Karl Barth and the Historicity of Sanctification

In a fascinating essay in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, Bruce McCormack attempts to bring Wesleyan and Barthian takes on sanctification together in a constructive dialogue. What I want to do is focus on the Barthian side of the house (though the Wesleyan side of the house is just as interesting) and examine McCormack’s historicist reading of Barth alongside George Hunsinger’s own reading of Barth’s doctrine of sanctification, and then register what I take to be a deficiency in McCormack’s reading that is a result of of said historicism. This will be, for the most part, a negative and critical post.

The first thing to note is that, being a historicist reading, McCormack’s is a decidedly anti-metaphysical reading (the title of the essay is, in fact, Sanctification After Metaphysics). McCormack is concerned to give us a doctrine of sanctification and participation in Christ that doesn’t depend on what he takes to be a metaphysic and an ontology of natures, substances and essences but rather acknowledges the historicity of the persons being sanctified. Thus, as opposed to more traditional doctrines of sanctification that emphasize the healing of human nature, for example, or a continual growth in grace and holiness, McCormack seeks to think of sanctification in terms of existential encounter:

Regeneration takes place not through divine surgery but through existential encounter with a Reality that is both indubitable and inescapable, a Reality that breaks into the circle of self-enclosedness in which the sinner finds herself and opens her up to a way of being in the world that was previously unknown to her. She is not given new faculties or capacities she did not possess before. Rather, as the human being she is, her life, her mode of existence in this world, is completely reoriented, redirected, and given a new telos. (p. 117)

Following this, McCormack goes on to argue agains the idea of sanctification being seen in terms of acquiring more grace. This cannot be, he says, because:

…”grace”, for Barth, is not some thing that can be infused into us. “Grace” is a Person – Jesus Christ. He it is whose being simply is his gracious activity for us. Moreover, where and when this gracious Person is powerful and effective in relation to is, there it is that the Spirit of Christ is at work. It is the person of the Holy Spirit who is this power, not a “grace” or “graces” abstracted from him as so many “gifts” that he bestows on us. What we are given is the Holy Spirit – not “gifts” that can be distinguished from his vital presence in us, as though we had acquired new predicates. He himself is the gift. What all of this adds up to is the fact that “regeneration” is not just the initial moment in a process but the divine side of a divine encounter with an individual that takes place moment by moment, in a history. (p. 118)

The payoff for this is the demolition of classical schemes of sanctification in terms of the healing of natures:

Seen in the light of the foregoing analysis, “participation” in Christ is not to be construed metaphysically – in terms of the indwelling of a substantially conceived human nature. No human nature, Christ’s included, is rightly understood if conceived substantially. What believers participate in is the history of Jesus’ lived faith and obedience. That history is reiterated in them insofar as their existence is brought into conformity to that of Jesus. That is their “participation”. (p. 118)

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of good. Grace is a person, not a thing – fantastic. Non-reliance on a specific metaphysical picture of the world? Sure. However, I want to suggest that on McCormack’s reading of Barth (granting that it’s the correct reading), there is no room for genuine growth in the life of the Christian. To put it a bit more sharply: what is the status of the believer if the Christian life is a perpetual, moment-by-moment transition from regeneration to sanctification? I’ll attempt to throw this question into sharper belief presently.

George Hunsinger notes in Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed a similar difficulty in his comparison of Calvin, Luther and Barth’s doctrines of sanctification. In brief, Hunsinger sees Calvin’s doctrine as being a more traditional, gradualistic process of growth of the believer in Christ by grace through faith, the kind McCormack clearly wants to distance himself from. For Calvin it is clearly a divine work of grace through the Spirit, but it is clearly a gradual work:

Sanctification, like justification, is for Calvin always a free gift of God. It is not a human work, and it has no basis in human merit. It is the Spirit’s gradual impartation to the believer of Christ’s own righteousness (sanctification) – a righteousness that has already  been imputed to the believer both instantaneously (statim) and totally (totus) on the believers transition from from lack of faith to faith. The operative distinctions for this particular relation are thus: in Christ/in us, completely/partially, instantaneously/gradually, by imputation/by impartation, by grace alone without works (justification)/by grace alone yet not without works (sanctification). (p. 191-192)

Hunsinger sees in Luther an emphasis on the perpetual, over against the gradualism of Calvin:

By contrast, Luther saw the existential aspect of salvation rather differently. For him it was subject to a process that was not so much gradual as perpetual. In other words, where Calvin posited a process of “more and more,” Luther posited one of “again and again”. (p. 199)

Christ comes daily, continually, and without interruption, every day and every hour – to sinners. “Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified” (LW 34, 19). Although Luther, like Calvin, also knows of salvation as a gradual process, unlike Calvin, he subordinates all gradualism to the perpetual advent of grace, which confronts sin continually afresh, and continually overcomes it as a whole. (p. 199)

Key to Luther, as Hunsinger sees it, is the fact that what is true for Christ in eternity is perpetually true for us here and now:

