Karl Barth on What Distinguishes Man From Beast

man-beast-barthThe Ethics of Hope is a reoccurring theme at the PostBarthian, and this includes hope for all, not only all people, but all non-human Creation as well, such that nothing is lost in the end when Christ Jesus is all in all (1 Cor 15:28).  What is it that separates Man from the Beasts such that only Humans may hear God's Yes and what prevents animals from hearing God's Yes as well? Anthropologists continually erode the wall of separation between humans and the higher primates, such that Bruce McCormmack says those who define the imago dei by how we are different from them are playing a dangerous game.

Karl Barth disagrees. Barth's Anthropology is developed in his Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation, Vol. III/2 (CD III/2) in section §46 Man as Soul and Body wherein he pronounces a No to all materialistic Anthropology. It is no surprise that Barth would say No to non-biblical Anthropology, and consider it as atheistic materialism, considering his famous Nein to Natural Revelation. Remember that famous statement by Barth in the preface to Church Dogmatics, Vol. I/1 where the analogia entis is called the "invention of the Antichrist." However strong Barth's opposition may be to Natural Revelation, his no to the higher primates may include a hidden Yes.

The following two quotations from CD III/2 address this question of whether there is a hidden Yes to the higher primates that also opens the door to hope for all (and not for humans only but the entire Cosmos!) Barth concludes that no matter how similar Man and Beast may be, it is Mankind alone that is baptized, and elsewhere Barth has made the persuasive argument that it is Mankind alone of all the animal kingdom in which the incarnation of Jesus appeared.

It is only by the Spirit of God the Creator that they [beasts] also live and are soul of their body. What distinguishes man from beast is the special movement and purpose with which God through the Spirit gives him life; and, connected with this, the special spirituality of his life, which is determined by the fact that God has not only made him in his constitution as soul of his body, but destined him in this constitution for that position of a partner of the grace of His covenant. We know nothing of such a double determination in respect of the beasts; and hence we do not understand the manner of their life or of their souls (though we cannot dispute that they have them) and at very best can only intuit. So far as we know, they lack that second determination by the Spirit which is primary and peculiar. Men and beasts can be born, but men alone can be baptized. Yet in the relation Spirit-life and therefore Spirit-life-body as such, there is no difference between men and beasts. However true this may be, the bible also names beasts among living beings, even before Adam comes into being, the animals are already living beings in Genesis.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.2 The Doctrine of Creation. Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J. W. Edwards, O. Bussey, Harold Knight, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller, R.J. Ehrlich, A.T. Mackey, T.H.L. Parker, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks. Vol. 15. London: T & T Clark, 2009. 152-3. Print. Study Edition. [359]

And the second quotation is:

It should not be overlooked that it is on the basis of God's free operation that man has Spirit and therefore breathes and lives and may be soul of his body; and further that it is under the judgment of God that, as matters stand, he is placed in his creaturely constitution. This is proclaimed in a fact already mentioned, that he has his breath and life, as well as the Spirit, in common with the beasts. For example, Gen 1:20,25, calls beasts "living beings" before men; and Gen 7:15 calls them expressly "flesh having the breath of life in them." According to the Old Testament, neither soul nor the Spirit can be simply denied to the beasts. To be sure, their creation is not described as an act of special bestowal such as that which takes place in man according to Gen 2:7. Yet even so the creative Spirit which awakens man to life is also the life-principle of beasts (and even of the whole host of heaven according to Ps 33:6). Ecc 3:19ff develops this insight in a shattering way: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth the beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?" Yes; who knows? Man has no right to find in his own favour in this respect. All that he can really know and expect of himself is that his breath and life, like that of the beasts, will end as it began, and that like the beasts he must die.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.2 The Doctrine of Creation. Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J. W. Edwards, O. Bussey, Harold Knight, J.K.S. Reid, R.H. Fuller, R.J. Ehrlich, A.T. Mackey, T.H.L. Parker, H.A. Kennedy, J. Marks. Vol. 15. London: T & T Clark, 2009. 154-5. Print. Study Edition. [361-2]

Even if Barth does not share our Hope for all, we have Jürgen Moltmann on our side.


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  1. Essentially, we are distinguished (as far as we know, and therefore this is only noetic rather than reliably ontic) because scriptures we wrote speak of God’s actions with respect to us, and even as they speak to a component equality of humanity with all other fellow creatures in creation they do in fact speak of us as having been marked out with a significance and a role for which there is no equal. We are distinguished in that God covenants with us, and in that God becomes one of us. But to separate ourselves from creation as though that made us other than our fellow creatures is the wrong thing; our fate is the indicator of the fate of the whole.

    In another place, exegeting Genesis directly, Barth will say that we are distinguished in our creation as having no natural kinds; humanity is itself one kind, and two in its kind, male and female. Whereas every other animal and plant has species of its genus, we are sui generis. Our divisions (not our variations, genetically, but our divisions) arise as a product of sin at work in us.

    • Matt,

      I like your noetic/ontic taxonomy, however even the noetic difference may one day shown not to be real, especially as we learn more about homo erectus or neanderthals or other higher primates today. Barth’s CD III/3 is over sixty years old now, so its much harder to say no to Anthropology today as it was in his time. Thanks for commenting!


  2. An Anglican priest, Arthur Broome founded the first animal protection agency, RSPCA in 1824. John Wesley detested blood sports and defended animal immortality. Cardinal Newman has a doctrine of the Christ like innocence of animals. St. Francis, and other holy people preached to animals. This is a part of our Christian tradition.

    It’s time for theological recognition, spiritual reflection, and the ethical realization of the dignity and sensitivity to the divine displayed by animals and the truth “that there is no life, be it human or animal, apart from God.”

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