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What difference does one's view of God make in understanding sin and salvation? Some suggestions from Karl Barth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2022

Paul D. Molnar*
Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St John's University, Queens, NY, USA
Corresponding author. Email:


This article argues that views of sin and salvation are shaped by one's view of God. Thus, whenever it is thought that God is a metaphor that theologians can change to attain a desired social or psychological result, then the true meaning of sin and salvation are lost. Relying on Karl Barth's view of Jesus as the Judge judged in our place, this article argues against ideas that sin can no longer be understood as self-will, and that salvation must be understood only as our working for a better world. Such views fail to recognise that, since only God can reveal God, the true meaning of sin is and remains most visible today in our attempts to redefine God and salvation in social and psychological rather than strictly theological terms.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Of course poisoning the ecosystem could be understood as an instance of sin as pride or self-will, since it could be taken to imply a presumed sovereignty on the part of humanity that is inconsistent with God's own sovereignty as Lord and saviour of the world; but this is not the perspective that tends to be adopted by the theologians under consideration here.

2 Leonard, Ellen, ‘Experience as a Source for Theology’, Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 43 (1988), p. 56Google Scholar.

3 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 13 vols. (hereafter CD), ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–74), II/1, p. 320. Importantly, Barth insisted that ‘We cannot say anything higher or better of the “inwardness of God” than that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore that He is love in Himself without and before loving us, and without being forced to love us. And we can say this only in the light of the “outwardness” of God to us, the occurrence of His revelation’ (CD I/2, p. 377).

4 Barth, CD IV/2, p. 26.

5 Ibid.

6 Barth carefully avoided any docetic view of Jesus's sinlessness, insisting that ‘If anything is in bitter earnest it is the fact that God Himself in His eternal purity and holiness has in the sinless man Jesus taken up our evil case in such a way that He willed to make it, and has in fact made it, His own’ (CD IV/1, p. 237). Jesus's sinlessness therefore consisted in the fact that ‘He did not refuse to be delivered up and therefore to take the place of us sinners’ (ibid.).

7 Barth, CD IV/1, p. 238.

8 Ibid., p. 241.

9 Ibid., p. 242.

10 Barth, CD II/1, p. 188.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 189.

13 Ibid., p. 190.

14 Ibid. Importantly, Barth continues: ‘He is not invisibilis and ineffabilis in the same way as the infinite, the absolute, the indeterminate, the spirit in the world, can also be described as invisible and inexpressible.’

15 Ibid., p. 192.

16 Ibid., p. 204.

17 Karl Barth, ‘The Righteousness of God’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), pp. 14–15.

18 Ibid., p. 21.

19 Ibid., p. 22.

20 Ibid.

21 Barth, CD II/1, p. 162.

22 Ibid., p. 152. Sin, Barth held, means that ‘Always and everywhere [one] is guilty of responding to the grace of God, not with a corresponding thankfulness, but in one or many forms of his wretched pride’ (CD IV/1, p. 489). There is ‘no reason or cause for any such act’ (ibid.). But in committing it we disrupt the order of creation and place ourselves at enmity with God and ourselves as determined by God for fellowship with him. Importantly, Barth also insisted that ‘grace would not be grace, the serious and effective address of God to man, the effective establishment of fellowship with him, if God did not oppose man's opposition to Himself … if He ignored the miserable pride of man, if the man of sin had nothing to fear from him’ (ibid., referring to Heb 12:29).

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid. See CD IV/1, pp. 490–3 for how Barth thought this through. Because we have ‘transgressed’ the grace of God, ‘the grace of God has become judgment’ (CD IV/1, p. 490). And we have no control over God's grace. In fact, any attempt to control it ‘to look beyond the form of it which judges him, to see it and have it again in its proper form, is simply a repetition of the sin of pride’ (ibid.). Barth claimed, ‘It is the sinister aspect of all religious history that in it men are caught in the act of committing again the very sin from which they are trying to free themselves’ (ibid.). Even as sinners, however, we remain God's good creatures with a ‘determination for God’ since we ‘cannot step out of the covenant which God has made with [us]’ (ibid., p. 493). The seriousness of sin then concerns the fact that ‘even in good things and as a good man he is godless, that in his proper nature he has fallen victim to nothingness in his pride, that as the elect covenant-partner of God he is threatened with the divine rejection’ (ibid.). Importantly, however, this means that ‘The consuming love which revealed itself in His resurrection as the meaning and goal of the divine wrath [opposition to sin] which He bore for us was and is the love in which God willed to seek us and to find us, to carry us and to embrace us’ (ibid., p. 556).

