Barth's Hidden Vision for Human Transformation
Why do we see so much fruitful good in unbelievers and so much evil in believers? What could it mean for a believer that the old is “gone,” especially when it doesn’t feel that way? What does it mean for humans who are simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) to be transformed in Christ and by his Spirit? We typically think of sanctification as pertaining to humans being conformed to Jesus, but what could it mean when Jesus speaks of himself as being sanctified for our sakes (John 17:19)? Jeff McSwain mines the theology of Karl Barth to engage such questions. In looking “through the simul,” he concludes with Barth that universal human transformation is a reality before it is a possibility, and that, despite our contradictory state, we may live Spirit-filled lives as we participate in Christ’s true humanity that determines ours—a humanity which never gets old.
Endorsements & Reviews
“In an original contribution, McSwain succeeds in demonstrating how Barth’s version of the Lutheran ‘simul iustus et peccator’ is radicalized by its extension to the incarnate Son and thereby to the race as a whole, transferring the pattern of Chalcedonian Christology (the so-called ‘two natures’ doctrine) into the field of anthropology. The result is a significant recasting of our ways of thinking about numerous core doctrines, including creation, atonement and incarnation as well as redemption and fall."
– Trevor Hart, author of Regarding Karl Barth
“I have literally been waiting for years for this book—a book that explores in depth what the sanctification of Jesus Christ means for the sanctification of humanity. In this excellent, accessible, and innovative work, Jeff McSwain carefully examines how Karl Barth reappropriates the classic doctrine simul iustus et peccator while also creatively imagining ways Barth’s understanding could enliven the life and ministry of the church today. This is a beautiful contribution to the growing theological literature on sanctification and discipleship.” – Kristen Deede Johnson, award winning author of The Justice Calling
“McSwain argues persuasively that the simul . . . is a powerful key to Barth’s theology as a whole. Breaking new ground, yet firmly committed to all the key truths championed by Barth, McSwain’s theological insightfulness is evident on every page. An impressively comprehensive knowledge of Barth’s Dogmatics is also on display, along with a truly Barthian passion for the truth and the importance of the gospel . . . McSwain’s thesis is both fascinating and challenging. It will richly reward careful engagement.”
– Douglas Campbell, Duke University
“There’s a remarkable single-mindedness about Jeff McSwain, a theological determination that yields insights impossible to ignore. Here he presses us to read Barth’s doctrine of sanctification through Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and in the process uncovers a wealth of connections and resonances with immense practical consequences for the life of the church. Provocative and game-changing, Barth—and the gospel!—will never sound quite the same again.” – Jeremy Begbie, Duke University
"Birthed in the fires of real world missional controversy, this book crackles with the urgency of the gospel. Drawing from the deep well of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Jeff McSwain offers a refreshing vision of Christian life freed to live wholly in this world by seeking the true life hidden in Christ." – Brian Brock, University of Aberdeen
“McSwain casts his net wide, but discerningly, fastidiously mirroring Barth’s understanding of tradition and the Bible. Simul Sanctification: Jesus Christ incarnate is at once the Righteous One of God, and the One who assumes sinful human flesh. With echoes of Gregory, what McSwain calls ‘Chalcedonian anthropology’ adds to the corpus of Barthian studies and provides enhanced perspective on Barth’s theological actualism: the sanctified life of a singular Jewish human of humble origins who re-presents in every human being.” – P. H. Brazier, author of Barth and Dostoevsky
Review by Bradley M. Penner, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Briarcrest College and Seminary
(Originally posted on Reading Religion website, Jan. 2019)
The 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) is well-known for having radically reconstructed many major Christian doctrines—Trinity, scripture, election, and Christology—however, his doctrine of sanctification usually does not receive much attention amongst Barth scholars and Christian theologians in general. In this revision and extension of his doctoral thesis, Simul Sanctification, Jeff McSwain argues that the doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful), initially articulated by Martin Luther, is the best framework to understand and appreciate Barth’s revolutionary doctrine of sanctification, especially as it relates to the paradoxical reality of the human as completely righteous and completely sinful, and their hidden spiritual transformation in Christ. McSwain, then, seeks to show how the simul functions as a leitmotif throughout Barth’s Church Dogmatics to elucidate better his mature doctrine of sanctification.
