In the nineteenth century, theologians and biblical scholars attempted to carve out a place for Christian theology alongside other sciences. To that end, they became enamored with the historical study of Jesus. They sought evidence to show that the traditions of the church were historically situated and based on intelligible data. Today, this historical perspective has in some sense been rekindled as Christians call for a new awareness of cultural and social contexts. We must acknowledge the historical contingency of the theology we write, teach, and preach. Theology and history, we say, must speak to the actual lived experience of human beings. How then are we to understand a God who cares, who is not aloof from the movement of history, while also declaring the power of this same God to redeem time itself? That is, how can God be proximate to history and also redeem it?

An unlikely source for inspiration on these questions is the early work of Karl Barth. In Militant Grace, Philip Ziegler suggests that the typical response to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans is to first nod appreciatively at the way that Barth cuts through the promise of inevitable progress and depicts history as a witness to our limitations, failure, lack, and need rather than our success, ability, or contributions and to then move on to the more balanced work in the Church Dogmatics.1 And there may be some wisdom to this approach—Barth’s Dogmatics is grounded in an account of “God with us” that is, quite simply, beautiful. However, to say either that Barth’s early critical theology is secondary to what would come after it or that he did not carry any of his early critiques or worries with him throughout his career is to devalue the radical sharpness with which, in The Epistle to the Romans, he sought to reorient the very task of theology for our own time. 

We like to tell ourselves that history is a story of human progress, that through many generations we march toward some ultimate, significant meaning. But the early work of Karl Barth tells a different story. In The Epistle to the Romans, Barth questions the ultimate and objective significance and even reality of the world of time and things, the world of observable human history. This questioning, which some have labeled a denial of history, serves Barth’s larger project of relativizing history. His concern is with establishing history’s meaning not in itself but in relation tothe God who creates and redeems it. This is most poignantly seen in his exegesis of Romans 4, which takes Paul’s account of Abraham and offers a threefold description of faith as miracle, beginning, and creation.2

As miracle, faith is that which cannot be understood sensibly, or as Barth says, “We have no sensible organ wherewith to perceive the miracle” of faith. It defies human expectations because it is not subject to the logic of nature, cause and effect, or the progress of time. As miracle, faith is the impossible. Thus, faith is not something that can be explained on account of visible human works or morality; it operates according to grace, that “[other] method of assessing human worth” that takes account of the invisible life rather than the visible accomplishments of the believer.3

Faith is a gift that precedes all the markers, impressions, and pointers of it and to it in history. Faith, as God’s prior act, is the presupposition of the visible contrasts in our pious, religious lives, of the fact that we experience both trust and doubt, that we are both observant and irreverent. Faith is not to be identified with any one of these experiences but, rather, it makes sense of them as contrasts. Looking again to Abraham, Barth writes, “Abraham’s faith is not yet circumcision, not yet religion, not yet accompanied by pious spiritual experiences. . . . The call and the faith of Abraham without doubt constitute the pure Beginning. They are given first and without any occasion.” To understand faith as beginning is thus to understand God as the source of faith and the source of its meaning, to recognize the unconditioned nature of faith as miracle. It is to see that faith functions in time as “signs, witnesses, recollections, and sign-posts to the Revelation itself, which lies beyond actual reality.” “The decision of God”—to be known in and by faith—“eternally precedes the sign” of faith in the life of believers and in their religious experiences in history.4

As creation, faith points not to our visible, historical establishment in time but rather to what this establishment means for our existence as creatures in relationship to our Creator. This emphasis reinforces that there is a prior, original existence that is the only source of meaning for our existence on the plane of history. Barth writes that Israel’s particularity has historical elements, namely its law and worship, but that its real particularity lies not in these visible, historical elements.5 Instead, Israel’s particularity lies in the original call and relationship that is presupposed in these visible historical elements. But creation signals more than the origin and source of our existence. It looks forward to what God is bringing into existence. Faith’s “creative efficacy” and “dynamic power” comes from its connection to the promise of the coming kingdom, which is invisible and eternal, not visible and temporal.6 Faith creates invisibly and intangibly because it is God alone who is at work in faith. 

