Question for Barthian Scholars

People of Barth,

I have had this nagging question that I am hoping some of you can help resolve.  I am well aware of Barth’s rejection of the ontological reality of satan & the demonic.  However, it seems clear that Jesus very much believed in the reality of satan & demons, probably more so than most of us are comfortable admitting.  In fact, from both liberal and conservative protestants come the persuasive argument that “spiritual warfare” was Jesus’ primary earthly ministerial activity.  So, the question:

How can Barth be committed to a Christocentric reading of scripture/understanding of revelation, and deny the ontological existence of satan & demons?

This is one of my main issues with Barth, & I look forward to everyone’s responses.


7 responses to “Question for Barthian Scholars

  1. It’s a good question. We first need to make a key differentiation: the issue of spiritual warfare is logically independent of the ontic reality of demons. That is to say, the term “spiritual warfare” need not be reduced to: engaging in literal combat (i.e., exorcism) with actual demonic spiritual beings. I say this because I do think one could make the case that Barth upholds a kind of spiritual warfare in the classical sense of Christ being the victor over sin and evil without positing demons as invisible beings. Christ’s victory over the spiritual forces of evil occurs in the cross and resurrection. More on that later.

    Another differentiation needs to be made between what we might call the “spiritual reality” of the demonic and the “ontological reality” of demons/satan. This distinction has its roots all the way back in Augustine, who rejected the ontological status of evil. Evil has no reality, but is simply the privation of the good. Barth takes a strongly Augustinian line in his own account of creation and evil in Church Dogmatics III. With that theological framework in place, it becomes necessary to interpret the biblical passages as symbolic of realities in the world that are spiritually powerful but ontologically “real.”

    Finally, we live on this side of the scientific revolution and historical criticism. We don’t need to take the biblical accounts of the demonic as literal descriptions of realities in the world. They lived in an age where unusual events and illnesses were ascribed to divine and demonic forces. That was their mythical way of making sense of the world. Their world-picture is no longer ours, though, and we can’t go back to a time when epilepsy is ascribed to demons. All that’s to say, we can uphold the authority and normativity of Scripture without accepting its mythical world-picture. Barth was strict about distinguishing the true subject-matter (die Sache) of Scripture from the historical, human witness of the prophets and apostles. The written account is not itself the Word of God in any direct, straightforward sense, on analogy with the two natures of Christ.

    What I would say is that these are narratives that attest to the power of the Spirit working in Jesus, a power that is victorious over evil, sin, and death. These stories thus anticipate and foreshadow the true manifestation of this divine power in his death and resurrection, which makes sense because these accounts were of course written in light of the apostolic encounter with the risen Christ.

    In short, to be christocentric does not mean taking the Gospel stories as being the true subject-matter of Scripture in a direct, literal sense. Barth’s christocentrism reads Scripture in light of a broader, canonical, and theological hermeneutic. Paul’s epistles thus function as a hermeneutic key for the Synoptics.

  2. David, thanks for the thoughtful response. Let me respond to your 5 paragraphs with 5 of my own:

    To begin, I think that your initial differentiation only works if one already assumes that the ontic reality of satan/demons is independent of spiritual warfare. However, my question is calling this very assumption into question. Also, I do not think that the ontic reality of the demonic in any way reduces spiritual warfare to literal combat with actual spiritual beings. With you, I affirm that Christ is the victor over sin & evil in the cross & resurrection. However, at this point I don’t see how these decisive acts of Christ preclude his ministry of exorcism. That seems reductionistic to me.

    I think your second paragraph is really the heart of the matter: evil as the privation of good. I think that my fundamental issue here was expressed by Halden recently much more clearly than I could have initially: where is such an understanding of evil in the bible? Now, before I sound too much like a fundamentalist let me say that I certainly don’t think anyone is devoid of pre-existing theological commitments: in a sense theological exegesis is inevitable. That said, for me the “privation of the good” explanation seems so alien to the biblical witness that I struggle with seeing it as a valid theological framework through which to engage the text. It seems to me to be an “alien principle.” Examples to the contrary would be much appreciated.

    I am sympathetic to the concern that illnesses and unusual occurrences be reduced to demonic activity, leaving no room for scientific exploration and modern medicine. Furthermore, being on this side of modern science and historical criticism provides a daunting challenge to being able to discern what is truly demonic & what is the result of what one ate for dinner the previous evening. I freely admit that I don’t have all the answers on this point yet, but b/c (1) not all of Jesus’ exorcisms can be reduced to illness, & (2) works likes Boyd’s demonstrate that the binary between the biblical understanding of spiritual warfare and modern science may be unnecessary, I am not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater yet, especially in light of the broader canonical witness to the ontic reality of evil forces, which brings me to my final paragraphs.

