Evangelicals and Karl Barth: Friends or Foes?

by Mark DeVine
Delivered at the Annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Societ, Colorado Springs, CO (2001).

In 1980 Gregory Bolich published Karl Barth and Evangelicalism in which he divided evangelicals into two camps in relation to the theology of Karl Barth—namely friends or foes. Albert Mohler, now president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, further sub-divided evangelicals into three categories in his yet unpublished dissertation entitled Evangelical Theology and Karl Barth: Representative Models of Response. These two works bear witness to the inability of evangelicals, three decades after Barth’s death in 1968, even to approach consensus regarding his theology. In this paper I will suggest that Barth should not be regarded as an evangelical. His denial of Biblical inerrancy alone must exclude him from the evangelical ranks. However, I will contend that Barth’s theology can serve as a model for evangelical theology in certain crucial aspects. I will also argue that ignorance and misunderstanding of Barth’s work among evangelicals has led to inaccurate construals of his thinking and sad neglect of the Barthian corpus. I will suggest that Barth be viewed by evangelicals as more friend than foe, albeit with some serious blind spots. The chief purpose of my paper is to encourage evangelicals to give Barth another look or perhaps, a first look before consigning him to that contemptible class of dismissable and neglectable heretics one may and perhaps must comment upon but need not read. Evangelical Response to Barth Evangelical assessment of Barth’s theology presents an extraordinary range of contradictory conclusions. In 1954 Cornelius Van Til virtually identified Barth as the

worst heretic in the history of the church: “No heresy that appeared at any of [the councils of Nicea, Chalcedon, and Dort] was so deeply and ultimately destructive of the gospel as is the theology of Barth.” 1 Few events frustrated Van Til more than the periodic appearance of favorable assessments of Barth among evangelicals. The above quote was prompted by evangelical praise for Barth’s affirmation of the virgin birth. Van Til’s response, published in the Westminster Theological Journal essentially insisted that Barth’s theological system precluded such an affirmation notwithstanding Barth’s own clear statement on the matter. Meanwhile the fundamentalist Presbyterian pastor and founder of Eternity magazine, Donald Grey Barnhouse could gush “Barth is in the camp of the true believers.” In 1986 J.I. Packer contended that Barth provided contemporary theology with a “powerful Bible-based restatement of Trinitarian theism,” “Barth’s purpose of being rigorously, radically, and ruthlessly biblical and his demand for interpretation that is theologically coherent, is surely exemplary for us.”2 Among Evangelicals favorable to Barth, perhaps Bernard Ramm could be viewed as Van Til’s evangelical opposite. In his 1983 monograph After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology, Ramm called for recognition of Barth’s theology as the best model for the future of evangelical theology.3 Ramm’s subsequent writings confirm his deep and grateful dependence upon Barth. While Van Til and Ramm retained their respective views, Carl F. H. Henry’s reception of Barth’s theology developed over time. In his 1969 address in a plenary
1

Cornelius Van Til, “Has Karl Barth become Orthodox?” Westminster Theological Journal 16(1954), p. 81. 2 J.I. Packer, “Theism for Our Time,” in God Who is Rich in Mercy ed. Peter T. O’Brien(Homebush West, Australia: Lancer Books, 1986), p.10.

session of the Evangelical Theological Society, Henry identified Barth as part of the problem, not the solution, to the ongoing effort by evangelicals to preserve the reformation doctrine of justification by faith within the Protestant community.4 But by 1995 Henry found himself pointing others to Barth as a faithful champion of orthodox teaching on justification. In the article, entitled Justification: A Doctrine in Crisis, Henry quotes Barth again and again against betrayals of the doctrine of justification by faith he identifies emerging from numerous ecumenical efforts to reconcile longstanding Protestant-Catholic doctrinal differences.5 This brief review of the vast range of evangelical opinion of Barth’s theology only represents the tip of the iceberg. In certain cases contradictory readings of Barth can be accounted for with some confidence. For example, it seems clear that Van Til ruled out the possibility of development in Barth’s theology over time. Thus, he unapologetically read Barth through the lense of his earliest writings despite Barth’s own disavowal of many of those early views. Equally certain was Ramm’s insensitivity to evangelical nervousness regarding Barth’s curious double-talk concerning the historicity of Biblical accounts. Can Barth be Understood? Barth drew fire from the left and from the right. The difficulty of understanding Barth should not surprise us. The sheer volume of his output alone presents would-be interpreters with a daunting task. Barth also stands as one of the most original theological minds the church has ever produced. Add to the mix profound developments in Barth’s

