Dei Verbum 5 – Karl Barth and the “Obedience of Faith”

I would like to briefly redirect your attention to the very profound excerpt from Dei Verbum that Todd posted last night, especially the phrase “obedience of faith,” taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Rom 16:26 and also 1:5). It is the subject of a recent article by Fr Daniel Gallagher of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Journal of Christian Theological Research, entitled “The Obedience of Faith: Barth, Bultmann, and Dei Verbum” (hat tip: Faith and Theology). Fr Gallagher claims, as his title would suggest, that “Dei Verbum stands as a living testimony to the influence of twentieth century Protestant theology on the work of the ecumenical council that took place from 1962-1965.” The evident fruitfulness of Protestant theology presents, then, yet another sign warning us never to wish for an erasure of the Protestant churches and their history in a simple return to Rome. As Benedict XVI said last year, in improvised remarks at Cologne, the unity of Christians “does not mean what could be called ecumenism of the return: that is, to deny and to reject one’s own faith history. Absolutely not!” While holding that the Church of Christ does “subsist” in the Catholic Church, we Catholics can still say that we are all pilgrims.

The influence of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (whose work would have been familiar to Council fathers and periti) on Dei Verbum 5 can be seen in the Constitution’s stress on “absolute trust and self-commitment.” Fr Gallagher compares a parallel text from Vatican I’s Dei Filius with Dei Verbum 5 (which does cite Dei Filius):

Since man completely depends upon God as his creator and Lord, and created reason has been thoroughly subjected to the uncreated Truth, we hold that the full submission of intellect and will is to be given in faith to the God who reveals. (Dei Filius).

The “obedience of faith” is to be given to God who reveals, by which man freely commits his total self to God by offering “the full submission of intellect and will to the God who reveals,” and by assenting willingly to the revelation given by Him. (Dei Verbum)

The inclusion of Paul’s language about the “obedience of faith,” a touchstone for both Barth and Bultmann, came after council fathers petitioned for a description of faith that would be “magis biblica et personalistica.” Its presence has a decisive influence on Dei Verbum, as faith becomes obedience and Dei Filius’ counsel of obsequium becomes the offering of one’s total self to God. What does it mean to speak of the “obedience of faith” (hupakoê pisteös), rather than trust, or liberation, or other possibilities?

To speak of the “obedience of faith,” for Karl Barth, is to preserve the priority of God’s action in securing our faith-response. This “obedience of faith” cannot be matter of activating a human capacity or aspiration – it is our response to the singularity of Jesus Christ, the utterly “other,” the Deus homo through whom we can come to God. Barth wrote (my emphases):

Christian obedience consists in this … that by the grace of God there is a relationship with man. For what the Christian community can have specially as knowledge and experience of the atonement made in Jesus Christ, for the power, therefore, of its witness in the world, everything depends on the simplicity of heart which is ready to let the grace of God be exclusively His grace, His Sovereign act, His free turning to man as new and strange every morning, so that it does not know anything higher or better or more intimate or real than the fact that quite apart from anything that he can contribute to God or become and be in contrast to Him, unreservedly therefore and undeservedly, man can hold fast to God and live by and in this holding fast to him.

Human beings do have freedom, but this freedom must be exercised in gratitude. “With any other choice, man would simply be groping in the void, betraying and destroying his true humanity.” When we imagine “obedience,” of course, we can conjure up pictures of authoritarianism and the self-mutilation of certain kinds of submission, but we must clear our minds – the “holding fast to God” is modeled after the obedience of the Deus homo, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our judge, but he also takes our place as the judged, in judgment through his suffering and death, and, finally, in the establishment of the Kingdom of God manifested by his Resurrection. All of this is accomplished through obedience, a radical obedience that is distinctive and in fact “only possible and efficacious in the person of Jesus Christ.”

The obedience of the Son to the Father comes to us through a chain. Jesus is obedient to the Father, St Paul receives a commission “that is entirely of another world,” and then preaches the Gospel to a specific group of people who finally respond in obedience to that grace, even in the face of the perennial human temptation to choose sin over righteousness and death over life. And, so: “For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). The many, Fr Gallagher says – the polloi, are a plurality of egos of whom Adam is the representative. Jesus becomes the ego of a new order.

Writing about Roman 6:16-17, Barth will go on to say,

The possession of grace means the existential submission to God’s contradiction of all that we ourselves are or are not, of all that we do or do not do. ‘Grace possessed’ means that we are presented unto obedience to the contradiction and we are His servants … There is no other existence running side by side with our existential existence. We are servants, slaves, existentially appointed unto obedience. …

This “obedience” is all-encompassing, but it is not meant to ultimately be something mechanical and oppressive. Once more, it is not a denial of freedom; we can even speak of a freedom for obedience. As Hans Urs von Balthasar would write about Barth’s theology, “when freedom is authentic, it is a form of living within that mysterious realm where self-determination and obedience, independence and discipleship, mutually act upon and clarify each other.”

For reasons of time, I will not describe the more problematic theology of Rudolf Bultmann. Let me quote the conclusion to Fr Gallagher’s very interesting article in its entirety:

The foregoing survey of the obediential landscape in the work of Barth and Bultmann reveals a theology of faith quite different in many respects from that of Catholic theologians in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. The formulation of the act of faith that we find in Dei Filius falls short of capturing fully the biblical and personalist dimensions of faith. The faith response cannot be offered merely through an adherence to divine truths revealed to human beings by Jesus Christ. Faith rather entails the offering of one’s very self to God through obedience to his divine World revealed in Jesus Christ. Insufficient attention has been drawn to the distinctively Protestant contribution to the Catholic understanding of faith since the promulgation of Dei Verbum. Conversely, the theology contained in Dei Verbum offers Christian theologians of all persuasions an elementary and concise expression of the dynamic relation of God’s revelation to the believer’s response of faith. The ever expanding range of philosophical approaches to natural theology, anthropology, and epistemology will only make continued cooperation among Catholic and Protestant theologians all the more important in the years ahead.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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