    If the Pauline letters function as the hermeneutical key to understanding the synoptics, then i again find myself confused as to how Barth could deny the ontic reality of demons. The Pauline epistles are soaked in warfare language, which i am sure you are aware of, & there is little doubt that he believed in the ontic reality of the demonic. While the context & imagery of this warfare motif differs in the hebrew scriptures, it is prevalent there as well (the chaoskampf creation texts, to mention one example). Thus, to me the canonical witness of the scriptures is clear on this matter, which makes me suspect that the hermeneutic Barth uses is not Pauline but extra-canonical in nature.

    If the breadth of the canon affirms the ontic reality of demons, then it seems that while we may rightly desire to reinterpret aspects of the biblical imagery of cosmic warfare, to completely demythologize this pervasive canonical theme is to render the canon simply wrong on this subject. This implies (if not demands) that these accounts of spiritual warfare in the Gospels, written in light of the apostolic encounter with the risen Christ, actually mean nothing, in which case i am confused as to why they were included at all. It seems that a Christocentric reading of the canon would only serve to further strengthen the canon’s overall witness to the ontic reality of evil forces, not completely reinterpret it.

  3. Thanks for the reply. Here is my response:

    1. The distinction between an ontic realm of the demonic and spiritual warfare is necessitated by the modern, post-mythical world-picture that is simply given with our existence in the (Western) world today. Nobody in modern society expects to encounter things that can only be explained by demonic activity. We naturally expect everything to be explicable and treatable on the basis of natural science. We no longer live with the expectation that supernatural and natural causes will act side-by-side in the world, both naturally perceptible by any person. Later I will say more about why the rejection of this mythical world-picture is theologically necessary. Here I am simply admitting, and heartily affirming, that the distinction I made is something forced upon us by our radically different cultural-historical location. I recognize it is extrabiblical in nature, but that is completely acceptable and necessary. There is no such thing as a purely biblical perspective on anything. I’m afraid that your comment suggests that you have not examined the problem of hermeneutics carefully enough, or else you have taken a rather naive biblicist perspective on the issue that doesn’t do justice to the nature of interpretation.

    2. A case in point is when you say that my emphasis on Jesus’ crucifixion preclude his ministry of exorcism. This seems to turn the Gospel narratives into some kind of neutral journalism. No, these are witnesses to the risen Christ written long after the Jesus of history lived and died. They aren’t neutral observations but witnesses from the perspective of faith. Now of course that’s not to say he didn’t do any of those things. What I’m saying is that these are accounts which presuppose the ancient mythical world-picture, so they interpret as demonic possession what we might now address as an illness. That is, they view as spiritual warfare what we might now see as a medical or psychological problem. In fact, we need to go even further back and say that Jesus himself shared that mythical perspective. He was a fully human person in his time and place. My point is simply this: just because we read an exorcism story does not mean it is somehow recounting a bare fact of history (as if such a thing were even possible). With the Gospels, we are dealing with accounts that have the glorified Christ in mind from the beginning (as John makes obvious), and they are written from within a mythical world-picture that sees supernatural beings at work continuously in the world. I can interpret the exorcisms at witnesses to the power of Jesus over sin and death without turning them into a literal account of demons working in the world.

    3. But let’s get right to the main issue: Augustine’s privation account of evil. Halden’s post on this was simply theologically unreflective; it demonstrated a lack of attention to the issues that led Augustine (and Barth) to this position. There are three options, and only three options available: (1) evil is the mere privation of the good, (2) there is a Manichaean dualism in the cosmos in which God and Satan are eternally at war with each other, or (3) God created evil. Now, with those options available to you, which are you going to choose? The answer seems pretty clear. Moreover, the free-will option is not a fourth way but simply a version (albeit a poor one) of the privation model. It’s also necessary to stress loud and clear that the privation model does not mean that evil is not a powerful force in the world, that we are not enslaved to what we might call the “demonic.” But we cannot ascribe ontic reality to these powers. So I don’t think there’s much to discuss here. The answer seems pretty cut-and-dry. Unless you want to accept the idea that God created evil. But that’s a whole different discussion.

