stephen Haynes claims that “it is not an exaggeration to say that Barth’s understanding of Israel has had the kind of influence on Protestant theology that ‘Nostra aetate’ has had on Catholic thinking about Israel.”4
Let us therefore explore what Barth’s theology has to offer to the task set before us.
Who is Karl Barth?
It is important to note at the outset that Karl Barth’s theology was developed in close and dynamic dialogue with the society and circumstances in which he found himself. Though he is arguably the most notable systematic theologian of the twentieth century, Barth did not set out to write a system of theological reflections.5 Rather, he assessed the situation of his time and wrote theology that was highly relevant to his social, political, and religious context, and these elements determined the form and structure of his theology.
Barth’s practice of exegeting his surroundings in order to determine how to appropriately express his theological ideas—constructing theology with the Bible on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, as he put it—buttresses both the logic and the delivery of his theological system. His development as a theologian was deeply connected with the historical setting that encircled him, such that one Barth commentator claims that “Barth must be read ‘prophetically’ rather than ‘systematically,’ as a theologian who is above all concerned with the way in which God’s word shapes history, rather than in setting out an account of the divine essence.” 6
Karl Barth was born in Basle, Switzerland in 1886. He was educated in both Switzerland and Germany, and he spent the remainder of his life pastoring and teaching. His life spanned both world wars, and he was one of the Church’s most vehement voices against Hitler and Nazism. Living in Germany at the time, Barth served as a primary author of the Confessing Church’s defining document, the Barmen Declaration. The goal of this declaration was to connect Christian truths with necessary action against the Nazi regime. In 1934, Barth refused to give an unconditional oath to Hitler and was suspended from his teaching position at Bonn and eventually expelled from Germany. Barth returned to Basle where he continued to denounce Nazism and exhort the Church to actively respond to the atrocities and injustices being committed. He joined the Swiss Armed Forces as a declaration of his passion for the cause.7
According to Barth, the anti-Semitism of the National Socialist regime precluded it from being considered under the Romans 13 umbrella of God-established authority. In Barth’s words, “he who rejects and persecutes the Jews rejects and persecutes Him who died for the sins of the Jews—and then, and only thereby for our sins as well. He who is a radical enemy of the Jews, were he in every other regard an angel of light, shows himself, as such, to be a radical enemy of Jesus Christ. Anti-Semitism is sin against the Holy Ghost. For anti-Semitism means rejection of the grace of God.”8
Following the war, Barth continued to teach and work on his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics. He also participated in ongoing ecumenical discussions and took part in the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. He lived to see the creation of the modern State of Israel,9 and was invited to attend the last two sessions of the Second Vatican Council (though illness prevented him from doing so). Barth passed away on December 10, 1968, having lived a life full of theological, political, and social engagement.
These monumental events of the twentieth century molded Barth as a person and informed the theological ideas he espoused. To quote one prominent Barth scholar:
Never one to do his theology in a social vacuum, Barth found himself increasingly unable to separate his post-war theology from the questions with which the Church was inevitably confronted because of the war. While it would be disingenuous to suggest that Barth was a deliberate pioneer of interfaith theological dialogue in the same sense as people like Paul van Buren and Hans Kung, it would be equally incorrect to suggest that Barth was entirely ambivalent about the state of Jewish-Christian relations, or that he did not work hard to eliminate the anti-Jewish elements that had for so long contaminated the Church’s teaching.10
Nowhere in his writings does Barth intentionally develop a theology of Israel, Judaism, or the Jewish people, but these elements figure prominently throughout his entire theological system, especially in his later writings. In this regard, Barth was among those to pioneer a new understanding—or rather, to unearth a biblical understanding—of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, though certain areas of his thought remain deeply problematic. His greatest contributions are to be found in his understanding of covenant and election, his elucidation of the two-fold nature of the people of God, his ordering of gospel and law, and the emphasis he places on the Jewishness of Jesus. His greatest shortcomings are to be found in his failure to recognize the intimate connection between Israel and Torah, his understanding of Israel as a paradigm of divine judgment, his negative assessment of the “synagogue” and rabbinic Judaism, and the way in which his Christology assumes a certain sense of supersessionism. Let us treat each of these topics in turn, beginning with his main contributions.
