Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques,
Edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, IVP Apollos, 2008, 403pp.
Edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, IVP Apollos, 2008, 403pp.
Karl Barth (1886-1968) is often hailed as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. There has been a resurgence of interest in his work in recent years. Fresh attention is being given to key aspects of his theological legacy. Witness the work of Barth-influenced scholars such as the Torrance brothers, George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormac and John Webster. Not to mention the numerous Barthian theology blogs like Ben Myers' Faith & Theology.
Barth represents something of an enigma for those in the classic Reformed tradition. He famously turned his back on the Liberal theology of his student years and found a resource for theological renewal in the God-centred teaching of the Reformers. But Barth did not simply become a Calvinist in the sense that he embraced Reformed Confessional theology. At certain important points, he consciously differed from the tradition. Early Reformed reaction to Barth was decidedly negative, with Cornelius Van Til classifying him as a 'new modernist'. This led to Barth and some of his followers tending to dismiss evangelical critiques as prejudiced and uninformed. So, this being the 40th anniversary of his death, the time has come for Reformed theologians to reassess the legacy of Karl Barth in a critical, yet fair and constrictive way. The editors, David Gibson and Daniel Strange have assembled a stellar cast of top Reformed theologians to undertake this important task. A glance at the contributors on the front cover of the book will bear this out (see the Engaging with Barth website for more details).
An attempt to analyse the contents of each chapter would make this an unduly long review. What I intend to do is say a word or two about the general thrust of the book and then focus on a few matters of particular interest. The editors say that their aim in this work is to "model courteous and critical engagement with Barth" (p. 19) and each contribution ably matches that criterion. The writers, all steeped in the classic Reformed tradition, are familiar with the primary Barth material and the growing body of secondary literature. Barth fans will not find their hero mindlessly torn to shreds in a fit of heresy hunting zeal. But that is not to say that the various authors give him an easy ride. Barth is pressed hard on some of his most cherished themes.
Take the subject of Christology. Barth was a self-consciously Christ-centred theologian. The Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on solo Christo might be expected to welcome this. But Barth pushed Christocentrism too far. In the opening chapter on Karl Barth's Christocentric Method, Henri Blocher discusses the effects of Barth's Christological concentration. The theologian was so fixated with Jesus Christ that he tended to dislike talk of of the pre-incarnate Logos (Logos asarkos), which he regarded as a rather "abstract" concept. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the first man, not simply in terms of preeminence over all other men as God incarnate, but also chronologically. Contrary to the Biblical narrative, Barth asserts that Jesus was man before Adam. Adam's humanity was modelled on that of Christ, who is the Only Real Man. All humanity belongs to Jesus Christ. He is the subject of God's decision to be God for us. For Barth, election is not about God choosing some human beings for salvation, while others are appointed to judgement. Christ is both elect and reprobate on behalf of all human beings.
Where Scripture seems to speak of individual men being either elect or reprobate, Barth exegetes those texts Christologically. David Gibson's chapter on Barth's treatment of Romans 9-11 shows that the theologian's approach has a distorting effect on the plain teaching of Scripture. Oliver Crisp helpfully contrasts Barth's teaching on reprobation and hell with that of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards' account is not without its problems, but Crisp complains that Barth's proposal lacks consistency and coherence. If Jesus Christ stands as elect and reprobate on behalf of all humanity, then surely all human beings will be saved. But Barth denies that this is necessarily the case, suggesting at one point that it is possible for us to reject our election (see p. 308). The standard Reformed teaching exemplified by Edwards gives a better reading of God's "No" to lost human beings.
When it comes to Barth's Christology, it is difficult to resist the conclusion of Garry Williams in his chapter on the atonement that, "Barth's Christ is at decisive moments an abstracted and enforced principle rather than the Christ of the Scriptures." (p. 272). Donald Macleod also makes an important point regarding Barth's Christological concentration. The theologian held that Christ alone is the Word of God, while Scripture is the human witness to that Word. Now, Scripture may become the Word of God in an event of divine self-revelation, but the Bible is not revelatory in itself (see also Mark Thomson's chapter on Barth's doctrine of Scripture). According to Barth, Scripture may err theologically as well as on matters of history and cosmology. In that case, it may bear false witness to Christ. But Macleod points out that, "there can be no other Christ behind and above the Scriptures, no word behind the written word, casting the church into doubt, enveloping her in a cloud of uncertainty and raising the possibility that the Christ of Scripture is not the real Christ or the final Christ." (p. 342).
Barth is widely credited with drawing attention to the doctrine of the Trinity after years of neglect by Liberal theologians. Michael Ovey discusses Barth's contribution to this field as does Sebastian Rehmnman in his chapter considering Barth on logic and theology. Barth did not like to use the the word "person" in relation to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He preferred to think in terms of "modes of being". For him, the Son and Spirit are "repetitions" of the Father. In Barth's construction, God can seem like a unipersonal being, leaving little room for "I-Thou" relationships within the godhead. This flies in the face of the Bible's testimony to the "I-Thou" relationship between the Father and the Son in the economy of redemption. It also suggests that God's love is reflexive rather than a self-giving love expressed between the persons of the Trinity. In some accounts of Barth's doctrine of the Trinity, God's lordship over his own being extends to his choosing to become the triune God for the sake of our salvation. If this is the case, then the "primal" God who lay behind the choice to become trinitarian is hidden from view. We cannot know him. This proposal undermines Barth's claim that his Christological doctrine of election eliminates the hiddenness of God. Besides, as Paul Helm points out, the idea that God might have chosen not to be trinitarian "is like supposing that I could have chosen to have the mind of a bat." (p. 284).
I've only just dipped my toe into the wide, deep and turbulent sea of Barth's theology. Others are being tempted to take the plunge, urged on by the theologian's many admirers. The ocean shores can certainly seem alluring and there is much to admire in Barth's work. But this book will help evangelicals to navigate these theological waters with a clear idea of the dangers that lie beneath the surface. Michael Horton fittingly concludes the book with some discerning reflections on the legacy of Karl Barth for evangelical theology. I welcome this serious and timely attempt at engagement with Barth. He makes an interesting conversation partner for contemporary Calvinists. Those who tend to be Barthian in their theology should give careful consideration to the critical appraisal that is offered in these pages. For me, reading this book has reaffirmed the biblical cogency and coherence of historic Reformed faith.
See here for my interview with co-editor David Gibson.