Karl Barth and the Axiomatic Nature of the First Commandment


In his presentation on the Decalogue in the New Testament at the Reading the Bible Through the Centuries Conference, Dr. Craig Evans argued that the one commandment never explicitly or implicitly cited by Jesus Christ was that of the First Commandment. He stated in passing that perhaps this most basic of commandments of just not that controversial. Pharisee, Sadducee, Jew, and disciple could argue that God was, is, will be, and should therefore be honored and revered above all others. Throughout the ages of the church, be it patristic, medieval, or reformation, the discussion of the First Commandment has been important, but never in doubt or presenting any ignitable substance. Yet when on picks up the writing of the 20th Century luminaries such as Karl Barth the never neglected but thoroughly uncontroversial First Word takes on a new trajectory. Suddenly the staid and thoroughly boring step-sister has become the belle of the ball.

In fact if George Hunsinger’s talk at the same conference is to be believed, it was this very important First Word that received the only attention of the otherwise verbose Barth. It is interesting that a man of so many words would find himself silent on anything, much less something of such importance as the Decalogue Words Two through Ten. Neither sex nor murder could gain a drop of ink, but the thoroughly boring premise that God is, that is worth an essay or two at least. Barth referenced this red-headed stepchild of the commandments as the axiom of Christian Theology. By this he meant that the words of God “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, and you shall have no other gods before me” existed as the first principle, though unrevealed by empirical research, which stood at the heart of the Gospel and the Christian message.

True one would get no argument, no donnybrook, from any of the orthodox denizens of Christendom about this axiomatic principle. It is without a doubt a fact, though thoroughly unproveable, that upon this statement neither Origen nor Calvin was stirred indignantly from his eternal rest to shout obscenities, or roll over in their grave as the case may be. So, why all the ink? Barth wrote that “this is what recent protestant theology… has understood only too well. It thought it knew better than all earlier theologies that it is really quite difficult to stand so completely alone with God and God’s Word… before philosophy, the historical and natural sciences, and many other accomplishments of the modern world…. It was sure that it had to give its heart to them and that it had to acknowledge them, for all practical purposes, as a second, third, fourth revelation in addition to the first one” (72). It would seem that the modern world has found its own shibboleths which to stand up in the place of the altar, and Barth in his essay “The First Commandment as an Axiom of Theology” is determined to pull down all such high places, and bring the world back to rightful reverence of the true Lord and God who has worked and is working to bring His people out of Egypt.

The furor and horror of the people of God serving other gods, however, is unfortunately nothing new. Just ask Solomon or any of the prophets. Or for that matter ask Luther, or better read the section of the Large Catechism in which he railed against the added gods of the church which existed in his day. Barth is not unaware of this sad fact of human existence. He stated further in the essay that “the reformation became unavoidable because the question whether ‘other gods’ did not influence and seek recognition in the life and teaching of the catholic church…. Alongside Christ it [the RCC] knows of a second thing needful for salvation…. In spite of the careful and clever manner in which another authority alongside revelation was validated… the reformers felt compelled by the first commandment to protest” (76-7). The First Words, the Axiom of Faith, though oft overlooked, it seems was not so easily followed nor kept. So one might say bully for the reformers, so why the ink? To this question Barth would continue “the recent manner in which recent Protestant theology validates other authorities alongside revelation is neither clever nor careful. Compared to it Augustinian and Thomistic counter image it offers a more obvious reason to ask the sane question that once led as far as a division of the church…. The fight against natural theology, which is unavoidable in view of the first commandment as an axiom of theology, is a fight for right obedience in theology” (77). As one who has been called too clever for his own good, I am often reminded of the words of the warrior poet Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, “how’s that working out for you, being clever?” It’s a question that I think Barth would love all of us to ask ourselves. Just what in our cleverness have we placed in the center of our faith, and just how has that worked for us? Perhaps the answer might be quite enlightening, and that dull, lifeless little preamble would then take on a newer and impassioned meaning. Clever might win a lot of battles, but could it actually lose the war? There’s the rub, isn’t it?

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  1. I like your website. Keep up the good work.

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