§18.3~ Love of Neighbor = Idolatry?

Jason Micheli —  March 4, 2014 — 8 Comments


If he could ignore the fact that Barth was not a literalist, John Piper would love §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics.

Karl Barth made his theological debut with his blistering commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. ‘Commentary’ is in some ways a misnomer for what Barth was really commenting upon was the ossified failures of modern western liberalism. Barth channeled Paul’s rhetoric more so than commented upon it, like any good preacher, doing what Paul did rather than simply explaining what Paul said.

Where Paul fixed his ire against the moral corruption of a fallen 1st century world, Barth’s barely veiled enemy is the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ ethos that began the 21st century. In Barth’s (correct) estimation, the ‘love of God and brotherhood of Man’ too easily slipped into the godhead of Man.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach had accused Christians of simply speaking of themselves in a loud voice when they spoke of God, and Barth, surveying the Christianity late 19th century modernity had bequeathed him, concluded: ‘Jah, pretty much.’

Knowing Barth’s predilection for rhetorical bullying when it comes to modernist liberalism, one should approach §18.3 of the Church Dogmatics with trepidation because it’s in this section that Barth applies the theme ‘Praise of God’ to the Jesus Creed from Mark 12:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Expecting Barth to offer an accurate, dispassionate interpretation of Mark is like asking the Capulet’s and Montague’s to provide fair and balanced coverage of one another.

The liberalism, which Barth is so much against, had esteemed the latter clause of Jesus’ command to the point that it eclipsed the former.

So it’s not surprising that §18.3 reveals Barth resisting a plain reading of the text.

Barth begins strong, claiming that the love of neighbor is but another way of saying ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.’ 

But then Barth proceeds to scratch his head like Columbo and suggest that it’s not so clear as first glance.

Barth sees 3 possibilities- he doesn’t really, but he wants us to play along:

  1. Love of Neighbor is another, second absolute command. If that is the case, then everything scripture says about love of God can and should be applied to God.

  2. There aren’t really two commands at all but one single, absolute demand. Love to God and love for neighbor are identical, the one must be understood as the other. If so, then we must show how God is to be loved in the neighbor and vice versa.

  3. Or the commandment to love God is first and absolute and absolutely distinct from all other commands while love of neighbor is first among all other subsidiary commands.

Against #1 Barth notes that the weight of scripture, which overwhelmingly echoes the first commandment, contradicts any reading that yields two rival commands and thus, Barth says, two gods. We can’t simply take everything scripture says about loving God and truck it into a definition for love of neighbor. The love of God is exclusive and cannot be given likewise to our neighbor.

Against #2 Barth plays the exegete noting that the text itself does not allow for us to view love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same. After all, Barth cleverly points out, Jesus does not say we should love our neighbor with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Clearly the two commands belong together but they do not cease to be two commands.

To make the two a single commands leads to blasphemy:

‘…God is the neighbor and the neighbor God.’

To my mind, this is where it becomes clear that Barth is more concerned with his own modernist context than the text itself for Jesus himself resolves the matter in Mark 12:

‘There is no other commandment greater than these.’

Not one to worry about muddying the waters or inconveniencing us, Jesus makes the plural singular.

As §18.3 continues Barth takes a look at the Good Samaritan story. Given what he does to the Jesus Creed you can imagine how this goes.

Basically, Barth seems terrified by the prospect that Jesus would suggest  that in order to inherit eternal life love of God alone won’t cut it. You also have to love your neighbor in full, equal measure.

It’s always a pain in the ass when Jesus refuses to fit our preconceived theological and political categories, and here in §18.3 Barth wrestles with the fact that Jesus very obviously was not a Reformed Calvinist.

We are not saved by grace alone.

Apologies to Paul.

And this where I sometimes wish theology had the same disciplinary willingness to self-correct as science when it’s clear from the evidence that one’s presumptions were off the mark.

Instead, reacting in a ‘that can’t be’ way, Barth engages in some exegetical creativity.

It’s not that our love of neighbor is necessary ground for salvation (nevermind Matthew 25 also).

It remains the case that we’re saved by grace alone made manifest in our love of God.

