Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth


Ashgate has announced the release of a new book on Karl Barth: Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth by Dr. Dustin Resch. Dustin is Assistant Professor of Theology and Dean of the Seminary at Briercrest College and Seminary. Dustin is a great professor, and his new book is a fantastic addition to the world of Barth scholarship.

I recently posed some questions to Dustin about his research, and here are his responses:

CWT: Schleiermacher rejected both the historicity and the theological necessity of the virgin birth, saying that it was a doctrine that did not adequately explain Christ’s sinlessness. How does Barth react to the understanding of the virgin birth in the theology of Schleiermacher and other Liberal Protestants of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Dustin: Would it be too cheeky to ask you to buy the book to find out the answer(!)? Seriously, though, this is one of the central questions that the book aims to address. The really short answer is that Barth doesn’t do too much to rehabilitate the historicity of the virgin birth, at least on the terms of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors. Instead, Barth devoted his energies to examining what it was that the New Testament authors and the early church found compelling about the teaching that Christ took his human origin from the Holy Spirit, rather than a human father.

In order to do that he teases out the “inner necessity” and “appropriateness” of the teaching of the virgin birth within the broader contours of the great themes of Scripture and the Gospel. This involves Barth in re-thinking the Augustinian linkage between Christ’s virgin birth and his sinlessness. It also places Barth in close dialogue with Roman Catholic Mariology. In the end, Barth argues that the virgin birth a sign of the mystery of God acting in the world but a sign that actually expresses something true and profound about the contours of that mystery. What I found so interesting about this topic is that this rather little doctrine of the virgin birth became an entry into some of the most fascinating aspects of Barth’s theology—biblical interpretation, Christology, election, human agency, soteriology, ecclesiology, and even spirituality!

CWT: Will evangelicals find Barth’s understanding of the virgin birth helpful or is it too Barthian?

Dustin: Another great question, but one I’m not certain how to answer. On the one hand, a large number of important evangelical theologians have come out as “Barthian” with regard to the virgin birth, the late Stanely Grenz and Donald Bloesch among them. Others, I think, have found Barth’s lack of willingness really to engage much in questions of historicity rather off-putting. I think that the most helpful thing that Barth can offer to evangelicals is a way of reading Scripture theologically—his use of aesthetic categories in determining the “necessity” of the virgin birth was quite helpful for me.

CWT: How did you become interested in Barth?

Dustin: As a student at Briercrest Seminary I wrote an MA thesis on Donald Bloesch’s doctrine of Scripture, which introduced me to Barth’s view of Scripture and interpretation. When I was searching for a dissertation topic at McMaster University, I wanted to find a way to study the theological interpretation of Scripture, but I didn’t want to get bogged down in hermeneutics. My supervisor wisely guided me to find a topic in which I could see a master theologian’s interpretation of Scripture at work on a live theological issue—hermeneutics in action, we might say. Barth was an obvious choice as a focus for this endeavour because, not only does he read Scripture so deeply and creatively, he does so as a modern theologian in dialogue with the some of the great thinkers of the western tradition—Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Luther, Schleiermacher, etc.

CWT: You did your doctorate at McMaster University under a Patristics expert. How did the influence of a Patristics expert influence your reading and understanding of Barth?

Dustin: That is a wonderful question! My supervisor was Dr. Peter Widdicombe at McMaster University who, in addition to having written a landmark book on Trinitarian theology in the work of theologians from Origen to Athanasius, has been working in the field of the patristic interpretation of Scripture. Peter’s knowledge of the texture of patristic theology and biblical interpretation helped me to see both how Barth remained indebted to the modern protestant heritage, but also retrieved ideas and interpretive practices from the early church. One very practical aspect of working with a patristics scholar was that it became increasingly difficult to become overly-infatuated with Barth—a temptation to which I was rather prone! Peter helped me to remember that the Christian intellectual tradition is broad and deep outside of Basel too.

CWT: Now that your dissertation has been officially published, what’s next on your research plate?

Dustin: I think that if there is a dotted line of research that has continued from my dissertation days to my current interests, then that is likely question of the human appropriation of God’s grace. In the dissertation and book I had the opportunity to explore Barth’s view of Mary. I felt like his treatment of her was less than satisfactory and wondered if perhaps there was more to Catholic Mariology than he thought. My teaching load for the past couple of years and the work that I do in the local church have also involved me in exploring traditions and practices of Christian spirituality. I think that some of these things are coalescing as I explore things like traditions of prayer, forms of worship, sacramental theology, the theology of the Saints, etc. I’d eventually like to write some of my reflections in a book on the theology of spiritual formation. I’d also like to re-visit certain Protestant criticisms of Catholic practices to see if perhaps I might contribute to rapprochement on those fronts. My friend, Tim Perry, has done some really important work in his book, Mary for Evangelicals (InterVarsity, 2006). I wonder if I might walk a bit of the trail that he has blazed.

So if you get a chance, check out Dustin’s new book! Also, if you haven’t already, check out Karl Barth on the Filioque, by Dr. David Guretzki, another professor here at Briercrest.

  • http://onetenthblog.wordpress.com onetenthblog

    Thanks for your post. I am always fascinated with the doctrine of the virgin birth (Immaculate Conception).and the ‘original sin’ (Calvin’s interpretation of the ‘original sin’ still one of the most eloquent in Christian narratives http://onetenthblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/calvin-institutes-of-christian-religion/)

    Read from another blog that even Martin Luther himself upheld the dogma (even before it was officially sanctioned by the Catholic church): “It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin”.

    Cheers!

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  • Leah

    In Her highest aspect, Woman or Shakti is the Celestial Virgin, and this is none other than the omni-present Current of Love-Bliss. The Current is a Virgin, because of the quality of ever-becoming-new. Though impregnated by the Fire of Wisdom, yet She remains a Virgin because She is ever-changing within Her own Self-identity.

    The union of Wisdom and the Virgin gives birth to the Christ, and this is the REAL Immaculate Conception. This union is the untellable Joy of which all lesser ecstasiies are but faint shadows. So, deep and lasting Joy is the true sign of the genuine and noble religious, or more accurately Spiritual Consciousness.

    Austere gloom in the name of religion is a sacrilege and sign of failure. Such false religion is irreducibly dreary.
    The Holy is Free and spontaneously Joyful, without any reason whatsoever.