25 Ibid. This is why Barth rejected the idea of ‘an ontological godlessness of fallen man, of a sinfulness which has become the substance of man, of fallen man as the image of the devil’ (CD IV/1, p. 481). Such a view suggests that God does not just suffer death for us but that God himself has ‘fallen a prey to it. But he has not fallen a prey to it. In taking it to Himself, in suffering it with and for us men in the person of His Son, He has conquered and destroyed it’ (ibid.).

26 This also takes the form of slothful creatures who will not accept the fact that God is really present with us here and now in the man Jesus Christ who rose from the dead and encounters us now in his Holy Spirit. God's presence and action in the man Jesus here and now ‘refer absolutely and exclusively and totally and directly to [us], and make on [us] an absolute, exclusive, total and direct demand’ (CD IV/2, p. 406). We will discuss this further below.

27 Barth, CD II/1, p. 153.

28 Ibid.

29 That is why Barth insisted that ‘the one who may become and be a man liberated in this way, by the free grace addressed to him in the person of another, is obviously completely enslaved when regarded in and for himself and his own person. He is not in a position to see his own imprisonment … and therefore to understand his situation as finally harmful’ (CD IV/2, p. 402). The only way forward cannot be found by us but only in the ‘free grace which also judges [us], which disqualifies [us] in the light of this grace, and therefore in the knowledge of the Son of Man in whom it comes to us in this twofold form’ (ibid.). That is what is offensive to us in revelation. Because we are offended by revelation in its identity with this man, ‘religion as the action of sinful man which will inevitably involve flagrant continuations and confirmations and repetitions of his unfaithfulness and therefore sheer self-contradictions, with the continual rise and influence of the alternatives of doubt and scepticism and atheism; religion as a matter on which men separate and fight more perhaps than any other. The religious relationship of man to God which is the inevitable consequence of his sin is a degenerate form of the covenant-relationship, the relationship between the Creator and the creature … Man may escape faith and obedience, but he cannot escape – and this is what reveals the judgment under which he stands – this their surrogate’ (CD IV/1, p. 483).

30 Leonard, ‘Experience as a Source for Theology’, p. 56. It is important to realise here that Barth is not excluding experience from the task of theology since knowing itself is a human experience. What he is excluding is the idea that experience is a ‘source’ for theology because while there is no knowledge of God without experience of God, when we do know God in faith, we immediately know that the source of that knowledge was and is the God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ and through his Holy Spirit. Those who make experience a source of theology then methodologically set aside the fact that God can only be known by God, that is, by grace through faith. That ultimately means that Barth has applied the doctrine of justification to our knowledge of God such that true knowledge of God can never be traced back to us but only to God himself.

31 Ibid.

32 McFague herself asks: ‘What prevents models of God, such as mother, lover, and friend from being arbitrary?’ and concludes that they are not so ‘because along with the father model, they are the deepest and most important expressions of love known to us, rather than because they are necessarily descriptive of the nature of God’ (Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1987), p. 192). Do these loves describe God ‘as God is’ she asks? She responds by referring to a personal power on the side of life and its fulfilment, asserting that to say anything more than this we necessarily turn ‘to the “loves” we know (unless one is a Barthian and believes that God defines love … ). That is to say, I do not know whether God (the inner being of God) can be described by the models of mother, lover and friend; but the only kind of love I know anything about and that matters most to me is the love of these basic relationships, so I have to use these loves to speak of divine love’ (ibid., emphasis mine). In her own words McFague demonstrates that her speech about God is nothing more than speech from and about ourselves which she then projects into God instead of thinking from a centre in God which she believes we can never know. Unfortunately, her concepts of mother and lover leave her with what she labels a panentheist view of the God/world relation which inevitably devolves into pantheism when she claims that the world as God's body ‘is not something alien to or other than God but is from the “womb” of God, formed through “gestation”’ (ibid., p. 110) and then argues that ‘God will therefore need the world, want the world, not simply as a dependent inferior … but as offspring, beloved and companion’ (ibid., pp. 112–13). Clearly, if the world is not other than God, then we have a confusion of God and the world. If the world is formed through gestation, then creation cannot be a free act of God's will creating something outwith himself. And with the image of God the lover she is led to a strongly subordinationist view of Jesus Christ as paradigmatic of God the lover but not uniquely salvific, as we shall see.

