Karl Barth on The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

In laying out Barth’s position on the Lord’s Supper we cannot properly speak of “Barth’s position” because Barth ended his Church Dogmatics (henceforth CD) before touching upon the Lord’s Supper (henceforth LS) extensively,[1] thus any reconstruction of Barth’s position is just that, a reconstruction and not an exposition. However what we can say with certainty that for Barth, Jesus Christ the Word, is the sacrament. For revelation means the giving of signs, thus “revelation means sacrament, i.e., the self-witness of God… in the form of creaturely objectivity and therefore in a form which is adapted to our creaturely knowledge.”[2] Keeping in mind that Jesus Christ is the true sacrament we shall look at several places in CD in which Barth talks about the LS.

Karl Barth enjoying a cigar.
Karl Barth enjoying a cigar.

In CD IV.4 Barth explains that baptism is not a sacrament, but its meaning is found in its character “as a true and genuine human action which responds to the divine act and word.”[3] In understanding Barth’s stance towards the sacrament of baptism we might come to understand his views about the LS. By examining Zwingli’s exegetical work regarding baptism, Barth points out that Zwingli was basically right, that the meaning of the ceremony is found in human action, in the performance of the ceremony. Thus Barth says that he does not object if someone calls his own views “Neo-Zwinglian.”[4] Barth goes on to explain the LS is also a human decision and an act whose value consists human decision to respond to divine work.[5]

In CD IV.4 Barth also talks about the Holy Spirit feeding the believer with the body and blood of Christ. He says that Christ’s body and blood nourishes the believer.[6] Although he seems to be using LS language it is not clear that this is referring to the LS, for the context of this passage is the ongoing process of sanctification, not any one particular act.

In CD IV.3 also makes several references to the LS. In one section he mentions that Christ calls the elect to himself, conjoining himself to them. Barth says that the Lord’s Supper is “instituted to represent this perfect fellowship between Him and them which He has established.”[7] Thus in the Lord’s Supper the Christian celebrates, adores, and proclaims what Christ has done for them, namely redemption.

Finally, another important passage on the Lord’s Supper is found in CD IV.3. In this section he talks about the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Barth says that human words can acquire a function and capability that they did not have in themselves as elements of general human speech; once they are about the Word, they are received and claimed by the Word of God.[8] God uses human words, even though they are limited due to their creatureliness, for the service of His Word, God gives them power to bear witness to His Word. Barth says that the Lord’s Supper is similar to how God uses human words to bear witness to God’s Word. The elements of the LS do not cease to be what they are, bread and wine, but they now serve the “function and capability” of indicating and confirming the fellowship of the community with its Lord.[9]

According to these passages, especially the previous passage, it seems as though Barth’s position is conditioned by his theology of revelation and the Word. Barth believes that humans cannot know God unless God reveals himself to them. He believes that God reveals himself in his Word, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word of God, is God himself revealing himself. Thus scripture does not truly reveal God, scripture serves as a witness to the Word, the revelation of God himself. Similarly the LS is not where we encounter God. The LS simply serves as a witness to the Word. The Lord’s Supper serves as a witness to the Jesus by indicating and confirming the reconciliation that Jesus has brought to the elect. So when the elect practice the LS, they bear witness to the Word and confirm to themselves and each other what Jesus has done for them and is doing for them, he has reconciled them to himself and he is sanctifying them.

—————————————

[1] James Buckley, “Christian Community, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper,” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 196.

[2] Buckley, “Christian Community, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper,” In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 201-2.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 30:126.

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 127.

[5] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 128.

[6] Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.4 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 37.

[7] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 28: 169.

[8]Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 29: 55.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: IV.3.2 the Doctrine of Reconciliation, 29: 55.

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