What I Have Learned From Karl Barth (In Contrast With Richard Muller)

Over at the Heidelblog, R. Scott Clark has posted an article written back in 1987 by Reformed historian par excellence Richard Muller entitled “What I Haven’t Learned From Karl Barth“. I had read this article before and had even considered at some point writing a response, but the fact that Clark has just recently brought it to the attention of many on the Heidelblog has inspired me to respond now. When I say ‘respond’, I do not presume to think that Muller or Clark will pay any attention to what I write or even know that I have pipebarthwritten it, but I simply feel compelled, in my own small and negligible way, to offer a rejoinder from a more appreciative perspective. I do not intend this post to pass any academic or scholarly scrutiny, for I write it, as Muller himself did, as more of a personal reflection on how Barth has positively influenced me in the very ways that Muller singles out for critique.

First, Muller says:

In the first place, I haven’t learned how to “do theology” from Karl Barth—and I would hazard the guess that no one else has either. As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle But ‘Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content. The Protestant scho­lastics, whose works Barth read with respect, recog­nized in formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype only by the grace of God’s gift of rev­elation. Barth taught me where to find that rule for theo­logical formulation, but I cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.

In response, I cannot say that I have learned how to “do theology” from Barth either, if what is meant by that is acquiring the capacity to reason, formulate, and write theology as Barth did. Barth’s theological project has been called by some as “virtuosic”, and I think that is a fairly accurate assessment. I could never rise to the level of Barth’s sheer brilliance and innovation. In this sense, I am not sure that anyone could say that they have learned how to do theology from Barth, for, at least in my estimation, he stands with the greatest theologians of church history and few will ever achieve a similar status or influence.

Nevertheless, I am learning how to do theology from Barth. Particularly over the past year, he has been for me an important teacher, mentor, and guide. It is true, of course, that reading Barth can be a daunting challenge due to the sheer volume of his output and the dense nature of his subject matter. Yet I cannot criticize him for “excessive verbiage” or “ideas that refuse to achieve closure”. Muller lodges these complaints as he compares Barth with the Protestant scholastics, which is unsurprising since this is his area of expertise. It is certainly understandable why someone who lives in and breathes the air of Protestant scholasticism would find these two aspects of Barth’s work problematic. I would argue, however, that while posing certain difficulties to many readers, Barth’s approach is quite justifiable, if not to a certain extent demanded, by the nature of the object of his inquiry: the revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. The riches and profundity of Scripture and its attestation to God in his Triune being and act are truly inexhaustible. It is no exaggeration to say that after two thousand years of church history, we have not even come close to fully comprehending all of the treasures that lies in the oceanic depths of the biblical witness.

For this reason, and as Barth’s student T.F. Torrance often said, our theological affirmations must be open rather than closed statements about the reality to which they point. Our explication of Christian theology can never reach such a level of perfection that no further revision and refinement are necessary. As such, Barth’s propensity to “excessive verbiage” or “ideas that refuse to achieve closure” is, in many ways, necessitated by the nature of Scripture itself. Were it possible for our thoughts and words to contain the inexhaustible wealth of the biblical witness, then perhaps it would be preferable to reduce theological statements to the “formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity” that Muller admires in Protestant scholasticism. It is true, as Muller notes, that the scholastics never presumed that these formulae could perfectly articulate archetypal theology – the knowledge that God has of and in himself. Yet reading the scholastics after Barth, I am left to wonder if the scholastic approach that Muller appreciates is truly the form and method most suited to express the inexpressibly profound truths of Scripture.

As I read Barth, by contrast, I encounter a theologian who has wrestled not merely with the content of the biblical witness but also with the best way of articulating that content in a form appropriate to its source. Although this is somewhat subjective, the scholastic approach leaves me cold, whereas Barth inflames my heart and often brings me to my knees in doxology and worship. Although prefaced as imperfect and ectypal, the scholastic approach, in using highly logicalized, precise, and syllogistic forms of reasoning, seems to imply that its formulae do indeed contain perfect articulations of divine truth. How else could one offer ‘ideas that achieve closure’ in succinct formulae unless one believed that those ideas and formulae were in large measure coextensive with the reality to which they point? Barth’s approach, on the other hand, leaves me with the sense that no matter how far I may have penetrated into the oceanic depths of divine revelation, I have only succeeded in grasping a teaspoonful of all that it contains. The depths of Holy Scripture are truly bottomless, and Barth’s approach to the dogmatic task remind me of this important fact.

