Blessings and Woes in the Theology of Karl Barth image

Blessings and Woes in the Theology of Karl Barth

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A number of times in posts on this blog the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has been referenced. Barth has been hugely influential in academic theology during the 20th Century, but has probably not been high on the reading list of many busy Newfrontiers pastors, so I thought it might be helpful to spell out some of the things we might learn (or wish to avoid) from his thought.

I would suggest that there are some elements in Barth’s theology that are of immense value. Here is one suggestion (that covers lots of areas):

A blessing: Moving away from the abstract God in the sky

 
I really do think that Barth provides a helpful movement away from talking about God in abstract and opaque terms. What I mean by this is that Christians often use quite overly philosophical language in relation to the doctrine of God. Terms like omniscience, omnipotence and impassibility are often used to describe God’s attributes. Barth does not say that there is anything wrong with these terms as such. He does suggest, though, that there are probably better and maybe more biblical places to start with regards to describing God. God, he suggests, should primarily be spoken about in the way that he has chosen to reveal himself. And he has revealed himself to us first and foremost through Jesus Christ. This is of course biblical and Jesus’ words ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9 ESV) are within the mind-set of many Christians. But Barth is saying something really important and fairly radical. Rooting everything in God’s self-disclosure means that we are disciplined to think about God in response to his primary revelation to humanity. Indeed when we do try to move beyond this, Barth would say, we so often tend to just project a better version of ourselves into the sky. Hence the provocative quote from Barth: ‘You cannot speak about man by speaking about God in a loud voice.’1 Christ, as it were, is not man in a loud voice, but God in a human voice.
 
This moves us on to the next way that Barth wants to talk about God. Christology is evident throughout his Church Dogmatics, but Barth is also radical in placing the doctrine of the Trinity in the first volume of this great work. Much liberal theology of the 19th century had begun with trying to establish God’s existence based on rational description, or, alternatively, by talking about human experience before proceeding to talking about God. Conversely, Barth sought to ground theology in God’s own revelation. He is in part very much responsible for bringing the Doctrine of the Trinity back to the forefront of theological discussion in the 20th Century. One might say that Barth is not being all that radical here, but again I think he is right on it. Sometimes we still struggle to have a truly Trinitarian understanding of God and this often shows up in Church life. Take many modern worship songs, for example, where the Trinitarian dimension seems to be lacking. What I mean by this is that many of our songs refer to ‘God’ and maybe the work of Christ, but they don’t tend to identify God in truly Trinitarian language. (It’s encouraging that some within Newfrontiers are trying to amend this). Why is this important? Because, Barth would say, God is Trinity. We shouldn’t have any other understanding of God than as Trinity. In practice we might ask the following questions: Who are we referring to when we are speaking about God? Do we mean an abstract force in the sky? Do we simply mean the Father? If we don’t use Trinitarian language we can just make God sound like a cosmic power rather than the relational God of the Bible. Further, as is often the case in some of the public debates between Christians and the new atheists, the existence of God should not just be defended purely on the basis of rational argument. The God at the end of rational argument is often not the Trinity and therefore not worth rationally arguing for. This isn’t anti-reason, but rather places the emphasis on revelation, or as Anselm’s famous dictum would have it: Faith seeking understanding.

Having said all this, there are also areas of concern with Barth’s theology that should not be taken lightly:

A woe: Scripture and History

 
One concern that many evangelicals have with Barth is that he doesn’t hold scripture to be inerrant. Ultimately I am not convinced about Barth’s understanding of scripture. However, I do think that he is misread and that in not defending inerrancy he saying something quite important. God, he would argue, has primarily spoken his word to us in the Word; that is, in Jesus Christ. Scripture, Barth says, derives its authority not from something internal but from the fact that it testifies to this Christ. It is the primary witness to Christ and cannot be moved beyond in terms of our speech about God and as a rule of faith. But none of these things make it inerrant. It is a human word as well as a divine Word. Barth is not so much advocating a theological liberalism – far from it, but he is saying that God primarily reveals Himself through Himself. The biblical authors are primary witnesses to this revelation, but not the revelation itself. There are certain points here that we might agree with and Barth’s careful language, I think, avoids the pitfalls of certain types of fundamentalism.
 
One of the reasons why Barth abandons inerrancy is probably down to a negative influence of some of the forms of biblical criticism that were taking place at around his time. The Enlightenment had been very hard on scripture, and many liberal theologians questioned its ability to stand up to scientific and rational criticism. In response to this, contemporaries of Barth, like Rudolf Bultmann, had moved away from talking about the historical literalness of the New Testament texts and advocated a reading of scripture that made the meaning, rather than historical particularity, the important part. I would suggest that Barth bears the influence of Bultmann and isn’t as confident as he should be about the historical reliability of scripture; seeking instead to affirm its importance as the primary witness to God’s revelation. But the thing is, history matters; it’s not that Barth ignores this, but Christ’s context is so important to an understanding of him that it cannot be downplayed.
 
So here again I think that Barth does have something useful to say to us: take our preaching, do we seek to allow scripture to point towards Jesus Christ, or do we look in scripture for answers to riddles from our own experience, or the experience of the congregation? Barth would always encourage us to let scripture point toward Christ. But the woe would be to not make matters of faith and meaning so important that matters of Jesus’ actual history cease to be important. Jesus’ history is of immeasurable worth and has so much to say about our history.

Footnotes

  • 1 Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, Hodder, 1928 p.195)

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