From beginning to end, Barth’s theology is decidedly Christocentric, evident (among other places) in his reflections on the divine-human covenant. The covenant between humanity and God is, for Barth, the purpose and meaning of all creation.11 Creation is the stage on which this central act of God is carried out in time, and Scripture narrates the contours of both God’s initiation of and humanity’s response to this covenant. For Barth, all initiative for establishment and preservation of the covenant is on God’s side and humanity’s participation in the covenant is always and exclusively characterized by response and never by initiation.
Barth’s Christology emphasizes the incarnation, for in the person of Christ the divine-human unity is manifested in its fullest form. For Barth, this divine-human unity does not merely take place in time (at the moment the Logos takes on human flesh), but is rather God’s eternal mode of being.12 As the full revelation of God, Christ makes known to humanity that, in the words of one Barth commentator, “God determines to be God, from everlasting to everlasting, in a covenantal relationship with human beings and to be God in no other way.”13 In other words, the covenant is not merely one act that God chooses to carry out, but rather lies at the core of who God is. Speaking Christologically about the covenant, Jesus Christ represents both the elect Man and the electing God, and the election of the community of God takes place within the election of Christ.
While Barth’s theology is deeply informed by the Reformed tradition, there is one significant point at which Barth diverges from Calvin that is particularly relevant for our discussion here. Whereas Calvin posits a notion of “double predestination” whereby some are predestined to eternal life and others are predestined to eternal destruction,14 Barth characteristically reorients this doctrine around the person of Christ. As the elect One, Christ takes upon himself both election and reprobation. To quote Barth, “predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at His own cost.”15
In the incarnation, Christ takes on humanity’s sinfulness and lifts humanity up into restored fellowship with God. On the cross, Christ suffers the rejection that sinful humanity deserves; he acts as the judge, judged in our place. In Barth’s words, “if God Himself became man, this man, what else can this mean but that He declared Himself guilty of the contradiction against Himself in which man was involved; that He submitted Himself to the law of creation by which such a contradiction could be accompanied only by loss and destruction; that He made Himself the object of the wrath and judgment to which man had brought himself; that He took upon Himself the rejection which man had deserved; that He tasted Himself the damnation, death and hell which ought to have been the portion of fallen man?”16 Thus, according to Barth, “predestination is the non-rejection of man.” 17
It is within the context of the election of Jesus Christ that the election of the Jewish people—and the Church—is situated. According to Barth, “the election of grace, as the election of Jesus Christ, is simultaneously the eternal election of the one community of God by the existence of which Jesus Christ is to be attested to the whole world and the whole world summoned to faith in Jesus Christ.”18 This election of the community of God exists in the twofold form of Israel and the Church. In Barth’s words, “to this unity and twofold form of Jesus Christ Himself there corresponds that of the community of God and its election. It exists according to God’s eternal decree as the people of Israel (in the whole range of its history in past and future, ante and post Christum natum), and at the same time as the Church of Jews and Gentiles (from its revelation at Pentecost to its fulfillment by the second coming of Christ).” 19
For Barth, these two branches of the community of God are definitively two but indissolubly one. Barth avoids overly dichotomizing these two communities, particularly by characterizing Israel or the Old Testament covenant as being based upon law and the Church or New Testament covenant as being based upon grace.20 For Barth, the fact that the covenant is entirely initiated by God indicates that it is fundamentally a covenant of grace. In the words of one Barth scholar, “the God of the Law and the Prophets is already the God of grace, just as Jesus Christ is unintelligible apart from the promises given to Israel.” 21 In an essay entitled Gospel and Law, Barth explains that gospel must be spoken of first, for the law follows the promise. According to Barth, “we must first of all know about the Gospel in order to know about the Law, and not vice versa.” 22 The content of the gospel is God’s grace, and any understanding of God’s law or commands must be situated within the context of grace. According to Barth, grace is not just God’s response to the sin of humanity, but rather undergirds God’s relationship with humanity from beginning to end. In other words, “Gods covenant with Israel is supremely gracious in its own right antecedent to sin and the need for redemption.” 23
With regard to the Jewish people, the implications of what we have said so far hold great significance. By claiming that the foundation of the covenant—both for Israel and the Church—is God’s preemptive grace, and by positing that Christ takes upon himself divine reprobation, Barth reinforces the notion that the divine-human covenant—and therein God’s covenant with Israel—is irrevocable and indissoluble. God’s commitment to the covenant endures even if human faithfulness continually falters, and Christ’s crucifixion and atonement definitively demonstrate this truth. With regard to the Jewish people, Barth states that “it is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made his own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own.” 24 Israel’s sin is not capable of dissolving its covenant with God, but rather exists within God’s indelible election of and commitment to the Jewish people.