It thus becomes clear why Barth could only discuss the value of history after defining faith in this way. Faith is an incomprehensible, miraculous, and radical divine event that establishes the connection between humans and God, and so faith gives language to the tension, to the push and pull, between here (our lives in history and time) and there (God’s eternity and righteousness). The critical line between here and there exposes our distinction from God and thereby proclaims grace. We are constantly “stretching or elongating or developing or building up what lies on this side of the line so that it may cross it.”7 Yet these efforts are futile in themselves because they can never accomplish what they seek to do. We, like Abraham, are not declared righteous on account of works, a history of religious experiences, institutions, or piety. To say this does not deny that we have these experiences or accomplish these works but to suggest that their meaning does not lie in the human, historical assessment of them. 

Yet faith is not merely an indictment of the history of human attempts to erase the distinction between ourselves and God. Faith, as absolute miracle, pure beginning, and primal creation, is the pattern of God’s reckoning according to grace rather than debt.8 This reckoning is not concerned with the visible progress and happenings in history but their hidden, invisible movements and reality. This grace breaks through the logic that would judge righteousness by the visible lives and actions of the so-called faithful. When seen according to grace,history’s very visibility, tangibility, and conspicuousness bears witness to its own limitations, and it thereby proclaims the graciousness of God who maintains a relationship with creation nevertheless. As God’s prior act and gift, faith dissolves all human assumptions about how we assess or determine our standing with God and one another—acts of piety, adherence to tradition or orthodoxy. Rather, faith announces a profoundly different method of accounting for how and where we stand in relation to God. As Barth says, “The historical framework is broken through when the secret of history is laid bare” by the unconditioned reality of faith, meaning, then, that “we have no occasion to deny the plain meaning of history, since it is history which bears witness to the many of the one forgiveness of sins.” Because “faith is not comprehended in an historical happening,” we are able to see both faith and history for what they really are: faith as God’s radical intervention in the world and history and time as witnessing to that intervention rather than identified with it.9

Through this brief overview of dense exegesis from Barth, what becomes clear is that neither faith nor the promise—the kingdom of God—can be equated with visible or historical human experience. To do so would be to “cover their eternal Origin,” to obscure the relationship that is prior to any other descriptor or determination of the meaning of historical events, and to refuse to admit that God is free to work in miraculous ways that run counter to human expectations or logic.10 In this insistence on differentiation, Barth’s exegesis of Romans 4 bolsters his overall argument for God’s freedom by showing that understanding the real value of history and time means understanding its eschatological significance. From this perspective, God’s promise to make the world right entails you and me and the very space and time in which we live. 

That Barth’s investigation into the value of history comes from and illustrates an eschatological perspective is not surprising. The overarching theme of the freedom of God in Barth’s commentary on Romans is continuously rooted in and fleshed out by apocalyptic, eschatological, and extreme language. And faith as divine event and activity is a part of this larger theme. It reinforces Barth’s reading of Romans as a text governed by the eschatological promise that cannot be identified with human being, having, or doing. Thus, as absolute miracle, pure beginning, and primal creation, faith defies human attempts to possess, control, or even define it. Put positively, this eschatological perspective of faith affirms that God’s revelation and grace necessarily cut across the control that human conceptions of time and history attempt to exert upon it. And this is essential to understanding grace—grace is unconditioned by human attempts to earn it and to work against it. 

Critics of Barth tend to overlook this emphasis on grace as they instead stress the necessity of continuity between believing individuals and their transformations by faith. Arguments like these suggest that, as Ernst Troeltsch once noted, eschatological dogmatics is in danger of forgetting that the new, redeemed human being must “work out his relationships to the ‘world.’” In other words, for the Christian understanding of transformation to remain intelligible, there has to be some continuity across this moment. In reply, Ziegler argues that such a perspective does not do justice to the pattern of life from death, “the aeonic work of God to save,” that Scripture describes. Indeed, an uncompromising commitment to the continuity of the Christian person in the experience of faith ultimately means that the transformation of this new person takes shape within ultimately unchanged systems; the person changes, but the world doesn’t.11

Barth’s eschatological perspective with its emphasis on grace denies continuity for exactly this reason. It asks us to amend our perspective that the world changes only through the changed person. Rather, when the event of faith relativizes history, we see through an eschatological perspective that God’s activity changes all of creation, which necessarily includes both the world and the human being. History and time do not remain untouched by judgment and radical transformation.

