Note: this is a draft of a paper that I’ll be giving soon. If you’ve got feedback, please let me know in the comments!
I’ve titled my paper “The Guilt of Karl Barth: Strengths and Weaknesses of Barth’s Römerbrief Reading of Romans 9:30–10:21.” (As an aside, I will usually refer to this passage as “Romans 10” in what follows.) Put simply, my main point is this: supersessionism is not the biggest problem with Barth’s reading of Romans 10. Instead, the greater guilt is his equation of the “Gentiles” with the “world.” Even more succinctly: In Romans and Römerbrief 10, “Israel” = “Church” is less problematic than “Gentiles” = “world.”
Yes, supersessionism is bad. Primarily, because it claims that God has capriciously reneged on his promises to Israel. And, secondarily, because it’s a short step from supersessionism to antisemitism and anti-Judaism. And, yes, Barth’s early handling of Romans 9–11 is guilty of the “Israel forgetfulness” that Soulen has labelled “structural supersessionism.”1
But what if supersessionism isn’t the biggest danger here? Instead, if Barth’s goal and our own is to interpret the book of Romans by ascertaining what Paul thought “in general and in detail,” I’m far more concerned that Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 makes it difficult, if not impossible, to pick up on Paul’s pastoral handling of the tensions between Jews and Gentiles within the Church.
In order to make this point, I will first summarize Barth’s argument in Römerbrief 10, before assessing its strengths and weaknesses as an interpretation of Romans 9:30–10:21.
SUMMARY: WHAT BARTH IS DOING IN RÖMERBRIEF 10
In what follows, I will focus upon the second edition of Der Römerbrief. However, it is helpful to note that Barth made some structural changes in chapter ten between the first and second editions.
In Römerbrief 1919, chapter 10 is titled “A Guilt,” and the section headings are:
- Clarifications (10:1–3)
- The Message (10:4–15)
- The Deaf Ears (10:16–21).
In the first edition, Romans 9:30–33 are addressed in the final subsection, “The Stone of Stumbling,” in chapter 9, titled “A Plight” (Eine Not).
In Römerbrief 1922, Barth famously adds “the Church” into his chapter titles in 9–11. Chapter 10, “A Guilt,” becomes “The Guilt of the Church.” Furthermore, Barth moves Romans 9:30-33 into the beginning of chapter 10, combining them with 10:1–3 and calling the subsection, not “The Stone of Stumbling” or “Clarifications,” but rather “The KRISIS of Knowledge.” He also combines Romans 10:4–15 and 16–21 into a subsection titled, not “The Message” or “The Deaf Ears,” but “The Light in the Darkness.”
So, we’ve got two subsections to consider, “The KRISIS of Knowledge” and “The Light in the Darkness.”
First, The KRISIS of Knowledge: Romans 9:30–10:3
If I had to sum-up Barth’s section on “The KRISIS of Knowledge” in a single sentence, it would be: “With great revelation comes great responsibility.” The knowledge in question is the knowledge of God and the crisis is the judgment that humans are guilty. In fact, the crisis of knowledge is that both avoiding and pursuing the knowledge of God leads to guilt. Avoiding the knowledge of God increases the guilt, and pursuing (and even receiving) the knowledge of God reveals the guilt.
For Barth, the relationship between divine revelation and human plight is direct, not inverse. You’re in much greater danger in the Holy of Holies than in the casino or anywhere else. Or, to borrow one of Barth’s images, when the revelatory shell explodes, those closest to it bear the brunt of the impact.
And yet, despite this direct correlation between revelation and plight, there is no escape from the judgment of God. There is no religiously privileged position from which the Church can judge Israel or the world. And there is no religionless position from which the world can judge the Church. For Barth, as it is with Israel, so it is with the Church, and so it is with the entire world of ineluctably religious human beings.