Having established the eternal and enduring nature of Israel’s election, Barth explains that the world’s invitation to covenant partnership with God comes only through the people of Israel. For Barth, God’s covenant with the nations is clearly an extension of God’s covenant with the Jews. While the election of all people ultimately exists within the central and all-encompassing election of Christ, this movement takes place in history as an extension of God’s covenant with Israel. “In tracing God’s election, providence, and covenant with the Jews, Barth affirmed the particularity of God’s election for the Jews ‘in whom there is fullness of salvation for all men of all nations.’ ”25 Thus for Barth, Israel’s role remains central, even though their obedience and faithfulness are far from constant. According to Barth, “from Genesis 12 onwards the Old Testament is the account of the existence of this one and strangely unique and singular people, and therefore the account of the history which within world history has the character of the history of salvation.” 26 Insofar as God’s actions in history focus upon the salvation of humanity, they take place through God’s election of the people of Israel.
Barth explains that Israel is the locus of God’s holiness in the world, and Israel’s holiness derives from the holiness of Israel’s “first-born Brother” in whom Israel exists.
In His holiness they, too, genuinely participate. His distinctive characteristic, the mercy in which God in His person made man His own concern and gave Himself to man, is the distinctive characteristic of the God of Israel, of His election of Israel, of the promise given to this whole people as such; the distinctive characteristic therefore, the holiness, of each individual member of this people, even of the hardened in this people, even of that rest who always clung to strange gods, who always stoned the prophets and finally took the Son of God Himself and delivered Him up to be crucified, even of Judas Iscariot. His distinctive characteristic is not lost even for the Israel which has so completely failed to recognize it, which has met it with such complete disobedience.27
Despite its history of disobedience, Israel remains the holy people of God, and this holiness extends outward from Israel to all nations through the mediation of Christ.
Because Christ, along with being the ground of the election of the community of God, is also the medium by which Israel’s election extends outward to the nations, it is no mere historical accident that God’s incarnation took place in Jewish flesh. It is only by virtue of Christ’s being Jewish that he serves as the means of extension of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. According to Barth,
[T]he word did not simply become any ‘flesh,’ any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of the New Testament Christology may have been shaped by a very non-Jewish environment. But they relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfills the covenant made by God with this people.28
When Gentiles join the community of God by becoming Christians, they enter into God’s preexisting relationship with Israel. The Church in no way supplants Israel’s election, but rather confirms it.29 In Barth’s words, “the Church does not dispute, but asserts and teaches in defiance of all Gentile arrogance, the eternal election of Israel. Confessing Jesus Christ, it confesses the fulfillment of everything that is pledged to Israel as promise, the substance of all the hope of the fathers, of all the exhortations and threats of Moses and the prophets, of all the sacrifice in the tabernacle and the temple, of every letter of the sacred books of Israel.”30
Whereas for many Christian theologians the election of the Church supersedes God’s covenant with Israel, for Barth the inclusion of the Gentiles is the strongest proof of God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people, for it signals that Israel’s election is being used for the purpose it was always ultimately intended—as a light to the nations. “According to Barth, the concrete history of Jesus Christ is the history of the confirmation of Israel’s permanent and complete covenant (Jer. 31:31–34) and worldwide reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19–21)… Election as God’s gracious election is God’s yes to Israel and to all peoples in Jesus Christ. The eschaton of the history of Jesus Christ as the Jew, which presupposes the priority of the election of Israel, primarily reveals the electing God of Israel… Israel is God’s chosen community, and the church exists as the ecumenical people of God from all nations in the framework of God’s one and nonterminated covenant.” 31
Before moving on to critiques of Barth’s doctrine of Judaism and the Jewish people, let us review what we have covered so far. First, for Barth, covenant is a central focal point in the history of God’s relationship to humanity and the world. God decided from all eternity to be a God who is in covenant relationship with human beings, and this decision is fully revealed (and made fully manifest) in the person of Jesus Christ. Representing the perfect unity of divinity and humanity, Christ takes upon Himself both the election and the rejection of all humanity, and it is within Him that the community of God is elect. Covenant relationship with God is always indelibly founded upon God’s grace, such that human sin and shortcomings cannot abrogate the covenant. The community of God exists in the twofold form of Israel and the Church, and it is through the enduring election of Israel that God extends his covenant to the nations. The extension of God’s covenant with Israel by no means nullifies God’s covenant with Israel but rather confirms his faithfulness to that covenant. Because Israel is the means by which God reaches out to all humanity, the Jewishness of Jesus serves as a permanent reminder that indeed “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
Having reviewed some of Barth’s greatest contributions regarding the relationship between Israel and the Church, let us now move on to assess the major weaknesses of Barth’s position.
