Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth

Evangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth, 1979, Eerdmans

This post is not intended to be a review of Barth's book, originally published in English translation in 1963. Here, I simply want to reflect on my initial encounter with the Swiss theologian's writings.

I suppose that I first became aware of Barth's theology when I read through much of The Complete Works of Francis A Schaeffer in my early 20's. Schaeffer was critical of Barth's doctrine of Scripture. He also accused Barth of having a scant regard for the historical basis of the Christian faith. These negative early impressions did not exactly inspire me to invest much time studying the theologian. But Karl Barth's thinking has been attracting renewed attention of late. Many theology bloggers cite Barth as an influential figure in their theological development. Ben Myers' Faith & Theology is probably the foremost Barth-inspired blog. See here for my interview with Ben where, amongst other things, we discuss the resurgence of interest in Barth's theology. All this helped to persuade me that I aught to at lest try to read something by the man. I'm certainly not going to devote my life to reading his voluminous Church Dogmatics, but I thought that I'd have a look at this Evangelical Theology.

I'm not altogether sure that I bought the right book, as this is not really an introduction to Barth's teaching on evangelical doctrine. The first section contains some theological discussion. But in the rest of the work, Barth reflects on the challenges of theological existence. When reading the book I tried to keep my mind as unclouded by prejudice as possible. I wanted to give Barth a fair hearing. What I have to say in this post is based simply on my reading of this book.

Studying Evangelical Theology was a rewarding experience. I enjoyed Barth's pacey style and found his arguments stimulating. He defines evangelical theology not in terms of the sixteenth century Confessions but "as that theology which treats the God of the Gospel." (p. 5). In thinking of the place of theology, Barth focuses first of all on the Word of God. This is God's redemptive historical action by which he reveals himself to us in word and deed. In this context Barth discusses God's covenant with Israel, which culminates in the coming of Christ whereby the Word became flesh. Barth's evangelical theology is admirably Christ centered. "This whole Word of God in Christ is the word to which theology must listen and reply." (p. 23).

Although Barth sees Scripture as a witness to the Word of God rather than the Word of God written, he has a high view of the authority of the biblical witnesses. The theologian must not exalt himself above the Bible,
"He cannot grant of refuse them a hearing as though they were colleagues on the faculty. Still less is he a high-school teacher authorised to look over their shoulder benevolently or crossly, to correct their notebooks, or to give them good, average, or bad marks. Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly and sagacious latter-day theologian". (p. 31-32).
This is hardly a commitment to biblical inerrancy on Barth's part, but contemporary Barth scholars who snigger at the traditional evangelical attitude to the Bible would do well to heed these words. For Barth, the theologian's main work is to prayerfully study and set forth the teaching of Scripture. The theologian is also part of the Christian community. Barth was a pastor before he became a professional theologian. His magnum opus is his Church Dogmatics. Theology has a responsibility to the Church, especially her pastors,
"Theology is committed directly to the community and especially to those members who are responsible for preaching, teaching, and counseling. The task theology has to fulfill is continually to stimulate and lead them to face squarely the question of the proper relation of their human speech to the Word of God, which is the origin, object, and content of this speech." (p. 41).
This emphasis on the relationship between theology and ministry is welcome. Barth's reflections on theological existence are thought provoking. The God of the Gospel demands wonder, concern, commitment and faith. Theology cannot be studied with an air of impersonal detachment. "The living object of theology concerns the whole man. It concerns even what is most private in the private life of the theologian." (p. 84). While the theologian may have doubts, he must be a person of faith, hope and love.
Despite Schaeffer's misgivings, I found Barth to be pretty firm on historical basis of the faith in the face of rationalistic scepticism. He distances himself from those who would demythologise, "Jesus' birth from a virgin and his descent into hell, or the resurrection of the flesh and the report of the empty tomb, or the trinitarian dogma of Nicaea and the Christological dogma of Chalcedon" (p. 103). Such theologians should ponder whether they believe in quite another God than the God of the Gospel.
But, and there must be a "but", there are problems with some features of Barth's theology. He takes an actualistic view of the being of God so that, "God's being, or truth is the event of his self-disclosure, his radiance as the Lord of all lords" (p. 9). This sounds very impressive. But Barth has collapsed God's being into his acts. He is the event of his self-disclosure. I also disagree with Barth's insistence that the Bible is simply a witness to the Word of God. As John Murray writes, "Scripture is God's own witness to us, borne through the instrumentality of men but borne by such a unique mode that the witness of men is God's own witness." (See here). The Bible is the inscripturated Word of God.
Unfortunately, Barth teaches that "the Word became flesh, miserable and sinful, flesh of sin like our own (p. 70). But Christ did not have a fallen human nature. How could the holy Son of God take sinful flesh into union with himself? There are hints of Barth's universalism here too. For him, God's Yes to man always takes precedence over his No (p. 93-94). Certainly, God says Yes to all who trust in Christ. In the Gospel, his Yes triumphs over his No. But God utters a condemnatory No to all who remain in sin and unbelief. Sometimes Barth is downright idiosyncratic. He treats the theologian's accountability to God as a Temptation (p. 133ff). Barth has some salutary things to say about theology being judged by the Lord, but is this God tempting theology? Strange.
So, my initial impression of Barth at first hand is that he was a stunningly creative and original theological thinker. That cannot be denied. But his theology is not sufficiently rooted in the Scriptural revelation of the gospel. I can see why people find his writings attractive. Theology should be original and fresh. However, Christian theology must also be faithful to God's written Word. Barth himself said, "the hearing, understanding, and application of the biblical message... is the fundamental task of all theological study." (p. 175). But some aspects of Barth's teaching in Evangelical Theology fall seriously short of biblical teaching. The main problem area is his weak doctrine of Scripture. This enables him to ignore what the Bible actually says if it contradicts what he considers to be the message of the Word of God. We may no doubt find much that is stimulating and helpful in Barth. But his theology should be given a suitably dialectical "Yes" and "No" from discerning evangelicals.
To further get to grips with some of Barth's key ideas, I recently read Karl Barth And Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, edited by Sung Wook Chung. I hope to post a review of this book in the next week or so. [Update: see also my review of Engaging with Barth, edited by David Gibson & Daniel Strange].


