Book Review: Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth

9781409441175.JKT_ReschTitle: Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery

Author: Dustin Resch

Series: Barth Studies

Bibliographic info: 244 pp.

Publisher: Ashgate, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or direct from the publisher

With thanks to Ashgate for the review copy.

When it comes to the virgin birth of Christ, one can find many notable theologians who rejected its historicity, including Moltmann, Küng, Ebeling, Pannenberg, and Rahner. I should note, though, that most of these theologians (and others like them) still find some useful theological meaning in the doctrine (I think Pannenberg did reject it having any kind of useful theological meaning). There is one theologian, however, with whom I have found conflicting opinions on what he thought about the virgin birth, and that is Karl Barth. Wanting to know exactly what Barth thought of this doctrine is the reason I requested this volume to review and I am very glad I did.

The author, Dustin Resch, is Assistant Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan, and this book is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at McMaster University.

There are five chapters in this study which, briefly summarized, are as follows: Chapter One provides an overview on the history of the doctrine of the virgin birth in the Western tradition, covering Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Strauss, and Brunner. The author makes the interesting observation of how pre-Reformation thought on the virgin birth assessed it more in terms of its fittingness with other themes such as original sin and pneumatology. Chapter Two then tackles the development of the doctrine of the virgin birth in Karl Barth’s theology, beginning with his Göttingen and Münster lectures in dogmatics and going through to his penning of Church Dogmatics (with special reference to CD I/2, §15.3 “The Miracle of Christmas”). Chapter Three further delves into Barth’s theology on the virgin birth, with Resch arguing that for Barth the virgin birth is both a sign of God’s “yes” and “no”, that is, it is both a sign of genuine humanity and God’s judgment on sin. Chapter Four is the real heart of this study. In it the author discusses the conception of Jesus in relation to the work of the Holy Spirit, specifically in regards to how Barth tries to convince us of the theological necessity of the virgin birth (though not so much the historical necessity). Chapter Five consists of an unexpected discussion on the place of Mary in Barth’s theology and functions essentially as an appendix to Barth’s thought on the virgin birth.

I’ll go into a bit more detail on this final chapter, for while it did seem somewhat superfluous, I found it quite fascinating. Barth’s disdain for Mariology may be known for those with familiarity with his writings, saying such things as: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excresences must be excised” (CD 1.2.139). Resch notes Barth’s contempt for Mariology and states: “Barth’s main problem with Mariology is simply that in it Mary is treated in relative independence from Christ. While never completely severed from Christ, Mary has come to have her own special dignity, merit and ministry.” Furthermore, he states that “Barth intended the whole of CD IV/2 to be read as his indirect counter to Roman Catholic Mariology.” In a nutshell, while Barth has great contempt for what Mary has become in Catholic theology, Resch argues that Barth still has a reasonably high view of Mary, seeing her as essentially a prototype of the perfect relationship between human autonomy and divine grace. Resch says that Mary is “construed by Barth to be the ideal Christian and one who has taken up her vocation in the way which all Christians ought, to be the handmaid of the Lord. Indeed, it is Mary’s exemplary life of service that Christians ought to emulate in their participation in the kingdom of God through union with Christ.”

When it comes to Barth’s thoughts on the virgin birth, Resch carefully delineates how Barth’s thought developed from the early lectures in Göttingen and Münster where Barth saw the virgin birth as having ontological/constitutive significance for the incarnate Christ, to the later period where Barth writes The Great Promise, Credo, and began writing Church Dogmatics, seeing it now as a “sign” (Zeichen) that has noetic (rather than ontic) significance. In other words, the virgin birth should not be seen as accomplishing the incarnation of God, but rather as attesting to it by being a sign that marks out the mystery of the incarnation (kind of like the role the empty tomb plays for the resurrection). To abandon the doctrine of the virgin birth is, for Barth, to take a Schleiermacherian turn that evaporates the mystery of the incarnation into a wholly natural theology, seeing it as simply a pinnacle hidden within humanity.

All in all, I found this study to be a very helpful examination of a question that has puzzled me for a long time: What role exactly does the virgin birth play in Barth’s theology? From reading this study I see that for Barth the virgin birth functions as a theological sign of the mystery of the incarnation. It is not a constitutive element in Christ’s life and isn’t necessarily making claims about biology and parthenogenesis, but should be seen more as a sign of Christ’s identity that directs the church to a number of its core claims about God, Jesus, and humanity. Resch states:

For Barth, the criteria by which the church should make its decision to adopt the biblical attestation of the virgin birth into its understanding of the biblical message should be the same as the criteria by which the New Testament authors themselves decided to incorporate the virgin birth into their witness. In both cases, questions of the age and source value of the tradition were not conclusive. Instead, the doctrine was accepted because of its ‘fit’ with the central elements of Christian faith.

Barth did not seem to be very willing to enter into discussion in regards to the historicity of the virgin birth, so I could see why some Christians (particularly evangelicals) may be off-put by that. Nevertheless, I found Barth’s use of aesthetic categories to be quite valuable in deciding upon the question of the virgin birth, providing a useful way of reading the Bible theologically.

This study is purely an exposition on Barth’s view on the virgin birth, and so is unencumbered with the author’s own criticism of Barth’s thought, though there are some critical questions posed at the end that offer up some interesting trajectories for future inquiry. The scope of this study is very small, but it will definitely be of interest to anyone interested in Barth studies or the history of the virgin birth in Western theology and in contemporary theology.

4 responses

  1. This is a very helpful review. It has been a while since I have read Barth’s account in I.2, but I would want to finesse your comment about Barth’s reticence on the historicity question. It is true that Barth criticizes a particular way of constructing and defending the Virgin Birth, namely insofar as it depends upon the historical attestation as such, which would be a variant of natural theology. And it is also true that Barth is critical of those who might be overly curious about the biological means, as if that were available to us, and moreover is not the sort of “availability” that is proper to God’s miraculous action and presence in creation, which is why Barth uses the “sign” category, among other reasons. However, this does not negate the sign as involving a genuine history and, indeed, with clear biological claims in this case — for example, the means and how of the Spirit’s overshadowing Mary and her conception of Christ is beyond our knowledge, but it does require the historical and biological claim that Joseph, nor any other male companion, was involved in the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb.

    In that sense, evangelical fears about Barth’s supposedly a-historical theology can perhaps be lessened, though I am sure not entirely to their satisfaction. It is has to do with the peculiar way that Barth goes about making doctrinal claims with historical content: they are dogmatically grounded according to the internal logic of Christian dogmatics and, in this case, this includes a healthy sense of aesthetics, which I believe Barth learned from Anselm.

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