While the divine-human covenant sits at the center of Barth’s theology generally, and of his reflections on Israel and the Church specifically, there is one significant omission in his discussion of covenant that should be of concern to us. In his effort to demonstrate emphatically that God’s covenant is one of grace, and that gospel always precedes law, Barth never sufficiently expounds the role that Law (or, more properly, Torah) plays in God’s covenant with the Jewish people. As we mentioned at the outset, the Jewish people’s connection to the Torah is a paramount feature of its existence. Moses says to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 30: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws. . . . This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” 32
While it is important to understand, alongside Barth, that Israel’s obedience to the Torah is not determinative of whether or not the covenant will endure, it is also necessary to point out the centrality of the Torah in terms of what Israel’s election means and entails. According to one Barth scholar,
[T]he Church Dogmatics as a whole says remarkably little about Law itself. Even in Barth’s account of the earthly Jesus, the Royal Man, there is little about Christ’s teaching and observing and ratifying of Israel’s Law…There is much about ‘Divine command,’ much about Divine instruction and direction, much about Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and much about the famous, living voice of God, the Deus dixit. And all these of course are in the neighborhood of Israel’s Torah; but they are self-consciously event-oriented, dynamic versions of what Israel and Jews of all ages call the ordinances, statutes and precepts of the Divine covenant with his people.33
A particularly poignant image with regard to Israel and the Torah is the notion that the Torah represents the ketubah, or marriage certificate, between Israel and God. According to Jon Levenson,
…covenant-love is mutual; it distinguishes a relationship of reciprocity. On God’s side lies an obligation to fulfill the oath he swore to the Patriarchs, to grant their descendants the promised land, to be their God. Israel, for her part, is to realize her love in the form of observance of her master’s stipulations, the mitsvot, for they are the words of the language of love, the fit medium in which to respond to the passionate advances of the divine suzerain. It is not a question of law or love, but law conceived in love, love expressed in law. The two are a unity. To speak of one apart from the other is to produce a parody of the religion of Israel. The love of God moves Israel to embrace the norms of Sinai.34
Tantamount to saying “I do” in a wedding ceremony, upon hearing the Book of the Covenant read aloud, the Israelites declare in Exodus 24:7 na’aseh v’nishma—“we will do and we will hear.” They acknowledge that covenant life with God requires obedience to God’s Torah, and as the elect people of God they agree to these terms. Because of the centrality of this connection between Israel and the Torah, our own quest to discover covenantal faithfulness as Jews must include a lengthy consideration of how the Torah functions in our faith and praxis. Unfortunately, Barth is scarcely able to assist us in this regard.
In fact, Barth’s estimation of rabbinic Judaism—what he calls “the synagogue”—is consistently negative and disparaging.35 Because Barth’s Christology looms so large, it is categorically impossible for Barth to assign a positive role and function to rabbinic Judaism, i.e. to the track that non-Messianic Judaism takes after the first century. For Barth, Israel’s rejection of Jesus can only be construed as a resistance to its own election that necessarily exists within the election of Christ. In this regard, one of Barth’s greatest strengths—his robust Christology—ends up becoming his greatest weakness.
