Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: Karl Barth as Resolution to Sexual and Body/Soul Dualism

I presume sin impacts humans not only in the experience of alienation but in conceiving all things in an alienated manner. That is, the failure of humanity becomes the singular truth, the only kind of humanity we know, and it is presumed there is no alternative to antagonism and dualism. Soul/body, male/female, or heaven and earth are taken to be, not only the historical understanding, but the singular reality. In psychoanalysis this shows itself in Lacanian psychoanalysis in that the antagonism structuring the Subject is presumed to be a necessity. Alienation and antagonism produce the Subject without possibility of qualification. One might manipulate this antagonism (death drive), but best of all, perhaps through therapy, one will be resolved to living with it. The insight of psychoanalysis, is that the various historical dualisms, centered on soul and body or male and female (but including every aspect of what it means to be human including life and death, language and meaning, heaven and earth) arise from a singular structure within the human psyche.  

Psychoanalysis locates the antagonism within the individual in interpenetrating categories such as ego and superego, but most dualisms have as their goal the presumed capacity to rid oneself of the negative, as is illustrated with male/female. Male is associated with the soulish, the rational, or the spiritual, while female is equated with the body, the natural, and the passions. As the church father Jerome describes it, “As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.”[1] Every human must strive for the masculine and the Christ-like and aim to shed the fleshly-feminine, but clearly the female sex starts with a disadvantage. As Ambrose writes: “She who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of her bodily sex, whereas she who believes progresses to complete manhood, to the measure of the adulthood of Christ. She then does without wordly name, gender of body, youthful seductiveness, and garrulousness of old age.”[2] What is at play, in even Christian texts, is the notion that the masculine is abstract, spiritual, soulish, and universal, and the feminine is bound by the body. As Daniel Boyarin lays out the opposed pairs, man is to woman as substance is to accident, form to matter, univocity to division and difference, soul to body, meaning to language, signified to signifier, natural to artificial, and essential to ornamental.[3]

The psychoanalytic insight is to assign what Boyarin and others have concluded is universal to the human sickness. The details and historical permutations of the sickness may vary (Neo-Platonism, Adam and Eve, Judaism, or Christianity, have been blamed) but what Lacanian psychoanalysis attempts is a diagnosis of the human disease which explains how humans are traumatized by death. Death resistance as castration, the Oedipus complex, the focus on human sexuality, the entry and orientation within law and language, may or may not be right in the details, but what it incorporates within its explanation is the shape of male/female or soul/body antagonism and how this constitutes the human Subject and her world. What it does not do is provide any path beyond the problem.

Karl Barth provides a different (simpler?) approach to assessing both the universal human disease and its resolution, in that Christ serves as definition of what it means to be human. Barth does not start with the phenomena of the human as it may present itself to the anthropologist or the psychologist, as this will only lead to one going astray, “especially as they always arouse at this point the burning interest which powerful inner contradictions always bring to light.”[4] What Barth might be referring to specifically is not clear, but he has hit upon the truth of the development of modern psychoanalysis in its focus on contradiction (life versus death, male versus female, body versus soul, or the imaginary against the symbolic) as the primary focus of study and interest. The turn to Jesus Christ as model is simultaneously a turn from the supposed normativity of this antagonism.

Barth is also departing from traditional Christian dogma, which begins with man’s existence in the abstract and then applies this understanding to Christ. As he points out, this has resulted in a “certain one-sidedness,” referring perhaps, to the sort of reflection found in Ambrose and Jerome. The downgrading and oppression of women and the privileging of the soul, represents a majority position in the history of the church. Barth, by making Christ definitive of what it means to be human, is setting theology on a different foundation than the “older dogmatics.” The body/soul, male/female, and mind/body dualism can now be approached and potentially resolved in Jesus Christ. At a minimum, Barth provides a largely untapped point of departure.

The ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. So long as we select any other starting point for our study, we shall reach only the phenomena of the human. We are condemned to abstractions so long as our attention is riveted as it were on other men, or rather on man in general, as if we could learn about real man from a study of man in general, and in abstraction from the fact that one man among all others is the man Jesus. In this case we miss the one Archimedean point given us beyond humanity, and therefore the one possibility of discovering the ontological determination of man. Theological anthropology has no choice in this matter. It is not yet or no longer theological anthropology if it tries to pose and answer the question of the true being of man from any other angle.[5]

Barth derives his concept of what it means to be human from the singular man, Jesus Christ. In his volume on the doctrine of creation, Christ is the “Archimedean point” for understanding not only humanity but all of creation. Barth, through a more circuitous route, lands close to the Maximian formula, “creation is incarnation.” Or, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[6] Barth’s doctrine of creation, like his doctrine of anthropology, presumes creation by itself is a mere abstraction. The incarnate Christ provides the concrete center and revelation concerning creation: “Because man, living under heaven and on earth, is the creature whose relation to God is revealed to us in the Word of God, he is the central object of the theological doctrine of creation.” Which leads to Barth’s anthropological focus: “As the man Jesus is Himself the revealing Word of God, He is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God.”[7] Anthropology is not a subset of the study of creation but is its center, and true anthropology is approached only through the truly human one. “As the man Jesus is Himself the revealing Word of God, He is the source of our knowledge of the nature of man as created by God.”[8] Barth concludes: “But this point of departure means nothing more nor less than the founding of anthropology on Christology.”[9]