3

Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983). 4 Carl F.H. Henry, “Justification by Ignorance: A Neo-Protestant Motif? JETS 1970. 5 Carl F.H. Henry, “Justification: A Doctrine in Crisis,” JETS 38/1 (March 1995) 57-65.

theology over the course of his career and the difficulties deepen. After critiquing Barth negatively for several decades, following a personal encounter with Barth on his vist to America in 1962, Carl Henry published an article entitled “The Enigma of Karl Barth” which seems to mark something of a turning towards a discernibly more positive engagement of Barth’s theology. The answer to the question is “yes!” Barth can be understood, but only with great and sincere effort. Understanding of Barth will require that we first read him. Albert Mohler has rightly noted that many evangelicals who worked hard to cast Barth as an enemy of the gospel showed little evidence of having read him. Second, we must recognize that Barth’s views do change dramatically over time, especially when we move from the Barth of the Romerbrief to the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. Third, we must let Barth say what he says and take it at face value. Thomas Torrance correctly complained that Cornelius Van Til simply refused to believe it when Barth showed his conservative orthodox side in ways Van Til did not anticipate. Still, even if Barth is understandable, is he worth our time. Does a cost benefit analysis encourage the investment of time involved. A colleague of mine put it this way—why pick through a hand full of bones for a tiny bite of catfish which then still contains a bone or two—better to eat flounder. He’s got a point. But it is also true that some of the church’s best teachers had glaring weaknesses and blind spots. I think esspecially of the atrocious allegorizing of biblical texts of which Saint Augustine was capable. I want to suggest that the effort to read Barth is worth it. But first I want to address briefly certain common evangelical charges against Barth.

Universalism In 1967, Joseph Bettis published an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology entitled “Is Karl Barth A Universalist.” 6 Once again we note the difficulty of simply comprehending Barth’s views, much less forming a critique. No one can read very far into any volume of the Church Dogmatics without concluding that, yes obviously, Karl Barth was a universalist. But, Barth repeatedly and pointedly denied the charge of universalism. Barth rejected what he understood as the only two options for limiting the scope of God’s redeeming activity, namely Arminianism and double-predestination. Barth’s statements in CD 4/3 make it clear both that Barth believed it proper to pray and hope for the salvation of the whole world but that to advance a doctrine of universal salvation would be impossible. Dale Moody, the late Southern Baptist theologian, studied with Barth in Basel. During a final meeting in Barth’s study, Barth said, “dear brother Moody, I hope that if, in the end, God saves the the entire world, you will not be too upset.” I would argue that several convictions combine in Barth’s theology to produce a kind of universalistic inertia of a distinctively calvinistic character. The first factor, however is pointedly against Calvin. Barth accepts Calvin’s identification of the glory of God as the ultimate divine purpose in creation and redemption. But, he rejects Calvin’s contention that the divine glory might display itself equally according to the divine justice in the case of the reprobate and of the divine mercy in the case of the elect. Barth’s celebrated Christomonism combined with a denial that the divine justice and mercy oppose one another results in a doctrine of election more akin to single predestination but with the possibility of the universal scope of salvation held out as at