    4. I am most concerned by your admission that you are comfortable with events in the world being explicable only as demonic activity. I assume then you are also comfortable with events in the world being explicable only as a divine miracle. If so, I must strongly demur. The idea of the miraculous (which I am using as shorthand for both good and bad supernatural activity) — in fact, the whole idea of the “supernatural” — presupposes a metaphysics that is deeply problematic. While we would need to discuss this at much greater length elsewhere, I will simply assert here that it presupposes a God who is only relatively, rather than absolutely, transcendent — a God who competes with the world, rather than a God who is non-competitively present and active in the creation. The theological problems with supernaturalism are extensive. I’ve written on this topic elsewhere, so maybe I can send you something on that later. For now, let me just implore you to give up the notion of the supernatural as a category of agency alongside and competitive with the natural. Christian theology must reject such a notion.

    5. Does Paul believe in the reality of demons and satan? Almost certainly. Does he talk about that in his letters? Hardly at all. (Btw, even if we want to accept Ephesians as an authentic Pauline letter, the entire description of the “spiritual forces of evil” allows for a variety of interpretations. I’d even be willing to accept such a phrase.) Paul’s focus from first to last is on Sin and Death, reified and personified in Romans as apocalyptic agents. On this, you have to read J. Louis Martyn. For Paul, sin and death are the powers of evil that Christ conquers. Hence, 1 Cor. 15 is entirely about Christ’s victory over death (“where is thy sting?”). Rom. 7 is all about our enslavement to the power of sin, not to any demonic forces. I could go on, but I think my point is fairly self-evident from the text. We don’t find him talking about exorcisms or satanic powers. He is focused on human sin and the power of death — and on Christ’s death and resurrection as God’s victory over them.

    6. In the end, yes, I intend to demythologize Scripture on this issue. But let’s be honest for a moment. Do you think God lives in the sky above you? Do you think that the earth is a stationary object? Do you think that the trustworthiness of the canon is dependent upon your ability to reconcile its ancient cosmology with our modern one? If you answered no to these questions, as I sure hope you do, then I do not see why we can’t also say that the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture is not threatened by our modern understanding of biology, medicine, and psychology. We demythologize Scripture all the time in light of current knowledge of the world. The question is whether we are being unnecessarily arbitrary in our demythologizing, whether we are picking and choosing what to reinterpret, insofar as it is comfortable or uncomfortable. I will not apologize for being a modern Western Christian. I think the gospel speaks to me here and now with the same power and the same scandal as it did then, but in order for me to hear the true scandal of the gospel, we have to disentangle it from the false scandal — viz. the notion that I have to accept a mythical world-picture in order to believe in Jesus Christ. But that’s not the gospel. In short, we have to distinguish between the true subject-matter of Scripture (the message of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ) from the human-historical witness to that subject-matter. The former is what makes the latter authoritative for us, and it is in light of the former that we demythologize the latter.

    I realize this is radically different from what you presently believe or accept, but I do think it is the appropriate position to take as faithful Christians today. Just know that I respect your position. I was for most of my life an adherent to your views. But I’ve since come to see that the issue of biblical interpretation and theological reflection requires a more radical position. It may not make people happy, but I do think it is the more intellectually responsible path to take.

  4. David, thanks again for responding: i’m enjoying this. Unfortunately (for this dialogue), I have a mission trip with my middle school students (i am a youth pastor) that leaves tomorrow morning, so a response worthy of what you have written isn’t likely to happen at this point. If you are up for continuing next week when i get back, I really would love to continue then.

    Before I sign off though, let me address what i see as a couple misunderstandings about my views of the bible and science. First, to assuage your fears, I am no naive biblicist. This is why i said this above: “If the breadth of the canon affirms the ontic reality of demons, then it seems that while we may RIGHTLY desire to reinterpret aspects of the biblical imagery of cosmic warfare, to completely demythologize this pervasive canonical theme is to render the canon simply wrong on this subject” & this: “It seems that a Christocentric reading of the canon would only serve to further strengthen the canon’s overall witness to the ontic reality of evil forces, not COMPLETELY reinterpret it.” I agree that we have to be very careful with this imagery (no, i don’t think God really lives in the sky), but I remain unconvinced that a wholesale rejection/reinterpretation of it is the best method of handling it.