In this chapter, at least, Barth glosses “Israel” as “the Church” and “Gentiles” as “the world.” However, we should note that Barth is making an argument from the greater to the lesser when it comes to the guilt of the Church. He admits that the pinnacle of human religion, which is already the highest human possibility, is to be found in the history of Israel, asking:
Can there be a ‘supreme’ religion, a highest pinnacle of all human work, in the relation between God and men? If such a religion were to be found anywhere, it would be in the ‘religion’ of the prophets and psalmists of Israel, which is nowhere excelled, certainly not in the history of Christianity, and not even in the so-called ‘Religion of Jesus’.2
Here, Barth is willing to mention Israel and Christianity in a differentiated manner. And yet Barth sees no religious evolutionary process and progress from Judaism to Christianity. The pinnacle of religion had already been reached in the history of Israel, before the history of the Church.
Now, of course, for Barth, to call something the “pinnacle of religion” is a particularly damning critique! And he immediate says that “a religion adequate to revelation and congruent to the righteousness of God, a law of righteousness, is unattainable,” except through the miracle of faith (366). However, Barth is arguing that, if even Israel failed to attain the righteousness of God, then the Church will fail no better.
To repeat, the crisis of knowledge is that there is no escape from the judgment of God. Although some might suggest that, given the direct correlation between revelation and plight, the best course of action would be to distance ourselves from the guilty Church, Barth maintains that there really is no escape from the solidarity of human beings under the judgment of God. He writes that “In the Church humanity becomes conscious of itself and is manifested as religious” (362). Therefore, “in describing the Church we are describing ourselves” (371).
Barth perhaps comes the closest to offering a justification for his gloss of “Israel” as “the Church” when he writes:
In the affairs of God it is impossible for one individual to range itself against another, or one persona against another. We cannot examine men, and then proceed to justify some and to condemn others (371).
The knowledge of God, therefore, leads to a crisis, a judgment, a critique of ourselves and our best thoughts about God (373).
And Yet, The Light Shines in the Darkness: Romans 10:4–21
Barth insists that, despite the Church’s tribulation and guilt, there is a way forward. But it is not pleasant. For Barth, “the hope of the Church” is manifest “precisely where its guilt is proven” (374). The stone of stumbling, the rock of offense, is the only way forward. That is, in order to see the light of God that shines in the darkness, the Church must acceptthe judgment of God as her own, instead of trying to escape the judgment.
After all, on its own, the Church is desperately incapable. It is unable to have faith. It is unable to “do the law,” which, for Barth, means comprehending “that human righteousness comes into being only through the majesty of the nearness of God and of His election” (376). The Church is unable to bring Christ near or to make Christ present. Hell, the Church can’t even negate its way to God (379)!
Instead, the light only shines in the darkness because God himself has already drawn near in Jesus Christ. Not, mind you, in a way that can be grasped and claimed by the Church as a possession. But, nevertheless, in an eschatological nearness that enables all human beings to call upon the Lord Jesus Christ and accept both the judgment and the salvation of God.
And yet, the light shines in “real darkness” (390). Barth writes that “what is demanded of us here is that we should know that we are understood by God—in our lack of understanding” (390). We best serve the Church by reminding it that even this demand exceeds its grasp. For Barth, we must not minimize but must instead emphasize “that the tribulation of the Church is its guilt, and that its guilt consists in a perpetual avoiding of the tribulation which is suffers from the secret of God” (388). “The Church needs to be continually reminded of the most serious of all symptoms. It was the Church, not the world, which crucified Christ” (389). Römerbrief chapter 10 was written as just such a reminder. With great revelation comes great culpability.
ASSESSMENT: WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE OF BARTH’S READING?
So much for a summary sketch of chapter 10. Let’s now assess Barth’s argument.
First, Barth Was Right to Critique the Church.
Previously, in chapter 9, Barth wrote that “in contrast with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is thrust upon our attention—Israel, the Church, the world of religion as it appears in history, and, we hasten to add, Israel in its purest, truest, and most powerful aspect” (332).
The first time I read those words, I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the ground. And yet, I believe that Karl Barth was right to use Romans 9–11 to critique the Church instead of critiquing Israel. He was right, in other words, to interpret Romans 9–11 as an internal rather than an external critique.