least something for which we might hope. Barth, like any good calvinist, believes that everyone for whom Christ died will be saved. Barth views Christ as the elect one, resulting in redemption for all who are found in Him. It should be noted that Barth’s distinctive tendency toward the affirmation of universal atonement has a definite “calvinistic,” or perhaps, radical Augustinian character in that it powerfully contends for the sovereignty of God and the gratuity of salvation. Barth’s bent toward universalism emerged from the same conviction which also resulted in his rejection of both Arminianism and double-predestination, namely, God’s freedom in salvation. When one considers the relative dominance of reformed thinking within evangelicalism, it seems curious that Barth’s view would have been seen as any more threatening to the missionary enterprise than evangelicalism’s own reformed contingent. For reformed Christians, obedience to the missionary mandate derives from gratitude and love to God for his grace, the desire of beloved children to please their heavenly father, and love for those beloved by God whom God wills to reach through the witness of the Church. Thus, as regards the preaching of the word and the missionary enterprise, it would seem that Barth should be in no more trouble with evangelicals than our reformed sisters and brothers. The real objection to Barth’s universalism for evangelicals must be the witness of scripture. However, we evangelicals also should take seriously the rather formidable biblical support Barth finds for the universalistic tendency at work within his theology.13

6

Joseph D. Bettis, “Is Karl Barth a Universalist?,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20 (1967) 423-426. See, e.g., John. 12:32; Rom. 6:10, 11:32-36; Eph. 1:9-10; Col. 1:15-20; 1 John. 2:2. For Barth, the biblical witness sets forth a combination of factors which come together to produce the universalistic bent of his theology.. These are (1) the objective reconciliation of all for whom Christ died, (2) that Christ dies
13

At the same time, Barth acknowledges the biblical warnings of eternal damnation together with the freedom of God in salvation and cites these factors as reasons for his refusal to embrace universal salvation as a warranted conclusion for Christian proclamation.14 Barth’s position is that the theologian has no prerogative either to affirm or to deny universalism in principle since this is a derogation of God’s freedom. The Bible: Revelation or Mere Witness to Revelation? Here I want to address what has become perhaps the most common criticism not so much of Barth, but of neo-orthodoxy, with which Barth tends to be identified. I believe that the term neo-orthodoxy is misleading and virtually useless in comprehending the theology of Karl Barth. In any case, it is often noted that neo-orthodox theologians contend that the revelation of God or the Word of God cannot be identified with Scripture but that the Word or revelation can be found within the scriptures. This view applies to

once, for all, for the sins of the whole world (1 John. 2:2), (3) the conception of Jesus Christ as the firstborn of all creation, (4) the affirmation of true humanity as hidden in Christ, and (5) the understanding of Christian hope as the unveiling of Jesus Christ which includes the manifestation of the children of God. Once his distinctively high view of the freedom of God in the work of salvation is added to the above theses, the justification for identifying Barth’s understanding as a universalistic “inertia” becomes clear. It is an accumulation of factors which draws Barth toward the hope of universal redemption. It would seem that reformed evangelicals must at least experience some unease in a cocksure denial of universal salvation in face of the biblical affirmation that Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 John. 2:2). At the same time, Barth is confronted with clear biblical warnings of eternal damnation. In fact, just these biblical witnesses, togethr with the same conviction of God’s freedom in salvation do give Barth pause, and are identified by him as the cause of his refusal to accept universal salvation as a warrnted conclusion. 14 On the “peril” attending superficial critiques of Barth’s univrsalism, see R.A. Mohler, Barth, esp. pp. 177-185 and Joseph D. Bettis, “Is Karl Barth a Universalist?,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 20 (1967), 423-436. Cf. also CD 4:3, 477-478. For evidence of the tension Barth experiences in dealing with the issue of the scope of salvation, note this statement: “The old theologians used to end their work with the doctrines of the eternal blessendness and eternal damnation, and in this context to ask how the blessed feel when they think of the damned. The answer was that the thought does not trouble them: on the contrary, when they look at the damned they rejoice that God’s honor is so great. It would be better if we restrain ourselves here and not sing with Dante the song of paradise, much less the more famous song of hell. If we want to understand condemnation correctly, we must hold fast to the fact that all men (we too!) are his enemies--but that we all go to meet the Judge who gave himself for us. It is true that he is the Judge; there can be no doctrine of universal salvation. Nevertheless, he is the Judge whom we Christians may know. Would it not be better in the time of grace in which we still live to proclaim to men this good news, to tell them who our Judge is, rather than to reflect on whethr there is and eternal damnation?” Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 82.