What Jesus means by love of neighbor, therefore, is not our giving love to our neighbor (as the Good Samaritan parable clearly illustrates).

Rather love of neighbor refers to our receiving love and charity from our  neighbor as sign of God’s care for us.

Receiving our neighbor’s love is but another way we respond to God’s grace.

Barth thus secures the Reformed doctrine of ‘salvation by grace alone.’

At the expense- as often happens with Reformed doctrine- of scripture.

In another context, I would applaud Barth’s ability to show the relationship between our ability to receive a gift from our neighbor and our ability to receive the gift from God. I’m a terrible receiver of gifts and I’ve no doubt it’s due to a deficiency in my faith.

In §18.3, however, as clever as he is in his interpretation- because of his cleverness- I walk away thinking Barth sounds an awful lot like the hyper-parsing, ever-qualifying scribes and Pharisees:

‘Well, when you say ‘neighbor,’ who exactly is my neighbor?’

Jason Micheli


8 responses to §18.3~ Love of Neighbor = Idolatry?

  1. Too bad Barth didn’t take on the age old question of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

    Jason, thanks be to God, Barth, and you, for making us all read, think, rethink, pray, give, receive, and repeat all of the above repearedly in this world. Excellent stuff!

  2. Bobby Ray Hurd March 5, 2014 at 10:49 AM


    Great reflection. During Lent I’m going to heighten my participation here because a lot of what you do speaks to my own studies.

    I think its unwise to put Barth into one camp or the other on the matter. What Barth intends to do is, of course, speak to the modernist context. After all, Liberalism’s doctrines are bent on equating love for G-d and love for neighbor. What he seems to do for me is not reject this notion but rather expands on it and adds another dimension to what is typical of 2-dimensional Liberal theology.

    We must learn how to *receive* from G-d and neighbor in the same way we must learn to serve G-d and neighbor. Its demonstrative of his paradoxical thinking on theological matters typically forced into dualism, I think. The emphasis is that G-d’s primary means of saving grace is through receiving it from G-d through the elect. To make it an either/or rather than an I/thou scenario is to miss the point. Making G-d one’s neighbor rather than honoring the I/thou thinking of Jesus is accurately called blasphemy *because* it is making the Christian choose “lesser of two evil” thinking. The problem is not serving G-d like one would serve their neighbor but that we should also receive from neighbor like we would receive from G-d

    Like all good Calvinists, Barth emphasizes the good work of the invisible church. However, in other places he was called an overemphasis on the invisible church docetism! He’s treading a theological line, and I think this issue is best understood in relationship to his greater body of work rather than abstracting it; then we have a fuller picture of what Barth is trying to accomplish.

    • I agree that Barth’s way of reworking ‘love of neighbor’ is potentially powerful and could potentially be a helpful critique of the power dynamics involved in gift-giving/gift-receiving. I just wish Barth had done so without trying to wriggle his way out of what is clearly a 2-fold singular command from Jesus. Hauerwas speaks somewhere about how our immediate temptation when receiving a gift is to give one back to equalize the relationship.

  3. Bobby Ray Hurd March 5, 2014 at 1:02 PM

    I see what you are saying.

    However, I think the way Barth reads “there is no commandment greater than these” is paradoxical; how can a single commandment also be plural? Hence “commandment” (singular) and “these” plural.

    Of course our relationship to G-d is unique. G-d is the one who gives His Word to transform the flesh. I think in the greater context of his theology of the Word, it makes sense. In a world where loving G-d and loving people are equal, it’s not a far jump from that to the Aryan Superman.

  4. Bobby Ray Hurd March 5, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    So I guess trying to find ways to avoid the mutualism Paul clearly is not sympathetic to might also motivate Barth. John Piper might like that if only Barth were into the natural theology he would then go into when he talks about gender issues.

  5. Hey Jason,

    Do you have an updated Dogmatics reading schedule? I found the original one, but either it doesn’t get this far or I didn’t get far enough into it.

    Better late than never, right?

    • Jason Micheli March 6, 2014 at 4:44 PM

      Yeah, I got off track on the original schedule. I will try to get a new up. A section a week is good pace I think.

  6. Good luck trying to be saved by your works. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” “

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