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Fr. Kurt Messick

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The Humanity of God
by Fr. Kurt Messick   
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Last edited: Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

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A short piece on Karl Barth's book


Karl Barth insists on an infinite qualitative difference between God and humanity.  God is ‘wholly other’, and there is nothing that humankind can do to bridge the gulf; however, God can reach ‘down’ to humanity, and bridge the gulf.  This is not something that happens by merit or effort on the part of individuals, but is entirely the grace and gift of God.  This is important to understand as part of Barth’s The Humanity of God – God being wholly other is nonetheless wholly other with us.  The primary expression of this being with us is through Jesus Christ; however, Barth stops short of saying that this is the only expression. 


It is important to realise what Barth is saying – humanity cannot reach God by philosophy, or theology, or science, or nature.  God cannot be reached by religious feelings or actions.  It all comes down to God’s action toward us, on behalf of us.  This was rather radical for Barth to propose, given the longer trend in theology over against which he was operating led to increasing ideas of natural theology and the ability of humanity to attain ‘divine’ heights through learning and increase in knowledge, or indeed through increase in faith and spirituality.


Barth’s The Humanity of God is written more for the general reader than for academic theologians (my students in theology might feel differently about this!).  The book consists of three sections – the first is an essay on Barth’s overview of nineteenth century theology.  Despite being a twentieth-century theologian (arguably one of the greatest of these), his education and formative study is firmly rooted in the Germanic nineteenth century academic enterprise.  The second essay is the one from which the book’s title is taken – the Humanity of God.  This is an essay on Barth’s Christology, in which he looks at God’s divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ.  The last section deals with the issue of human freedom, and how this freedom is in fact a gift from God. 


There is an interesting tension in Barth’s work, in that while Barth on the one hand wants to say that there is nothing, no piece at all, in humanity that can earn, be worthy of, or even try to seek after the infinitely distant God, yet there must be some sort of ‘turning to’ or acknowledgement of God, which stretches uncomfortably for Barth toward an act, or a work that needs doing, hence, works righteousness.  This tension is never fully resolved, either in this text, or in Barth’s voluminous work elsewhere.


One feature of Barth’s overall theology is the recapturing, primarily for Protestants but also for Christianity as a whole, of the orthodox tradition from the beginning of the history of Christendom; however, this is in may ways subverted by Barth’s insistence on the Humanity of God that includes God’s capacity for suffering, and that this is key to his true authority.  Barth’s sense of free will is also at odds with the longer tradition, seeing freedom as coming not before but after God’s salvific act.  The sinner is a slave, not free at all; freedom comes after the grace of God gives it.


Barth’s work here in this text is important and accessible to Christians Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.  Barth’s work at reviving the sense of the importance of the body of the Church and the absolute power of God is an important focus for all Christians to deal with in their theological musings and actions.  In some ways, The Humanity of God was a response to Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which advocated strongly for the need for right action (orthopraxy) in response to the gospel; Barth and Bonhoeffer both experienced the terrors of Germany prior to and during the second World War, albeit in different ways; a comparison of these two texts is worthwhile.


Barth continues to be of great influence in the theological development of academic theologians and clergypersons world-wide; this text, The Humanity of God, is perhaps the easiest of his writings, focusing upon some of the most important features of his theological work. 

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Reviewed by Candida Eittreim 9/2/2004
Father Messick, because of this insightful look at Bath's book, I'll take the time to read it. Thank you for a fine review here.


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