Pontius Pilate and the Trial of Jesus: Politics 101 According to Karl Barth

On Wednesday I challenged Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s criticism of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as a failure to understand the 16th Century reformer’s political theology. But I do not want to obscure the value of Barth’s constructive point. It is necessary for Christians to understand not just how the two kingdoms are different and separate from one another, but how they are connected under the lordship of Christ.

Here Barth does offer some helpful reflection.

He begins (in his essay “Church and State”) by suggesting that we begin not with Romans 13, as is traditionally done, but with the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18-19. Here we see the state in demonic form, Barth argues, in contrast to the homelessness of the church in Christ. And yet, Jesus “expressly confirms Pilate’s claim to have ‘power’ over Him, and not, indeed, an accidental or presumptuous power, but one given to him ‘from above.'” Barth interprets this power not as that of the devil but as that of God. (109)

Pilate’s power gave him several options at Jesus’ trial. First, he could have acquitted Jesus, recognizing him to be the King he claimed to be, the one sent into the world to bear witness to the truth. Barth, in stark contrast to Calvin, declares that “Such ‘recognition’ cannot be and is not Pilate’s business. To the question of truth, the State is neutral. ‘What is truth?'” (110)

Second, Pilate could have released Jesus and offered legal protection to the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship, “the legal granting of the right to preach justification.” (110) This is what Christians who embrace political liberalism would desire. It is appropriate for the state to protect the ministry of Christ’s kingdom without it therefore being appropriate for the state to punish heretics or the adherents of other religions.

But Pilate rejected both of these options for a third. He used his power, the power given to him by God, to crucify Jesus. And as heinous as this act was from the perspective of justice,

“what actually took place in this use of the statesman’s power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very crucifixion.” (110)

In this act of flagrant injustice the pagan state allied itself with the “sin of Israel,” only to secure “the inheritance of the promise made to Israel.” (111)

This leads Barth to an important conclusion, one that contemporary Christians would do well to consider in the midst of all their angst about the supposed dangers to religious liberty in America.

“What would be the worth of all the legal protection which the State could and should have granted the Church at that moment, compared with this act in which, humanly speaking, the Roman governor became the virtual founder of the Church? … [T]he very State which is ‘demonic’ may will evil, and yet, in an outstanding way, may be constrained to do good. The State, even in this ‘demonic’ form, cannot help rendering the service it is meant to render.” (111)

Barth’s point is worth reflecting on. Where would the Church be today if Pilate had released Barabbas instead of Jesus? (112)

This, of course, is not all that needs to be said on the subject, and this is not all that Barth says. But it is striking that this is where he starts. I do not know how many times I have heard evangelical Christians – admittedly they are typically older Christians – respond to stories about American politics in the following way: “Things are really going badly. We are clearly in the end times.” What is implied in such claims, of course, is that the conservative political agenda in America is a bellwether of the progress of Christ’s kingdom. It is a sentiment that Barth, like Calvin, would have vigorously rejected.

But Barth presses the point a step forward, and here he continues to follow Calvin as well as Luther. Because the state is ordained by God, because God uses it in his purposes in ways that Christians cannot understand, “the State” – and remember Barth writes in the shadow of Nazi Germany here, just as Paul wrote under the shadow of Imperial Rome – “cannot lose the honour that is its due. For that very reason the New Testament ordains that in all circumstances honour must be shown to its representatives (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:17).” (111)

I would suggest that the implications of this point extend not only to the individuals who exercise government at the federal, state, and local levels, but also to the institutions through which they govern. The apostles wrote in a time when political power was intrinsically personal; we live in an era in which political power is subject to the rule of written law, bound to concrete rules that channel the use of power through institutions and offices that reflect fundamental principles of justice. This system, which we might refer to in short hand as political liberalism, is for us that which has been established by God, the authority that “exists.” It is worth defending on so many levels, but even for its critics this is an important fact that must be taken into account.

But Barth offers one further point of reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. He observes that despite the travesty of justice through which Pilate empowered the crucifixion of Jesus, he proclaimed Jesus innocent. In the very act of overthrowing justice “he is fulfilling his specific function.” (112) Had Pilate done what he should have done, had he acquitted Jesus, “the State would have had to grant legal protection to the Church! The fact that this did not actually happen is clearly regarded by the Evangelists as a deviation from the line of duty on the part of Pilate, as a failure on the part of the State.” (113) In other words, “In this encounter of Pilate and Jesus the ‘demonic’ State does not assert itself too much but too little; it is a State which at the decisive moment fails to be true to itself.” (113)

Barth concludes,

“Certainly, in deflecting the course of justice he became the involuntary agent and herald of divine justification; yet at the same time he makes it clear that real human justice, a real exposure of the true face of the State, would inevitably have meant the recognition of the right to proclaim divine justification, the Kingdom of Christ which is not of this world, freely and deliberately.” (113-114)

In other words, the legal administration does have something to do with the order of redemption. Calvin went so far as to claim that the Christian state’s responsibility to defend the ministry of Christ’s kingdom includes the duty to suppress and punish those who polluted its certain truth through their false teaching, at least in a society where that truth was widely embraced as certain. He was surely wrong about this. Yet Barth is correct to characterize the responsibility more narrowly, in a manner reflective of the values of political liberalism. At the heart of the state’s responsibility under the lordship of Christ is the responsibility to protect the freedom to speak the truth.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 20, 2014, in Calvin, Karl Barth, Religious Liberty and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Pontius Pilate and the Trial of Jesus: Politics 101 According to Karl Barth.

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