Barth on the Incarnation


Karl Barth has an interesting take on the incarnation. Many theologians see the incarnation as God’s “condescension”, or “humiliation” — indeed it is God condescending to mankind, becoming one of us. But all too often, the incarnation is presented as God doing what is against his nature: it is against his exalted Lordship to condescend, to become lowly, to serve, to bear our burdens.

However, what Barth contends is that the incarnation is what makes God God. His becoming low, his servanthood, his coming near to us, his loving will to redeem and elevate mankind to himself: this is what proves and reveals his Lordship. It is what makes him God in contrast to all other false gods. 

As Barth says: the incarnation contrasts the true God with false gods “who cannot and will not be servants, who are therefore no lords, whose being is not a truly divine being”. (Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, Michael Allen, 143) In other words, all other  gods command that we come up to them, to ascend to their level, not because they are truly gods, but in fact because they are false, unable to come to us. They are, as Barth says, “empty loveless gods which are incapable of condescension and self-humiliation” (145). They will not serve, indeed they cannot serve in their impotence.

In contrast, the incarnation is proof of God’s divinity. It is proof of his unlimited love and power that he is able to limit and even condemn himself for our sakes.

Barth explains:

[The incarnation] is how God is God, this is his freedom, this is his disctinctness from and superiority to all other reality… This one, the one who loves in this way, is the true God. But this means that he is the one who as the Creator and Lord of all things is able and willing to make himself equal with the creature, himself to become a creature; the one whose eternity does not prevent but rather permits and commands him to be in time and himself to be temporal, whose omnipotence is so great that he can be weak and indeed impotent, as a man is weak and impotent. He is the one who in his freedom can and does in fact bind himself, in the same way as we are all bound…[God’s glory consists] in the fact that because he is free in his love he can be and actually is lowly as well as exalted…

[The incarnation distinguishes God] from all false gods by the fact that they are not capable of this act, that they have not in fact accomplished it, that their supposed glory and honour and eternity and omnipotence not only do not include by exclude their self-humiliation (142-43)

I think this is a great insight: God’s strength and greatness is displayed in his ability and willingness to limit himself, to bind himself to our weakness, and thereby lift us up. No other gods can do this!

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