Karl Barth’s accounts of the assumption of the fallen human nature of Christ, his sinlessness, and the communication of graces are beautifully interwoven in several maneuvers that keep his dynamic reading of the Bible alive. The God who is for us without reservation is in solidarity so that “sinlessness was not therefore His condition.” To keep him from sin, the grace of God is communicated to Jesus in his ministry of life and death.
Barth places the sinlessness of Christ neither in the acting subject (the person of the Son) nor in the unfallen human nature of Christ (since he does not have one). The locus of the sinlessness of Christ is twofold: history and the grace of God (by which Christ’s humanity is empowered to obey and confirm his sinlessness). This grace, as seen, is not a habitus—a disposition of the soul or nature—as a singular act of union, but is grace that empowers him to respond in a God-honoring way through ministry, temptation, cross, and death.
The polarity is clear: Barth affirms the complete personal union, but the sinlessness of Christ can only be affirmed when the Son completes the obedience of his human life. One must ask, however, if anything “sanctifying” can maintain the hypostatic union and make it sinless?
The Catholic tradition of the church has, with reason, answered with a resounding but qualified “No.” Taking my cues from Thomas Aquinas, I will show that Barth’s rejection of the classical position on sinlessness puts the hypostatic union on an unstable foundation. Barth’s emphasis on the necessity of grace for the acquisition of sinlessness is at a deeper level a debate on whether or not the personal union is complete from the moment that the person of the Son assumes body and soul, or when his obedience is finalized through his death on the cross.
Aquinas correctly assumes that human nature stands in “need of the gratuitous will of God, in order to be lifted up to God.” However, the elevation of human nature up to God is of two forms: (1) by operation or (2) by personal being. Aquinas’s point is that both the sanctification of humankind and assumption of human nature by Christ are gracious events. Nonetheless, the mode of elevation by operation is a habitual activity that is accidental. Contrary to the grace that unites human nature to the divine person, the accidental character of grace by operation results in a work that renders participation in likeness. The elevation by personal being, on the other hand, is greater because it is not accidental. The human nature is once and for all united to the personal being of the Son, not in a participation in likeness, but in a substantial union. Whereas, according to Aquinas, all saints take participation in the operative grace, only Christ’s human nature is united to the divine nature by grace of the personal being.
Aquinas also contends that “no merits of His [Christ’s] could have preceded the union.” Such a formation would hardly be rejected by Barth. If we trace, however, the logic of Barth’s argument thus far in this study, some issues may come to the surface:
- The personal union is a fact;
- The Son, in solidarity, assumes a fallen human nature;
- In assuming this nature, he sanctifies it;
- This work of sanctification (through the Communicatio Gratiarum) is what gives continuity to the hypostatic union so that Christ may acquire sinlessness.
The sanctification of human nature for the continuity of the hypostatic union—in Barth’s scheme—is a property that human nature receives; therefore, it is accidental and not essential.
In Barth’s contention that Christ’s “life is an event and not a state or habitus,” he has an operative notion that the history of Jesus Christ is the meaning of the personal union and not the other way around. Here lies both the genius and the error of Barth. He does not theologize with concepts, but he conceptualizes as he theologizes. Christ’s history vitally tells us who God is—Deus pro nobis without reservation. This history of the divine and human together, however, is kept together with God’s history via the communication of graces in the same manner we experience it.
A final word of caution is needed. Given Barth’s uneasiness with the vocabulary of Chalcedon and his preference for dynamic language, it is possible and likely that his rejection of habitus is not particularly a rejection of the Thomistic account of “grace of union.” The more plausible explanation is that he is actualizing the human nature of Christ. Although sympathy is needed for Barth’s project—dynamism does capture several of the biblical movements—the innovation may be costly. The sinlessness of Christ is not conditioned to the continual receiving of grace. As Aquinas shows, the union of the Son with the created human nature communicates grace. This grace, however, is not an empowerment for the ministry of life and death of Christ.
This post is adapted from Sinless Flesh: A Critique of Karl Barth’s Fallen Christ by Rafael Nogueira Bello (Lexham Press, 2020).