By grounding the election of the community in the election of Christ, the election of Israel is ultimately in danger of being theologically eclipsed. According to Kendall Soulen, this is exactly what happens for Barth. In Soulen’s words, “covenant history becomes a reality that exists extrinsically to human history in Jesus Christ alone. In the end, covenant history seems to collapse and disappear into the figure of Jesus Christ.” 36
Like so many Christians before him, Barth uses the destruction of the Temple in 70AD as proof of God’s judgment on Israel. In Barth’s words,
…as it stands…Israel as such and as a whole is not obedient but disobedient to its election. What happens is that Israel’s promised Messiah comes and in accordance with His election is delivered up by Israel and crucified for Israel…What does not happen, however, is that Israel as such and as a whole puts its faith in Him. What happens, on the contrary, is that it resists its election at the very moment when the promise given with it passes into fulfillment. Israel refuses to join in the confession of the Church, refuses to enter upon its service in the one elected community of God. Israel forms and upholds the Synagogue (even though the conclusion of its history is confirmed by the fall of Jerusalem). It acts as if it had still another special determination and future beside and outwith the Church. It acts as if it could realize its true determination beside and outwith the Church. And in so doing it creates schism, a gulf, in the midst of the community of God.37
Of course, as we have already said, for Barth this does not mean that Israel’s covenant with God is abrogated—and this is precisely his point. Israel cannot escape its election or its electing God, nor can it escape the role it has been assigned in serving the outward expansion of God’s covenant.38 However, for Barth, Israel’s obduracy means that Israel’s witness takes a negative form, testifying to the judgment of God and the passing form of the community of God. Israel reminds the world of the wrath due to all humanity and borne instead by Christ. While the obstinacy embodied by Israel is not exclusive to Israel, it is exclusively Israel’s commission to corporately bear witness to human resistance against God. For this reason, in Barth’s words, “the Synagogue of the time after Christ is the more than tragic, uncannily pitiful figure with bandaged eyes and broken lance, as depicted on the Minster at Strasbourg.” 39 While Barth goes on to explain that “the Church may also be a figure with bandaged eyes and a broken lance, even though the New Testament is in her hands,” 40 the Church’s primary job is not to bear witness to the faithfulness of God in the face of the community’s unfaithfulness. Rather, for Barth, the Church bears witness to God’s divine mercy, and to the coming form of the community of God.
To paint Israel and Israel’s witness in such unequivocally negative terms reveals one of Barth’s most significant blind spots. While Barth claims that Israel’s sinfulness serves as a mirror to the sin of all humanity and thus anti-Semitism arises as an attempt to shatter that mirror,41 Barth fails to recognize that Israel’s history is not merely a history of disobedience, but also includes within it periods of blissful obedience and faithfulness. In fact, “the history of Israel, as of old and so now, is the recounting of this people’s seeking to do the Lord’s will, to follow in his paths, to meditate on his Law, day and night, to honor his precepts, ordinances and statutes and to bind them before their eyes and write them on their hearts.” 42
After enumerating several key points of appreciation for Barth’s theology, Michael Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Why Was and Is the Theology of Karl Barth of Interest to a Jewish Theologian?,” offers this blind spot as one of his central critiques of Barth. After praising Barth for being “perfectly clear about the election of the Jewish people, especially their continuing election after the crucifixion,”43 Wyschogrod critiques Barth with the statement that
…reading Barth one would gain the impression that there is nothing but faithfulness on God’s part and unfaithfulness on Israel’s. This is not so…Along with the unfaithfulness, there is also Israel’s faithfulness, its obedience and trust in God, its clinging to its election, identity and mission against all the odds. True, all of Israel’s obedience is tinged with its disobedience but all of its disobedience is also tinged with its obedience. It is true that Israel does not deserve its election but it is also true that its election is not in vain, that this people, with its sin, has never ceased to love its God and that it has responded to God’s wrath…by shouldering its mission again, again searing circumcision into its flesh and, while hoping for the best, prepared for what it knows can happen again.44
While Barth makes significant strides in terms of tracing the continuity between Israel and the Church and demonstrating the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness, he fails to follow through with the theological and practical implications of his claims. To review what we have just discussed, Barth’s primary shortcomings are his oversight regarding the relationship between Israel and the Torah, his purely negative assessment of rabbinic Judaism, and his construal of Israel’s history as one of unambiguous disobedience.