WTM said...

Thanks for this, Guy. I'm glad that you are giving Barth such a fair hearing!

Just a few quick comments:

Barth on Scripture: Scripture is not simply a witness to Jesus Christ but the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ. This provides Scripture a bit more authority than some people think Barth gives it.

Barth on Christ's Assumption of Fallen Human Being: How else do you propose that fallen human existence / nature be saved? As the early church argued vigorously, "What has not been assumed has not been redeemed." It is not unfallen human nature that needs redeeming, but fallen human nature.

Barth's Actualism: Barth has not 'collapsed' God's being into God's acts. There must be an agent capable of an activity before there is an act. But, Barth does not separate God's being from his activity either. What God is in his activity simply is God, full stop. God is not other than that which we find in his saving activity.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for those clarifications WTM. But I'm not convinced regarding Christ's supposed assumption of a fallen human nature.

Sin is not of the essence of human nature. It is a corruption of human nature. Christ could be truly man in the likeness of sinful flesh without having a fallen humanity.

If Christ assumed a sinful human nature, he was part of the problem rather than the solution. He who knew no sin was made sin for us.

Donald Macleod discusses this point very helpfully in his From Glory to Golgotha, Christian Focus Publications, 2002.

Jon said...

He who knew no sin was made sin for us.

Your solution makes sense of the "He who knew no sin" but makes very little sense of the "was made sin for us."

One of the litmus test for a person's view of scripture is to monitor the way the said person handles scripture in their own theology - I find it surprising how careful Barth is to deal with scripture throughout his theological task - something which many people fail to understand.

As for act/being - I guess Barth is trying to say that Christ crucified is a big part of who God is. Not sure how I feel about this but after having studied 1 Cor 1-2 a little I appreciate Barth's sentiments although I would probably not go as far as to link the two.

WTM said...

I have responded at some length on the question of whether or not the assumed human nature was fallen. You can find my post here.

Ben Myers said...

Good on you, Guy -- nice post. You might also like Dogmatics in Outline, which explores some of the specific content of Barth's theology. And the opening chapters, in which Barth emphasises the rationality of faith, offer a pretty strong repudiation of Francis Schaeffer's view of Barth!

Anyway, keep up the good work -- you are truly "an evangelical in whom there is no guile"....

Reformed Renegade said...

I agree, his "main problem area is his weak doctrine of Scripture" This stops me dead. I can't get passed this with him or any "theologian." His work is interesting and thought provoking, but that's all. His popularity within the Reformed camp is alarming and a cause for concern.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Guy, let me begin by saying that for someone who begins with such an anti-Barth bias, this is a very fair reading. Schaeffer was a very poor historian and a very poor interpreter of others, in my view. I'm glad you could get past that.
In my view, Barth's view of Scripture is quite robust and I would echo WTM's citation of the early church's principle that "What has not been assumed has not been redeemed" for understanding Barth's insistence that Jesus' human nature was as post-Edenic as ours.

If you ever tackle the Church Dogmatics you will find more exposition of Scripture than with any other modern theologian, no matter how "conservative." That, in itself, says volumes about Barth's view of Scripture--and that he actually took it more seriously than others who formally had a "higher" doctrine of Scripture than he did.
The other thing one finds all the way through Barth is more interaction with the entire history of dogmatics than any other modern theologian. The first theologian to even ATTEMPT to wrestle as thoroughly with the historic voices through the ages in writing a contemporary dogmatics is Thomas Oden--a repentant former Bultmannian turned evangelical Methodist.

I am not as convinced as Kim and D.W. Congdon that Barth was completely a universalist. His HOPE for universal salvation, however, is one every Christian should share, no?

But if every conservative evangelical Calvinist decided to read Barth as carefully as you have in reading Evangelical Theology, Guy, the church would be MUCH better off. Now, try to tackle Schleiermacher as fairly as Barth did !

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that people think that I was trying to be fair to KB, even though I have to disagree with him.

I won't respond at length to WTM on Christ having a fallen human nature just now. But I gave some attention to this matter in an earlier post:

David C. Mackereth said...

I constantly meet people who believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Another leading emerging heresy is that of the idea of parallel universes whereby, suposedly using quantum theory, there are said to be an almost unlimited number of universes being born every second which some scientists believe explains evolution and proves the non-existence of God.

There are enough heresies out there for us to ackle without giving credence to a man like Barth. Only when we come to the Bible with the strongest convicitons as to its inerrancy and suficiency can we sand up to and handle the above two examples. Barth has nothing to offer here. He is a wast of time.

How many have been ruined who set out dabbling in liberal theology in the past?

Guy, please don't go the way many others have before. See the examples in the Lloyd Jones biography part one for examples.

Don't wast time on Barth. Spend time on Paul instead. Stick resolutely to the Scriptures, and afirm them as they are ideed fully and entirely the Word of God.

David C. Mackereth

Exiled Preacher said...


Good to hear from you. If you read the post carefully, you will have seen that my main problem with Barth is his weak doctrine of Scripture. Lloyd-Jones read Barth and Brunner so that he could assess their teaching from an evangelical standpoint. I am trying to do the same. Read the post again and you will see clearly that I indeed affirm the Scriptures as fully and entirely the Word of God.