G. C. Berkouwer explains Karl Barth’s Eschatology

Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer (1903-1996),(source: librarything)

Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer  (1903-1996)
[source: librarything]

G.C. Berkouwer was a Dutch Reformed Theologian in the Amsterdam tradition along with theological greats including Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and H. Berkof. Berkouwer wrote an excellent introduction to Karl Barth's theology titled, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduciton and Critical Appraisal in 1956. The first half of Berkouwer's book on Barth contains a clear and concise summary of Barth's Doctrines of Election and Reconciliation in the Church Dogmatics. The second half of the book contains Berkouwer's critical yet appreciative appraisal of the themes that appeared in the first half of the book. Overall, it is an excellent book that I highly recommend, with the primarily mistake being that it was published during Karl Barth's lifetime and before Barth concluded The Church Dogmatics, allowing Barth to respond critically in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

Berkouwer's Chapter VI. The Eschatological Triumph stands out in as a particularly helpful introduction to Karl Barth's enigmatic Doctrine of Redemption. Barth's Church Dogmatics is an unfinished summa, and the last volume he intended to write, "The Doctrine of Redemption", was to be on eschatology with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Berkouwer concedes early in The Triumph of Grace in The Theology of Karl Barth, that Barth often surprises (frustrates?) our anticipations when he finally sets in ink his opinions, and Barth's rejection of Infant Baptism is a classic example and remember Barth's modifications in his rejection of Natural Revelation from CD II/1 to CD IV/3. In retrospect, these doctrines are discernible in retrospect, but not until they are incarnated in the KD. So Berkouwer's chapter on Barth's eschatology must be understood with a grain of salt, especially as there are inconsistencies in what Barth says (in particular regarding Barth's statements on the continuation of human life after the final trumpet). Nevertheless, I've selected some quotations from this excellent Chapter VI. The Eschatological Triumph to help us imagine what Barth's eschatology might have come to be!

 G.C. Berkouwer on Karl Barth's Eschatology:

Again, generally a bad idea to write a book on Barth's Church Dogmatics while Barth is still alive, but c'est l'vive. Berkouwer is right that Barth's eschatology may be reconstructed by his published volumes of the Church Dogmatics. Barth often lamented that people were excited about the forthcoming volumes that hadn't read the already published volumes. Berkouwer relies almost entirely upon the Church Dogmatics Vol. III/2 §47 as his source of Barth's eschatology, with a few quotations from the Church Dogmatics II/1 §39 as well.

Berkouwer's introduction to Barth's eschatology:

"Although that part of the Kirchliche Dogmatik which will deal specifically with eschatology (the doctrine of redemption) has not yet been published, it is fully possible to include this aspect of Barth's theology in our discussion. From the beginning of Barth's theological development eschatology has played an important role in his thinking. Even in the earliest phase of his thinking he emphasized that eschatology should not merely be a concluding chapter in works on dogmatics, but that it should permeate the whole of our reflection on the gospel."

Berkouwer, G. C. The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Trans. Harry R. Boer. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1956. 161. Print.

Berkouwer's next section explains Barth's paradigm of eschatology in frame of "beginning time" to "ending time", where man's finite is bounded by these two terminals, and how man lives under the constant threat of disappearing to the abyss of non-being from which he emerged as embodied by our constant fear of death. The novelty of Barth's eschatology isn't that resurrection provides us an extension of "ending time" into the infinite future, but instead the natural death that man intended to experience as part of the created order; this natural death is unlike the empirical and unnatural death of which the curse of sin produced that we are constantly living in in fear under, but a death in the sense of fulfillment of life in a way that will never be forgotten in the eternity of God.

The work of God reveals Jesus Christ as the Lord of time. In connection with this theme Barth speaks extensively about our time and then discusses successively the "given time," the "limited time," the "beginning time," and the "ending time." Especially his views about time as ending time claim our attention here. it does not lie in Barth's intention to present a phenomenological analysis of time, of the limitations of human life, and of death, in his discussion of the ending time. All that he wishes to say in this connection he says from the viewpoint of the miracle of Christ's appearance: the "God with us" of reconciliation. What consequences does this conception have for the eschatological triumph?

In order to gain a right understanding of this "ending time" it is desirable to note first what Barth means by the "beginning of time." There was a time in which we were not yet, as also there shall be a time in which we shall not be any more. Human life lies between the poles of this two-fold not-being, the "being-not-yet" and the "being-no-longer." We are, it is true, more concerned with out "being-no-longer" than with our earlier "being-not-yet," but there is, for all that, every reason to give attention to this later form of our being. We are not eternal. We have a beginning time. We come out of non-being. That is to say -- note the peculiar sequence of thought -- "since my very origin I am threatened by nothingness; I stand designated, in a certain sense, as a being which is also able to move towards nothingness." (KD III/2, p. 698)

Ibid. 152-3

In the next quotation, Berkouwer explains Barth's distinction between the curse of Empirical Death to the goal of Natural Death. Berkouwer in this chapter notices that Barth admits that this doctrine has no precedent in Church History and that it stands on a hair string of Scripture. Unfortunately, Berkouwer waited for the explanation in CD V, but the "being-not-yet" of the CD V never came to a "has been".

