Karl Barth was one of the greatest Christian thinkers in the twentieth century. Some think that his multi-volume Church Dogmatics is the most vigorous re-statement of essential Christianity produced in the last century. I remember when I first began to read it. It took me awhile to appreciate Barth because I had been told so many things about him by fundamentalists who thought that he was an enemy of the faith. When I began to read his work I was stunned at the care with which Barth handled the Bible. His thought was saturated with Scripture. Barth had a lot to say about the church but one of the finest statements I have read captures my attention whenever I read it. Consider Barth's thoughts:
There is no escape-hatch from the visible to the invisible church . . . Nor should we try to explain the multiplicity of churches as something willed by God, the normal unfolding of the grace given to mankind in Jesus Christ. . . . To do so, however attractive it might seem would be to construct a philosophy of history or society, nor a theology. In other words, to solve the question of Church unity, we would be constructing our own ideas instead of listening to the question as it is put by Christ and hearing Christ’s own answer. . . . If we listen to Christ, we do not live above the difference that divide the churches but in them. Die Kirche und die Kirchen (1935); cited by Hans Urs von Balthasaar in The Theology of Karl Barth (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1992, 4).
Die Kirche und die Kirchen (1935); cited by Hans Urs von Balthasaar in The Theology of Karl Barth (San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1992, 4).
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I’ve certainly enjoyed reading Barth over the past two months, though I’m not ready to tackle Church Dogmatics. The broad knowledge that he had of the Reformed faith is first rate. He speaks boldly and authoritatively.
Karl Barth was probably the most brilliant Christian theologian of the twentieth century. The biggest critics of Barth from my perspective has been Evangelicals.
I remember in Seminary being warned about Barthianism, neo-orthodoxy, liberalism in disguise of orthodoxy, and that Barth’s theology was filled with relativism, subjectivism, and irrationalism.
What I found was many Evangelicals read about Barth but never read Barth himself (something Mark Noll once wrote about some time back in his book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”). American Evangelicals have read Barth reductionistically as if there was one single center to his theology which there is not.
Modern Evangelicals have also misread Barth weighing him and finding him wanting because he fell short of their standards of the canons of Reason and Science. Evangelicals have been more concerned at times that Barth meet their standards of logic and Barth being rational rather than him being biblical.
American Evangelicalism sees correctly some of the existentialist splinters in Barth’s theological vision, but it does not see the rationalistic and objectivistic beam in its own.
For Barth, revelation starts with an encounter with Jesus Christ, not in some starting point of establishing God’s existence (I want to say more about this and will do so in another response).
The present action of God in the world today is a strong impulse in Barth’s theology and not simply the written Word given in the past.
Evangelicalism tends to read Barth in terms of epistemology rather than theological realism. Therefore Evangelicals tend to give priority to the written Word of God, secondary priority to the Spirit of God,, and little to none attention to Christian experience, embodied (lived-out) knowledge, and to the community of faith (the church).
Barth’s concentration on God rather than on ways of proving God is often incomprehensible to Barth’s critics, including American Evangelical critics.
For Barth, the Bible has authority because of God and therefore Scripture does not need to have external criteria for its own verification.
Barth was so influential that when he engaged in ecumenical dialogues, he had a way of swaying the majority (simply by siding with the minority!). Lesslie Newbigin in his autobiography, “Unfinished Agenda” shares how Barth used to throw up his hands and hold his head because he anguished over theological divides that kept Christians apart. Newbigen said to Barth one time, “You look as if you are in trouble” which Barth replied, “I am—this is a task for some great ecumenical theologian” (p.140).
In the end, I will always be grateful to Karl Barth because when I was introduced to his writings, I was on a holy grail quest for the perfect methodology or best hermeneutics for understanding Scriture. Barth showed me that it was through my relationship with Jesus Christ and my encounter with God through the Spirit that impacted my biblical studies more than if I had somehow mastered the skills of biblical interpretation. For that alone I will be forever grateful to Barth.
Carl Braaten, an ecumenical Lutheran scholar said people must go through Barth and beyond him but not around him (I tend to agree).
When it comes to this important issue of ecumenism,
Braaten said, “Now that Catholics have accepted the prophetic and eschatological outlook inherent in the evangelical doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Protestants will need to rediscover the sacramental character of the church as the mystical body of Christ” (That All May Believe, p.68).
Evangelicals I believe (I am one of them) need to rediscover and cultivate a mystical spirituality through ancient spiritual practices. We need to learn and experience those mystical moments where we see the holy in the everyday places of our lives.
Evangelicals need to honestly ask ourselves why we criticize, ignore, or shy away form our own or others mystical experiences with Christ? Does our scientific reasoning rule the day? Don’t we judge others subjective experiences by our own subjective lack of them?
Maybe we need to doubt or doubts if we are going to truly be open and therefore obedient to fresh encounters with God through his Spirit. Should not discernment happen within the context of Scripture within Christian community rather than academic arguments and private judgement?
We need to get reintroduced to people like St. Benard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Catherine of Genoa, Julian of Norwich, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of de Sales, Brother Lawrence, Maximus the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Palamas, Thomas Merton, Jean-Pierre de Caussade to name a few.
These mystical Christians had not only an intense intimacy with God and others but a mystical simplicity and unity that characterized their very lives. Union with God and unity with others is something greatly missing in much of a divided Christendom today.
Is not part of God’s great mission of restoration of eliminating the barriers between God, others, and God’s good creation? What would happen if we would immerse ourselves in the ancient Christian practices that formed the lives of these Christian mystics? I wonder, what would happen?