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Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh

Hitchcock, Nathan. Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh: The Loss of the Body in Participatory Eschatology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), xviii + 209 pp. $20.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Sara A. Misgen (September 08, 2014)



Nathan Hitchcock—Assistant Professor at Sioux Falls Seminary—adds to the developing discussion of Barth’s eschatology with his volume Karl Barth and the Resurrection of the Flesh: The Loss of the Body in Participatory Eschatology. Undertaking a full presentation of Barth’s resurrection theology by focusing primarily on the third and fourth volumes of the Church Dogmatics (CD), Hitchcock also presses Barth’s logic to offer a strong critique of Barth’s participatory eschatology: “For all his profound affirmations of physicality, Barth’s construction of the doctrine comes up wanting. In his presentation of the resurrection body, there is a certain changelessness, a certain lightness, and a certain indistinguishability, all of which suggests a fleshless existence” (xv). The volume itself rests on central commitments to enfleshment and the importance of the body, which lead to some of the more striking critiques of Barth near the conclusion.

Chapter one begins with a sketch of two trajectories that the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh has taken in the history of the church. The first—represented by Jerome, Augustine, and Aquinas—speaks of the resurrection as “collection of the flesh” in which an individual’s “selfsame matter” was collected and assembled in eternity (9). The second trajectory is defined by the participation of human flesh in the divine life and represented by figures such as Origen, Athanasius, and Maximus the Confessor. While these two trajectories are only sparingly referred to in the rest of the book, they serve as a useful orientation to Hitchcock’s later argument, namely that Barth “resonates . . . with the more Eastern, participatory trajectory” (25). In chapter two, Hitchcock explicates resurrection in Barth’s early work by interpreting Barth through three of his major influences: Pietism, Romanticism, and socialism. Arguing that the resurrection of the dead was “the touchstone for Barth’s dialectical approach” (71), Hitchcock notes two equivalences he sees in the young Barth and finds problematic: resurrection as sublation and resurrection as revelation. Worrying that Barth has not provided enough safeguards around human flesh in the eschaton, Hitchcock flags the critique and moves on.

The heart of the book lies in the reading of resurrection in the CD, located in chapters three through five. Chapter three focuses on “the resurrection of the flesh as eternalization,” detailing Barth’s conceptions of time and eternity. Presenting a strong reading of Barth on the relevant points, Hitchcock offers a careful exegesis of relevant passages from CD—focusing especially on volume IV—before concluding that Barth fails to adequately reconstitute time in eternity, and thus fails to protect the “corporeal texture” of a human’s fleshly and earthly history in eternity (107). The chapter also raises questions about Barth’s portrayal of death as the servant of God. Because death is the limit to human nature and the transition point to eternity, it “must be considered necessary and even holy” (107). This, Hitchcock argues, is a problem for any eschatology, and further states that Barth’s position does not match the New Testament witness (108).

Critiques of Barth continue as chapter four moves to the revelatory character of the resurrection. One of Hitchcock’s major concerns is the integrity of Jesus Christ, and he offers a relatively lengthy presentation of Barth’s Christology from CD IV/2 to illustrate the Alexandrian and Lutheran character in Barth’s account of the two natures, despite Barth’s own stated admission to follow to the Reformed tradition (see CD IV/2, 66). While this account is not fully used within the argument of the volume until chapter five, this interpretation of Barth’s Christology does significant work in the final critiques of Barth.

The real weight of chapter four lies in its assertion that Barth makes the resurrection overly noetic and that this results in a strong tendency towards the divinization of the human being in eternity (126). A central key to Barth’s thought on this issue, Hitchcock claims, is the concept of presence. Because the divine and human are present to each other, through the exchange of predicates, humans are glorified by partaking of the divine nature in eternity (141). Following Eberhard Jüngel, George Hunsinger, and Adam Neder, Hitchcock argues that Barth’s account of salvation, for all of its Reformed tendencies, is a form of divinization. This, accordingly, prevents a true resurrection of the flesh: “the dead are raised, but raised not as flesh so much as something flesh-like” (146).

Chapter five is devoted to the resurrection as “incorporation into Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (147). Raising concerns about Christomonism in Barth’s pneumatology, Hitchcock suggests that Barth conflates the resurrection and the Holy Spirit within the later volumes of the CD, threatening the very status of eschatology as a theological locus within Barth’s system (152). The lengthiest—and most central—part of the chapter contains an attempt to press Barth’s logic and develop an account of his incorporative soteriology, anticipating an argument that Barth may have made, or refuted, in CD V. Using the form of the doctrine of election from CD II/2, Hitchcock presents an account in which Jesus goes out into the world, only to draw all people to Himself at the consummation of all things: “Christ’s incorporative resurrection concludes with an eschatological collapse in which everything is collected” (159). This is not totally without warrant in Barth’s corpus, given the preference for the totus Christus in CD IV/2 and IV/3, and leads to some of the sharpest criticisms in the volume. The drawing of all individuals to Christ in the eschaton leads to an “eschatological singularity” in which “Barth seems satisfied to speak of a lingering differentiation within Christ’s body. In contrast, I am insisting upon a plurality of bodies” (165). If these speculations are correct, and one accepts Hitchcock’s assertion that individuated bodies are an essential element of personhood, a “Barthian” account of the eschaton necessarily destroys individuality.

