Karl Barth / The Church as Watchman of the State

Karl Barth was the master theologian of our age. Whenever men in the past generation have reflected deeply on the ultimate problems of life and faith, they have done so in a way that bears the mark of the intellectual revolution let loose by this Swiss thinker. But his life was not simply one of quiet reflection and scholarship. He was obliged to do his thinking and writing in one of the stormiest periods of history, and he always attempted to speak to the problems and concerns of the time. In June 1933 he emerged as the theologian of the Confessional movement, which was attempting to preserve the integrity of the Evangelical Church in Germany against corruption from within and terror from without. His leadership in this struggle against Nazism also made it necessary for him to say something about the totalitarianism that the Soviet power was clamping down upon a large part of Europe. In this indirect way, a Barthian social philosophy emerged, and this theologian, who abjured apologetics and desired nothing but to expound the Word of God, was compelled by circumstances to propound views on society and the state that make him one of the most influential social thinkers of our time.

[The following excerpt is pulled from the “Church and State” essay in Community, State, and Church.]

The title “Justification and Justice” indicates the question with which I am dealing in this work.

First of all, I will state the question thus: is there a connection between justification of the sinner through faith alone, completed once for all by God through Jesus Christ, and the problem of justice, the problem of human law? Is there an inward and vital connection by means of which in any sense human justice (or law), as well as divine justification, becomes a concern of Christian faith and Christian responsibility, and therefore also a matter which concerns the Christian Church? But we may clearly ask the same question with reference to other conceptions; take the problem of order, for instance, of that order which is no longer, or not yet, the order of the Kingdom of God; or the problem of peace, which is no longer, or not yet, the eternal Peace of God; or the problem of freedom, which is no longer, or not yet, the freedom of the Children of God—do all these problems belong to the realm of the “new creation” of man through the Word of God, do they all belong to his sanctification through the Spirit? Is there, in spite of all differences, an inner and vital connection between the service of God in Christian living indicated in James 1:27 and what we are accustomed to call “Divine Service” in the worship of the Church as such, and another form of service, what may be described as a “political” service of God, a service of God which, in general terms, would consist in the careful examination of all those problems which are raised by the existence of human justice, of law, or, rather, which would consist in the recognition, support, defence, and extension of this law—and all this, not in spite of but because of divine justification? In what sense can we, may we, and must we follow Zwingli, who, in order to distinguish them and yet to unite them, speaks in the same breath of “divine and human justice”?

It should be noted that the interest in this question begins where the interest in the Reformation confessional writings and Reformation theology as a whole ceases, or rather, to put it more exactly, where it begins to fade. The fact that both realities exist: divine justification and human justice, the proclamation of Jesus Christ, faith in Him and the office and authority of the secular power, the mission of the Church and the mission of the State, the hidden life of the Christian in God and also his duty as a citizen—all this has been clearly and powerfully emphasized for us by the Reformers. And they also took great pains to make it clear that the two are not in conflict, but that they can very well exist side by side, each being competent in its own sphere. But it must be strongly emphasized that on this point they do not by any means tell us all that we might have expected—not excepting Luther in his work Of Worldly Authority of 1523 or Calvin in the majestic closing chapters of his Institutio. Clearly we need to know not only that the two are not in conflict, but, first and foremost, to what extent they are connected. To this question, the question as to the relationship between that which they maintained here (with the greatest polemical emphasis), and the centre of their Christian message, we receive from the Reformers either no answer at all, or, at the best, a very inadequate answer. Whatever our attitude may be to the content of that last chapter of the Institutio, “De Politica Administratione” (and, so far as we are concerned, we are prepared to take a very positive position), this at least is clear, that as we look back on the earlier parts of the work, and in particular on the second and third books and their cardinal statements about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin and grace, faith and repentance, we feel like a traveller, suddenly transported to a distant land, who is looking back at the country from which he started. For on the question of how far the politica administratio in the title of the fourth book belongs to the externis mediis vel adminiculis quibus Deus in Christi societatem nos invitat et in ea retinet we shall find only the most scattered instruction, for all the richness which the book otherwise contains. But the same is true of the corresponding theses of Luther and Zwingli, and of those of the Lutheran and Reformed Confessional writings. That authority and law rest on a particular ordinatio of divine providence, necessary on account of unconquered sin, serving to protect humanity from the most concrete expressions and consequences of that sin, and thus to be accepted by humanity with gratitude and honour—these are certainly true and biblical thoughts, but they are not enough to make clear the relationship between this issue and the other, which the Reformation held to be the decisive and final issue of faith and confession. What does Calvin mean when, on the one hand, he assures us: “spirituale Christi regnum et civilem ordinationem res esse plurimum sepositas”—and on the other hand twice points to the subjection of all earthly rulers to Christ, indicated in the passage, Psalms 2:10 ff., and describes the ideal out-come of that divine ordinatio as the politia Christiana? How far Christiana? What has Christ to do with this matter? we ask, and we are left without any real answer, as though a particular ruling of a general, somewhat anonymous Providence were here the last word. And if we read Zwingli’s strong statement, that the secular power has “strength and assurance from the teaching and action of Christ,” the disappointing explanation of this statement consists only in the fact that in Matthew 22:21 Christ ordained that we should render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s, and that by paying the customary “tribute money” (Didrachmon: Matthew 17:24 f.) he himself confirmed this teaching. That is again quite true in itself, but, when stated thus apart from its context, in spite of the appeal to the text of the Gospel, it is based not on the Gospel but on the Law.