Second, Muller states:

In the second place, I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth…when I eventually began to work on the Church Dogmatics and to see there the christological principles of Barth’s theology brought to bear on various texts of Scripture, I was frequently at a loss to see how the text itself pointed in the direction chosen for it by Barth. Barth’s reading of the story of Judas is a good example. Most commentators see in these texts (Matt. 27:1–10 and Acts 1:16–20) unremitting condemnation: in Acts, the text concludes with a pointed citation of an imprecatory Psalm. Barth, however, in view of his doc­trinal assumption that Christ is the only elect and only reprobate man, finds some hope in the fate of Judas. Nor is this moment of exegetical folly an exception: Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, in and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ. The result is an incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis, justified only by the vague conten­tion that it is both “christological” and “theological.” I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth.

Again, in one sense, I cannot say that I have learned how to do exegesis from Barth either for the same reason that I mentioned above. At the same time, however, I am learning how to do exegesis from Barth precisely as it should be done in strict accordance with the way in which God himself has revealed himself in history through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The approach that Muller critiques as “incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis” is rather, in my view, Barth’s effort, however imperfect, to demonstrate incredible faithfulness and dogmatic submissiveness to the actual form and content of God’s self-revelation instead of imposing a foreign or artificial interpretive grid onto the text of Scripture. Far from being arbitrary, Barth’s ‘principial’ christological approach has not only a strong pedigree in the history of the church (Irenaeus and Athanasius come immediately to mind) but also derives from the nature of the biblical witness itself. In my view, one of the clearest proofs of this comes from Jesus himself when in John 5:39, 46 he castigates his Jewish critics saying: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” The contention of Jesus against his interlocutors was not that they failed to search the Scriptures but that they failed to search the Scriptures in accordance with the ultimate object of its witness: Jesus Christ himself. To study the Scriptures correctly means, according to Christ, that we search for him even when he is not explicitly mentioned by name as in the books of Moses.

Here is where Muller’s critique falters: “Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, in and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ”. I can imagine Jesus’ listeners thinking something similar themselves: “But how could Moses have written about you when there is ‘no clear relation’ to you or to what you are doing in his writings?” The fault, of course, lay neither with Moses nor with the Scriptures but with those who failed to see their witness to Christ. Similarly, I see Muller’s criticism as resting on a shaky foundation. If we cannot, like Barth, see all of Scripture as witnessing to the person and work of Christ, and in him to the being and act of the Triune God, then perhaps we are the ones with the deficient exegesis. Contrary to Muller, the truth is that we all interpret Scripture dogmatically, for we always bring our theological presuppositions to bear on the text. This is inescapable. What we can and should learn from Barth is how to constantly question those presuppositions and the exegetical method that we adopt in order to evaluate and determine whether or not they are faithful to the actual manner in which God has chosen to reveal himself in Christ and by the Spirit. Anything other than this would truly be arbitrary, for it would be an approach of our own invention or choosing.

Finally, Muller states:

In the third place, and by way of conclusion, I haven’t learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of the Christian tradition for use in the present. The Church Dogmatics is doubtless a gold mine of ma­terials from the history of Christian doctrine—but all too frequently, rather than actually building on the foun­dation of these gathered materials, Barth uses them as a foil for his own formulations and fails to convey either the meaning or the direction of the materials them­selves. As an example of this problem, I would point to what is actually one of Barth’s most insightful histor­ical excursuses: the discussion of predestination (Church Dogmatics II/2, pp. 60–88, 106–115). Barth recognizes, and I believe correctly, that the Reformed orthodox theo­logians never proposed a predestinarian system in which all doctrine was deduced somehow from the divine de­crees. Barth notes, however, that the rather stark pre­sentation of the doctrine of the decrees poses the problem of a Deus nudus absconditus, an utterly absent or hidden God…What Barth does not note is that the concept of the decree as an essential and therefore trinitarian act of the Godhead, together with the defi­nition of election as occurring “in Christ,” is typical of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. No­where in this older theology do we encounter the prob­lem of the Deus nudus absconditus—certainly not as Barth defines it. Nor, in addition, does Barth’s collapsing of election into Christ, so that the electing and elected Mediator is also the only elect and only reprobate man, stand in any real relation to the theological material on which he has commented and from which he takes the clue to his solution to the doctrinal problem that he has posed.

I can only provide a historical hypothesis as to what has actually occurred in Barth’s meditation on older Re­formed concepts of election. The problem of the utterly absent or hidden God is not a problem of the older theology but rather a problem caused for Barth by the Kantian background of his own thought: the God who stands behind the phenomenal order as a transcendent and unreachable noumenon is not accessible or know- able unless he can be located in some way in the phe­nomenal order. Christ provides Barth with this location and, therefore, with his sole focus of knowledge about God and God’s acts.