Man's death is no longer the suffering of deserved judgment, "but it is only its sign" (KD III/2, p.730). The death of Christ sheds a wholly new light over our ending time. Empirical death did constitute a continual threat of all life, but He has undergone this threat (KD III/2, p733). Man was deserving of this death and in the Old Testament we see it portrayed in all its seriousness. But light has dawned in the midst of this darkness because the judgment has been executed. Jesus Christ has borne it. "No other man stands in this center and therefore no other stands really in the judgement of God" (KD III/2 p.736). The others -- the Christian knowingly, the non-Christian as yet unknowingly -- now stand only under the sign of the judgement (KD III/2 p.737). Through Golgotha man has been spared the suffering of this deserved judgment. The one judgement over Christ has become an irrevocable and unalterable fact.

Ibid. 156

The following quotation is the best paragraph in the entire book. The strength of Berkouwer's interoperation of Barth's Eschatology that it not only allows for the resurrection of men that lived, but of all beauty that has ever existed in Creation, such that nothing is lost.

God permits nothing to be lost -- no hue in deepest ocean depths, no wingbeat of an insect that lives but a day, nor the earliest time in earth's history, and certainly nothing in our life. God will not be alone in His eternity, but He will be together with His creature, His creature in its limited duration. "Present before God" -- in this way the creature will be and will remain." This is the way in which it will be enfolded in the great rest of God. This is its preservation in time. This is the mystery of the preservation which must be understood in the light of the expression repeated twenty-six times in Psalm 136, "For His mercy endureth forever." (KD III/3, pg102-3).

Ibid. 164

Another quotation that expands Barth's (inconsistent?) concept of ending continuation as the resurrection of the dead and his concept of "having been" as eternal fulfillment of life in natural death.

It is not easy to come to a clear insight with respect to Barth's solution of the problem of the ending time in its relation to eternal life. We must, in the first place, notice that Barth sharply opposes the idea of an extension of human life after death. When Christ through His victory ushers in the last day, and God shall in the end be all in all, there comes into being a "present without an afterward" (KD III/2, p.759). There is no continuation, no further happening, after the sounding of the last trump. "The hope of the New Testament concerning the beyond of human death is not some sort of changed life which is continued in some sort of unending future. Not this, but the 'eternalizing' of our ending life is the content of the New Testament hope." The hope that we have does not involve an extension of our life; its point of reference is our life as it has been. The life that has been, life in the limitations we have known, is "eternalized," and this action upon the life that has been takes place in such a manner that it does not include a continuation of our finite existence in the future.

This is the resurrection of the dead.

Barth's conception of the "eternalizing" of our ending life has so far as I know, no antecedents in the history of the Christian doctrine.

Ibid. 158

In the following quotation, if there is any doubt regarding Barth's doctrine of resurrection, this will clarify the orthodoxy of Barth's position and is helpful to understand's argument for natural death as part of God's good Creation.

Christology is decisive for Barth's anthropology as well as for his eschatology. In view of the mortality of Jesus Christ, Barth rejects, because of Christological-Soteriological considerations, the identity of end and judgment as self-evident (KD III/2. p. 769). We must distinguish between end and curse, dying and punishment, death and the judgment of death (Ibid.). Man's end and man's mortality belong to God's good creation. Barth makes this very clear: "It belongs to the nature of man, it is God's creation which determined, and to that extent made it good and right, that the existence of man in time should have an end, that man should be mortal. That we shall one day only have-been answers to a law by which we are not necessarily bound, imprisoned and condemned to destruction. Death is not in itself the judgment, nor is it in itself the sign of judgment. Factually, however, it is that" (KD III/2. p. 770).

This factual, this empirical death, has also a hidden aspect in which the boundary as such does not contain a threatening element, and this hidden aspect belongs to the good creation. Here death as boundary becomes the transition from being to not-being, it is the parallel to man's beginning time from not-being to being.

"It is therefore not unnatural but natural for human life to move on to this terminus ad quem. It is natural to ring life out as it was once rung in and therefore it is limited not only as its beginning, but also with respect to its future" (KD III/2, p.770).

Therefore man does not as such have a "beyond," nor does he need one, "for God is his beyond [Jenseits]." There is no extension of his earthly temporariness. This thesis, Barth emphasizes, may under no circumstances be understood to mean that death means finis [dead is dead] and that there is no reason or room for life for hope and expectation. Also in his quality as having-been man is not nothing but "participates in the eternal life of God" (KD III/2, p.770). It is precisely his life on this side of death, his ending and dying life, that is glorified (KD III/2, p.771).

Ibid. 159-60.

Any further quotations would mean I might as well quote the entire chapter at length! Whether Berkouwer has accurately described Barth's eschatology is left as an exercise for the reader!

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  1. OK, I will need to check out the two sections. He makes a good point on where to go for the eschatology. However, Barth does outline his doctrine of redemption at the end of his Prolegomena. Barth would also have had a discussion of his ethics of redemption. As creation focused on the Father and reconciliation focused on the Son, he would also work on redemption as the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • George, I have only recently begun to read CD III/2, and hope to understand it better first hand. It’s certainly a fascinating section of the dogmatics. I will look back at the prolegomena, that’s a good tip.

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