Engaging with Barth, 18th January 2008, IVP
GD: Hello David Gibson, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.
DG: I’m married to Angela, and we have a one year old son who gives us a lot of joy and amusement. We currently live in Aberdeen, Scotland, where I’ve been working on a PhD in Divinity at Aberdeen University. With the mixture of staff and fellow students it has been a wonderful department to be a part of for three years. My life background before the Aberdeen years was really quite varied (my dad is Northern Irish, my mother is English, I was born in America, spent my early years in E. Africa, later years back in N. Ireland, and a long time in England. I have an Irish accent, an English wife, and a Scottish son)! My main academic interest is John Calvin.
GD: You are involved in a forthcoming book, Engaging with Barth. When did you start engaging with Barth?
DG: Both Daniel and I first encountered Barth as undergraduate students, myself at Nottingham University and Dan at Bristol University. We say a little about what this was like in the Introduction to the book. I then read Barth a lot more extensively during my MA at King’s College London, and my Ph.D here in Aberdeen reads the exegesis of election in Calvin and Barth. I didn’t actually come to Aberdeen to work on Barth, but my Doktorvater, Francis Watson, persuaded me to have a look at the use of the Bible in Church Dogmatics II/2 and I’ve never looked back!
GD: This is a good time for such a volume, as Barth seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment, especially among theological students. Any idea why?
DG: It’s hard to generalise here, and the situation varies from place to place, but I think you’re right that Barth is the man to be reading in quite a number of places around the world. This interest is probably caused by the number of leading theologians operating at present who have been deeply influenced by Barth in one way or another – they teach courses on Barth, write good books on Barth, and so attract good students to study Barth under them. In reading Barth seriously, I think theological students soon find themselves inside what Henri Blocher refers to as ‘a doctrinal cathedral’. Barth was off the scale in terms of individual brilliance and the sheer size and scope of what he attempts is intoxicating.
GD: Why do you think that Barth's theology is proving attractive for evangelicals at this time?
DG: It’s probably even harder to generalise here, and I don’t want to steal too much of Carl Trueman’s thunder as he comments on this in his Foreword. There’s the obvious attraction of Barth’s desire to be creedally orthodox in a way which is just absent in so much of modern theology. Allied to this there’s probably something of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ approach which sees in Barth both a kindred spirit and superb resource for responding to theological liberalism and cultural hostility to the gospel. Barth is passionate, often quite moving, and he writes about God and Christ and the gospel in deep and profound ways. There’s plenty more things which could be said like this.
At the same time, a complete answer would have to engage with the fact that Barth’s attractiveness to evangelicals is hardly explicable without reference to the increasing fragmentation and diversity within worldwide evangelicalism. When we talk about evangelical theology and Barth, one of the least addressed questions is: what do we mean by ‘evangelical’? To give just one example of the problem, in some quarters today a distinction might be made between being ‘evangelical’, and being ‘an evangelical’. The former is someone committed to the gospel; the second is someone committed to the gospel and its understanding within one particular tribe within a particular cultural world, and so on. The former might be seen as biblical and Christ-centred; the latter might be seen as parochial, sectarian, or even as a relative (modernist) new-comer to the theological scene. As a profound gospel thinker, Barth’s thought lends itself more easily to those who want to describe themselves as ‘evangelical’, but not as ‘an evangelical’ – and I think that’s because this distinction recognises that there are aspects of Barth’s thought that are at odds with how historic confessional evangelicalism has understood the gospel and its various entailments. Where ‘evangelical’ is understood with some of these blurred edges, never mind the massive diversity that exists within the ‘evangelicalism’ tribe, then the answers as to why Barth is attractive to ‘evangelicals’ depends on where we are along that spectrum. Barth himself was fairly hostile towards conservative evangelicalism as he knew it. Doubtless there were caricatures and misrepresentations on both sides, but it is also probable that underlying the antipathy was the recognition of a fundamental clash on certain theological issues. You could argue that where historic confessional evangelicalism is increasingly attracted to Barth it is because, at least in some areas, we see the issues less clearly than either our predecessors or Barth himself.