Barth builds upon this foundation (in section 46) with his opening thesis in which he sets forth the primary terms of body, soul, and Spirit: “Through the Spirit of God, man is the subject, form and life of a substantial organism, the soul of his body – wholly and simultaneously both, in ineffaceable difference, inseparable unity, and indestructible order.”[10] Humans are both body and soul – simultaneously and inseparably. “Man’s being exists, and is therefore soul; and it exists in a certain form, and is therefore body.”[11] In Christ these are not constituent parts. “He is one whole man, embodied soul and besouled body: the one in the other and never merely beside it; the one never without the other but only with it, and in it present, active and significant; the one with all its attributes always to be taken as seriously as the other.”[12]

The death and resurrection of Christ do not alter this order: “The whole man, soul and body, He rises as he died, and sits at the right hand of God and will come again.”[13] This soul and body wholeness is an eternal fact about who he is. “He does not fulfil His office and His work from His miraculous annunciation to His fulfilment in such a way that we can separate His outer from His inner or His inner from His outer.”[14] Everything is simultaneously inner, invisible, and spiritual, and outer, visible, and bodily.

Barth illustrates the point through a series of biblical verses which refer alternatively to Christ “giving himself” (Gal. 1:4), giving his soul (Matt. 20:28), or giving his body (Luke 22:19). “Jesus, He Himself, is His soul, and His body, and it is the one whole man who died on the cross and thus made our sin inoperative and completed our reconciliation.”[15] In turn it is the whole man, body and soul, that is raised. Body and soul are not parallels or two parts or two lines. Their union in him permits no choice but to consider them together. “They cannot be considered independently. In and with one another they are the oneness and wholeness of this life.”[16] Which is not to deny that there is a higher and a lower or a dominating and dominated, but Jesus is both. Barth does not mention a male and female principle, but inasmuch as these might represent the body and soul, or the sensuous and the rational, it can only be said that Jesus is both. “His life of soul and body is really His life. He has full authority over it.”[17]

It is important that Christ accomplished this in his flesh. Flesh may be a neutral term referring to human existence, but it also has an evil connotation. “It indicates the condition of man in contradiction, in disorder and in consequent sickness, man after Adam’s fall, the man who lives a fleeting life in the neighbourhood of death and corruption.”[18] Christ has come in the flesh to condemn sin in sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). He suffered in the flesh (I Pet. 4:1). He reconciled us “in the body of his flesh” (Col. 1:22). He “abolished in his flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). In his flesh he parted the veil in the Temple and provided entry into God’s presence (Heb. 10:20). Even in his resurrection body he is still in the flesh, and is not pure spirit (Luke 24:39). He provides true food and true drink continually through his flesh (Jn. 6:51). Flesh, which in itself speaks of death, disorder and disobedience, through his flesh takes on life, order and obedience. “The flesh, which in itself profits nothing, becomes a purposeful instrument. The flesh, which in itself is lost, attains a determination and a hope. The flesh, which in itself is illogical and irrational, becomes logical and rational. As the Logos becomes flesh and Jesus is flesh, it is shown that this man has and is spirit and life, and the flesh itself becomes quickening and living and meaningful.”[19]

Barth equates the work of Christ in the flesh with creation itself – with the ordering of chaos into a cosmos. The reconciliation, ordering, rationalizing, of Christ in the flesh “is the triumph of the meaning of the human existence of Jesus.”[20] Chaos in itself offers no explanation no rationale, nor order, but through the ordering of the flesh in Christ the world and humankind are an ordered creation and cosmos. This establishes a new basis for understanding humanity, creation, and the human relationship to God.

The Christian response to dualism is to recognize that most every form of human subjectivity is built upon an antagonistic dualism (between body and soul, between male and female, between the ego and the law, or between life and death) but there is one human to whom this does not apply; namely Jesus Christ. Jesus is the alternative to alienation, antagonism, and dualism and this alternative applies to all and grounds a holistic Christian understanding.


[1][1] Jerome, Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, Patrologia cursus completus, series latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1841–66), 26:533; translation from Vern Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women,” Viator 4 (1973): 499. Cited in Daniel Boyarin, “On the History of the Early Phallus,” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 8.

[2] Ambrose, “Exposition of the Gospel of Luke,” in PL 15:1844. Boyarin, Ibid.

[3] Boyarin, 12-13.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation III.2 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1956) 325. All quotes are from III.2 unless otherwise indicated.

[5] Barth, 132.

[6] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1; Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[7] Barth, 3.

[8] Barth, 41.

[9] Barth, 44.

[10] Barth, 325.

[11] Barth, 325. 

[13] Barth, 327.

[14] Barth, 327.

[15] Barth, 328.

[16] Barth, 331.

[17] Barth, 332.

[18] Barth, 335.

[19] Barth, 336.

[20] Barth, 336


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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