Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences,
Sung Wook Chung (Editor), Paternoster & Baker Academic, 2006
Sung Wook Chung (Editor), Paternoster & Baker Academic, 2006
This is the second of the two Barth books that I read while on holiday. (See here for my thoughts on his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction). This title is a compilation of essays on key ideas in Barth's theology by leading evangelical scholars. All are agreed that Barth is worth studying and that evangelicals have something to learn from him. Most of the essays are appreciative and yet critical of his theological proposals.
The book has twelve chapters, each by a different scholar. The contributions vary in quality and tone. One problem with the work is that it lacks a coherent understanding as to what constitutes authentic evangelical theology. While several writers are Reformed in outlook, others are from a variety of camps including Pentecostal and Postevangelical. So, the book lacks an agreed starting point for assessing Barth's theology. That said, several of the essays are really outstanding. The opening chapter on Revelation by Gabriel Fackre helpfully introduces and critiques Barth's understanding of this important subject. In his A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation, Kevin Vanhoozer reflects on the hostile reaction to Barth's doctrine of Scripture amongst evangelicals. Cornelius Van Til and Carl Henry were especially critical of Barth in this respect. But as Vanhoozer points out, while Barth taught that the Bible is the authoritative witness to the Word of God rather than the Word of God written, he nevertheless had a high view of Scripture. His Church Dogmatics is full of careful and detailed scriptural exegesis. But Barth disagreed with the traditional evangelical teaching on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. For him, this "materialised" revelation and made it subject to human control. The Bible only becomes the Word of God in an event of divine self-revelation. Vanhoozer attempts to resolve differences between Barth and evangelicals by appealing to speech-act theory,
"The Bible is the word of God insofar as its witnesses - which is to say the inspired locutions, illocutions - really do present Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible also becomes the word of God when its illuminated readers receive and grasp the subject matter by grace through faith, which is to say, when the Spirit enables what we might call the illocutionary uptake and perlocutionary effect. The full measure of Scripture as a communicative act of God, then, involves the-Spirit-testifying-about-Jesus-through-Scripture-to-the-church". (p. 57)
Will this proposal effect a reconciliation between Barthians and evangelicals on Scripture? It is difficult to say. But it has the merit of insisting on both the full inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and recognising the importance of the Spirit's witness to the word of God.
Oliver Crisp's Barth on creation discusses agreements and differences between the theologian and traditional reformed teaching. He deals with Barth's attempt to "christologise" creation, his rejection of natural theology and his unusual ideas on God's relationship to time. Henri Blocher on Barth's anthropology untangles his fusing of anthropology and Christology. For Barth, Jesus was the first man, not Adam. This seems to suggest that Christ was eternally incarnate. But this undermines the event character of the incarnation, whereby the Word who was God became flesh. Barth's denial of a historical fall and his insistence that human beings were created fallen are also subjected to rigorous analysis. Blocher gets the prize for the best Barth joke by way of a footnoted Balthasar quote, "in this theology of event and history, nothing seems to happen, perhaps because everything happened in eternity." (p. 110).
Alister McGrath's chapter on Karl Barth's Doctrine of Justification from an Evangelical Perspective is full of useful insights. He proposes that for Barth with his background in Liberal theology, the big issue was not primarily, "How can a sinner be right with God?" What he wanted to know was whether God has revealed himself to human beings. Revelation, not justification is what lies at the heart of Barth's theology. In the light of Barth's teaching, McGrath calls upon evangelicals to reflect afresh on whether justification should be regarded as a centrally important doctrine. The editor, Sung Wook Chung's contribution on A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election, is helpful on Barth's actualistic theology. But the discussion of his views on election is a little confused. He accuses the theologian of being both a Calvinist and an Arminian. I'm not sure how that can be the case. For a Calvinist, God in Christ has chosen his people (not all humanity) for salvation despite their sin and unbelief. For an Arminian, God chose those whom he foresaw would believe in Christ. Barth's teaching that Christ is elect and reprobate for humanity is quite different from both Calvinist and Arminian constructions. The universalistic overtones of Barth's views on election are discussed here and elsewhere in the book.
John Bolt in Exploring Karl Barth's Eschatology: A Salutary Exercise for Evangelicals, related his distinctive form of amillenialism to the concerns of Americal dispensationalist teaching. The conjunction of Barth's Christ-centred vision and the unaccountably popular Left Behind novels made this an intriguing chapter. The book also features essays on other aspects of Barth's thought: Kurt Anders Richardson on realist christology, Frank D. Macchia on pneumatology, Timothy George on church and sacraments, Veli-Matti Karkkainen on theology of religions and John R. Franke on the postmodern turn and evangelical theology.
Each contributor seems to have thought long and hard about Barth's theology in relation to evangelical teaching. They show familiarity both with Barth's own writings and the secondary literature. Convergences are noted, but points of real difference are not ignored. The book has one or two little typos and would have benefited from at least a subject index. Full and detailed footnotes are provided.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Barth's theology in the last twenty years or so. It is good that evangelical theologians are getting to grips with his teaching in a serious way. Many pastors like myself do not have the time to pursue Barth's mighty Church Dogmatics. But this book is a helpful introduction to his thinking from an evangelical point of view.
[Update: See the newly published Engaging with Barth edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange. Contributors include, Henri Blocher, Paul Helm, Donald Macleod and Garry Williams. This work critiques Barth from a definite Reformed perspective].