GD: What, in your view, are some of the problem areas of Barth's thought as far as evangelicals are concerned?
DG: Classically, I suppose the problem areas have been Barth’s doctrine of Scripture and the issue of his incipient universalism (or not). I think these remain important topics and vital areas of concern. But evangelicals have been less interested in the fact that what Barth thinks in these areas is simply the logical consequence of prior decisions taken most notably in his doctrine of God, and in his understanding of revelation and Christology. Focussing on certain problem ‘topics’ in Barth can run the risk of misrepresentation because of the complex web of his thought, and some kind of comprehensive analysis is required. Obviously, the book highlights what we feel are some of the main problem areas within this matrix.
In brief, I would say some key areas are: (i) Barth’s understanding of election in relation to the triune being (and here I’d say that a McCormack-ian type reading of Barth on this topic is a major problem); (ii) his understanding of Christology and theological method (a big part of my thesis is expanding and developing Richard Muller’s distinction between soteriological and principial christocentrism, with Barth offering an example of the latter which is problematic in many areas); (iii) certain aspects of Barth’s exegesis. Brevard Childs has commented that Barth’s theology is the most ambitious 20th century attempt to rest dogmatics on exegesis, and this is a tremendous opportunity for worthwhile engagement with Barth. Evangelical engagement here can bring a depth of exegetical seriousness to bear on what Barth does with the biblical text and, with humility and grace, ask probing questions about whether in certain cases the exegetical foundations truly support the dogmatic edifice.
GD: You have assembled some of the big names in Reformed theology to contribute to Engaging with Barth- Oliver Crisp, Paul Helm, Donald Macleod, Henri Blocher and so on. I can't think of another book with such a stellar cast. How did you manage to get so many top theologians on board?
DG: Daniel and I wrote each of them a letter outlining the project and promised them that if we sold more than fifteen copies of the book we’d enter each of their names into a hat for a free prize draw, with the winner receiving an all expenses paid holiday of a lifetime.
GD: Oh, that explains it! Now, Sung Wook Chung's Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology was published in 2006. Why do we need another book on Barth and evangelical theology?
DG: The Chung volume interacts with Barth from different points along the kind of evangelical spectrum I mentioned above. It’s a valuable book for showing the diversity of possible responses to Barth within the ‘evangelicalism’ stable. At the same time, when you talk of Barth’s convergences and divergences from evangelical theology in this way then it’s not always completely clear what exactly Barth converges with or diverges from. Although not all the contributors in our book are coming from exactly the same place, the engagement with Barth is more from the perspective of classic Reformed theology and we think this makes for a very interesting kind of interaction.
GD: Why do you think that a distinctively Reformed Theology is best placed to respond to Barth?
DG: When we press Barth with questions from within the Reformed tradition we are engaging him on the terms of a theological impulse which he himself favoured. (Garry Williams is particularly good at making and modelling this point in his chapter on the atonement in Engaging with Barth). Many of Barth’s radical theological revisions start from the foundation of Reformed presuppositions before Barth then goes off in his own direction, and so engaging with the new direction means unpacking such presuppositions and exploring the validity or otherwise of what happens to them in Barth’s hands. To discuss theology with Barth in a Reformed accent means you can cut out a lot of the prolegoumenal throat-clearing and get straight down to business. At the same time, because of Barth’s own love of the Reformed Scripture principle, Reformed theology is only really best placed to respond to Barth as it shows itself to be faithful to Scripture.
GD: What do you think that evangelicals have to learn from Karl Barth?
DG: The most profound lessons are probably still ahead of us; in many ways it is still too early to assess Barth’s legacy, either for evangelicalism or anything else. But in the meantime my own list would be a big one, consisting of both the specifics of his thinking on certain issues (some of my favourites – alongside reservations – are in the area of his theology of interpretation), as well as more general issues.
Limiting myself to the generalities, I’d say three things: (i) he teaches us to be catholic, (ii) to be Reformed (ii) and to do theological theology.
