Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), xv + 135. $24.95
Reviewed by Cambria Janae Kaltwasser (December 14, 2009)
In this book, Adam Neder, associate professor at Whitworth University, traces what he identifies as the “taproot of Barth’s theology: the confession that God’s gracious action toward the world is concentrated ‘in Christ,’ who is both the savior of the world and its salvation, the giver of grace and grace itself” (xi). While the nature of humanity’s being ‘in Christ’ is arguably the bedrock of the Church Dogmatics, bridging the doctrines of revelation, election, creation, and reconciliation, it is a motif that rarely receives the attention of a full-length study. With this volume, Neder aims to bring Barth’s theology of participation in Christ to the fore by unpacking it from within the four volumes of the Church Dogmatics, thereby providing – as the title suggests – an introduction to this monumental work. Neder approaches the theme of participation in Christ from the widest possible scope in summary sections at the beginning of each chapter (a feat achieved by the author’s familiarity with the entirety of the Church Dogmatics), and then zooms in to examine in rigorous detail key paragraphs and sections from each volume. The result is a fast-paced survey of all the major loci of the Church Dogmatics as seen through the lens of humanity’s being in Christ.
Chapter One treats Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God, highlighting its emphasis on revelation as an eventin which the human being comes under the lordship of God. For Barth, revelation implies union because “to know God is to be joined to him in faith and obedience” (1). Neder divides this discussion between examinations of paragraphs 5 and 6 of CD I/1, respectively “The Nature if the Word of God” and “The Knowability of the Word of God.” He highlights Barth’s stress on the irreducible distinction between God and the human being in the event of revelation. The indirect event nature of revelation safeguards the meaning of grace by ensuring that faith is never construed as a human possession. Therefore, “rather than denying divine-human communion, Barth intends to highlight its intimacy and reality by describing it within a framework adequate to its participants—the utterly free and gracious Lord of the covenant and his correspondingly free and grateful servants and friends” (7). In treating paragraph 6, Neder illumines Barth’s stress upon the concrete form of this union: grace manifests itself as a determination of the human being for God. Therefore, far from banishing faith to an intellectual realm, “Barth existentializes knowledge of God” by equating knowledge with obedience (10). In the event of revelation, God’s free determination for the human being enables a correspondingly free determination of the human being for God.
In Chapter Two Neder explicates Barth’s doctrine of election through sustained focus on paragraph 32 of CD II/2. Here Barth portrays election as both God’s self-determination to be God for us and his determination for humanity in the one human being Jesus Christ. This determination by God forms the focal point of Neder’s study. In Barth’s doctrine of election, participation in Christ is disclosed in its twofold form. In election’s objective form, all of humanity is included in the history of the covenant by virtue of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, accomplished on our behalf. Yet, rather than replacing the obedience of individual human beings, Jesus’ history, “establishes a trajectory for humanity, defining humanity by governing it as a telos” (18). Therefore the subjective side of participation in Christ, the free obedience of human subjects, is included in and ensured by the objective side. Thus, for Neder, the theme of participation allows Barth’s treatment of election to blend seamlessly into his ethics, the imperative aspect of objective participation in Christ: “The command of God is God himself in action drawing human beings into active fellowship” (25).
Chapter Three highlights the anthropological implications of Barth’s doctrine of creation by examining CD III/2’s paragraph 44.3, “The Real Man.” Neder claims that the theological anthropology of volume three arises directly from decisions made in II/2, where Barth argued that “there exists no independent relationship between God and creation apart from Jesus Christ” (30). Jesus himself establishes and enacts human nature. To be human is nothing other than to be summoned by God. One of the richest components of the chapter is Neder’s explanation of the importance of the historical-covenantal category in Barth’s thought. According to Neder, Barth juxtaposes the concept of static, independent human being with that of being as history. Without Jesus Christ, human being is static, in accordance with its own limits. Within Jesus Christ that being gains a history both as it is transcended by God from without and as it is enabled to transcend itself through active obedience.
Barth’s ontology of grace is addressed in Chapter Four through explicating paragraphs 57.1 and 58.1-2 in CDIV.1. Calling paragraph fifty-seven “an extended ontological preface to the entire doctrine of reconciliation”(43), Neder here clarifies his interpretation of Barth’s actualistic account of participation: since God’s being is in act, participation is a union of actions rather than a melding substances. God shares himself with humanity by including them in covenant history; human beings participate in that history by responding in free obedience.