In chapter 1, McSwain delineates how Barth adopts and adapts Luther’s simul not for justification, but sanctification and conversion, and how it shows all humans to be wholly righteous in Christ and sinful in Adam. In chapter 2, McSwain looks at how Barth develops his nuanced Chalcedonian Christology when he adds the reality of a second duality in the one person of Jesus Christ, which is the simul applied to the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. In chapter 3, Barth’s actualism is discussed as a necessary element to understand the movement of humanity’s freedom in the life of the Holy Spirit. In Chapter 4, McSwain clarifies Barth’s Christological anthropology by looking at the concept of participation, and chapter 5 continues this thought by looking at Barth’s non-libertarian freedom in Christ and the Spirit. Chapter 6 examines epistemology and Barth’s attempt to overcome the Cartesian turn to the human self and replace it with a pneumatological paradigm. In chapter 7, McSwain discusses the crucifixion of Jesus as the revelation of the death of the sinful human and triumph of the righteous human inside the one human Jesus Christ—meaning that sinful humanity is rendered null and obsolete by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus.
Chapter 8 continues McSwain’s foray into how Jesus Christ embodies and actualizes the simul by pondering Barth’s Christological exegesis of the suffering of Job in the Hebrew Bible and comparing that narrative with the passion of Jesus. In chapter 9, McSwain turns to Barth’s often neglected doctrine of creation in Church Dogmatics and how the simul has its primal origin in the creation and fall of humanity. McSwain continues and extends his argument by drawing on Barth’s doctrine of evil (“Nothingness”) in chapter 10 and shows how God’s victory over evil in Genesis 1:2-3 points forward to Christ’s victory over sin. Chapter 11 delves even deeper into one of the densest components in Barth’s doctrine of creation, that is, the relationship between time and eternity. Here McSwain contends that a human’s birth (but not creation) is emblematic of the simultaneously righteous and sinful given the pre-temporal, supra-temporal, and post-temporal inclusion of time in the eternity of God as revealed in the two creation sagas of Genesis 1 and 2. In chapter 12, McSwain discusses the difficult doctrine of theosis (“divinization”) as the goal of one’s redemption in Christ. McSwain then argues that Barth’s angelology provides him with a unique perspective on how angels–who, unlike humans, do not experience the simul–are an example of the righteous determination of humans. Having finished his interpretive work on Barth’s theology of the simul in his Church Dogmatics, McSwain engages in more constructive theology in the final two chapters. Chapter 13 examines Johannine literature and its theology of love and obedience as determined by Barth’s Christological anthropology and the Trinity. Chapter 14 is the summation of McSwain’s thesis: though Christians live with the knowledge that they are simultaneously determined by the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the sinfulness of Adam, they can look through the simul toward the eschatological hope that can and must be lived out in their present lives, albeit hidden from natural sight. In the conclusion, McSwain argues for the theme of “consummation” as an appropriate goal for the transitory experience of the simul when Christians will fully experience the redemption that has already been accomplished and objectively applied to every human whether they believe it or not. Following the conclusion, McSwain offers some “final reflections” wherein he looks at various concrete expressions of how the church can live out the sanctifying grace of Christ in all its manifold ministries.
The guild of Barth studies, and Christian theology in general, are grateful to McSwain for engaging one of Barth’s more neglected yet interesting doctrines—sanctification. McSwain has provided a monograph that fills a gap in knowledge of just how innovative, challenging, and resourceful this doctrine in Barth’s Church Dogmatics is. Furthermore, McSwain does not merely provide sound exegesis of this section of Church Dogmatics, but also displays a canny ability to see the simul employed throughout Church Dogmaticsin the most unexpected places, especially volume 3 on the doctrine of creation. From his employment of the creation sagas of Genesis 1 and 2, to the relationship between time and eternity, and even the angels, McSwain demonstrates a commanding grasp and fertile imagination when drawing lines of conceptual continuity between Barth’s doctrine of sanctification and other doctrines in Church Dogmatics. However, as McSwain ventures into the traditionally unchartered territory of Church Dogmatics to buttress his thesis for the simul of the Christian’s sanctification, he unfortunately neglects the more immediate and determinative doctrines that shape and mould Barth’s doctrine of sanctification. It is disappointing that McSwain did not spend more time on the mutual influence of the doctrines of election, justification, and vocation on sanctification. Although McSwain should be commended for eschewing the many intra-Barth disputes, greater engagement with these doctrines rather than those in volume 3, however interesting they may be, would have been helpful. That said, McSwain’s stimulating and edifying work of theology is deeply appreciated and is most appropriate for those engaged in Barth’s theology and Christian theology.