And, as far as an internal critique of the Church goes, I believe that Barth gives some good and theologically sound advice to the Church. Instead of grasping for a religiously privileged position that does not exist, Barth urges the Church to submit to the judgment of God. Like a good prophet, he calls the people of God to repent. Consider the following:
Were the Church to appear before men as a Church under judgment; did it know of no other justification save that which is in judgment; did it believe in the stone of stumbling and rock of offence, instead of being offended and scandalized at it; then, with all its failings and offences—and certainly one day purified of some of them—it would be the Church of God. The Church, however, which sings its triumphs and trims and popularizes and modernizes itself, in order to minister to and satisfy every need except the one!; the Church which, in spite of many exposures, is still satisfied with itself, and, like quicksilver, still seeks and finds its own level; such a Church can never succeed, be it never so zealous, never so active in ridding itself of its failings and blemishes. With or without offences, it can never be the Church of God, because it is ignorant of the meaning of repentance.3
This sounds like Paul, who, right after proclaiming that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16–17), then proceeds to cut everyone down to size by reminding them that there’s no human path to the righteousness of God apart from submitting to the judgment of God (1:18–3:20). Humble repentance, not positivistic boasting, is the correct human response to God’s gracious salvation.
I largely agree with what Beverly Gaventa recently argued at the 2019 Karl Barth Conference.4 On the one hand, Barth’s reading of Romans 9–11 is dangerous, because it leaves the door open for supersessionism, and wrong, because it “violates the plain sense of the text.” Yet, on the other hand, Barth’s handling of Romans 9–11 flows naturally from his emphasis on human solidarity and the qualitative difference between God and humanity in his reading of Roman 1–8. Furthermore, Barth’s prophetic and pastoral indictment of Christian arrogance coheres with other aspects of Paul’s letter.
Like what? Well, as Gaventa noted, Barth perhaps took his cue from some of Paul’s “unsettling exegetical moves” in Romans 9–11, like Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 30 to refer to “Jesus” and the “word of faith,” instead of to the “commandment.” Or Paul’s use of Hosea to refer to the Gentiles, instead of to Israel. Furthermore, as Gaventa pointed out, throughout the letter, Paul appears to draw lines between human groups, but he then proceeds to erase those lines. For example, Paul plays on Jewish stereotypes of Gentiles in the second half of chapter 1, before springing a rhetorical trap in chapter 2! In chapter 4, Paul brings up Abraham as the father of both the uncircumcised and the circumcised. And in chapter 5, Paul puts Jew and Gentile together in Adam and in Christ.
In his critique of the guilty Church in Römerbrief 10, Barth is at least attempting to take the same posture as Paul. Paul took a posture of self-critique and solidarity with Israel. And, after all, Paul was a Christian and he wrote Romans to Christians in Rome. Barth therefore takes a posture of self-critique and solidarity with the Church.
And Yet, Barth Was Wrong to Miss the Jew-Gentile Tensions WITHIN the Church.
Oddly enough, on occasion in his interpretation of Romans 9–11, Barth seems to have missed the fact that Paul was writing to Christians at Rome! This despite the fact that his use of Romans 9:30–10:21 to critique the Church at least plausibly depends on Paul’s admission that he is speaking to “you Gentiles” as “an apostle to the Gentiles” in 11:13. That is, the Gentiles among his predominantly Gentile Christian audience at Rome.
What is the Apostle Paul trying to say to the Church in Romans 9:30–10:21? Based upon the prefaces to the Römerbrief, this is a question that Karl Barth would want us to ask. In this passage, Paul is in the second stage of his argument that “It is not as though the word of God had failed” (Rom. 9:6a). The first stage of his argument (Rom. 9:6–29) was that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6b), “and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants” (Rom. 9:7a). That is, membership in the people of God has always been determined by God’s gracious election—nothing else.
But what was the problem that necessitated this argument in the first place? Why, in other words, would anyone think that the word of God had failed? We get the answer in Romans 9:30–31:
Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law.
Now, I take Paul to be referring to the fact that, at that time, the Church was becoming more prominently Gentile, and that the message concerning Jesus as the Messiah was getting a better hearing, as it were, among Gentiles than among Jews.
This was, to put it lightly, a problem for Paul, given the Jewish provenance of the “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:1–3). If the gospel were “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16), then why was it receiving such a relatively poor hearing among the Jews? Did this imply some kind of caprice, faithlessness, or injustice on God’s part? Had his word to his chosen people failed (Rom. 9:6)? Was God being unjust (Rom. 9:14)? Had God rejected his people (Rom. 11:1)?