(i) Catholic. Barth’s doctrine of election is a good case in point. I think what Barth attempts here is magisterial simply because of the sheer range of material he commands. The extent of his engagement with a diverse chorus of witnesses within the theological tradition is really very impressive indeed. But it’s not just impressive – it’s instructive, and on a whole range of issues such as theological method, historical theology, and the analysis of presuppositions in doctrinal formulations. Evangelicals can tend to talk about the doctrine of election in terms of Calvinism vs Arminianism, and reading Barth shows you just what an emaciated conception of the doctrine this is.
(ii) Reformed. Barth’s own theological development is explained at least in part by his discovery of the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy during his Göttingen years and its subsequent impact on his thinking. The way Barth engages with this tradition and lets it seep into his own thinking is a pointer to its possession of resources which are capable of powerfully reconfiguring a theological landscape. At the same time (and here I’m really thinking of his doctrine of election) I have found that Barth teaches me to be Reformed precisely by the ways in which he departs from classic Reformed theology – his new path is not as satisfying as the old path properly understood. I know that’s counter-intuitive and certainly on election many of his readers go the other way. But wrestling with how Barth reads election in Scripture alongside wrestling with how Calvin reads election in Scripture, I have come to feel that Barth’s position sits uncomfortably across the biblical testimony whereas Calvin’s position (and I don’t think it’s perfect) emerges more comfortably from a straight-forward exegesis. Barth’s theological critique of Calvin has a conceptual and rhetorical power that I don’t think he is ever able to match exegetically. Eventually, that is problematic for the theological critique.
(iii) Theological theology. I agree completely with Ben Myers’ earlier observation on your blog [here] about the immense value of reading Barth to learn to think theologically. Barth’s writings contain the kind of engagement with theological material which I don’t think evangelicals are always very good at reckoning with (e.g. detailed discussion of the divine perfections; thinking through the meaning of divine aseity). The way Barth articulates doctrines functioning in relation to each other within the dogmatic enterprise has a range and depth to it which I think modern evangelical systematics rarely achieve. (In this regard see John Webster’s essay on ‘Jesus Christ’ in The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology – you don’t have to agree with everything he says here to feel the weight of a lot of his insights about the shortcomings in evangelical theology). Of course, there are other resources within Reformed theology for these ends, but Barth makes an important contribution here too.
GD: I really enjoyed Webster's Holiness and found his theological method very refreshing. Famously Barth loved Mozart, what are your three favourite songs or pieces of music?
DG: I won’t impugn the good reputation of your blog or humiliate myself by telling you!
GD: You must like some really silly stuff! Care to tell us the best work of theology that you've read in the last 12 months? It is a must read because?
DG: I’m afraid I’ve broken the rules here. Apparently good Ph.D students read widely in a number of different fields to come out properly rounded individuals. My wife thinks that possibility for me was lost a long time ago, and over the last year I’ve pretty much only been reading Calvin and Barth, or books on Calvin and Barth. I’ve found Richard Muller’s work to be immensely helpful: he’s a formidable scholar and the breadth of his learning means that he sees across the centuries very clearly. My thesis, building on some of Stephen Edmondson’s work and on the basis of the preface to the 1539 edition of the Institutes, argues that Calvin’s Institutes is itself a hermeneutic i.e. it offers a reading of the biblical plot-line (meant to guide others in their reading of Scripture) which is reflected in the way Calvin reads the biblical texts in his commentaries (historically there is a developmental relationship between the Institutes and the commentaries, with the former being shaped by the latter). Wrestling with the argument of the Institutes has been an extremely valuable exercise for me. It is a deeply pastoral work, with immense riches for preachers, and for those reasons it’s probably the best thing I’ve been reading this year.
GD: Nice. I'm enjoying reading through the Institutes at the moment. Now, what do you hope to do once you have finished your studies?
DG: I have just submitted my Ph.D thesis and so am nervously waiting for my viva! But at the same time I have just started working at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen, as the Associate Minister. It’s where Angela and I have been since arriving in Aberdeen and it’s a great church family to be a part of and to serve. We’ll be here for at least three years and after that, who knows …?
GD: David, thanks for dropping by. I wish you all the very best and hope that my copy of Engaging with Barth arrives soon! [Update the book has now been published, see my review here].