Conclusions and Future Directions
Having explored both the strengths and weaknesses of Barth’s theology with regard to Judaism and the Jewish people, what conclusions can we draw regarding Barth’s contributions? How can his thought be complemented or augmented by addressing his problematic blind spots? Let me offer a brief assessment of what Barth does and does not contribute to our task here and suggest how we might address the remaining gaps left by Barth.
First, there is no question that Barth offers a radically new and helpful paradigm regarding the relationship between Israel and the Church. While not completely escaping the grasp of supersessionism,45 Barth stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of his contemporaries and predecessors. His affirmation of the enduring election of Israel and his description of Gentile Christians being grafted into Israel’s covenant with God offer significant theological traction for thinking about the ongoing positive vocation of the Jewish people. However, Barth’s Christocentricity necessitates that he denounce Judaism’s continuation apart from explicit connection to Israel’s Messiah. In other words, as one commentator puts it, “while Barth denies that the church has become the new Israel, he is clear that Israel must become part of the church.” 46
It is at this point that our own assessment of Barth’s contribution becomes ambivalent. While we may align with Barth in the desire for our people to come to know their Messiah, Barth leaves much to be desired in terms of what Messianic Jewish faith ought to look like. If we acknowledge the centrality of the Torah in Israel’s covenant with God, we need resources for how to think about what Judaism looks like in the context of faith in Christ. It is precisely these resources that Barth cannot provide. In his defense, Messianic Judaism did not exist in his day, and a Messianic Jewish paradigm was scarcely conceivable. And yet, from our perspective, this undoubtedly remains a lacuna in his theological system. To put it succinctly, with regard to election, Barth offers a highly desirable theological framework without offering the practical means of implementing it.
The question of how to implement the theological strides Barth has made is of paramount importance. It seems to me that we are going to have to look to rabbinic Judaism as we seek to understand what it means to live as Jews today. Along with the schism between Judaism and Christianity has come the almost inevitable conclusion that following Christ means no longer being under the “yoke of the commandments,” as Wyschogrod terms it. Yet we must remember that Christ’s life predated this schism, and the divide between Torah and faithful discipleship so commonplace today was presumably quite foreign to him. In the words of Katherine Sonderegger, “Israel without the Law is not the Israel honored, remembered and sustained by Jews and Judaism to this day, nor…the Israel Jesus Christ himself came to shepherd, obey, and fulfill in his own covenant righteousness. . . . For Christ was and is a bar mitzvah, a Son of the Commandment, or in the Apostle Paul’s words, Christ is the telos nomou, the goal and perfection of the Law.” 47
In order to discern the calling of those who, among the Jewish nation, recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel, we need to seek out ways to affirm, alongside Barth, the ongoing election of the Jewish people as well as the ongoing practice of some form of Judaism. After all, given the construct of God’s covenant with Israel, these two things are fundamentally inseparable.48 It is my hope that our discussions here might help us to build a framework of how to understand and embody the full reality of God’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish people. <
1. Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 206.
2. Bruce Marshall, “Elder Brothers: John Paul II’s Teaching on the Jewish People as a Question to the Church” in John Paul II and the Jewish People, eds. David G. Dalin and Matthew Levering (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2008), 122.
3. Bruce Marshall, “Elder Brothers,” 122.
4. Stephen Haynes, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 48.
5. In reflecting upon his own theological method, Barth explained: “As far as I can recall there was no stage in my theological career when I had more than the very next step forward in mind and planned for it. On each occasion this step developed from the steps which I had already taken, and followed from my view of what was possible and necessary in each changing situation. . . . I used what I thought that I had learned and understood so far to cope with this or that situation, with some complex of biblical or historical or doctrinal questions, often with some subject presented to me from outside, often in fact by a topical subject, e.g. a political issue. It was always something new that got hold of me, rather than the other way around. . . . I hardly ever had anything like a programme to follow at all costs. My thinking, writing and speaking developed from reacting to people, events and circumstances with which I was involved, with their questions and their riddles” (Letter to T.A. Gill, 10 August 1957. Cited in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 418–421.).
