Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology

Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences,
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].

15 comments:

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Once again, fair and balanced, although I disagree with the idea that justification wasn't central to Barth!
But your last line troubles me. I think it is precisely working pastors who have most to gain from making time to wade through the Church Dogmatics carefully.

Exiled Preacher said...

Michael,

On the centrality of justification in Barth, Alister McGrath quotes him saying,

"In the church of Jesus Christ, this doctrine has not always been the word of the gospel, and it would be altogether restrictive and improperly exclusive to treat it as such." (CD, IV/1 61, I, p. 583).

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Well, historically, that is correct. It is not until Luther that justification becomes the word of the gospel. Barth treats justification not as subordinate to revelation, as one of your essayists contends, but as part of the larger concept of God's reconciliation of the world to Himself. Justification, sanctifaction, redemption, are all dimensions of the triumph of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response Guy.

The point that I was making was that when it comes to an issue like the Da Vinci Code which we all have to have an answer to, Barth cannot help us even a little bit.

I remember the consternation in some quarters here in Scotland several years ago when it was revealed that a number of men in the Crief Fellowship, the conservative evangelical part of the Church of Scotland were promoting the teachings of Barth.

You may not yet be promoting his teachings, but you do seem to promoting his value to evangelicals. This really does concern me. Perhaps the evangelical scholars that you cite are not so conservative themselves.

It is true that Lloyd Jones in his later years (according to the biography) studied Barth, but this was in order to refute him. I don't think he would have gone as far as to suggest that Barth had value for us. If he had, I would have strongly disagreed.

Why the fascination with digging up old liberals and dusting them off? We must have better things to do than this.

Kind regards,

David Mackereth.

Exiled Preacher said...

David,

As I said in the post itself, there has been a resurgence of interest in Barth in the last 20 years or so. Evangelicals can bury their heads in the sand and hope that this trend will soon pass away, or we can try to get to grips with his teaching and demonstrate why he was wrong on so many points. The same goes for other theological issues like the new perspective on Paul, postmodernism etc etc.

I could ask you some questions on engaging with Dan Brown's book and film. Why the fascination with such clap-trap? Why don't you just leave that nonsense alone and simply read the Bible? Anyway, I don't suppose that The Da vinci Code is of much concern to most of the readers of my blog. This blog, however does seem to attract theological students, some of whom may be interested to know of this book which interacts critically with Barth's thought.

How do you know that Barth was a liberal anyway, have you actually read his works and come to that conclusion yourself, or is your opinion based on hearsay? If in fact you don't really know what you are talking about, how are you going to help someone who has been influenced by Barth's teaching? As I said earlier Lloyd-Jones gave time to reading Barth and Brunner so he could speak on their writings with some authority. He did not just denounce them from a position of ignorance.

David Mackereth said...

Yes Guy,

But you appear to be recommending Barth.

David

Exiled Preacher said...

David,

I can't see how you think that I'm recommending Barth. I tried to make it clear in the two posts that I devoted to him that I have some very serious disagreements with aspects of his teaching. I don't think that Barth is the way forward for evangelicals. But as his thinking is increasingly influential, we do need to get to grips with it. Evangelicals may have some points of agreement with Barth, but we cannot ignore the real problems that some of his views present for Bible believing Christians.

Dismissing Barth as an old style Liberal is inaccurate and doesn't help anybody. Listen to Lloyd-Jones on Barth and others,

" This movement's greatest stress is that we must return to God's Word in the Bible. These people stress that we have lost sight of the idea of revelation, and that, under the influence of other philosophical ideas, we have turned religion into nothing more than elevated humanism. They tend to say that reason and philosophy are the greatest enemies of true religion, and they call upon us to re-read and reconsider what God's Word tells us". Knowing the Times (Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 20 & 21).

Of course, Lloyd-Jones is also critical of Barth (as am I), but he recognises that there are some welcome aspects to his teaching.

David Mackereth said...

Guy,

So what do you call welcome aspects of Barth's teaching?

David

Exiled Preacher said...

David,

In two posts I mention some helpful aspects of his teaching. You would agree that God can only be made known by revelation and that natural theology is inadequate wouldn't you? I suppose that you would also agree that Christ is the focal point of God's self-revelation? You would probably agree with his teaching on the bodily resurrection of Christ and the empty tomb. Considering that Barth did come from a Liberal position, these emphases can be welcomed can't they? Doesn't Lloyd-Jones (in the quote) welcome the Barthian insistence on the Word of God over and against human philosophy?

This is not to say that there are other aspects of his teaching that are certainly not welcome, ie his doctrine of Scripture, his universalistic stance on election and some of the other problems that I pointed out in my two posts.

