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‘The One Jesus Christ’: Romans 5:12–21 and the development of Karl Barth's christology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2014

Orrey McFarland*
Durham University, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham DH1 3RS,


Although many Barth scholars have begun to argue for the necessity of evaluating Barth's theology as an interpretation of scripture, so far these efforts have focused more on hermeneutical questions and less on the specifics of Barth's exegesis, the specific ways his conclusions derive from that exegesis, and the interplay between his exegetical work and his theology. Accordingly, this article seeks to contribute to Barth studies by tracing the development of Barth's christology through his exegesis of Romans 5:12–21 in the first edition of the Romans commentary and Barth's later essay Christ and Adam – specifically how he understands the function of Christ's particularity in relation to his universal soteriological significance. These works have been selected not only because they give extended treatments of the text but also because there is a wide timespan between them. Furthermore, in contrast to the second edition of Romans and the Church Dogmatics, these texts remain relatively untapped, and will consequently provide a unique entry-point into Barth's exegetical work. By looking at Barth's theological development through his exegesis of Paul's text, we have a benchmark by which both to trace Barth's development and to critique it: does Barth do justice to both the particular and universal aspects of the christology of Romans 5:12–21? In this way, I intend to take seriously Barth's recurring assertion that his project succeeded or failed by how well it functioned as biblical interpretation. It will be demonstrated that the early Barth was unable to allow Christ's particularity to have much of a soteriological function in his interpretation of Romans 5:12–21, and was thus compelled to downplay the particularity of Christ which is emphasised in the text and instead emphasise his universality as the only aspect of soteriological value. By contrast, the later Barth grounded Christ's universality precisely in his particularity; that is, the Christ-event only had universal soteriological consequence because it was the action of a particular, historical Jesus. Yet, despite any problems we might find with Barth's interpretations, both works display Barth as an interpreter seeking to grapple with the nuances of scripture and with one of the central issues of the biblical text, and of soteriology in general: the relation of the one to the many.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2014 

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1 Watson, F., ‘Barth's Philippians as Theological Exegesis’, in Karl Barth: The Epistle to the Philippians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. xxviiiGoogle Scholar.

2 Cf. e.g. Wood, D., Barth's Theology of Interpretation, Barth Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)Google Scholar.

3 For examples of such work, cf. Paddison, A., ‘Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis of Romans 9–11 in the Light of Jewish-Christian Understanding’, JSNT 28 (2006), pp. 469–88Google Scholar; Hill, Wesley A., ‘The Church as Israel and Israel as the Church: An Examination of Karl Barth's Exegesis of Romans 9:1–5 in the The Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics 2/2’, Journal of Theological Interpretation 6/1 (2012), pp. 139–58Google Scholar.

4 1st edn: Der Römerbrief (Erste Fassung) 1919, ed. H. Schmidt (Gesamtausgabe II: Akademische Werke; Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1985). A translation of 5:12–21 can be found in Henry, D., The Early Development of the Hermeneutic of Karl Barth as Evidenced by his Appropriation of Romans 5:12–21 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), pp. 2144Google Scholar. Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5, trans. T. Smail (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004); published originally as Christus und Adam nach Römer 5: Ein Beitrag zur Frage nach dem Menschen und der Menschheit (Zürich: Evangelischer, 1952).

5 So Barth: ‘If I understand what I’m trying to do in the Church Dogmatics, it is to listen to what Scripture is saying and tell you what I hear.’ Quoted in Burnett, R., Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Römerbrief Period (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 10, n. 27Google Scholar. In the 2nd edn of Romans, wrote, Barth, ‘My sole aim was to interpret Scripture’ (The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edn, trans. Hoskyns, E. C. (London: OUP, 1968), p. ix)Google Scholar.

6 Hofius, O., ‘The Adam–Christ Antithesis and the Law: Reflections on Romans 5:12–21’, in Dunn, J. (ed.), Paul and the Mosaic Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 180Google Scholar.

7 I leave Adam to the side here purposefully.

8 Cf. Frei, H., The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997), p. 104 and passimGoogle Scholar.

9 Cf. the comments in Brazier, P., ‘Barth's First Commentary on Romans (1919): An Exercise in Apophatic Theology?’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 6 (2004), p. 387CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Hereafter, the English translation of the 1st edn in Henry, Hermeneutics of Karl Barth, will be cited as Romans1, and the German original as Römerbrief1. The English translation and German original of the 2nd edn will also be cited as Romans2 and Romerbrief2, respectively. When citing the English, the corresponding reference in the German will be provided in parentheses, and vice versa, where possible.

