R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), ix + 246pp. $99.95

Reviewed by David W. Congdon (May 23, 2008)

In his Jena diary, Hegel writes: “In Swabia people say of something that took place long ago that it is so long since it happened that it can hardly be true any more. So Christ died for our sins so long ago that it can hardly be true any more.” It is precisely this problem—the distance between Christ and us, between the “there and then” and the “here and now”—which Karl Barth addresses in his doctrine of the resurrection, according to Dale Dawson’s fine analysis. Dawson argues that the resurrection is not only the “pivot point of Barth’s theological discourse” (7), but also an inexhaustibly rich doctrine which answers the problem of Lessing’s great ugly ditch. The resurrection ensures that Christ is not trapped within his pre-Easter history but is fully present to people of all times.

Dawson begins his book by presenting the problem of what he calls the “eclipse of the resurrection” in Barth scholarship. While acknowledging that Barth scholars are emphatic about the central place of the resurrection in Barth’s theology, Dawson claims that they generally overlook “its radical systematic significance” (12). To substantiate this claim, he briefly discusses, among others, Peter Carnley, Richard R. Niebuhr, G. C. Berkouwer, John Macquarrie, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Hans Urs von Balthasar, T. F. Torrance, and Eberhard Jüngel, before directing most of his attention to Bruce McCormack. Dawson criticizes McCormack’s argument that Barth replaces the time-eternity dialectic with the anhypostatic-enhypostatic dialectic of veiling and unveiling. Instead, Dawson argues that “an aspect of the time-eternity dialectic persists (as a soteriological theme)” (27). He later explains:

Barth’s anhypostatic-enhypostatic christology does not in itself overcome the distance between Jesus Christ and his own. The time-eternity dialectic remains the boundary between God’s time and human time . . . The dialectic now takes the form of a christo-anthropological diastasis, which is overcome only in the power of the resurrection. (68)

If the incarnation addresses the ontological distinction between God and creatures, then the resurrection, according to Dawson, addresses the soteriological distinction between Jesus and others, between the objective and subjective dimensions of our salvation.

The bulk of Dawson’s study fleshes out this basic thesis through a close reading of Barth’s theology. After an introductory chapter, he begins by analyzing Barth’s 1924 commentary on 1 Corinthians, The Resurrection of the Dead. Dawson then proceeds, in successive chapters, to go through volumes III/2, IV/1, IV/2, and IV/3 in theChurch Dogmatics. He interrupts this sequence with a chapter introducing and explicating Barth’s overall treatment of the resurrection in CD IV as “the movement of Jesus Christ in his completed reconciling being and action— extra nos and pro nobis—to us in our as yet opposed and unaffected anthropological sphere” (83). The book concludes with a chapter of criticisms and dogmatic proposals.

Dawson is concerned throughout to show that Barth’s theology of the resurrection remains consistent over the course of his life. Barth’s work is the “consistent unfolding of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” as the “single material insight” for his entire dogmatics (34). For this reason, the book returns to many of the same themes from chapter to chapter. The most prominent motifs include the resurrection as revelatory event, historical reality, trinitarian action, a new act of God, and the basis for Christ’s continuing presence with us. The most prominent theme, however, describes the resurrection as the movement from Jesus Christ to us. Dawson describes this as a transition “from the narrower christological sphere to the anthropological sphere” (87), from “the being and activity of Jesus Christ pro nobis” to “the being and activity of Jesus Christ in nobis” (113). This transition is primarily understood as a movement from the ontic reality of reconciliation to the noetic apprehension of our reconciliation.

Dawson, however, is not content with a simple ontic-noetic dichotomy. He argues that the resurrection also has an ontic dimension—or, rather, to use Barth’s terminology, it is “a divine noetic which has all the force of a divine ontic” (194). For this reason, he criticizes Barth for being inconsistent or at least unclear regarding his understanding of the resurrection. Barth, he says, is “too strongly influenced” by a strict ontic-noetic distinction (123), which is why Dawson prefers the pro nobis-in nobis distinction to the ontic-noetic, since the former has ontological implications on both sides of the transition. Dawson locates the problem in Barth’s use of the terms Auferweckung (awakening) and Auferstehung (resurrection or self-revelation).

According to Dawson’s analysis, Auferweckung refers to the Father’s act of awakening the passive Son in the power of the Spirit, whereas Auferstehung refers to the self-disclosure of the active Jesus Christ in his movement toward others. The former emphasizes the role of the Father and Son in the event of reconciliation as well as the ontic character of resurrection as a conferral of new being on the dead Jesus and, correspondingly, upon us. The latter emphasizes the sole activity of Jesus Christ in accomplishing our reconciliation and defines resurrection as a purely noetic event. While Dawson argues that Barth’s theology tends (rightly, he thinks) toward understanding the resurrection as an ontologically new act of God upon the passive Jesus (in the sense of Auferweckung), he criticizes Barth for not remaining faithful to this insight. This also leads him to criticize Barth for being—of all things—insufficiently trinitarian with respect to the resurrection.

