Saturday, December 31, 2011

Barth For Dummies by a Dummy

I'm only beginning to delve into the theology of Karl Barth. When asked to sum up his contribution to theology and how his legacy is felt today in two thousand words, this is the best I could muster up. I'm quite confident it has holes and misunderstandings, but if nothing else the labour behind these words got me excited about Barth, so the journey toward understanding will continue. In fact as of tomorrow my scheduled reading of Church Dogmatics begins! Anyway, while this is child's play for anyone familiar with Barth, it might give those of you who aren't a small taste of what this colossal figure has to offer the church today.

1. Introduction

1.1 Barth In Overview

“Theology is thinking what to say to be saying the gospel.”[1] That Robert Jenson could write these words at the end of the 20th century is a testament to the contribution Karl Barth made to theology from the beginning of that same century to his death in 1968. Though uninterested in mere repetition,[2] Barth was not seeking to say anything new. In fact the vanity of such newness was precisely what Barth fought against, understanding as he did that new theology would inevitably find ways to co-operate with ‘Third Reichs’. Rather, Barth’s contribution to Christian theology was to “begin again at the beginning”[3] – that is, to begin again with the revelation of God in Christ; to begin again with the only given we have: the gospel of Jesus.

Barth saw his role -- indeed the role of all theology -- as that of John the Baptist: simply pointing once again to Jesus.[4] His contribution was to direct theology back to the “theological subject”: the theos that gives theology its origin, content, and telos. In light of the context in which he found himself, this “is one of Karl Barth’s greatest achievements.”[5]

1.2 Barth In Context

Identifying and appreciating Barth’s contribution to theology entails an understanding of his context. Barth describes the dominant Protestant theology of his time as follows:

To think of God meant for them, with scarcely any attempt to hide the fact, to think of human experience, particularly of the Christian religious experience. To speak about God meant to speak about humanity, no doubt in elevated tone, but once more and now more than ever about human revelations and miracles, about human faith and human works.[6]

That being said, it was not so much the theology of the time that led to Barth’s break with his liberal heritage, but rather the disobedience of the church to which this theology led. In Barth’s own words, it was “the failure of the ethics of modern theology at the outbreak of the First World War” which played a “decisive role” in his turn from Protestant liberalism to “dialectical theology”.[7] A contextual reading of Barth must appreciate that Barth, first of all, saw the need to change the church’s obedience. He then saw that the only way to do this was to change the church’s imagination by pointing her once again towards “the image of the invisible God,”[8] to whom our talk and our lives must conform.

Stanley Hauerwas says that, “Barth rightly refused to separate our knowledge of God from how we are to live if God is properly acknowledged.”[9] This was the motivation behind Church Dogmatics: to properly identify and acknowledge God as God, and thus bring about the obedience of faith. For Barth, this meant talking about God extra nos and God pro nobis – God outside us and God for us. Contrary to his theological contemporaries, Barth understood in a fresh way that the latter cannot be understood without the former, and vice-versa.

2. Theological Contribution

2.1 God Extra Nos

“The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men.”[10] Barth took God’s otherness with utmost seriousness. At a time when Feuerbach’s thought found empirical proof within Protestantism, Barth sought first to listen to and then speak of a God who is “the pure and absolute boundary and beginning of all that we are and have and do; God, who is distinguished qualitatively from men and from everything human, and must never be identified with anything which we name, or experience, or conceive, or worship, as God.”[11]

God extra nos means not only that God is not derived from something in human nature, but that He is not bound to any reality we might call “the nature of God”. Barth stressed relentlessly the utter freedom of God. God is free to choose the kind of God He wants to be, and in so choosing He is that God and none other.[12]

Theology, for Barth, was discourse about this theos, who could never be our own creation or a projection of our perverted desires. But how can we know such a God? Barth would describe such knowledge as an impossibility. But it is an impossibility made possible by this God’s self-revelation, which is at once a veiling and an unveiling; a gift that cannot be grasped or possessed, for as mystery – as Trinity -- it remains outside of us as the frontier of a new world.[13] Our knowledge of God is “our inclusion in God’s self-knowledge,”[14] yet even in this inclusion there is exclusion until the eschaton when God will be all in all. Revelation has been given extra nos, and revelation awaits extra nos. As William Stacy Johnson writes, “[F]or Barth the event of revelation in Jesus Christ is not simply a ‘given’ to be possessed or described but an event that is still unfolding, a dramatic ‘giving’ of God the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer, which invites a dynamic, constructive response.”[15]