true Protestant Liberals but not to Barth. There is no higher-critical separation of the gospel kernel from the mythological husk in Barth as one finds in the writings of Adolph Von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann. Barth stands under the Scriptures not beside or above them as the higher critics tended to do. In fact, Barth’s aversion to the pretentions of the higher critics becomes obvious in his decades long correspondence with Bultmann. What is true is that Barth distinguished between the Bible as a human book susceptible to historical investigation and interpretation and the revelation of God itself which the Bible may become according to the working of the Holy Spirit. What did Barth mean by this? What he did not mean is that the Biblical witness depends upon either the internal witness of the Holy Spirit or its reception by man to become true. What he did mean was that genuine understanding of the word of God, genuine reception of the revelation of God always involves “profitable” understanding, or “salvifically efficacious” understanding. Like Calvin before him, when the words only touches the brain, understanding has not been achieved. Only those who encounter salvifically the One to whom the scriptures bear witness can be said to have benefited from revelation. Barth conviction that God’s sovereignty extends to knowledge of himself caused him to draw back from statements about the Bible which suggested general access to the rvelation God. Ironically, similar concerns related to God’s sovereignty and freedom led Barth to oppose liberal and higher critical views of scripture and inerrancy. For Barth, both views suggested a kind of exalted position of man above the Bible from which the former could deny its authority and the latter could pro it up. What inerrantists in America viewed as a necessary defence of Biblical authority involved, for Barth, an

appeal to some imaginary external guarantee in order to secure what the Bible could not lose.

So, then, can Bath serve as a model for evangelical theology? I believe so, in certain repsects. Defining Protestant Liberalism7 Putting Doctrine in its Place Barth identified the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher as the greatest threat to the gospel and tended to account for most of what was wrong with moder theology according to a failure avoid Schleiermacher’s influence. According to his own conviction, Schleiermacher had partaken of the fundamental Christian fellowshipproducing experience of the United Brethren without sharing Moravian doctrinal convictions or at least without sharing the capacity to articulate that experience in a form recognizable within that community. Thus, nothing belonging integrally to Schleiermacher's formative initiation into the Christian community biased him against Kant's exclusion of metaphysical referents from the knowable realm. Convinced that the experience he enjoyed at Niesky and Barby held the clue both to the highest fulfillment of human nature and to the secret of universal truth, Schleiermacher also welcomed Kant's insistence that the mind was not competent to comprehend the whole of reality. However, since the precise nature of Schleiermacher's experience involved "neither a

7

For what follows see my “Friendship and the Cradle of Liberalism: Revisiting the Moravian Roots of of Schleiermacher’s Theology,” Churchman 112/4 (1998), 339-356.

Knowing nor a Doing, but a modification of feeling," He was bound to reject Kant's identification of the moral consciousness as the organ of human religion.8 Instead, feeling, according to Schleiermacher, is the unifying element which comprehends the essential nature of the Christian self-consciousness most fully and in an explicitly religious way. Doctrines then, odious to Kant in that they suggest epistemological capabilities beyond their reach, are not dismissed by Schleiermacher so much as they are dethroned and domesticated. No longer should dogmas judge of true faith. Instead, true faith will assess doctrines as attempts to give expression to the content of the Christian self-consciousness.9 Thus, attention to doctrinal formulation, both historic and contrutive, runs high in Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehrer because it involves the explicit attempt to give expression to the content of the Christian self-conscousness. Whenever doctrines stray beyond their descriptive function, they tend to obscure and even undermine true faith rather than confirm and nurture faith. Schleiermacher's fascinating dialogue Christmas Eve displays clearly his view of the danger posed to faith by an over intellectualizing fixation upon doctrinal and historical concerns. Significantly, this Advent dialogue is set in a middle class German home quite similar to those which would have hosted Schleiermacher's beloved salons. As various guests arrive, the conversation gradually centers around the question of the virginal conception of Jesus Christ and the broader question of the incarnation itself. The evening is almost spoiled by the tense debating of the men who are bent upon an analytical search