6. Timothy Gorringe, Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 8.
7. See Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, 305.
8. Karl Barth, The Church and the Political Problem of our Day (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), 51.
9. Barth viewed the modern state of Israel as a “new sign of God’s presence in Jewish history,” and, commenting on Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War, declared that “of course the foundation of the state of Israel [is] not to be seen as an analogy to the conquest under Joshua and thus as a sign that God cannot let his people be defeated. Yet we can read in the newspapers: ‘God keeps his promises.’”(from a recording of conversation with friends, quoted in Haynes, 81).
10. Mark Lindsay, Barth, Israel and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 5.
11. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1 (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 42.
12. See Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in
The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110.
13. McCormack, “Grace and Being,” 98.
14. To quote Calvin: “As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote
to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to
human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 931).
15. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 167.
16. Ibid., 164.
17. Ibid., 167.
18. Ibid., 195.
19. Ibid., 198. As a correlative to this “bilateral ecclesiology,” Barth dedicates a significant section of Church Dogmatics I/2 to expounding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Because Christ is the culmination of the divine-human covenant and Scripture is a witness to the event of Christ, Barth conceives of the Old Testament as the “time of expectation” and the New Testament as the “time of recollection.” He repeatedly stresses their fundamental unity though unique individual functions. Through this analysis, Barth tightly weaves together these two complimentary portions of Christian Scripture, demonstrating how each needs the other to be understood in its fullness and true meaning. Barth rhetorically asks, “Can the closed Canon of witness to expected revelation be read with meaning apart from the counter-canon of revelation that happened?” He speaks of the “bond” formed by these two witnesses, one pointing forward and the other looking back, and uses each as the fundamental interpretive key for the other. The harmony of these two testaments is their unitary testimony to the one God and His desire to fellowship with humanity. In Barth’s words, “The mystery of revelation, which is the mystery of free, unmerited grace, included the Church of the New Testament inseparably with the people whose blessing is attested for us in the Old Testament as expectation of Jesus Christ” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, 101).
20. “Not only does Barth insist here upon the inseparability of Israel and the Church, he predicates this upon a radical rejection of the law-grace dichotomy so typical of post-Reformation Christianity. For Barth, law is not the mode of God’s relating to Israel in the Old Testament, and grace His way of relating in the New Testament. Rather, grace is the presupposition of all covenantal relationships between God and humanity, in the Old Testament as much as in the New. With this recognition, Israel’s religious life can no longer be discredited by recourse to the simplistic and pejorative assumption that it was essentially ‘legalistic,’ in contrast to Christianity’s grace. On the contrary, argues Barth, there exists between Israel and the Church a ‘unity which does not have to be established but is already there ontologically,’ on the basis of their common foundation in grace” (Mark Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus, 100; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 671).
21. Joseph Mangina, Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 77.
22. Karl Barth, “Gospel and Law” in Community, State and Church (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 72.
23. R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 87.
24. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 287.
25. Paul S. Chung, Karl Barth: God’s Word in Action (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 400; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, 226.
26. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, 319.
27. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 286.
28. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 166.
29. According to Eberhard Busch, “precisely because Israel remains elect in Christ, the Gentiles have only one possibility, namely, their calling to be joined to the one covenant. Therefore, anyone who would reject the Jews also rejects Christ. Therefore, only by trusting precisely that God’s covenant with Israel is indeed unbroken—as seen through the world’s reconciliation with God in Christ—can Gentile Christians be assured that they too are elected by grace. Therefore, only as the Messiah of Israel is Christ also the Savior of the world” (Eberhard Busch, “Indissoluble Unity: Barth’s Position on the Jews during the Hitler Era” in For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 66).
30. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 204.
31. Paul Chung, God’s Word in Action, 392; italics added.
32. Deuteronomy 30:15–16, 19–20.
33. Katherine Sonderegger, “Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel,” presented at the 2009 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, 13.
34. Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (New York: Harper, 1987), 77.
35. David Demson notes the problematic nature of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 9–11 and suggests one possible corrective. Demson posits that Paul here is “speaking to gentile Christians about Jewish disobedience in order to alert gentiles to their own disobedience.” Thus Demson recommends recasting Barth’s exegesis in terms of focusing on gentile sin, whereby Christ is “profoundly rejected” by gentile anti-Semitism. See David E. Demson, “Israel as the Paradigm of Divine Judgment: An Examination of a Theme in the Theology of Karl Barth,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 26:4, Fall 1989, 611–627.
36. Soulen, 94.
37. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 208.
38. “If it is now said that God loved the world (Jn. 316), this means positively that the purpose of the election of Israel, as emphatically declared in the Old Testament (especially in Deutero-Isaiah), is now revealed as its determination to be God’s witness to all nations. It does not mean negatively—which would be a foolish thought in this context—that God is no longer the God who elects Israel, or Israel His elect people. It is ‘not as though the word of God hath taken none effect’ (Rom. 96). No unfaithfulness of man can overthrow the faithfulness of God (Rom. 33). ‘The gifts and calling of God are without repentance’ (Rom. 1129). He has ‘not cast away his people’ (Rom. 111). On the basis of the election, even though they are hardened, they are still His branches, ‘beloved for the fathers’ sake’ (Rom. 1128). And Paul’s final word in relation to his people—it is not for nothing that in Rom. 93 he made that awe-inspiring declaration of solidarity with them—is quite unmistakeably that ‘all Israel shall be saved’ (Rom. 1126)—something which is not at all self-evident now that the election and love of God have transcended the sphere of this one people. That the election is primarily of Israel and not of other nations…” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, 769.)
39. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 101.
40. Karl Barth, I/1, 101.
41. Karl Barth, “The Jewish Problem and the Christian Answer” in Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946–52 (London: SCM Press, 1954), 195–201.
42. Sonderegger, “Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel,” 13.
43. Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, 221.
44. Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, 223–224. Some have endeavored to explain this blind spot in Barth’s theology by noting that Barth offers an abstract rather than concrete version of Jewish history and the Jewish people. “Just as Barth’s attempt to bring ‘Israel’ into the system of his doctrine of election (CD II:2) is abstract and formal, Barth’s attempt in CD III:3 to explain the history of the Jews and the persistence of anti-Semitism is dependent on a fictionalized ‘Jewish history’ and a mythicized ‘Jew.’ Barth’s ‘Jewish history’ is the fate of the Jewish people seen from the perspective of their supposed function in salvation history followed by the rejection of Jesus. Barth’s ‘Jew’ is a model of human depravity, of the person who is chosen and called by God, but refuses to respond. Barth’s myths of ‘Jews’ and ‘Jewish history’ have little connection with any actual Jewish persons, except that where they are embraced, the myths Barth helps perpetuate can have murderous consequences for Jewish life.” (Stephen Haynes, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology, 71).
45. Soulen outlines three types of supersessionism: 1) punitive supersessionism, whereby God abrogates his covenant with Israel on account of Israel’s rejection of Christ, 2) economic supersessionism, whereby the church replaces Israel not because of Israel’s sin but because Israel’s role was to prepare the way for spiritual and universal salvation, and 3) structural supersessionism, which represents the deepest level of supersessionism and involves a construal of the narrative plot of salvation history in such a way that Israel (and God’s covenant with Israel) is ultimately indecisive in shaping the narrative’s overall plot. According to Soulen, Barth rejects punitive supersessionism but succumbs to economic supersessionism. See Soulen, 29ff, 93.
46. Haynes, Prospects for Post-Holocaust Theology, 64.
47. Sonderegger, “Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel,” 14.
48. According to Peter Ochs, “there is, in one sense, no other Judaism for Jews than that which comes by way of Rabbinic Judaism, or the Judaism of Mishnah, Talmud, synagogue, prayer book, and Torah study that emerged after, in spite of, and in response to the loss of the Second Temple. All of the new Judaisms that have appeared since have appeared from out of and in terms of this Rabbinic Judaism”(Ochs in John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (London: SCM Press, 2003), 3.