2.2 God Pro Nobis

The remarkable contribution that Barth made to theology was his emphasis on the otherness and unknowability of God extra nos in the face of human arrogance and potential. But the majestic contribution of Barth to theology was to describe how this God extra nos is also God pro nobis in a way that does not diminish his God-ness but rather reveals its true shape. Green says that, “the centre of Barth’s theology is the freedom of God acting in love toward humanity in Jesus Christ, which sets us free in all spheres of life – politics, art, economics, science, and especially theology and church – for a life of co-humanity and the praise of God.”[16]

John 1:14 plays a decisive role in Barth’s theology. “The Word made flesh” is not just the means that the God extra nos decided to employ in order to reveal Himself to humanity. That God really became man in Jesus of Nazareth gives character, shape and content to this word “God”. In a passage from his lecture ‘The Humanity of God’, Barth says,

How should God’s divinity exclude his humanity? For it is God’s freedom for love, and therefore his freedom to be not only in the heights but also in the depths, not only great but also small, not only in and for himself but also to be with another who is different form himself, to give himself for this other, since there is room enough for it for community with humanity.[17]

God extra nos is utterly free and utterly decisive. His free decision is to be God pro nobis. Yet God is for us not as the One who safeguards or guarantees the future that we decide. Rather, He is for us as the One who poses our future;[18] indeed, as the One who is our future. Barth’s theology was headed towards the time when God would be all in all. The God outside of us will have no future outside of Himself. He will have no history without us because He is for us – for us in a way that only He decides, because He is for us not only as our reconciler but as our Lord.

God pro nobis means that God wills not to be God without His creatures. We know this because He has become a creature like us – “at a definite point in space and time there lives and dies a human being like us all. In this human being God’s Word is revealed to us.”[19] The unity of God extra nos and God pro nobis is found in Jesus Christ. Revelation is the event of God’s history breaking into human history in the particular form of this God-man. Everything must now be seen in light of Him.

In an address delivered in 1949 on the subject of “A New Humanism”, Barth says, unapologetically, “the Christian proclamation is the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”[20] Indeed, Jenson remarks that, “The Kirchliche Dogmatik is an enormous attempt to interpret all reality by the fact of Christ.”[21] Such an attempt was revolutionary in a time when the theologians of the Church were looking to ground reality in things other than the Christ given to us in Scripture and in the proclamation of the Word – the Christ who reveals the God extra nos and pro nobis. Barth sought only to follow the command of God to the disciples in the face of Jesus’ transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”[22]

3. Barth’s Legacy: Past, Present and Future

3.1 The Ethical Telos

As mentioned above, Barth aimed to contribute not only to the orthodoxy of the Church, but to her obedience which flowed out of her thinking about God. Barth’s desire was for the Church to be the Church. This could only happen as the Church listened to the Word spoken by the God outside of her and corresponded to the actions of the God who is for her – indeed, for the whole world:

Confronted with the mystery of God, the creature must be silent: not merely for the sake of being silent, but for the sake of hearing. Only to the extent that it attains to silence, can it attain to hearing. But again, it must be silent not merely for the sake of hearing but for that of obeying. For obedience is the purpose and goal of hearing. Our return to obedience is indeed the aim of free grace. It is for this that it makes us free.[23]

Barth was not a contributor to dead orthodoxy. His concern was for the glory of God and the salvation unto obedience of humanity, which he saw not as two things but one.[24] Our end is not only to think after God but to obey Him. Indeed, such thinking and obedience are inseparable, which was a reality embodied by Barth himself.[25]

It was the disobedience of the German church that caused Barth to begin again at the beginning; to be silent in the presence of God’s Word. His silence led to hearing afresh the Word of God spoken through His Son, and it was his goal that not only he would hear, but that the Church would hear and obey this Word which has given itself to the Church in love and freedom, and which in this giving has summoned the church “in the same instant to faith, obedience, gratitude, humility and joy.”[26]

3.2 Present and Future

The extent to which the above seems obvious is to extent to which Karl Barth’s legacy is still felt today. Daniel Hardy writes that, “The influence of Karl Barth has been so extensive as to be virtually coterminous with the history of theology during and since his lifetime.”[27] Hardy may be overstating the case, however. John Webster makes note of how Barth has been largely ignored by evangelicals in North America and Britain, who have been absorbed with issues not at the forefront of Barth’s theology: “It has thus proved easier for English-language systematic theology to work in relative independence from Barth’s corpus.”[28]

As regards Barth and Catholicism, a deeper understanding of the interactions with Catholic theologians that shaped Barth’s theological trajectory can potentially generate fruitful ecumenical discussions today. Keith Johnson divides Barth’s theological history into four stages, showing that while stages 1 and 3 find Barth in sharp conflict with Roman Catholic doctrines, stages 2 and 4 contain “interesting points of contact between Barth’s mature theology and Catholic theology.”[29] This bodes well for the future of ecumenical dialogue.