8

Christian Faith, 5-12; Soliloquies, 20 n., 30-31.
9

Christian Faith, 76-93. See also Friedrich Schleiermacher, Brief Outline on the Study of Theology, (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1966), . 67-68, 78-79.

for some conclusive understanding of those ancient events surrounding the birth of the Christ child. At length, Ernestine, the hostess, and her young daughter, named conspicuously, Sophie, rescue those gathered and salvage the spirit through music. The evening ends with the entire cast singing Christmas hymns in unison around the piano as Sophie plays and true Christian communion is achieved, not just without, but in spite of the thorny questions of doctrine left unresolved.10 Evangelical Liberal? B.A. Gerrish contends that the apparently oxymoronic labeling of Schleiermacher as a liberal evangelical is actually redundant.11 According to Gerrish, Schleiermacher belongs to the ranks of evangelicals because, as with Luther, it was his own distinctively Protestant consciousness which served as the basis of his theological inquiry. Still, Schleiermacher was a liberal because "he did not consider himself tied to old expressions of [that consciousness]."12 Certain current trends among some self-identified American evangelicals may indicate an unwitting drift toward proving Gerrish right. The Psychologized Gospel When one reflects upon the decidedly psychological focus of Schleiermacher's theological program, the fascination of the church with the psychology of recovery and self-esteem becomes particularly interesting. Schleiermacher depended upon his ability to describe the actual events within the self-consciousness of his audience in order to win

Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation, (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1967). G. P. Fisher first described Schleiermacher's theology in this way in his History of Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1897), 512.
12 11

10

Gerrish, Prince of the Church, 32.

them to communion with the Savior as mediated by the church. Similarly today, many pulpits relatively devoid of serious engagement with scriptural texts overflow with elaborate descriptive construals of personal experience aimed as producing the exclamation "Aha!, that sounds exactly like me." Audiences act as competent judges while the message awaits their verdict. From his early twenties Schleiermacher could only receive dogmatic confessional demands as a distraction, even a barrier to his embryonic Christian experience. Accordingly, for Schleiermacher, doctrine, far from functioning as a legitimate test of genuine piety, had to prove its viability according to its descriptive power in relation to one's own faith. This meant that the doctrine of the Trinity, the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ, miracles, and virtually the whole of the Old Testament were either retained uncomfortably or denied altogether. Today, the fascination with the psychologist's power to describe experience seems to beg the question of truth in ways strikingly similar to Liberalism's original “turn to the subject.” The Thirst For Community Unlike his spiritual heirs within Protestant Liberalism, Schleiermacher never succumbed to Enlightenment pressures toward autonomous individualism. While focusing great interest in the uniqueness of individuality, Schleiermacher refused to comprehend Christian conversion and spiritual growth apart from the community as the necessary context for their genuine fulfillment. Having set forth his own general understanding of communion as the very basis for Christian identity, doctrine was recognized only insofar as it proved supportive of that distinctive shared experience.

Today certain interpreters of the emergent postmodern culture are celebrating an apparent widespread longing for "community," "neighborliness," and "civility" as a special point of entry for Christian proclamation and outreach. Supposedly, the church is now in a position to offer its own rich tradition and practice of community as the answer to the current human search. Indeed, rich possibilities of communal intimacy are surely afforded within the body of Christ. But does this fact warrant supposing that the church's own promise of divinely-wrought community will easily mesh with human searching without distortion. Market-Driven Church Growth If apologetic doctrinal malleableness is an index to a post-Enlightenment loss of theological nerve, some late twentieth century evangelicals may have more cause to blush than would Friedrich Schleiermacher. However much he may have fallen short of his aim, Schleiermacher did, after all, intend to ground Christian dogmatics upon its own independent basis, namely, on reflection upon the Christian self-consciousness. It followed that the relative strength or weakness within the self-consciousness of the feeling of absolute dependence became the irreducible barometer of genuine Christian piety. In this aspect of his thought Schleiermacher’s theology was comparatively more dogmatic than say, that of Paul Tillich whose method of correlation assumed the burden of discerning current ultimate questions before searching out an answer from the Christian revelation. Schleiermcaher has the answer ready to hand, namely, the heightening of the religious self-consciousness, the content of which is not open for revision, namely, the feeling of being absolutely dependent.