In response to this last point, I would simply say that I have “learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of the Christian tradition for use in the present”. I find Muller’s comment here to be odd, because Barth had precisely the opposite effect on me. Barth was in many ways the gateway for me into the world of patristic and medieval theology. It was Barth, along with Torrance, who whetted my appetite for more. While I recognize that there are flaws in Barth’s rehearsal of historical theology, I also recognize that he was working constructively. That is, he was not content merely to parrot the past; he was absolutely committed to the great Reformation principle that the reformed church must be always reforming. This is what led him not merely to repristinate what had already said before but to build on past insights, modifying or correcting them as needed, to meet the challenges of the present.

As an example, Muller refers to Barth’s revision of the doctrine of election. True to form, Muller argues that Barth’s reading of Protestant scholasticism was erroneous and that his constructive proposals were consequently misguided. Muller’s claim that “No­where in this older theology do we encounter the prob­lem of the Deus nudus absconditus—certainly not as Barth defines it” is one that he has made elsewhere, but it does not seem, at least to me, to have much validity. The fact that the Protestant scholastics did not identify the problem of the Deus nudus absconditus was not lost on Barth – in fact it was precisely the issue that Barth raised in his historical survey of the doctrine with specific reference to John Calvin: “The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination.”[1] Being an eminent historian himself, it seems ironic that Muller’s own critique of Barth would be just as misplaced as the one that he criticizes Barth for mountaing against the Protestant scholastic doctrine.

From this, it seems that Muller would want to exclude any work in historical theology apart from the descriptive by driving a wedge between the disciplines of history and theology. In other places, such as in his magisterial Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics he says as much.[2] Yet this seems to me highly problematic. Muller is correct in maintaining that we must take care in understanding the Protestant tradition in its own context and on its own terms. At the same time, however, the ecclesia semper reformanda cannot rest content with simply describing the past without moving on, when necessary, to critique and reconstruction. If we are permitted to only describe the past without being able to point out problems and errors of which those espousing them were perhaps completely unaware, then it will be impossible for us to provide any correction. We will only perpetuate them. Barth may not have grasped the breadth and complexity of Protestant scholastic theology to the extent that Muller has; yet this does not by itself undermine the legitimacy of his theological project or discredit his constructive alternative. To say otherwise would be tantamount to committing theological suicide, for it would effectively bury us in the graves of our theological forebears.

As a final point, I would add that as I read Church Dogmatics II/2, I am struck by how keen Barth was to root his revision of the doctrine of election deeply in history. This is not to say that he was not at all innovative; rather it is to say that he sought to follow key insights, particularly those that he discovered in church fathers such as Athanasius and Augustine,[3] to their biblical and dogmatic end, and the result was his understanding of Christ as the electing God and elected man, both the Elect in whom all people are elect and the Reprobate who takes away the sins of the world.

I would disagree, moreover, with Muller’s hypothesis that Kant is ultimately to blame for the impetus that led Barth to look to Christology to solve his epistemological difficulties. It is undeniable, of course, that Kant played a role in Barth’s intellectual formation. Nevertheless, the problem of which Barth speaks is one that emerges in some form throughout church history. One clear example would be the Arian controversy of the fourth century, in which the supposition of Christ’s creaturely nature set against the background of a strict Creator-creature distinction led Arius to write in the Thalia that God was, even to Christ, absolutely incomprehensible to anyone or anything other than himself and was thus totally hidden from and inaccessible to humanity.

I realize that this is not a perfect parallel. Yet the Creator-creature dichotomy that prompted Athanasius to argue, against Arius, that we have access to knowledge of the Father only by contemplating his incarnate Son is not so much unlike Barth’s insistence of the exclusivity of Christ as the locus of divine self-revelation. Although not identical to Kant, problems similar to that faced by Arius and Athanasius – how finite creatures can have true knowledge of that which is utterly transcendent – have always been to some extent present in the history of Western philosophy and theology and should not be therefore dismissed as purely Kantian when they appear.

Whether or not he adequately understood Protestantism’s intellectual history, Barth uncovered, in my view, a significant flaw in traditional Protestant conceptions of election, and his constructive alternative remains a formidable and compelling reformulation of Scripture’s witness to the nature and reality of election in Christ. Although I cannot follow Barth every step of the way – whether in his theology, his exegesis, or his appropriation of history – I have learned much in all of these areas and I still have much more yet to discover. Barth was not perfect, but he has been to me an important teacher, and I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for leading me ever deeper and ever higher in not only my knowledge, but also in my love, reverence, and awe of our Triune God.


[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. p.111

[2] See for instance Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 2: the cognitive foundation of theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.24

[3] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.108-110.


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