…what is already perfectly true for us in Christ is also perpetually true for us ever anew in a very different form here and now. Sin’s total abolition by the righteousness of the crucified Christ is true for us at once perfectly “in Christ” and then also perpetually “in us” through the whole course of the eschatalogical interim. The perpetual advent of grace to baptized sinners, continually forgiving and counteracting their sin, is a kind of permanent revolution or perpetual resurrection from the dead, in other words, as Luther liked to say, a daily baptism – until at last, at the final consummation, Christ will come to dwell as perfectly in nobis as we alread perfectly dwell in him. (p. 200)

It should be clear that McCormack, though he doesn’t explicitly reference Luther in his essay, is invoking a Lutheran understanding of sanctification as a perpetual, again-and-again process, as opposed to a gradual process of growth. ‘The Christian life is a constant turning from the past to the future, from oneself as sinner to oneself as righteous, in the form of a constant turning to Christ,’ (p. 200) Linguistic differences aside, there’s a substantial amount of overlap here, but I’d pose the same question here that I posed earlier: given this perpetual and constant turning/transitioning, what is the actual status of the believer? Is there any real growth in holiness this side of the eschaton, in this life here and now? Is it an overstatement to say that, for all its emphasis on the historicity of sanctification, the emphasis on the perpetual actually undermines real, historical, personal sanctification? Hunsinger notes Balthasar’s criticism of Barth on precisely this point:

In a telling remark, Hans Urs von Balthasar once observed that Karl Barth rejected all talk of growth or progress in the Christian life. Barth rejected “all discussion of anything in the realm of the relative and temporal,” von Balthasar claimed, but that is the realm in which we must look for “a real and vibrant history” of human beings with their redeeming Lord and God. (p. 189)

It certainly seems as if this observation is vindicated. There are compelling theological reasons, of course, for the perpetual emphasis – Hunsinger notes that for Luther, sin and righteousness are mutually exclusive to each other in a way that they aren’t for Calvin, and Barth largely follows Luther here – but if one’s doctrine of sanctification professes to be a historical doctrine, yet presents such difficulties to thinking of sanctification in actual historical terms, something somewhere is amiss. What, then, in summary, does Barth take to be the case regarding sanctification?

Because by definition sin and sanctity are mutually exclusive, and because even after baptism we still remain sinners in ourselves, we are sanctified not by the gradual growth of Christ into us, or of us into Christ, as Calvin supposed, but by the perpetual operation of grace in the life of faith, which breaks the dominion of sin. (p. 214)

As a sidenote, as far as Scripture goes, there’s enough material pertaining to growth in Christ – as well as a good deal of language which speaks of ‘maturing’ in the NT (Hebrews, for example, or Paul’s letters all have this) – to make me suspicious of such a curt dismissal of gradualism. Hunsinger does note, however, that such a dismissal does have consequences:

When Barth shifted his focus from Calvin’s emphasis on the gradual to Luther’s emphasis on the perpetual, he incurred certain losses. Calvin had seen the gradual operation of grace more clearly than the perpetual, and Luther had elevated the perpetual operation of grace over the gradual. But both Reformation theologians retained a definite place for the gradual in a way that Barth simply did not. Von Balthasar may or may not be correct to suggest that the “real and vibrant” history of humanity with God is to be sought at the existential level or directly in the life of faith…Nevertheless, unlike Calvin and Luther, Barth clearly devotes little attention to the possibility of growth and progress in the Christian life. (p. 215)

Here is where I think the problem is thrown into the sharpest relief. Taking McCormack’s interpretation of regeneration and sanctification as existential encounter as a correct interpretation of Barth, it seems to descend into incoherency: how can something be existential encounter, if the actual history of humanity (and by extension, of the believer) isn’t found at the existential level? How can we speak of sanctification in any sense pertinent to the actual lived, historical life of the believer, if we bracket the historical and existential sphere in which sanctification takes place?

This, then, is the difficulty I see for Barth on sanctification once the emphasis is placed on the perpetual, over against the gradual.

6 thoughts on “Karl Barth and the Historicity of Sanctification

  1. Kevin Davis March 26, 2016 / 10:59 am

    What we are given is the Holy Spirit – not “gifts” that can be distinguished from his vital presence in us, as though we had acquired new predicates. He himself is the gift. (McCormack)

    Why the either/or? Paul talks about fruits. Are these fruits not gifts? John talks about an indwelling love (1 Jn 2:15). Does any theologian (Aquinas?) talk about gifts that can “be distinguished from his vital presence in us” — as if the vital presence of the Spirit could be removed but the gifts remain? I doubt that’s what Aquinas meant by acquiring habits, but that’s another discussion.