Barth concludes his exegesis of chapter 4 by sharply observing that “in times of spiritual poverty, historical analysis is a method we are bound to adopt.”12 Here, Barth is addressing the efforts of his predecessors to use historical analysis to keep history “in its place,” far away from their present iterations of the Christian religion. For example, Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer worked to rescue Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God from being discarded altogether, but at the same time, they were keen to keep the kingdom of God far removed from their contemporary churches.13 In their view, the historical question of Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom was distinct from the theological question of the relationship between his preaching and the teaching of the disciples and, subsequently, the church. In recovering the eschatological character of Jesus’s preaching about the kingdom, Weiss and Schweitzer saw themselves as defending a historical-religious claim, not offering theological insight for preachers. Contrary to this effort, Barth suggests that history does and must speak to us now: “what Genesis tells us about Abraham is what concerns us vitally.” Despite historical distance, readers of Genesis and Romans are in unhistorical solidarity with Abraham. We stand with him “at the barrier between death and life,” between denial of God and God’s righteousness.14 Thus, in its very historical situatedness, the event of our faith participates in the same witness today as it did in Abraham’s time. That situatedness points to the radical intervention of God in the world. 

Barth therefore challenges the normative status of the human experience, which displaced the sovereignty of God, placing humans at the center of their own world. He did not do this, however, by denying or abandoning history altogether. We can insist with Barth that neither history nor human experience are meaningless. However, there is the ever-present danger of allowing history to bind and determine our understanding of God’s activity, power, and love for the world. To relativize history and take away its ultimacy is to acknowledge that God remains outside, yet in relationship with, what God has created. If Barth has taught us anything, it is that a God who is not of our own creation, not a reflection of our own interests, and thus not bound by our shortsighted plans is the source of great hope and promise. 

  1. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 24–25. Ziegler seems to illustrate that a preference for Barth’s later, more positive accounts of history, time, and faith leads to a limited and limiting understanding of Barth’s apocalyptic perspective in his early years.
  2. Much has been said about Barth’s treatment and interpretation of Old Testament figures and themes in his Romans commentaries. At times they are problematic, particularly in his exegesis of chapters 9 through 11, which some have argued carries a supersessionist tone. I do not wish to ignore or defend this reading of Barth’s commentary. Yet in Barth’s commentary on chapter 4, he advocates Christian solidarity with Abraham, as Paul (and so Barth) makes the case for God’s acceptance of us based on faith, not works. This is emblematic of the way Beverley Gaventa describes Barth’s use of Jewish themes in Romans, namely that Barth refuses to allow the church to view Israel as “the Other.” In so doing, she argues, Barth does not let the church escape from criticism or responsibility but, rather, calls it to see itself alongside (not instead of or against) Israel. For more, see Gaventa, “The Finality of the Gospel: Barth’s Römerbrief on Romans 9–11,” (lecture, 2019 Annual Karl Barth Conference, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ, June 18, 2019).
  3. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1968), 120 and 122. Also, see 121: “In so far as there is human comprehension and affirmation of God, in so far as spiritual experience is directed towards God, receives its impress from Him, and possesses the form of faith, there has occurred what is impossible, the paradox, and the miracle” (120–21).
  4. Barth, Romans, 128 and 130.
  5. Barth, Romans, 133.
  6. Barth, Romans, 134.
  7. Barth, Romans, 141; also, see 138 and 140.
  8. Barth, Romans, 141.
  9. Barth, Romans, 139 and 144–45.
  10. Barth, Romans, 135.
  11. Troeltsch quoted in Ziegler, Militant Grace, 5; Ziegler responds in Militant Grace, 5.
  12. Barth, Romans, 147.
  13. See Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, ed. John Bowden (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001); and Weiss, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, trans. and ed. Richard Hyde Hiers and David Larrimore Holland (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1971). In his Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer takes pains to criticize nineteenth-century biblical scholars and theologians alike for transforming Jesus into a mere reflection of “modern man.” Likewise, both editions of Weiss’s Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God emphasize that Jesus’s preaching and his self-understanding were intimately bound up with his message of the reign of God. Furthermore, Weiss argues that Jesus’s kingdom proclamation is the “point of departure and center of systematic theology” (57), and he adamantly resists importing modern, alien ideas into Jesus’s ancient “thought-world” (60). Yet in clarifying the “original historical” meaning of Christ’s preaching of the kingdom of God by establishing its historical distance from the Christianity of their own day, Schweitzer and Weiss also distance the theological importance of that eschatological theme.
  14. Barth, Romans, 147.