KARL BARTH; Time for an Evangelical Reappraisal?
Has Karl Barth Been Wrongly Condemned by Evangelicals?
Karl Barth (1886-1968) stands as the most towering figure of 20th century theology. Nobody, I think, doubts this. Evangelical, neo-orthodox and process theologians all agree quite amicably on this point. Moreover, almost nobody questions that, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, modern evangelical theology would not be the force in academic theology, which it has unquestionably become, but for Barth. How can this be? Well, it was Barth more than anybody else who set to work to 'burn down the house,' if you will, of the older, despairing anti-supernaturalist Liberal Protestantism. Barth vividly saw through the weaknesses and arrogance of Liberal theology and his perception of its true intellectual destituition was telling.
It was Barth, more than anyone else, who really inspired and led the renaissance of theology which took place from about 1915 to 1960. Barth saw that theology had become little short of a philosophical disputing shop which was entirely man-centred and that the concept of a transcendent God had been reduced to virtually nothing in a climate of human intellectual arrogance and self-congratulation. He believed that liberal theology had caused Christianity to be fully accomodated with modern life and culture, and therefore seriously and fatally compromised.
We have to understand that prior to about 1914 theological liberalism had exerted a stranglehold in the German universities for almost a century, much of this was due to the dismal influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher. In a tragic and lamentable spirit of compromise, Schleiermacher had sought to make peace with the the prevailing anti-supernaturalist critique of the biblical record by redefining Christianity as a faith that had nothing to do with history as such, but rather, should be connected with the inward religious consciousness of the biblical writers and of Jesus himself. This therefore meant that biblical interpretation could be tied in with the psychological/emotional approach of the biblical writers - the biblical events effectively became divorced from human history. This was the lamentable and weak 'romantic theological approach' of the time.
Barth rejected the typically liberal approach of attempting to find God within human feelings, emotions or rationality. In short, he called for a return to the theological standard and approach of the 16th century Reformers - he strived to return to a theology which primarily acknowledged and worshipped a transcendent God! The concept of Divine Revelation, without which men and women could never know God, or anything about God, was to become vital in his teaching
Karl Barth who successfully waged a war on 19th century theological liberalism, putting a transcendent God, human sin and a dynamic revelation of Christ right back on the theological agenda. Despite this, evangelical Christians mostly reject his work!
Barth's new approach became known as Neo-Orthodoxy (literally, 'New Orthodoxy'), which was an attempt to reach back to 'the faith of our fathers' whilst still holding on to any genuine new insights or understandings which had come out of theological liberalism, although, in truth, Barth rejected huge swathes of it, and took a huge (and almost cruel) delight in attacking the liberals, bringing every facet and gift of his towering intellect into play in his withering criticism of their lamentable compromises.
As with Calvin, whom he greatly admired, Barth
stressed the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence
and the centrality of Christ. His clear objective was to lead
theology away from the influence of modern religious philosophy
back to the principles of the Reformation and the prophetic
teachings of the Bible. He regarded the Bible, however, not as
the actual revelation of God but as only the record of that
revelation. For Barth, God's sole revelation of himself is in
Jesus Christ. God is "wholly other," totally unlike
mankind, who are utterly dependent on an encounter with the
divine for any understanding of ultimate reality. So Barth saw
the task of the church as that of proclaiming the word of God and
as serving as a "place of encounter" between God and mankind.
But note here that the Bible is not the Revelation; rather, it points to the Revelation. Here is one of two or three areas where evangelical theology has preferred to distance itself from Barth. Let us look at these areas more closely:
1. Inerrancy of Scripture.
Evangelical theologians have normally stressed biblical inerrancy, but Barth argued that making claims about biblical inerrancy as being the foundation of theology is to take up a different foundation - other than Jesus Christ - and that our understanding of Scripture's accuracy and worth can only properly emerge from consideration of what it means for it to be a true witness to the incarnate Word.
Barth repeatedly emphasizes that human concepts can never be considered as identical to God's revelation. In this sense, Scripture is also written human language, at least partly expressing human concepts even though undeniably Holy Scripture and bearing a witness to divine intervention in human affairs. So really it is Barth's insistence (which every evangelical would agree with) that Christ must be held absolutely central to everything which we believe, which stands in the way of a full support for biblical inerrancy. For Barth, insisting on biblical inerrancy was close to worshipping Scripture itself! But we are not to worship Scripture but God alone! So while Barth was utterly commited to Scripture, for him it could not be considered as identical to God's revelation. However, in His freedom and love, God truly reveals Himself through human language and concepts and the Bible is a good record of that. Moreover, Barth agreed that Christ is truly represented and presented in Scripture and in the preaching of the church.