Today church growth strategists often speak broadly of meeting felt needs as a means of access to the unbelieving ear with little consideration of the spiritually debilitating effects of sin or of the necessity for the work of the Holy Spirit to convict and draw those who are being saved. Such apologetic efforts would seem to embrace an open ended and distinctly more robust “turn to the subject” than did Schleiermacher. Where Schleiermacher insisted upon identifying the "felt need" Christianity proposed to meet, one hears today of a sovereign audience which churches must satisfy first in order to prepare the way for receptivity to the gospel. One reads of Jesus Christ conceived as a product to be marketed. In a curious irony, it would seem that some evangelicals may have unintentionally, even unconsciously, beaten Schleiermacher at his own game. The Intrusion of Alien Norms It may well be that the same person who studied Schleiermacher with the greatest care and even love rejected his work most aggressively and fundamentally. For Karl Barth the fatal step for Schleiermacher and for that matter, for any theology worthy of the name ‘Christian’ is the temptation to acknowledge some alien norm external to the Christian revelation by which to gauge its viability. Instead, advises Barth, theology has first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being. 13 The crucial intersection between Schleiermacher’s quest and so much that informs both theologizing and church leadership today may not involve so much a turning to the subject per se, but simply the act of turning itself. Once Christian
13

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 15.

reflection lets itself become distracted from the one object of its witness, namely God revealed in Jesus Christ according to the witness of Holy Scripture, the intrusion of alien norms becomes inevitable. It matters not whether new tests of theological viability issue from current psychological fads, postmodern hankering for community or fascination with market techniques and managerial theory. Once Christian proclamation begins to take its epistemological cues from outside the norma normans of Holy Scripture as the witness to God’s revelation, a lack of confidence in the possibility of theology itself is already exposed. The result, too often, as Barth warned, is a Feuerbachian projection of human dreams, hopes, and fantasies into the metaphysical realm. When this occurs, anthropology replaces theology and, as Sidney Cave has put it so well, we “make our poor experience the measure of what God is.” Unlike Schleiermacher, many today seem oblivious to the erosion the church’s distinctive message as it becomes unwittingly co-opted by psychological interpretations of the human predicament, market-focused readings of church growth dynamics, and the agendas of various political constituencies.14 However compromising of historic Christian affirmations Schleiermacher’s mature theology turned out to be, the father of Modern theology pursued his course with his eyes open. Having tasted of something he believed to be universal and true in the rich religious milieu of Moravian piety, Schleiermacher plumbed the depths of that experience, became its champion and spent himself in the quest to discover and nurture this distinctive Christian self-consciousness in others.
14

See e.g., Michael Scott Horton ed., Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church (Chicago: Moody, 1992); and Os Guiness & John Seel eds., No God But God (Chicago: Moody, 1992).

Without denying the profundity and genuineness of Schleiermacher’s experience among the Moravian’s, the practice of defending Christianity on the basis of its power to evoke and express the content of the human religious self-consciousness reverses the proper relation between dogmatics and apologetics. Schleiermacher’s quest fits nicely with the search for a universally verifiable religion, but not with attempts to articulate a “Christian” theology where doctrines not only express the faith of believers but also test the appropriateness of appending the adjective “christian” at all. Barth was confident his former partners at the embryonic stage of the so-called neo-orthodox movement had failed recognize and so resist the theological Copernical revolution in Schleiermacher’s theology. Theology as Science “ . . . theology has first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being.” 15 At age 75 Barth remained capable of such sweeping dismissals of apologetics. Why was this so? What did Barth mean by “apologetics?” The words “external guarantees” offer a clue. Barth parted company with most of the other so-called Neo-Orthodox and NeoLiberal thinkers of his generation in his understanding of dogmatics as a science. In fact Barth believed that virtually the whole of Protestant theology following Schleiermacher had betrayed the gospel according to a kind of non-scientific, apologetically-fixated theological method. From Schleiermacher and Ritschl in the nineteenth century to Harnack, Bultmann, and Tillich in the twentieth century, protestant theology had, according to Barth, abandoned genuine the-ology for anthropology. And, however