Within the treatment of paragraph 58.1, Neder’s section on simul iustus et peccator is particularly illuminating for current debates on justification. He explains that – in Barth’s hands – the doctrine “is not first of all a statement about the sin and righteousness of the Christian. It is rather an affirmation that the source of that righteousness (Jesus Christ) lies outside (aliena) the believer. The simul iustus et peccatorguarantees that Jesus Christ is not merely a step along the way, but the content of salvation itself” (48-9). Neder’s explanation suggests that the simul ought not to be construed as obscuring the two-sided nature of the covenant, but in such a way that Jesus’ enactment of our humanity includes and has as its telos the subjective participation of individuals, which is always a matter of utter dependence on Jesus Christ. Barth does not deny individual inner transformation but takes critical aim at a certain “ontology of grace,” which asserts that grace is something “detachable” from Jesus, given to the believer in the event of transformation (49). God’s grace is rather his action in Jesus Christ, which “draws forth human response, but it does not create effects that linger in the pious soul apart from God’s action” (49). Neder writes, “Human ‘being’ is not the possession of self-contained individuals free to accept or reject God’s grace. Rather, human being isenacted in response to God’s grace. In this act, the individual whom Jesus Christ has established as a freely active subject in him embraces this identity and becomes in herself who she is in him” (51). In his engagement with paragraph 58.2 Neder goes on to cover three aspects of the one grace of Jesus Christ—justification, sanctification, and vocation—and their corresponding subjective manifestations in the Christian life—faith, love, and hope.
An historical-covenantal Christology grounds Barth’s actualistic account of union with Christ, and this Christology occupies Chapter Five. The focus rests on CD IV/2’s paragraph 64.2, highlighting Barth’s re-interpretation of the hypostatic union “as an event of lordship and obedience, the perfect coordination of two distinct sets of actions, divine and human, which are never confused with each other” (62). Barth reappropriates the Reformed teaching on the indirectness of the union of natures in the person of the Son. He rejects deification not only for its leaning towards docetism and synergism, but because of its tendency to focus on the “ effect of the direct penetration of Jesus’ flesh by the divine nature,” which looks away from the living and active history of Jesus Christ. Instead, the incarnation is a confrontation between God and human being in which the human being is “exalted to true humanity” by being freed for active obedience to God. Short analyses of paragraphs 66.2 and 71.3, respectively “The Holy One and the Saints” and “The Goal of Vocation,” are included here as well. Neder concludes his study with excursuses on the implications of Barth’s theology of participation for sacramentology, human virtue, and ecumenical dialogue on theosis.
With this compact volume Neder skillfully weaves together the central lines of Barth’s thought on ontology, Christology, and anthropology, ably unpacking dense material from across the Church Dogmatics and never losing sight of his central aim of illuminating humanity’s being in Christ. Consequently, this volume helps Christians think through the meaning of participation in Christ without falling prey to quasi-substantialist portrayals of grace, which Barth so adamantly rejects not merely because they erode the Creator/creature distinction, but because they abstract away from the event of God’s self-revelation in and the activity of the living Christ. Neder aids us in seeing how Barth’s insistence on maintaining union in distinction and on emphasizing participation as a ordered fellowship, is aimed at magnifying the intimacy of participation in God by maintaining the centrality of the living Jesus Christ.
This reader’s only criticism of the book lies not in its content but its structure, which unfolds as a series of summaries rather than as the elucidation of a single thesis through contact with various materials. One wonders if the work might have been better served if Neder had begun with an interpretation of his findings rather than providing merely formal scaffolding for the uninitiated reader. From the first, the reader is made to ask after the heart of how Barth understands participation in Christ and its significance to present-day discussions. Rather than unifying his study with a few interpretive assertions upfront, Neder leaves these essentials for the reader to unravel chapter by chapter as the work unfolds.
Yet, this volume is a challenge altogether worth the reader’s efforts both for yielded insights into the thought of Barth and for connections between multiple areas of Christian faith and practice. Neder’s offering is a truly systematic work, in that it enables Christians to think together the doctrines of God, Christ, humanity, sin, and salvation. It is a truly evangelical work, in that it calls the church to reflect upon its proclamation of the living Christ and its summons by God to live into our true being in him. It is, thus, a truly welcome work.
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.