In Defence of Karl Barth

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One of the theologians who has most influenced me, especially in recent times, is Karl Barth. I have not posted much here at Reformissio on Barth, largely due to the fact that I was waiting until I would have a chance to write this particular entry. I know that probably many who have followed this blog up until now would not take issue with me for discussing Barth, but I know that this is not the case with large swathes of American evangelicalism (to say nothing of how Barth is also viewed sometimes in other parts of the world). I can personally attest that while I had not even heard of Barth during my youth growing up in a conservative Baptist church, my initial exposure to him was accompanied by the impression (given no doubt by those who were critiquing him) that he was simply another dangerous, German-speaking liberal who stood in fundamental conflict with evangelical theology and thus should be avoided like the plague. For this reason, I hope with this post to preempt some potential objections to what I hope will be extensive and fruitful engagement with Barth on this blog. This entry will no doubt fail to placate the most vociferous evangelical opponents of Barth, but my goal is simply to provide a point of reference for any future detractors.

To this end, I would like to quote and comment on a few brief sections take from T.F. Torrance’s book Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology 1910-1931 (SCM Press, 1962, pp.9-10, 19, 30):

Barth is not a theologian one can criticise until one has really listened to him and grasped his work as a whole and discerned its place in the history of theology. It may be many decades before we can do that adequately, as it may well be centuries before we can measure sufficiently his contribution to the whole Church, but no one who really gets inside Barth’s thinking and has learned to follow him in his persistent and profound inquiry into the Truth of God can remain unchanged or unmoved, or be ungrateful…

Never have I heard or read of anyone who asks questions so relentlessly or who engages in such ruthless criticism, not with any negative intention, but in order to let the truth bespeak itself clearly and positively…This questioning is forced upon us because face to face with God’s Word we know ourselves to be questioned down to the very roots of our being, and therefore in response to the impact of the Word we are thrown back upon self-criticism, upon a repentant questioning and rethinking of all that we have and are and claim to know. Hence questioning is the movement in which we seek to clear away all the unreality with which we confront the objective Reality of God in his revelation in order that we may let God’s Truth declare itself to us positively and clearly…

In a very true sense the history of Karl Barth and the development of his thought is the history of European Theology for he recapitulates the whole of Evangelical Theology in Europe in himself, bringing it to its greatest and sharpest precision as well as giving it its most massive form. It is the verdict of Hans Urs van Balthasar, another Swiss, one of the most outstanding theologians of the Roman Church today, that Karl Barth has done for the whole of Protestant thought in modern times what Thomas Aquinas did for mediaeval thought. Because von Balthasar reckons that Karl Barth has given Evangelical Theology its most consistent and supremely great expression, he insists that the Roman Church, in spite of the vast difference it inevitably has with Barth’s theology, must nevertheless reckon with Barth as a partner in theological learning. It is significant that the Roman Church, which regards Barth in man respects as mightiest opponent, has given him the most respectful study and yielded the greatest appreciation of his place in the history of Christian theology.

Each of these paragraphs deserve some comment. In the first paragraph, Torrance pinpoints one of the common problems that I have noticed myself when reading critiques of Barth. It seems that many evangelical critics either parrot the objections of others (indicating that they have not themselves actually engaged with Barth) or draw conclusions based on an inadequate grasp of the full scope of Barth’s thought. Granted, this is not an easy task. Not only is Barth’s literary output staggering in its volume, but it is dense and difficult reading. Yet what Torrance states is exactly right: unless one really grasps Barth’s work as a whole and discerns his place in the overall development of dogmatic theology, it is extremely likely that criticisms of him will miss the mark. Due to the nature of Barth’s approach to theological exposition, one will almost certainly misconstrue or misrepresent his highly sophisticated and nuanced views if one reads only limited sections of his work, particularly portions drawn from his monumental Church Dogmatics. This is not to say that Barth is immune from critique. He is not, as even Torrance attested at times. Nevertheless, it will not do to form judgments of Barth’s theology on the basis of hearsay, second-hand objections (e.g. reading Barth through Van Til), or limited engagement with the full scope of his work.

In the second paragraph cited above, Torrance does not explicitly state but rather alludes to another reason why Barth is often criticized, namely for what seems to be his ambiguous or incomprehensible writing. From my perspective, one of the reasons why Barth seems to evangelicals like he is speaking a foreign language is because, in many ways, he is. I don’t refer to the fact that he was writing in German, although reading him in English translation can present its own set of obstacles. What I mean is that Barth relentlessly questioned his theological inheritance, always seeking to bring everything into strict conformity with God’s self-revelation in his one true Word Jesus Christ. This led Barth to not simply revise a few elements of his tradition here or there but rather to set the whole Protestant project on an entirely new basis. The extent to which Barth succeeded in this attempt is, of course, up for debate. Nevertheless, his seemingly inexhaustible zeal for knowing nothing if not in strict adherence to the formal and material “grammar” imposed on dogmatic theology by God in his self-revelation in Jesus Christ meant that Barth had to adapt all of his thinking and speaking accordingly. Therefore, if it seems to some evangelicals that Barth inhabits, as it were, a different theological planet, I would like to suggest that it actually may be more an indication of how far they themselves have drifted away from the orbit of the biblical witness.

Finally, the third paragraph pays tribute to the initial reasons for which I began my own ventures into Barthian territory. Since my life and ministry operate in a land dominated for centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, I found Barth to have incisive and penetrating insight into the essence of Catholic theology and practice. I was also amazed to discover, in stark contrast with many evangelical opinions, that some of the most esteemed theological minds in Roman Catholicism consider Barth to be the pinnacle of Protestant theology. Torrance of course cites Hans Urs von Balthasar who regarded Barth as having elucidated the most powerful and coherent exposition of evangelical theology. Von Balthasar, however, is not alone. Many others, including Hans Küng and Brunero Gherardini, have expressed similar opinions. I cannot help but be struck by the irony of this. Whereas a large number of evangelicals (many of whom are likely also to be unfavorable toward Roman Catholicism) in some way oppose Barth for his ostensibly un-evangelical views, many Roman Catholics praise him for the very opposite reason inasmuch as they perceive him to be the greatest and most consistent exponent of a truly Protestant and evangelical theology. What is to account for this? While I have some theories of my own, suffice it to say that I think that some of these Roman Catholic thinkers may have a better grasp of what a truly evangelical and Protestant theology should be in terms of fidelity to its own historic concerns and commitments.

In this case, I would side with the Roman Catholics. As I personally began to delve into the richness and profundity of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, I was surprised to find a theologian who seemed far more evangelical than the evangelicals whose criticisms had previously jaded my opinion of him. Again, I do not mean to imply that Barth’s theology is flawless or beyond critique, for it is not. Nevertheless, I have discovered in Barth a teacher, a mentor and, dare I say, a friend who I suspect will accompany for the rest of my life. If you are still in doubt, I would only advise you to take up Barth and read!

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The Reformissionary sitting at Barth’s desk in his office at his final home, Basel, Switzerland

 

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