There is ongoing conversation to be had about reading Barth’s work as congenial towards postmodernism. Gary Dorrien writes that, “Barth thought about Christianity in a way that often remarkably prefigured the insights of Thomas Kuhn, Alisdair MacIntyre, and various postmodern critics of the Enlightenment quest for universal reason.”[30] In our postmodern context, Barth’s theology demonstrates a way of speaking about God – and therefore ourselves and the world -- that does not rely on our individual pure reason abstracted from any story or tradition, but relies only upon the mysterious gift of the Word of God, given to us in the story of Jesus. Webster writes that, “One of Barth’s chief legacies is that he offers an example of one who told the history of thought and culture, and, therefore, the history…of theology, from the perspective of gospel, church, and faith.”[31]

Yet while Barth’s theology is at home in postmodernism, it remains also a stranger carrying a message from the “strange, new world of the Bible”. Barth was postmodern enough to know that “isms” are often blatant or latent ideologies, including postmodernism. In line with Barth, therefore, the gospel cannot be heard today as an optional truth in the world of postmodernism, but only as the truth that calls all other truths – including the truths of postmodernism – into question.[32]

In the end, Barth was not too concerned about whether his work was adhered to by later generations. He had no desire to create a thing called “Barthianism”.[33] And he was certainly unconcerned about whether his theology would fit in with the philosophical traditions of the future. The legacy which Karl Barth sought to give the church today – indeed, the church of every day – was to cause her to turn again and again to the “theological subject”, i.e. the triune God revealed in Christ.[34] His theology was never intended to be an end, but only another finger pointing to the Alpha and Omega who must have the first Word, and who will most assuredly have the last.

[1] R.W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Triune God, 32
[2] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 16: “[D]ogmatics does not ask what the apostles and prophets said but what we must say on the basis of the apostles and prophets.”
[3] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 868: “[I]n dogmatics strictly speaking there are no comprehensive views, no final conclusions and results. There is only the investigation and teaching which take place in the act of dogmatic work and which, strictly speaking, must continually begin again at the beginning in every point.”
[4] Clifford Green tells of the painting ‘Crucifixion’ by Grunewald, which hung over Barth’s desk: “In it John the Baptist points with elongated index finger to the figure of Jesus on the Cross.” C. Green (ed.), Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 11
[5] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 60n100
[6] Karl Barth, from a lecture entitled ‘The Humanity of God’, quoted in Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 48
[7] Ibid., 49
[8] Col. 1:15
[9] S. Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe, 142
[10] K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 28
[11] Ibid., 330-1
[12] Cf. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 140: “According to Barth, God’s being is most decisively construed by the notion of decision. God is so unmitigatedly personal that his free decision is not limited even by his “divine nature”: what he is, he himself chooses. But that must be to say, God is the act of his decision. Thus the doctrine of election, of God’s choice “before all time,” is for Barth the center of the doctrine of God’s being.”
[13] Cf. Barth, CD 1.1, 371: “God gives Himself entirely to man in His revelation, but not in such a way as to make Himself man’s prisoner. He remains free in His working, in giving Himself.”
[14] K.A. Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology, 131
[16] Green (ed.), Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 11
[17] K. Barth, ‘The Humanity of God’, quoted in Green, Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, 48
[18] Cf. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 16: “[Israel’s] God is not salvific because he defends against the future but because he poses it. 16
[19] Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, 36
[20] K. Barth, God Here and Now, 4
[21] Jenson, Systematic Theology, 21
[22] Matt. 17:5 (NIV)
[23] K. Barth, CD II/2, 30, quoted in Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, 169
[24] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, 228
[25] Cf. Johnson, ‘Barth and Beyond’, “In a number of little-known addresses and letters, Barth had proclaimed as early as 1933 that one was not preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Germany if one was not also preaching specifically against the persecution and disappearance of the Jews.”
[26] K. Barth, CD II/I, 550, quoted in Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, 155
[27] D.W. Hardy, ‘Karl Barth’, 39
[28] J.Webster, ‘Theology After Barth’, 250
[29] K.L. Johnson, ‘A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism’, 23
[30] G. Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, 12
[31] J. Webster, ‘Barth, Modernity and Postmodernity’, 13
[32] Cf. Barth, Romans, 35: “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths….Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel – that is, Christian Apologetics – is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome.”
[33] Cf. Barth, God Here and Now, 124: “…all words ending in “ism” are inappropriate in serious theological language.”
[34] John Webster writes that, “What Barth expected of his readers…was that they should take with ultimate seriousness, with a kind of joyful earnestness, not what he himself had to say, but rather the object of his testimony, which was none other than the name of Jesus Christ, the sum and substance of the gospel, and beginning and end of the works and ways of God.” J. Webster, ‘Barth, Modernity and Postmodernity’ in Karl Barth: A Future for Postmodern Theology?, 1-2

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