We can neither overlook nor take lightly this gap in the teaching that we have received from the fathers of our church—the lack of a gospel foundation, that is to say, in the strictest sense, of a Christological foundation, for this part of their creed. There is, of course, no question that here, too, they wished to expound only the teaching of the Bible. But the question remains: in introducing these biblical data into their creed, were they regulating their teaching by the standard which elsewhere they considered final? That is, were they founding law on justice or justification? political power on the power of Christ? Or were they not secretly building on another foundation, and, in so doing, in spite of all their apparent fidelity to the Bible, were they not actually either ignoring or misconstruing the fundamental truth of the Bible?

Let us consider what would happen if that were so: if the thought of human justice were merely clamped on to the truth of divine justification, instead of being vitally connected with it. On the one hand, to a certain extent it would be possible to purify the truth of divine justification from this foreign addition and to build upon it a highly spiritual message and a very spiritual Church, which would claim to expect “everything from God,” in a most devout spirit, and yet, in actual fact, would dispute this “everything” because, by their exclusive emphasis upon the Kingdom of God, forgiveness of sins and sanctification, they had ceased to seek or find any entrance into the sphere of these problems of human justice. On the other hand, it would be possible to consider the question of human law very seriously (still, perhaps, in relation to the general divine providence, but freed from the Reformers’ juxtaposition of human justice and divine justification) and to construct a secular gospel of human law and a secular church, in which, in spite of emphatic references to “God,” it would inevitably become clear that this Deity is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the human justice which is proclaimed is in no sense the Justice of God. Since the Reformation it is evident that these two possibilities—and with them Pietistic sterility on one hand, and the sterility of the Enlightenment on the other—have been realized in many spheres. But it cannot be denied that there is a connection between this fact and that gap in the Reformers’ teaching.

And now we live to-day at a time when, in the realm of the Church, the question of divine justification and, in the realm of the State, the question of human law are being raised with new emphasis, and we seem, now as then, to be pressing onward towards developments that cannot yet be foreseen. It is obvious to recall that both justification and justice, or the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this world, or the Church and the State, formerly stood side by side in the Reformation confession, and that by “worship in spirit and in truth” the Reformers understood a life in both these realms. But if we are not once more to drift into sterile and dangerous separations, it will not be enough to recollect the Reformation, to repeat the formulae in which it placed the two realms side by side, to recite over and again (with more or less historical accuracy and sympathetic feeling) “the Reformed conception of the State” and the like, as though that gap were not evident, as though the Reformation teaching did not, with that gap, bear within itself the temptation to those separations. If the intensity of our present situation is to be our salvation and not our ruin, then the question which we asked at the outset must be put: is there an actual, and therefore inward and vital, connection between the two realms?

What is offered here is a study—a biblical, or more exactly, a New Testament study—for the answer to this question. For the dubious character of the Reformation solution is decidedly due to the questionable character of the authoritative scriptural arguments on this subject presented at that time. If we are to progress further to-day, we must at all costs go back to the Scriptures. This pamphlet represents a partial attempt in this direction.

I shall begin by reproducing in a few sentences what is, as far as I can see, the latest important statement of theological thought upon this subject: the work presented on our theme by K. L. Schmidt in his Basle inaugural lecture of December 2, 1936, under the title, “The Conflict of Church and State in the New Testament Community.” The fundamental teaching of the Church on her relation to the State is “the harsh picture of the execution of Jesus Christ by the officials of the State.” What is this State? It is one of those angelic powers (ἐξουσίαι) of this age, which is always threatened by “demonization,” that is, by the temptation of making itself an absolute. And, over against this State, what is the Church? It is the actual community (πολίτευμα) of the new Heaven and the new Earth, as such here and now certainly still hidden, and therefore in the realm of the State a foreign community (παροικία). But the solidarity of distress and death unites Christians with all men, and so also with those who wield political power. Even though the Church prefers to suffer persecution at the hands of the State, which has become a “beast out of the pit of the abyss,” rather than take part in the deification of Caesar, yet it still knows that it is responsible for the State and for Caesar, and it finally manifests this responsibility, “the prophetic service of the Church as Watchman,” in its highest form by praying for the State and for its officials in all circumstances.

Schmidt’s presentation is explicitly confined to one section only of the problem of the “Church and State in the New Testament,” namely, with the question that appears to be directly opposed to ours: the question of the conflict between the two realms. But it seems to me important to determine that even in this other aspect of the problem, investigation of the New Testament inevitably reveals a whole series of view-points which are of the highest importance for the answer to our question about the positive connection between the two realms. This is so clear that in what follows I shall confine myself simply to the order traced by Schmidt.

Karl Barth (1886–1968), the Swiss Reformed professor and pastor, was once described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. As principal author of “The Barmen Declaration,” he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church—the Protestant group that resisted the Third Reich. Barth’s teaching career spanned nearly five decades. Removed from his post at Bonn by the Nazis in late 1934, Barth moved to Basel where he taught until 1962. Among Barth’s many books, sermons, and essays are the Epistle to the Romans, Humanity of God, Evangelical Theology, and Church Dogmatics.


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