Paul’s answer to these questions in Romans 9–11 is an emphatic “No!” He argues for continuity in the saving works of God, despite the apparent discontinuity in the response of Jews and Gentiles to Jesus the Messiah. This argument about God’s faithfulness, then, has implications for both Jewish and Gentile believers–-a mixture reflected in the original audience of Paul’s letter.
I would like to suggest that, though there is an elegant interweaving of critiques of Jews and Gentiles throughout Romans, Paul predominantly critiques Jewish Christians in Romans 1–3 and Gentile Christians in Romans 9–11. Jewish Christians in Romans 1–3 because, after focusing on what sounded like stereotypically Gentile sinfulness in Romans 1:18–32, lulling the Jewish members of his audience into a false sense of security, Paul springs a trap in Romans 2:1–29 and accuses Jewish Christians of being no better than the Gentiles. Gentile Christians in Romans 9–11 because, after critiquing the majority of Israel for not pursuing the “law of righteousness” “on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works” (Rom. 9:32), Paul springs a trap in Romans 11:11–32 and accuses Gentile Christians of being no better than Jews.
These critiques play a role in laying the foundation for what Paul has to say in Romans 12–15, especially to the “strong” and the “weak” in chapters 14 and 15. The pastoral heart of the book of Romans is arguably Paul’s exhortation to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). I think that it is legitimate to see Jew-Gentile tensions in the background here, because of what Paul then immediately says:
“For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9).
In Romans 9:30–10:21, then, Paul is critiquing Israel for failing to follower her Law to its telos, Jesus the Messiah. But he is doing so in order to address tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians within the Church. Barth therefore at least has room to consider what role Paul’s critique of Israel in 9:30–10:21 should play for a Christian audience. So, although he should have said more about Israel, perhaps focusing on the Church in Römerbrief 10 was justified.
However, when Barth equates “Gentiles” with “the world” in Romans 9–11, he is sawing-off the exegetical branch he is sitting on. Paul’s critique of Gentile Christians vis-a-vis Israel in chapter 11 is the best, most immediate exegetical reason for applying the critique of Israel in chapters 9 and 10 to the Church. But, according to Barth, the “Gentiles” are “those outside” the Church.
Commenting on Romans 9:30 (“What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith”), Barth writes:
The KRISIS appears here first. We have to recognize that, side by side with those who have knowledge and who are saints and children of God, there exist ignorant and unholy men of the world. However the Church be defined, it is encompassed by Gentiles and strangers, who do not comprehend, do not communicate with it, and do not follow after righteousness.5
Taking this notion to its conclusion, Barth writes:
And yet, suppose it be allowed and granted that there is also salus extra ecclesiam, that both Esau and Jacob can be elect, what becomes of the backbone of the Church, what confidence can it have in its own mission? … What becomes of Israel’s following after righteousness, of its zeal for God, if it be granted that the goal has been reached by those ‘others’ who take no part in this zealous pursuit? Can the Church fail to recognize the reproach which is implicit in God’s undertaking to do, alongside of, and apart from, the Church, the work with which it has been entrusted, and which is the justification of its very existence? What attitude does the Church adopt to this reproach?6
We can leave the admittedly complicated question of salus extra ecclesiam aside for the moment. The main problem with Barth’s exegesis here is that this is precisely not what Paul is saying! The “Gentiles” that have attained to the righteousness of faith are within the Church.
In his comments upon Romans 10:12–13 (“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’”), Barth writes: “But are these men within the Church, or outside it, or are they members of some Church of their own founding? The question is trivial” (384). Why trivial? Because Barth maintains that these “faithful heathen” are an “eschatological quantity” (384).
But I strongly disagree. Although Barth is absolutely correct to interpret Paul as arguing for (1) unity between Jews and Gentiles on the basis of (2) the judgment and the salvation of God, he is guilty of overlooking the fact that, for Paul and the Roman Christians, differences between Jews and Gentiles were still significant, even if they were not meant to be ultimate/final.