Karl Barth once stated, "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is - in himself - that way."
The University of Gottingen. Barth held professorships successively at Göttingen and Münster universities from 1923 to 1930, when he was appointed professor of systematic theology at the University of Bonn.
So whilst he held Scripture in the very highest respect he felt he had to resist a teaching which insisted that a work compiled by many men over thousands of years could be anything like infallible. He felt it highly unwise to insist on this; he did not doubt that the Bible was a record of Revelation and that the Holy Spirit was at work in its inspiration but felt it unwise to say more than that. Also, without doubt, Barth saw other religions as virtually worshipping their 'holy books' and he rejected a similar approach being adopted towards the Bible. Unfortunately, we also need to add that Barth believed that the Scriptures contained errors (this much he certainly inherited from the liberals), but he felt that this was inevitable and no problem to faith except where one foolishly insisted on inerrancy.
The more one meditates on this, the more one feels that Barth has been at least partly misunderstood by evangelicals here and that his approach toward the Scriptures is more affirming and far less pessimistic than some would have us believe - this is especially so in his later writings. Barth could certainly be stubborn and when he felt rejection coming from conservatives he showed little tendency to clarify his position and eventually lumped them together with liberals as two extreme approaches to be avoided, but this masks the fact that he really is overwhelmingly conservative and, again, this became stronger in his later years. In his 1962 lecture series at Princeton Theological Seminary he made comments about the canon of the Bible which would certainly appear to place him in the conservative evangelical camp, and separate him from many former Neo-Orthodox colleagues.
2. Neo-Orthodoxy's Concept of "Supra-historical."
Neo-Orthodoxy was very aware of some of the mistakes of the older fundamentalism, in scriptural interpretation, as well as in practise which they wanted to avoid. We have to understand that this new school of theology was utterly sincere in wishing to get back to a more scriptural and reformational approach and in once again stressing the transcendence and "otherness" of God as well as the reality of human sin, but in an age in which modernity was at its peak, they were unquestionably wary of attack from philosophical naturalists (those believing that this physical realm is all that there is) and were possibly ultra-cautious in tieing any religious claims in to historical time and space. They were almost universally opposed to the so-called 'quest for the historical Jesus' and Barth in particular certainly was. For Barth, one would need to have a prior "encounter" with the risen Christ before historical investigation could even begin, otherwise any historical investigation would be useless. Again, we must remind ourselves of the terrible compromises of Schliermacher and the other liberals in effectively withdrawing the claims of the Bible from human history. So this was the field which Barth inherited and the early Barth was unquestionably overly-affected by this.
So Barth originally started his work in an
atmosphere in which the subject matter of the Bible was
no longer seen as being about historical events in a human
space-time continuum, and the interpretations of those events
by the biblical writers was also disconnected. Rather, those
events were put within the realm of the suprahistorical Spirit
of God who dwells outside the confines and bounds of history and
all human contingencies. This emphasis on the fundamental
discontinuity between God and humanity (as opposed to
liberalism's view of humanity's basic harmony with God via inward
religious feeling) became the basis for the new dialectical
theology. So Barth, Brunner and the other Neo-Orthodox men
initially (and quite willingly) accepted a theological field in
which biblical events had been removed from human history - but
this new school of orthodoxy believed (or so they claimed!) that
it did not matter! For God is beyond human history anyway!
He is above it! He is indeed Supra-historical! Regarding
the Gospel narratives, for example, the early Barth felt they are
not necessarily literal history, nor are they myth or fiction,
they are over and beyond history, or,
Of course, from where we stand today, this looks like a terrible compromise. The good news, however, is that - as time passed - the more biblical of these theologians such as Emil Brunner and especially Karl Barth himself started insisting that the major biblical events at least - such as Christ's Passion - very definitely did also occur within human history! Yes, they were supra-historical because they were of God yet also definitely historical events. Barth himself was especially firm about this in his later years. Actually this separation from human history of the divine soon led to many of the great things in Brunner and, once again, especially in Barth. Now God's transcendence really could be stressed.