    Second, I am very sympathetic to the work of modern science; in fact, it is a source of constant fascination for me, & my doctoral work will likely deal with the relationship between science & theology. I am very “pro-science.” It is the context of our conversation, where I feel like you are going further than needed in demythologizing scripture, that is driving my language to be perceived as an uncritical embrace of ancient cosmology.

    So, I guess for now let me say that I share many of your concerns, more than you might guess at first. My issue is that i think you go too far, or at least further than you need to in your handling of canonical motif of cosmic warfare. Thanks again for the conversation David. I will respond more thoroughly in a week.

  5. I know I’m a bit late to this conversation, but I thought I’d insert something quickly. You’re not trying to say that a privation theory of evil necessitates a rejection of the ontic reality of demons, are you David? Unless you view Satan and evil spirits as “evil incarnate” or something hokey like that, I don’t see how a privation theory of evil precludes the ontic reality of certain spiritual beings.

    I’m also confused about why you think an event in the world that is only conceived as explicable by demonic activity somehow leads to the problem of supernaturalism… you’ve rehearsed the whole non-competitive agency bit well enough with regard to God and the miraculous, but is this really relevant to demons? A demon running a herd of pigs off of a cliff is no different than a guy like me running a herd of pigs off of a cliff. We are both creatures within the world acting upon other creatures. No problem of some competitive metaphysical system of supernaturalism there, unless you take spiritual beings to be anything other than creaturely… which I take it you don’t as you’ve already recoiled from dualism in order to affirm an Augustinian privation.

    Am I right? Am I missing something here? I take it that the demythologization option still remains, and I won’t deny that… but it strikes me as an option of judgment based upon, as you say, the mundane process of scientific work that we negotiate to make best sense of things. But I don’t think there’s any reason why one couldn’t affirm the ontic reality of the demonic or the angelic under these terms. Privation of evil only speaks to evil, and a rejection of supernaturalism only speaks to issues that create problematic metaphysical dualisms. I don’t see how either of these says anything definitive about the reality of a particular sort of creature.

  6. Evan,

    You’re quite right that a privation theory doesn’t conflict directly with belief in demons. That’s true. However, in order to uphold a belief in both demons and privation, you have to posit something like the “fall of Satan from heaven.” It is precisely the myth of Satan’s fall that enables Augustine and others to uphold both that God created these spiritual creatures (like everything else in creation) and that they are now agents of sin and evil in the world. But the fall of Satan is not biblical however much people try to find a basis for it in the two or three verses that could be construed that way. It’s just another ancient myth.

    But even if “Satan’s fall” were biblically founded, I do not think belief in demons is possible today for numerous reasons. The history of belief in Satan is itself problematic – namely, the fact that Satan only enters Jewish religion after its contact with Persian culture and Zoroastrianism. There’s also the fact that it’s entirely unclear what purpose belief in the demonic serves other than as a crude way of explaining bad things that don’t make sense. Medical problems that we would identify as schizophrenia or seizures were likely things that they interpreted as demonic activity. (Similarly, when something really good happened that could not be explained, such as the winning of a battle, it was ascribed to God.) And then there’s the whole problem of the visible and the invisible realms. Ancient cultures thought of heavenly beings as actually physical entities, albeit existing in an invisible, spiritual realm of creation. Hell was actually beneath our feet and heaven was actually above the clouds, while angels and demons were really moving among us. This kind of crude cosmology was shattered by modern science.

    I just don’t think it makes any sense anymore to believe in spiritual beings that are neither visible, empirical beings like us nor transcendent like God. Why believe in such a realm when (1) what they used to explain can be explained now by modern science and (2) when we no longer live in a world where people expect that spiritual entities might interfere in a situation. We simply do not rationally and seriously hold to the notion that this or that occurrence might be the result of a demon.

    I think we need to understand the “angelic” as referring to those occurrences in which a witness to God’s truth and love becomes manifest and known, while the “demonic” refers to those occurrences in which either an individual or a corporate body displays a certain bondage to sin and evil, to the demythologized “powers and principalities.”

  7. That’s all fine, and while I don’t feel quite as compelled as you to demythologize here (although I agree with you that we all demythologize as a matter of judgment and I wouldn’t affirm every case of demonic activity that a 1st century Palestinian would), my main concern is to clarify that nothing like a privation theory of evil or a rejection of some dualist competitive supernaturalism brings an answer to the table already with regard to spiritual creatures. I’m also a little less comfortable talking about “modern science” as some monolithic thing and what “it” tells us, however… speaking of things that need to be demythologized.

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