11 Romans1, 22 (173).

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Accordingly, McCormack, B., Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 (Oxford: OUP, 1997), p. 163CrossRefGoogle Scholar, labels the Adam–Christ parallel a ‘supplementary dialectic’, an ‘imbalance’ in which one member is able to overwhelm the opposition of the other. Cf. further Beintker, M., Die Dialektik in der ‘dialektischen Theologie’ Karl Barths (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1987)Google Scholar.

15 Römerbrief1, 175 (24).

16 Romans1, 24 (175–6).

17 Römerbrief1, 177 (25).

18 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 149, explains that this ‘Unmittelbarkeit des Seins’ was not an ontological unity, but rather a relation of ‘intimate and life-giving fellowship between the Creator and the creature’. Cf. also Gockel, M., Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison (Oxford: OUP, 2006), p. 108, n. 18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Brazier, ‘First Commentary’, p. 391, says sin creates an ‘apophatic void’ between God and humanity. As Malysz, P., ‘Storming Heaven with Karl Barth? Barth's Unwitting Appropriation of the Genus Maiestaticum and what Lutherans Can Learn from it’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 9 (2007), p. 75Google Scholar, states, in his early thought, Barth ‘depicted the sphere of creation, including human selfhood, as a distancing from God and straightforwardly equated it with sin’.

20 Romans1, 27 (181).

21 Romans1, 28 (182).

22 Römerbrief1, 182 (28).

23 Romans1, 28 (182).

24 Cf. Henry, Hermeneutic of Karl Barth, pp. 9–10.

25 Barth's distinctions are reliant on the philosophical idealism he acquired during his time in Marburg; cf. Fisher, S., Revelatory Positivism? Barth's Earliest Theology and the Marburg School (Oxford: OUP, 1988)Google Scholar.

26 Romans1, 29 (183).

27 Romerbrief1, 182–3 (28–9).

28 Romans1, 29 (183).

29 Romans1, 29 (183–4).

30 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 143, notes the relation of history to eschatology – time to eternity – is the ‘crucial interpretive question’ of Römerbrief1.

31 Cf. McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 162.

32 Römerbrief1, 184–5 (30–1).

33 Romans1, 31 (185–6).

34 Cf. Romans1, 32 (187).

35 Römerbrief1, 188 (33). In Christ and Adam, Barth will emphasise by contrast the necessity of knowing Christ to understand Adam.

36 Romans1, 34 (189).

37 Romans1, 33 (189).

38 Romerbrief1, 193 (36).

39 Romans1, 36 (193).

40 Romans1, 38 (195)

41 Romans1, 39 (196).

42 Cf. Bell, R., ‘Rom 5.18–19 and Universal Salvation’, New Testament Studies 48 (2002), pp. 417–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Romans1, 39 (196). Henry, Hermeneutic of Barth, pp. 148–50, is helpful on Barth's understanding of the human will vis-à-vis Kant.

44 Romans1, 38 (195).

45 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 153.

46 Römerbrief 1, 228.

47 Beintker, M., ‘Der Römerbrief von 1919’, Verkündigung und Forschung: Beihefte zur ‘Evangelische Theologie2 (1985), p. 24Google Scholar.

48 Cf. Marga, A., Karl Barth's Dialogue with Catholicism in Göttingen and Münster (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), pp. 24–5Google Scholar, on how this construal of history and eschatology functioned in Barth's critique of the Catholic Church. Marga notes, importantly, that in Barth's ‘process eschatology’ there is an objective ‘breaking-in’ of God in Jesus Christ. My critique is not directed towards this aspect of Barth's eschatology, but at how the eschatology breaks into the world: by neglect of Christ's historical existence. For an illuminating discussion of Barth's theological development on God's presence in the world while in Göttingen – after the Römerbrief, before the Church Dogmatics – see Asprey, C., Eschatological Presence in Karl Barth's Göttingen Theology (Oxford: OUP, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Romans1, 39 (197).

50 Romans1, 39–40 (197–8).

51 Romerbrief1, 197 (39).

52 Barth later execrates the effective view as Osiandrian, and says that he moves from ‘Osiander to Luther’ in Romans2. Barth, Karl to Thurneysen, Eduard, 3 Dec. 1920, in Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914–1925, trans. J. Smart (London: Epworth, 1964), p. 55Google Scholar.