So the more biblically-grounded in this new theological movement, and we especially speak of Barth and Brunner, actually used Neo-Orthodoxy's existentialist separation between the divine and the human to re-introduce God's transcendence in all of its brilliance! One can't help wondering how many die-hard liberals were left kicking themselves that in killing off the concept of God working within human history, they had actually left open a huge door for the re-emergence of the supernaturalism and divine transcendence of the Reformation! In Barth's case the question must be asked whether his earlier sceptical position was merely a tactic in order to get a hearing and a voice. One should not dismiss this possibility too readily because Barth possessed a soaring intellect and a canny wit: if he had started off by being clearly evangelical he would have been dismissed without serious consideration by all of his peers and would have gained no platform for his work. As it was, in building from a position of Neo-Orthodoxy and, at least apparent, scriptural pessimism, he went on to become a towering figure of theology in such a way that he could never be ignored becoming especially influential in the universities and seminaries: this could never have happened if the later, and more conservative, Barth had been the early Barth!
So in his later years Barth's connection with the confines and compromises of Neo-Orthodoxy became quite tenuous.
3. Divine Election: Was Barth a 'Universalist' ?
Regarding Barth's understanding of Election, as Dr. John C. McDowell states in Critical Conversations with Calvin: The Electing God,
"Barth always saw himself as belonging to
the Reformed tradition, and sought seriously to understand the
theological concerns of Protestant Reformers. However, his genius
as a Reformed theologian is evident preeminently in his
reinterpretation of the doctrine of election, since Barth felt
that that doctrine had been developed in ways that are both
theologically problematic and even dangerous. Thus while he set
himself here against the tradition he nevertheless felt that he
was being faithful to their concerns [see, e.g., CD, II.2, 24;
153f.] – to explicate the graciousness of the
free/sovereign God as testified to through the scriptures. It is
this that enables Barth to radically christologically reshape the
notion of ‘double predestination’."
The reformed tradition founded the doctrine of Election on what one could call non-christological ‘experiences,’ but Barth places Christ right at the centre of the doctrine of election. He spoke of election as being "the sum of the Gospel" (Chuch Dogmatics, II.2, 1, 13, 24).
"It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. Originally and finally it is not dialectical but non-dialectical. … It does, of course, throw a shadow. … In itself, however, it is light and not darkness." [Chuch Dogmatics, II.2, 13].
"The fact that God makes this movement, the institution of the covenant, the primal decision ‘in Jesus Christ,’ which is the basis and goal of all His works – that is grace. Speaking generally, it is the demonstration, the overflowing of the love which is the being of God, that He who is entirely self-sufficient, who even within Himself cannot know isolation, willed even in all His divine glory to share His life with another, and to have that other as the witness of His glory. This love of God is His grace. It is love in the form the deepest condescension. It occurs even where there is no question of claim or merit on the part of the other. It is love which is overflowing, free, unconstrained, unconditioned. … Election should serve at once to emphasise and explain what we have already said in the word grace. God in His love elects another to fellowship with Himself". [Church Dogmatics, II.2, 9f.].
According to Barth, “The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel.” His approach to predestination is based on two main assertions:
(1) Jesus Christ is electing God; and
(2) Jesus Christ is elected man.
For Barth, predestination is eternal in that it precedes time. Predestination is also Christologically based. Jesus is the subject in election in that He elects others. Jesus is also the object of God’s election.
Barth explains what God elected in the eternal election of Jesus Christ. “God elected or predestinated Himself” (Church Dogmatics II/2, 162). There are two sides to the will of God in the election of Jesus Christ. In fact, there is a “double predestination” (Church Dogmatics II. 2, 162). In the election of Jesus Christ, God positively ascribed salvation and life to man. Negatively, God ascribed reprobation, perdition, and death to Himself (Church Dogmatics II. 2, 163). Positively, at Calvary, God said Yes to His Son and humanity that is in Him. Negatively, God elected Himself to be man’s Partner and took upon Himself the rejection, death, and hell that man deserved. Barth’s view of predestination, then, leads only to “divine glory,” “blessedness,” and “eternal life” for man (Church Dogmatics II.2, 171). There is no foreordination to evil or damnation. To Barth, God is Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, not the opposite.
So Barth turned 'double predestination' (certainly never a true biblical doctrine as it had stood within Calvinism, see Predestination of the Saints: Biblical; Double Predestination: Unbiblical!) into an entirely positive thing of a 'double yes.'
The elderly Karl Barth.
It might be reasonable to conclude from all this that Barth was indeed a Universalist (believing that all will be saved), but this would not be entirely correct, for Barth noted that insistence on necessary universal salvation also impinged on God's freedom and suggested it was beyond the church's duty to speculate on the subject. Instead, according to Barth, the church must focus on the Gospel message of Election to Grace. Therefore one arrives at a position in which God really has set His hand to save the world, rather than to save a very few and to bring condemnation to the rest which is where Calvin, following Augustine, had stood.