For evangelicals, Barth is a mixed bag. Those studying him need wisdom and discernment. That I why it is good that evangelical theologians contributed this critical appraisal of key aspects of his theology.

Anyway out of the 350-odd posts that I've published on this blog, only 2 have been devoted to Barth. He is hardly the focus of my attention. If you would prefer to major on Dan Brown and parallel universes, then you are most welcome to do that.

David Mackereth said...

Why do I need Barth to teach me on the resurrection of CHrist and the empty tomb?

Here are some further quotes from Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones in "Knowing the Times"

"First we have got to examine this new new "bibilical theology" and discover whether it is truly biblical, or whether it is not just philosophy using and twisting certain biblical terms to suit its own mood and thinking. We have got to face this whole question as to what is really taught by great men like Karl Barth and Bultmann in Europe, and Tillich in America, let alone our notorious friends on the South Bank here in London. Has that really changed the situation? I need scarcely say that as far as I, at any rate, am concerned, the battle is as fierce and as strong as it has ever been, and that we are called upon more than ever to fight the good old fight of the faith." Page 201/202

"I will never forget meeting Professor Donald Maclean. He was one of the first men who ever mentioned the name of Karl Barth to me, and he spoke of him in the most lyrical terms, giving me the impression that Karl Barth was one of the greatest evangelicals that ever lived. Why did Maclean do this? Well, because of Barth's onslaughts on the old liberalism. You see the subtlety of the thing. Because Barth was so wonderful a critic of liberalism he was regarded as a true evangelical, something that he, or course, never was." Page 311

"In the same way, we have got to assert today that we believe that Scripture contains propositional truth. This has often been the dividing line between evangelicals and psuedo-evangelicals. I have noticed over the years that it is one of the first points that indicates a departure from an evangelical position when men begin to object to, and reject propositional truth, as Karl Barth did and as most of his followers still do. But we claim that in the Bible there are propositions, truths stated in propositional form, with regard to God and his being and his character, and many other matters. We have got to assert this element of propositional truth." Page 342

It is this issue of propositional truth that is absolutely crucial. The Da vinci Code, Parallel worlds and Barth all represent major challenges to the integrity of the Gospel. Without propositional truth we simply cannot reply to such challenges.

Having rejected the full inspiration of the Scriptures, however erudite, Barth cannot help us and stands as a dangerous tempation to go astray to the unwary.

If Barth speaks according othe truth we don't need him. There are plenty of sound evangelial authors whom we can consult.

If Barth speaks against or apart from the Scirptures we don't want him.

So what's the big deal?

Kind regards and, since it is midnight, good night.

David.

Exiled Preacher said...

David,

I have never said for a moment that we need Barth. I've already acknowledged that Lloyd-Jones was also critical of his thinking. But he did take the time to find out what he was teaching. If you are really not that interested in Barth, why bother to keep leaving comments? If you don't want to know about his teaching, that's fine by me.

David Mackereth said...

Guy,

You mention in your posts that Barth was a universalist. Could you please summarise Barth's soteriology as you understand it for me.

Kind regards,

David.

Exiled Preacher said...

David,

I don't really want to continue this discussion any further. I have other things that I need to be getting on with. If you want to find out more about Barth, read the book reviewed in the post.

paul hewitt said...

hi there,

i have to say i have found some of the comments following the initial post more helpful to me, i will explain why...

I am a 22 year old university student studying to become a social worker, so i am not daft by any stretch of imagination. However, i have been asked with giving a bible study talking about Karl Barth and why the church regards him as a heretic (a view i do agree with). I am finding that seemingly for no valid reason other than he has been deemed by some a "a great theologion of our time" people feel the need to talk about him using the longest, most complex academic words they can find. I am currently reading a book called "preaching" by Stuart olliot in which it outlines that it is necessary that our hearers understand us.

I would really appreciate it if you could explain in your own words (common language!) what you see as Karl Barths theology and teaching.

this would be most helpful to me. Having just read back over the post, it does seem a little like a rant. It isnt intended that way, but probably portrays my frustration quite well.

cheers
Paul

Exiled Preacher said...

Hi Paul,

I'm no expert on Barth. I have not read his massive Church Dogmatics. So, the best thing I can say to you is read the book I reviewed in the post. But if you click on the Karl Barth label at the foot of this post, you will also find my review of his Evangelical Theology.

I'm afraid that Barth's theology is so huge, complex and demanding that it defies simple description. But it is good the evangelicals are getting to grips with his increasingly influential teaching.

I would be quite hesitant to venture to speak on Barth or anyone else for that matter if I had not spent some time studying his his key ideas. My theological perspective is much closer to Olyott than Barth!

Feel free to e-mail me from my profile if you think I may be of any more help to you.