The Only Enchantment Left to Us: Karl Barth and The Unweaving of a Sacramental Tapestry


‘…the objectively clarified preaching of the Word is the only sacrament left to us.’ – Barth

‘…he [Barth] is the most relentlessly Chalcedonian of all theologians…’ -Nicholas Wolterstorff

It is no secret that Barth was and is a controversial theologian, and within a North American context, it is typically his doctrine of the Word of God that secures his controversial-ness (a close second would be his doctrine of God, which is the subject of The Barth Wars). However, in my estimation, Barth’s most controversial moment is found in his sacramental theology – or, perhaps more properly, his lack thereof. Indeed, it is more than a simple lack of sacramental theology: Barth actively tears the tapestry of sacramental theology and (to be a bit more fashionable) sacramental ontology asunder:

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not events, institutions, mediations or revelations of salvation. They are not representations and actualizations, emanations, repetitions, or extensions, nor indeed guarantees and seals of the work and word of God; nor are they instruments, vehicles, channels, or means of God’s reconciling grace. They are not what they have been called since the second century, namely, mysteries or sacraments(The Christian Life, p. 46)

One is hard-pressed to think of a more blunt way of denying any kind of sacramental ontology or enchantment. There is a good deal of exegetical work underlying Barth’s attack on the traditional understanding of the sacraments (found in IV.4 of the CD) but I want to focus more on the theological side of things for the moment. Why does Barth say the things he does about the sacraments, and what is his alternative? The simple answer: Jesus Christ. This should not be unexpected when it comes to Barth – regardless of the question, Jesus is the answer and this is no more true in the realm of the sacraments. Interestingly, there’s a bit of a shift from Barth’s early days, where he regarded Christ’s humanity as the first sacrament (CD II.1 p. 54) to his later days, where he can say that the one, true sacrament is Jesus on the cross (CD IV.1 p. 296, IV.2 p. 55). It is the latter sentiment that I am focusing on here, since this sentiment (or, properly, the propositions expressed in the sentiment) is Barth’s positive answer to his negative statements on the sacraments.

Jesus Christ as the one true sacrament: the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this is the logical outworking of Barth’s ‘relentlessly Chalcedonian’ way of thinking. If Jesus Christ is the only means by which God makes Himself known, if it is only in Jesus Christ that God and man are united in a hypostatic union, then I see no way in which Barth’s anti-enchantment doesn’t follow. But there’s the rub, isn’t it? By disenchanting the sacramental world, by refusing to grant creaturely realities like water, bread and wine sacramental status, hasn’t Barth given us a greater enchantment? By ridding creaturely realities of divine-human signification, hasn’t Barth shown how Christ is truly present within the Christian life?

Any reference to sacrament does not begin with the Lord’s supper or baptism, Barth maintains, but begins with Jesus Christ and his ongoing presence in the life of the Christian community through the work of the Spirit. (Thomas Christian Currie, The Only Sacrament Left to Us: The Threefold Word of God in the Theology and Ecclesiology of Karl Barth, p. 20)

Barth would later go on to argue that baptism and the Supper are human responses to the Gospel, and not divine actions in which God gives himself to be known. It is just this, this being a response, that gives these human actions meaning, since these actions are dependent upon the Gospel and therefore dependent on Christ:

The meaning of the sign lies not in God’s movement towards us in his Son, but in our reciprocal and corresponding movement towards God in faith and obedience. Instead of being secondary, this human movement now becomes primary and, indeed, the sole meaning of the rite. Of course it presumes the prior and subsequent activity of God, without which it would not be possible or meaningful, since here faith looks both backward and forwards and offers thanks for God’s grace and faithfulness, centered upon the death of Christ to which the bread and wine testify. But their role is precisely to serve as signs of our testimony and response to this self-offering, and not as divinely given signs of the offering in which faith is laid hold of by God, united to the offering and thereby nourished. (Trevor Hart, Calvin and Barth on the Lord’s Supper, in Calvin, Barth, and Reformed Theology pp. 52-53, eds.Neil B. MacDonal and Carl R. Trueman) [boldface is mine, italics original]

Christ on the cross: the Word to which human words witness and testify and the sacrament to which human signs witness and testify. Thus far we have seen how Barth has torn down the traditional sacramental tapestry and woven his own, but with the thread of Christ. As exclusively human responses set within the context of the Christian life in the church, baptism and the Supper witness and testify to Christ in a truly human way. Barth’s evacuation of the rites of all divine activity comes from his overriding aim to keep God and God’s action as things generally available to humans (his doctrine of revelation operates on similar logic), as well as Christological concentration. If the rites themselves are divine, then, as Barth sees it, there will always be a danger of taking the rites and their performance to be necessary to salvation. Were God to be active in the rites, then the possibility would exist for God to be generally available in the performance of the rites:

Central to Barth’s theological concern…was an unhealthy emphasis upon the rites themselves as if human performance of and participation in them was essential to and guarantee of the benefits of salvation. This both detaches the signs from their proper relation to what God has done for us in Christ and neglects the need for a wider and radical discipleship as the form of the outworking of that same redemption…to collapse the structure of the sign, thereby confusing the signifier of the rite with that which they signify, is effectively a form of idolatry. But if the supper is nonetheless spoken and thought of as a time and place where God himself is active in applying to us the benefits of what he has done objectively and once and for all in Christ, and if the signifying force or ‘meaning’ of the event lies in our being united to Christ, then there is always the danger of such misunderstanding occurring. If God ‘does something redemptive’ here, then an ex opere operato view of the rite will no doubt always be lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to emerge. (ibid)

By centering the human responses of baptism and the Supper on the person and work of Christ, Barth has secured a kind of realism that is truly sacramental, since Christ is the only true sacrament. While Barth’s tapestry may be woven with a different thread, it is all the greater for that. Barth’s disenchantment is a relentlessly Chalcedonian one, and for that reason is a greater enchantment: one might even say that it is a Real enchantment: the only enchantment left to us.


2 thoughts on “The Only Enchantment Left to Us: Karl Barth and The Unweaving of a Sacramental Tapestry

  1. cal December 24, 2016 / 12:48 pm

    I think Barth’s critique of the RadOx et al. emphasis on the sacred tapestry of the “Platonic-Christian synthesis” is spot on and that he is right to disparage a lot of what goes on under sacramental theology (viz. the analyses of his critiques above). But his conclusions seem weak and proffers a kind of irrelevance to the material world. He doesn’t sound Chalcedonian, but Nestorian. Why is the Human response nature of Baptism etc. somehow in opposition with a reading that this is a Divine work? He’s chopping it up in a way that voids how these things are indeed “mysteries”. Why else was Christ baptized and then, later, commands the baptism of all? He sucks the air of why this matters at all, and it becomes an arbitrary commandment.

    I think there’s a better way of rewiring this together that avoids the RadOx resourcement and Barth’s critique otherwise.


    Liked by 1 person

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