15

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 15.

impressive the felt relevance of such efforts might turn out to be, for Barth, “one cannot speak of God, simply by speaking about man in a loud voice.” 16 The seriousness of Barth’s critique of protestant theology since Schleiermacher’s so-called “turn to the subject” becomes clear when we examine his understanding of theology as a science. All sciences, according to Barth, pursue knowledge of some object or some subject matter. True science concerns itself first of all with the apprehension of the subject matter in question. Insofar as science remains true to itself, it also remains true to its subject matter. Thus it will not allow itself to become distracted, diverted or otherwise preoccupied with secondary concerns such as the potential cultural felt relevance of its findings. Truth about the subject matter must govern all. Accordingly, science submits itself to its subject matter as to the means of apprehending the knowledge it seeks. Differences in scientific method may be expected to vary according to the subject matter in view. Subject matter determines method, period. According to Barth, the subject matter of Christian Theology is “God revealed in Jesus Christ through the witness of Holy scripture.” The uniqueness of its object determines the means by which theology must do its work. God has given Himself to be known by faith through the witness of Holy Scripture enabled by the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit. Thus, authentically scientific theology requires faith in the theologian. The God whom theology wishes to know and of whom it wishes to speak gives Himself to be known aright only to those who seek Him by faith. Scientific theology will stand under Scripture, not beside or above it as the higher critics tended to do. In his Epistle to the Romans, the so-called bombshell dropped into the playground of the theologians, though Barth remained enamored with certain aspects of existentialist
16

Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (N.P., Pilgrim Press, 1928), 195-196.

thinking (particularly with Kierkegaard) and his notion of theology as science had not yet taken shape, even then Barth had rejected the pretentiousness of the still emerging higher critical hermeneutical methodologies in favor of canon friendly approach to the Bible which he saw in Calvin—“how energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible. If a man persuades himself that Calvin’s method can be dismissed with the old-fashioned motto, ‘The Compulsion of Inspiration’, he betrays himself as one who has never worked upon the interpretation of scripture. 17 (re: Barth and Henry) Might one suggest that Barth rightly recognized the inaccessability of the claims of the gospel to historical investigation and the danger of post-enlightenment obsession with prolegomena in ways Henry could not. In fact, I would suggest that Henry presents an example of exactly the kind of captivity to prolegomena Barth found unscientific. On the other hand Barth’s fierce protection of theology’s independence from other sciences led to an impossible attempt to insulate the historical claims of the faith from historical enquiry. Once the one insists that the events recorded in Scripture occurred in space and time, which Barth does, the vulnerability of Christianity to historical enquiry cannot be avoided. The Last of the Church Fathers? Barth has been dubbed the last of the Church Fathers mainly because of the breathtaking scope of his theological goals and the equally stunning breadth of his
17

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, Edwyn C. Hoskyns, trans. (London: Oxford, 1933), p.7.

knowledge over a range of theological disciplines from biblical studies to historical theology to philosophy and dogmatics. Ina day when the weaknesses of over specialization seem obvious, I would suggest that Barth’s Church Dogmatics presents a model for evangelicals in at least two respects. First Barth makes available, through the famous excursuses in the CD, the exegetical foundations of his theological construction. More so that any systematic theology of which I am aware, Barth’s invites the interpreter to think alongside him at the exegetical and hermeneutical level. Second, Barth interacts with the virtually the whole history of exegesis and theology to an extent unparalleled in the history of the Church. He interacts with the East as well as the West, with the Early Church, Medieval scholoasticism as well as 18th century pietism. Barth gives attention both to the whole history of the development of doctrine and to the voice of the global historic church in way that should make both Jaroslav Pelikan and Thomas Oden beam.

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