This oversight, I believe, explains why Barth only devotes only 24 pages to his discussion of Romans 14:1–15:137 He claims that “Truth and Mercy hold together Jew and Gentile, Church and World,”8 but he misses the fact that, in both Romans 9–11 and 14–15, Paul is focusing on holding together Jew and Gentile within the Church! Granted, the “strong” and the “weak” in Romans 14–15 were not necessarily “Gentiles” and “Jews” respectively. Nevertheless, the identification of the “strong” and the “weak” almost undoubtedly had to do with Jewish customs, and not, as Barth seems to claim, merely with the extent to which one had grasped Pauline theology and the KRISIS of God.
The main problem with Barth’s reading of Romans 10 and Romans 9–11 is that, while Paul is speaking about Israel in order to address tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Barth is speaking about the Church’s relationship to the world.9 Although Barth was right to use Romans 9–11 as an internal critique of the Church, he missed Paul’s focus on an internal division.
To review, my main claim is that supersessionism is not the biggest problem with Barth’s reading of Romans 10. Instead, the greater guilt is his equation of the “Gentiles” with the “world.” Although Barth should have said more about the people and history of Israel, he was right to use Romans 9–11 to critique the Church. Nevertheless, due to his equation of “Gentiles” with “the world,” Barth’s focus on the relationship between the Church and the world in Romans 9–11 makes it difficult, if not impossible, to pick up on Paul’s pastoral handling of the tensions between Jews and Gentiles within the Church.
- Soulen has has provided a helpful diagnostic framework of three different kinds of supersessionism: economic, punitive, and structural. In his own words, economic supersessionism “holds that from the beginning, God’s purpose for carnal Israel in the economy of salvation was destined to be fulfilled and completed by Christ’s coming, after which its place was to be taken by the church.” Punitive supersessionism “holds that God has angrily abrogated the covenant with Israel because of Israel’s de facto rejection of the gospel.” And structural supersessionism “refers to the fact that the classical model (of the canon’s coherence), taken as a whole, tends to render the Hebrew Scriptures largely indecisive for shaping doctrinal conclusions about how God engages creation in universal and enduring ways.” R. Kendall Soulen, “Karl Barth and the Future of the God of Israel,” Pro Ecclesia 6, no. 4 (1997): 413–28.
Although Soulen might be right, overall, to accuse Barth of (1) repudiating punitive and structural supersessionism while (2) supporting and defending “economic supersessionism,” I agree with Hill’s assessment that Barth is actually closer to structural supersessionism in the 1922 edition of his Romans commentary. As Hill puts it, “Israel simply does not feature in any central way in Barth’s exposition of what by common consent is Paul’s most sustained, penetrating discussion of Israel’s role in God’s salvific purposes.” This sounds a lot like the “Israel-forgetfulness” that Soulen mentions in his description of structural supersessionism. Wesley Hill, “The Church as Israel and Israel as the Church,” 152n63. ↩
- Barth, Romans, 366. ↩
- Romans, 370. ↩
- Beverly Gaventa, “Beverly Gaventa | The 2019 Annual Karl Barth Conference - Lecture.”
- Romans, 363. ↩
- Romans, 365. ↩
- Röm1922, GA, 671–700; pages 487–511 in the originally published German edition; 502–26 in Romans ET. ↩
- Romans, 526. ↩
- To be clear, Barth’s equation of “Israel” with “the Church” is also problematic. He should have said more about the actual people and history of Israel than he did. And this appears to be an error that he recognized and attempted to address. In his Shorter Commentary on Romans, Barth says much more about Israel than he did in Römerbrief.(fn) Nevertheless, even there, Barth views chapters 9–11 and, indeed, 9–16 as someone of a digression from the main theme of Romans. Regarding chapters 9–11, he writes that “we are dealing with a second, comparatively independent part of the Epistle.”(fn) He applies the same judgment to chapters 12–16. Barth claims that “[a]ll that needs saying about that work of salvation, about the life that has been promised in the Gospel to the man who is righteous through his faith, has been said in what precedes.”(fn) I strongly disagree with this, and I think that Barth’s own hermeneutical principles should have prevented him from seeing the second half of the letter as only incidental to its main theme! What if, instead, Romans 9–16 were seen as the main point—at least pastorally—of the letter? ↩