I don't suppose that I'll ever get round to reading Barth's mighty Church Dogmatics. Life's too short and I haven't even got started on Bavinck's much more profitable Reformed Dogmatics yet. But I thought that I would give Barth's Dogmatics in Outline a read. This little book is not a precis of his larger opus. It is an independent study of the Apostle's Creed, based on a series of lectures in post WWII Germany. The setting gives added power to these extemporary talks as Barth eloquently exposes the evils of National Socialism and anti-Semitism.
There is much helpful and stimulating material in these lectures. Dogmatics is defined as "the science in which the Church in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is, by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confession." (p. 1). Barth is familiar with the Reformed tradition and often draws upon the insights of Luther, Calvin and documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism.
Throughout the book, Barth argues that only God can reveal God to us. The Creator is not known to man via a natural theology that is accessible to all human beings. "What the meaning of God the Creator is and what is involved in the work of creation, is in itself not less hidden from us than everything else that is found in the Confession." God's self-revelation as Creator is received by faith. That faith is itself the God-given freedom to take God at his word. Barth's emphasis here resonates with the presuppositional apologetics of Bavinck, Van Til (an arch critic of KB), and John Frame.
The God who reveals himself to us is the triune God of the gospel, "By being the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in his work in Jesus Christ, God is in the highest." (p. 31). Barth prefers to speak of "three ways of being" in God rather than three persons as he judges that our modern understanding of personhood is different to that of the early Church. But as John Murray has shown, there is no reason for us to abandon the term 'person' in the sense of distinct centre of self-consciousness when applied to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4: Studies in Theology, 1982, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 277ff.). With this qualification in place, it is gratifying to note that Barth's lectures are insistent that the Christian God is none other than One who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God does not appear in trinitarian mode for the sake of redemption. He is Trinity all the way down,
"But when the Christian Church speaks of the triune God, it means that God is not just in one way, but that he is the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Three times the One and the Same, threefold, but above all triune, he, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in himself and in the highest and in his revelation." (p. 34).
My first encounter with Barth was through the writings of Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer was suspicious of Barth's commitment to the historical basis of the Christian faith. The later work of the theologian may modify what he says here, but at least in this book, Barth is found confessing the historicity of the virgin birth (chapter 14) and resurrection of Christ (chapter 18). He clearly and vigorously affirms the full deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Touching on a area of controversy among contemporary evangelicals, I was interested to see Barth teaching a penal substitutionary view of the atonement. He spells out most helpfully that in Jesus Christ, God took upon himself the penalty for our sin,
"But now the Confession tells us that the execution of this verdict is carried out by God in this way, that He, God Himself, in Jesus Christ His Son, at once true God and true man, takes the place of condemned man. God's judgement is executed, God's law takes its course, but in such a way that what man had to suffer is suffered by this One, who as God's Son stands for all others. Such is the lordship of Jesus Christ, who stands before God, taking upon himself what belongs to us. In Him God makes Himself liable, at the point at which we are accursed, guilty and lost. He it is in His Son, who in the person of this crucified man bears on Golgotha all that ought to be laid on us." (p. 109-110).
But there are problems here. It is a matter of dispute among the experts whether Barth was a universalist. Some of his thinking in this book certainly tends toward universalism. According to him, in Jesus Christ we see God's decision concerning his purpose for every man (p. 80). When it comes to the day of judgement, humanity will meet Jesus as the judge who himself was judged for the sin of all men. The only difference between the world and the church is that the church knows this and the world does not (p. 123). Barth denies that his account leads to Apokatastasis or universal restoration (p. 127), but it is all rather ambiguous.
This little book may not give Barth's definitive view of dogmatic theology. For him, theology was very much a work in progress. Karl Barth was most unlike Calvin, who expanded the Institutes, but hardly changed his mind on any substantial point. Andrew McGowan warns, "It is notoriously easy to read one section of Barth and to assume that one understands his view on a particular subject only to turn to another section of the Church Dogmatics and to find the subject examined from a different perspective that sheds new light on the whole matter." But for those like me who simply want to sample Barth's theology, Dogmatics in Outline may be a good place to start. There is much here that is recognisably Reformed. But there are also some indications of Barth's attempt to challenge, subvert and rework historic evangelical orthodoxy. Reformed Evangelicals certainly need to get to grips with the theologian. His views are once more helping to set the theological agenda. No doubt there are things that we can learn from him. But a new "Barthianism" is not the way forward. See here for an interview with David Gibson, co-editor of the newly published Engaging with Barth: Contemporary evangelical critiques. I recently received my review copy of this book and very good it is so far. [Update - see my review of this most helpful book here].