53 Romerbrief1, 197 (39).

54 Romans1, 40 (198).

55 Romans1, 41 (199).

56 Romerbrief1, 201 (41).

57 Romans1, 41–2 (201).

58 Romans1, 42 (201).

59 Hereafter cited as C&A.

60 Cf. Henry, Hermeneutic of Karl Barth, p. 197.

61 Barth, C&A, p. 14. In a letter from Barth to Bultmann, dated 18 Dec. 1959, Barth stated that C&A was intended to be an exegetical demonstration of his ‘notorious attempt’ to understand Bultmann. In response, Bultmann also published his piece on Romans 5 which was critical of Barth's essay. Barth's ‘special anthropology’ signalled to Rudolf Bultmann that Jesus was not a ‘concrete historical man’ but rather an ‘idea’; furthermore, Bultmann said Barth's thesis was not to be found in the text. Bultmann, ‘Adam and Christ According to Romans 5’, in Klassen, W. and Snyder, G. (eds), Current Issues in New Testament Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Otto A. Piper (London: SCM, 1962), pp. 162, 165Google Scholar.

62 Cf. Barth, ‘The Humanity of God’, in God, Grace and Gospel, trans. J. McNab (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1959), p. 37: ‘God's Godness rightly understood includes His humanity’.

63 C&A, p. 12.

64 Cf. Neder, A., Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), pp. 2930Google Scholar.

65 Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/2: The Doctrine of Creation, trans. G. Bromiley et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1960), p. 132. This is a clear example of what Hunsinger (How to Read Karl Barth, p. 4) calls Barth's ‘particularism’ – Barth's belief that ‘every concept used in dogmatic theology [must] be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ’.

66 Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2: The Doctrine of God, trans. G. Thomson and H. Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1967), p. 3.

67 Neder, Participation in Christ, p. 30.

68 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 327.

69 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, pp. 327–8. The impetus for Barth's further reflection on the incarnation was Przywara, E., ‘Gott in uns oder über uns? (Immanenz und Transzendenz im heutigen Geistesleben)’, Stimmen der Zeit 105 (1923), pp. 343–62, who argued that Barth's God was incapable of transcendence and immanenceGoogle Scholar.

70 Contra Henry, Hermeneutic of Karl Barth, pp. 199–200, I cannot find a Historie/Geschichte distinction in C&A modifying Jesus’ being in time.

71 C&A, p. 17.

72 C&A, p. 17. Cf. Berkouwer, G., The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. H. Boer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), p. 85Google Scholar.

73 C&A, p. 17.

74 C&A, p. 18.

75 C&A, p. 19.

76 C&A, pp. 20–1.

77 C&A, p. 21.

78 Cf. Berkouwer, Triumph of Grace, p. 86.

79 C&A, p. 23.

80 C&A, p. 24.

81 Cf. C&A, p. 25.

82 C&A, p. 26.

83 C&A, p. 27.

84 C&A, p. 32.

85 C&A, p. 33

86 C&A, p. 34. Murray, J., The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 390Google Scholar calls Barth's understanding of πολλῷ μᾶλλον here ‘extraneous and alien’ to the text. But with Moo, D., The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 337Google Scholar, n.101, we can argue that πολλῷ μᾶλλον in 5:15–17 at least retains the same ‘simple logical significance’ it has in 5:9–10.

87 C&A, p. 35. Cf. Berkouwer, Triumph of Grace, p. 86

88 C&A, p. 38.

89 C&A, p. 39.

90 C&A, p. 40.

91 C&A, p. 42.

92 Ibid.

93 Cf. C&A, pp. 42–3.

94 C&A, p. 47.

95 C&A, p. 48.

96 Ibid.

97 Watson, ‘Barth's Philippians as Theological Exegesis’, p. xxx, which is referencing Barth's interpretation of Rom 9–11 in Romans2. Cf. furthermore, Lindsay, M., Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth's Theology of Israel (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)Google Scholar; Sonderegger, K., That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew: Karl Barth's ‘Doctrine of Israel’ (University Park, PA: Penn State, 1992)Google Scholar; Hill, ‘Church as Israel and Israel as Church’.

98 C&A, pp. 50–1.

99 C&A, p. 50.

100 Cf. C&A, pp. 51–2.

101 C&A, pp. 52–3.

102 C&A, p. 60.

103 Cf. Barth, ‘Humanity of God’, p. 38.

104 C&A, p. 61.

105 C&A, p. 67.

106 C&A, p. 68.

107 C&A, p. 74.

108 Many have followed Bultmann in finding this to be a distortion not only of Paul's meaning, but also of theological anthropology; cf. Käsemann, E., Commentary on Romans, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 143Google Scholar, who labels Barth's interpretation as ‘almost grotesque’. But following Barth, cf. Cranfield, C. E. B., The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), vol. 1, pp. 294–5Google Scholar; Watson, F., ‘Is there a Story in These Texts?’ in Longenecker, B. (ed.), Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (London: Westminster John Knox, 2002), pp. 231–9Google Scholar.

109 C&A, p. 77.

110 Henry, Hermeneutic of Karl Barth, p. 203.

111 Romans2, 3.

112 CD II/2, p. x.