In arguing his thesis, Dawson both overstates his case and at times confuses his terminology. A clear example of the former is his argument with McCormack. Dawson’s attempt to map the time-eternity dialectic onto the relation between Jesus’ history and the history of others is unconvincing. Moreover, it is unnecessary to his overall argument and perhaps even counterproductive. By applying the time-eternity dialectic to the christo-anthropological relation, he separates Jesus from the rest of humanity where Barth is always concerned about bringing them together or, to be more precise, actualizing them in the same being-in-act of Jesus Christ. Dawson seems at times to be creating a problem for the resurrection to “solve.” The “soteriological” distinction between Jesus Christ and others that he highlights early on seems to imply that the crucifixion has no salvific significance apart from the resurrection. I say “seems” because Dawson is not always clear. He says that “Barth’s anhypostatic-enhypostatic christology…is not yet the revelation and impartation of that reality. It denotes an ontic, but not yet a noetic christology” (31). Here Dawson speaks of an ontic-noetic distinction, but in the same breath he says that the resurrection is “revelation and impartation,” which is both noetic and ontic. This leads us to the problem of terminology.

Throughout his book, Dawson’s use of the pro nobis-in nobis distinction demands further clarification. Occasionally, he uses “in us” to mean that reconciliation is noetically revealed “to us,” but at other times he uses “in us” to mean that reconciliation is made ontologically effective for us here and now. This ambiguity mirrors the ambiguity that Dawson notices in Barth’s own thought, but instead of clarifying this terminology, he ends up repeating what he identifies as a problem in Barth’s text. On several occasions, this results in a misreading of Barth and an overstatement of his argument. For example, Dawson introduces a quote from Barth by saying that, in the resurrection, “the reconciled human being and action in Jesus Christ reaches to us” (italics mine). But in the quote itself, Barth only says that the resurrection opens our eyes to what has been accomplished. Again, on the same page, Dawson introduces a quote by stating that Christ’s reconciled being “has been made effective for us all” (italics mine). But Barth only says that resurrection makes Christ’s death “present” to all (126). In both cases, Dawson presses Barth to say something that he does not quite say. Even if Dawson’s reading holds up—though it is not clear that it does—his own analysis lacks clarity and obscures important distinctions between, inter alia, effected and revealed, in nobis and ad nos. Perhaps part of the problem is due to the fact that Dawson is pushing for consistency where Barth intends to speak dialectically, something to which Dawson is not always attentive.

While Dawson sometimes pays too little attention to detail, at other times he pays too much attention and misses some of the larger theological concepts at work. For example, in his discussion of CD IV/3, he repeatedly mentions the prophetic office of Christ without once discussing the doctrine of the munus triplex. Similarly, throughout the book he refers to the connection between the relation of immanent Trinity to Jesus Christ and the relation of Jesus Christ to others without once mentioning Barth’s doctrine of theanalogia relationis. Both of these oversights are attributable to the fact that Dawson’s book is a close reading of these texts—but only a close reading. Dawson does not connect these texts to the overall architectonic, nor does he think systematically beyond the issues raised directly by the text itself.

By sticking so closely to the primary texts, Dawson ends up doing us both the great service of reading Barth charitably and with attention to detail, and the disservice of leaving many relevant questions unaddressed. Most conspicuously, Dawson does not offer any suggestions for how his reading of Barth relates to the important work of Pannenberg, von Balthasar, or Robert Jenson on the resurrection. His analysis of Barth’s method could have been contrasted with Pannenberg’s historical-scientific approach. His critique of Barth’s inconsistency regarding the Father’s act of awakening the passive Jesus could have easily led to a fruitful engagement with von Balthasar’s treatment of the same in Mysterium Paschale. And his analysis of the relation between Trinity and resurrection—particularly his argument that “the resurrection is God’s reassertion of himself in his trinitarian being” (221)—would have been greatly augmented by a discussion of Jenson’s theology. Dawson’s intention to remain focused on Barth’s text is commendable, but his work feels incomplete due to his avoidance of contemporary debates about the resurrection. While Dawson does the hard and necessary work of reading Barth carefully, he does not take the next step of synthesizing the material and bringing it into conversation with the work of others.

Despite these reservations, Dawson lays a solid foundation which future theologians writing on the doctrine of the resurrection will find immensely useful. His discussion of the resurrection as the “turn of the crucified Lord to others” is both thorough and theologically interesting. The chapters on CD III/2 (the contemporaneity of Christ) and IV/2 (the Spirit as the power of the transition from Christ to us) are particularly strong. While not without its limitations, Dawson’s study is an important and theologically rich contribution to Barth scholarship that should be read by anyone working on the doctrine of the resurrection.

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.