    There are some important sections in CD IV.2 that are worth engaging in relation to McCormack and Hunsinger’s account. For example, “The Act of Love” (pp. 783-824) is a fascinating section. The Christian is a sinner — more “intensely” because he knows — but “in so far as he is a Christian he also loves, just as he believes and hopes as such, in spite of all the other things that he is and does. …It will leave its mark upon the character of his life-act as a whole” (783). “In relation to the other things which the man is and does, it may be only like a spark under a heap of ashes. But apart from and side by side with everything else that he does, he does also love — because he may do so, because he has from God the freedom also to do so — and this makes his whole life different from what it would be if he did not love. As this too takes place in it, it is a Christian life. It would be unchristian only if the act of love did not take place in it at all” (784). “…it can be based only on the event of new creation and new birth. …in a mighty act of the Holy Ghost…” (785).

    Now, it’s true that Barth surrounds all of this with his customary qualifications — not a human capacity as such, not evident or calculated, and so on. And he doesn’t articulate this in terms of gradualism, but he does articulate it in terms of change and experience and behavior — all on the human level of our history, not just our perfected life in the Ascended Christ.

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    • Joshua March 26, 2016 / 11:24 am

      Why the either/or? Paul talks about fruits. Are these fruits not gifts? John talks about an indwelling love (1 Jn 2:15). Does any theologian (Aquinas?) talk about gifts that can “be distinguished from his vital presence in us” — as if the vital presence of the Spirit could be removed but the gifts remain? I doubt that’s what Aquinas meant by acquiring habits, but that’s another discussion.

      This is exactly what I was thinking of. I understand McCormack’s point and I understand what hes’s trying to avoid – the gifts of the spirit as ‘things’ we can have etc – but biblically, I think he’s on pretty thin grounds for his thesis here. And, like I noted in the OP, there’ no shortage of ‘growth’ and ‘maturing’ in Christ language in the NT. I suspect that, as I mentioned on FB, it’s his commitment to (german) historicism that leads him here, and I don’t much see a way to avoid where he ends up.

      Those passages are well worth engaging with – Hunsinger says at the end of that section that Barth left something of a logical space where he should have discussed sanctification, but it seems that the raw data is there. It just needs to be filled out. Although both Hunsinger and McCormack basically come to the same conclusions here, so I’m left thinking that this will be a fairly difficult task.

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      • Kevin Davis March 26, 2016 / 11:49 am

        I think “The Act of Love” is one place where Barth does talk about sanctification — after all, it’s the Holy Spirit that is the agent capacitating us for our own agency: freedom, which is to say freedom-in-love. Heck, he even says (as I quote above) that the Christian life is where this love takes place, in contrast to the unchristian life, and that it “leave its mark upon the character of his life-act as a whole”! So, a distinction is perhaps necessary between personal change and gradualism. Barth affirms the former but is, at the least, not clear about the latter. Barth is afraid that gradualism (or “growth” in holiness) would invariably lead to the sort of introspection and calculation that negates genuine love, so this is where his “Lutheran” preference for perpetual encounter comes to the fore. What I do not see in Barth is the sort of radical distinction between Christ’s life and our life that McCormack interprets through his German historicist categories, as you rightly recognize. The radical new “possiblity” that we encounter in Christ must be fleshed-out in our own histories if the term “possibility” has any real meaning, and that means we cannot be so fearful of talking about “gifts” or “fruits” or even “virtues.”

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        • Joshua March 26, 2016 / 12:07 pm

          I think “The Act of Love” is one place where Barth does talk about sanctification — after all, it’s the Holy Spirit that is the agent capacitating us for our own agency: freedom, which is to say freedom-in-love. Heck, he even says (as I quote above) that the Christian life is where this love takes place, in contrast to the unchristian life, and that it “leave its mark upon the character of his life-act as a whole”! So, a distinction is perhaps necessary between personal change and gradualism. Barth affirms the former but is, at the least, not clear about the latter. Barth is afraid that gradualism (or “growth” in holiness) would invariably lead to the sort of introspection and calculation that negates genuine love, so this is where his “Lutheran” preference for perpetual encounter comes to the fore.

          Put that way his ‘Lutheran’ emphasis makes sense. I’ll have to dig into him a bit more, of course, but those are compelling passages.

          What I do not see in Barth is the sort of radical distinction between Christ’s life and our life that McCormack interprets through his German historicist categories, as you rightly recognize. The radical new “possiblity” that we encounter in Christ must be fleshed-out in our own histories if the term “possibility” has any real meaning, and that means we cannot be so fearful of talking about “gifts” or “fruits” or even “virtues.”

          Right, which is why I think it’s proper to question just exactly what the status of the sanctified believer is. Of course, as Hunsinger notes in ‘Reading Barth With Charity’, it’s really not legitimate to present us with such a stark contrast between ‘substance ontology’ and whatever the other alternative is seen to be – in this case, actualism/historicism. I mean, is there no way we can think of growth, or holiness, except in those two categories? So the entire dichotomy to me is shaky (in his essay, McCormack explicitly sets this dichotomy up by arguing that Wesley held to substance ontology). Otherwise, it seems like we’re left with this perpetual motion, but no real progress, and with the reality of our sanctification as only an eschatalogical goal. And that just seems to kick against the biblical goads a bit.

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