James A. Fowler has made an interesting and surely entirely biblical comment on the fact that surely not all will be saved in his article, Universalism; Forms and Fallacies, (©2004 byJames A. Fowler All rights reserved),.
"Man’s freedom of choice necessitates that the consequences of man’s choices can go in both directions. Scripture is abundantly clear that the ultimate destiny of man is in either heaven or hell. It is not that God consigns anyone to hell, though. Hell is actually a result of God’s loving respect for man’s freedom of choice. God loves men enough to respect their freedom of choice, even the choice of unbelief and rejection of Himself and what He has done for man in His Son, Jesus Christ. Even so, as C.S. Lewis points out, “God does not send people to hell; people choose to go there by their own unbelief.” God’s heart is grieved, but He is respectfully willing to let them go to hell if they insist on rejecting the life He offers in Himself". (The full article appears here: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/universalism.html)
This is a far more biblical position to adopt than that found in Calvinistic so-called 'double predestination' and surely needs to be added to Barth's welcome positivity on Election. But Barth's view is not unscriptural, it is simply largely unfamiliar; it amounts to a somewhat different slant and a different focus and places Christ right at the centre of Election. If we evangelicals insist on christocentricity (which we must, in common with the apostle Paul), then we will do well to carefully re-examine what Barth has said.
Though a conservative evangelical myself, I am a huge admirer of Barth and I really feel that the rejection of Barth's writings by conservatives is often misplaced and sometimes misinformed. I have considered three primary reasons that we conservatives have usually struggled with Barth and hopefully shown that his position in those areas is not quite as bleak as some may suggest or believe. This does not mean that I suddenly accept all of his statements and assertions for one moment but I really believe that modern conservative evangelical theology is cutting itself from from huge insights by rejecting the Swiss reformed teacher more or less outright. Most evangelical theology has a strongly Calvinistic foundation (which is not to say that it is all "Calvinistic"), and the perception that Calvin is the next best thing to Scripture just does not go away (yes, even Arminianism has more Calvin in it than most supporters of that strain of theology will ever realise). I myself hugely admire the Geneva reformer but have had to face up to the fact that Calvin certainly missed the mark in certain areas of his theology. The problem appears to be that if we evangelicals like a theologian we like to feel that we like most all of his work. In the same way, it is hard to find a studied evangelical who is not a huge admirer of Augustine (and did not the bishop of Hippo strongly influence Calvin?), yet I have been frequently astonished to discover that many just do not know that in certain areas Augustine stood in theological positions which would be anathema to most modern evangelicals!
Do we not know that Augustine was a firm supporter of 'baptismal regeneration'? (no salvation without baptism).
Do we not know that he, probably more than anybody, developed the sacramental theology now most visible in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy?
So if we can agree that no theologian was ever right about absolutely everything, but that the plain strengths of the great ones should be held on to when they grant us an unusually deep comprehension of God and Jesus Christ and their soteriological workings with the human creation, why do we reject the unusually deep and frequently moving and inspiring perceptions of Karl Barth? Especially when such perceptions can increase our desire to worship, to love and to adore the great transcendent God who sent His Son to earth to die for our sins.
May I make a plea for modern evangelical writers to look again at Barth, especially his later writings and later lectures because therein – I truly believe – there are some spiritual gold nuggets of exceptional quality and exceptional worth which will serve as fine illustrative, explanatory and expositional devices which are just waiting to be tapped into in order to increase our knowledge and comprehension of the all-encompassing glory and majesty of God.
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
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Barth, Karl. (1976) Church Dogmatics Vol II. Edinburgh: T.T. Clark.
Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1991) An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. Edinburgh: T.T. Clark.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. (1995 paperback) Trans., Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Fowler, James A. Universalism; Forms and Fallacies. Online article here: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/universalism.html
Hunsinger, George. (2000) Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Marshall, I. Howard. (2004) New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Leicester: Inter-Varisity Press.
McDowell, Dr John C. Critical Conversations with Calvin: The Electing God. Online article here:http://www.geocities.com/johnnymcdowell/Barth_Course_Seminar5_Lecture5.html
Webster, John. (2004) Karl Barth. London: Continuum International.
A Theological Dialogue with Karl Barth. Partial (but interesting!) record of a 'Question and answer' session conducted by Professor Barth at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1962, and available here.