33 For McFague, ‘unless we understand God as needing us, we will lack the will to take responsibility for the world’ (Models of God, p. 134). Hence, ‘God as lover finds himself needing the help of those very ones among the beloved – of us human beings … we are needed so that the lover may be reunited with his beloved … God needs us to help save the world’ (ibid., p. 135). Among contemporary theologians Colin E. Gunton understood well that ‘if God must create there is a loss of freedom both for God and for the created world, because its being is then bound up with his so closely as to call into question its distinctive reality’ (Theology through the Theologians: Selected Essays 1972–1995 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 127. Indeed, ‘the subjection of God to some kind of external necessity’ subverts the Christian gospel (ibid., p. 72). It subverts the fact that salvation is a sovereign act of grace in Jesus Christ for us.

34 Alfred North Whitehead, ‘God and the World’, in Ewert H. Cousins (ed.), Process Theology: Basic Writings by the Key Thinkers of a Major Modern Movement (New York: Newman Press, 1971), p. 93.

35 Leonard, ‘Experience as a Source for Theology’, p. 57.

36 Ibid.

37 Barth, CD IV/2, p. 403. Barth insisted that sin always has this heroic form while the free grace of God always addresses us in the form of justification. However, since God's reconciling grace is not only justifying, but ‘sanctifying and awakening and establishing grace, so sin has not merely the heroic form of pride but also, in complete antithesis yet profound correspondence, the quite unheroic and trivial form of sloth’ (ibid.).

38 Ibid., pp. 405–6. Interestingly, Barth goes on to explain that, since we are confronted by God in Jesus Christ, with God's claim on us in him, our sloth is manifested in our religious attempt to find comfort in a ‘congenial higher being’ which really ‘is the purest and ripest and most appropriate possibility at which’ we grasp as those who are slothful (ibid., p. 406). Sin is then depicted by Barth as us rendering God himself ‘innocuous … in the fact that [we] definitely will not accept in relation to [ourselves] the reality and presence and action of God in the existence of the man Jesus … [We] definitely will not accept them as the reality and presence and action of God which refer absolutely and exclusively and totally and directly to [us]’, thus making an absolute claim on us. Significantly, Barth concludes that ‘As one who worships a higher being, as a religious or pious man, he is able to resist this’ (ibid.). That is why he says we are offended by the revelation of God as it meets us in Christ – it is the failure to acknowledge the claim of God in this man that illustrates our sloth. Resisting Jesus, we resist God himself with our belief in the God of our choice. And that happens, Barth says, because we are ‘turned in upon [ourselves]’ and find satisfaction and comfort in our ‘own ego’ (ibid., p. 407). Sloth, then, ‘expresses much more clearly than pride the positive and aggressive ingratitude which repays good with evil. It consists in the fact, not only that man does not trust God, but … that he does not love Him, i.e., that he will not know and have Him, that he will not have dealings with Him, as the One who first loved him, from all eternity’ (ibid., p. 405). It is a form of unbelief because in ourselves as the sinners we are apart from Christ we refuse to live ‘in the distinctive freedom of the man Jesus’ and thus regard him as ‘a stranger and interloper, and his existence as an intolerable demand’ (ibid., p. 407).

39 Barth, CD IV/3, p. 434.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., p. 418.

43 Ibid., p. 435.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 437.

46 Ibid., p. 439.

47 Ibid., p. 441.

48 Ibid., p. 442.

49 McFague, Models, p. 136.

50 Ibid,

51 Ibid., p. 224.

52 Ibid., p. 139.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid., p. 140, emphasis mine.

55 As Torrance vividly put it: ‘Jesus had never lifted a violent finger against any one, and yet he became the centre of a violent disturbance that has shaken the world to its foundations. The incredible thing is this: the meeker and milder Jesus is, the more violent the crowd become in their resentment against him. The more like a lamb he is, the more like ravening wolves they become … until at last they laid violent hands upon him and dragged him off to the cross.’ T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic 2008), p. 151.

56 McFague, Models, p. 150.

57 Ibid., p. 143.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid., p. 150.

60 Ibid., p. 136.

61 Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 67.

62 For more on this see Paul D. Molnar, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology, 2nd edn (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), pp. 17–44.

63 Gordon Kaufman, Theology for a Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), pp. 43–5.

64 Kaufman, Gordon D., In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 383Google Scholar. This, because ‘in the biological and historico-cultural terms with which we now conceive human existence, no individual person can have this sort of absolute significance and cosmic efficacy for all others, for every individual is an expression of and interdependent with the complex ecological web of life and nature which gives them all birth and sustains them all’ (Kaufman, Theology for a Nuclear Age, p. 56).

65 Kaufman, Gordon D., Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), p. 433Google Scholar.

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