This critique develops into one of the most unique claims of the volume: that Barth’s eschatology closely borders on panentheism. Despite Barth’s ardent insistence that Creator and creature are separate, Hitchcock nevertheless notes that by potentially making Jesus Christ the totalizing end of all things “Barth’s eschatologic makes him cousin to the family of panentheists” (169). The chapter ends with an expansion of the earlier critique: Barth’s eschatology not only leads to the destruction of individuality but also the destruction of the Creator/creature distinction, as in the escahton creation is sublated by “non-creaturely transcendence” in Jesus Christ (175). Though Barth does allow that “our respective bodies will be preserved in Christ’s body,” Hitchcock suggests that this neither captures the true meaning of the redemption of the flesh, nor adheres to the creedal witness of the Church, because it fails to detail the specificity of these bodies in eternity (181). In the end, the individual is nominalized and subsumed into Christ, and thus ceases to exist as such.

Chapter six serves a dual purpose as summary of major critiques and the conclusion to the book. The two trajectories detailed in the first chapter are consulted again with the conclusion that Barth falls along the more Eastern participatory trajectory and, problematically, falls into a spiritualizing trend that ignores the importance of the body. Unwilling to completely condemn Barth, Hitchcock offers his sympathies with the former’s theological project and offers a number of suggestions for the usefulness of Barth’s eschatology. Chief among these suggestions is that Barth’s accounts be applied to the immediate state between death and the general resurrection (191). The penultimate paragraph contains three major correctives for Barth’s theology which, if applied, would allow for speaking of a future in the flesh (perhaps pointing to a second, more constructive, study).

There is much to commend about this volume. Hitchcock is a clear and engaging writer, and he offers detailed and impressive readings of Barth. At times, it would have been nice to see him engage with scholarship that offers alternative readings of Barth’s resurrection theology (e.g., R. Dale Dawson’s The Resurrection in Karl Barth [2007] or John C. McDowell’s Hope In Barth’s Eschatology [2000]) even in his footnotes. Given the recent interest in Barth’s eschatology in the CD, this would have provided some added strength to Hitchcock’s readings. Additionally, because some of Hitchcock’s critiques depend on speculations about CD V, readers should press his logic; though, if he is correct, Hitchcock offers important insights into Barth’s thought.

My deeper concerns, however, come from the nature of the critiques and the eschatological presuppositions which support them. Though the book begins with a poetic description of “the resurrection of the flesh” this crucial concept is never explicitly defined. At times, this leads to confusion about its distinction from “resurrection of the dead,” which seems to be used interchangeably throughout (e.g. 26, 176). As a consequence of this imprecision, Hitchcock’s own understanding of redemption and eternity is masked. He repeatedly criticizes Barth for failing to capture the true meaning of the Apostle’s Creed, yet Hitchcock’s own interpretation is by no means necessitated (or even implied) by the line “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh” (1).

Additionally, it is unclear why the reader should accept the criteria of particularity in the eschaton (161), the specificity of redeemed bodies (181), and a “future both kinetic and sempiternal” (184) as meaningful or useful for evaluating or constructing any eschatology. Infrequent appeals are made to passages from the Bible or even a vague notion of “the biblical imagination,” yet Hitchcock fails to offer any account as to why his interpretations are superior to the countless others that have emerged in Christian history. Furthermore Hitchcock favors—and overuses—the term “selfsame” to refer to the resurrection body, yet this loaded term requires him to begin from the assertion he wishes to prove (see xi, for a particularly pointed example). The book itself, and particularly the pointed critiques of Barth, rest on a presupposed eschatology that lurks in the background, but the presuppositions regarding the body as marker of individuality, the necessity for strong continuity of earthly and resurrected bodies, and the role of time in the eschaton are never argued. The criticisms of Barth depend on this understanding, but this means they are only relevant if the reader shares the author’s perspective. Hitchcock’s critique of Barth is weakened as a result of these significant problems, and he fails to offer a meaningful warning to both Barth’s theological descendants and theologians interested in eschatology in general (as he claims in his preface, see xv).

Despite its problems, Hitchcock’s volume is still an important work for those interested in Barth’s doctrine of the resurrection and the larger issues of eschatology proper in the Church Dogmatics. Read alongside other recent studies on Barth’s eschatology, it provides unique perspectives on Barth’s mature thought and some of its potential problems.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.