You are on page 1of 7

Now That the Party's Over:

Was Karl Barth that good?

Note. The year 1986 was a time for celebrating the life and scholarship of Karl Barth. It was the 100th anniversary of
his birth, a fact noted throughout the year by a number of conferences, services, and published discussions.
During his lifetime Barth's contributions were often the occasion for controversy. But the year 1986 was relatively
free from the negative criticisms which his work often evoked in the past. Even in the conservative-evangelical world,
where some of Barth's sharpest critics have resided, and presumably still do, public comment during the year of commemorative activities was almost uniformly appreciative.
THE REFORMED JOURNAL has discovered, however, that this impression of a uniformly jubilant mood is slightly
deceptive. Three professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, whose offices are clustered together in a pocket of nonBarthianism on the second floor of Payton Hall, maintained a polite public silence throughout the year, confining their
dissenting comments to quiet grumbling in the hallway of their own little ivory tower. Now that the year is over, however,
they have decided to speak out. Not that they want to revive the angry evangelical rejection of Barthianism. Their silence
during 1986 was a genuinely polite silence. And as they choose now to speak the words that common courtesy did not
permit them to utter during the year of celebration, they intend their dissenting comments to be as polite as their earlier

What I Haven't Learned from Barth

Richard A. Muller
During the past year numerous celebrations were held,
testimonials given, and articles writtenall for the sake of
celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Karl Barth
and recognizing his contribution to theology in the 20th
century. I would like to do the same thing, but in somewhat
muted tones. While I recognize Barth as one of the most
eminent theologians of the age, I hesitate to proclaim him
more important than Rudolf Bukin ann orif the whole
sweep of post-Kantian theology is examinedthan
Friedrich Schleiermacher. And I certainly would refrain
from the judgment pressed upon us by some of Barth's more
vociferous followers that the great Basel professor is the
most seminal thinker since Athanasius. That claim may be
acceptable in Edinburgh, within walking distance of the
sacred precincts of T. & T. Clark, but from any other
perspective either theological or geographical, it is
excessive. Quite in contrast to Athanasius and, for that
matter, quite in contrast to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and
Calvin, Barth stands in the company of Origen, John Scotus
Erigena, and, I would add, Schleiermacher, as a theologian
almost as brilliant as those of the first rank but who, in
contrast to those few truly great thinkers, produced an
essentially non-normative theology.

insightful elements of Barth's own thought derive from

Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism. During
the formative years of my own theological training, when
my professors fed me a rather steady diet of Bultmann,
Noth, Schleiermacher, Macquame, Whitehead, and of
course Barth, I learned from Barth himself to look
elsewhere for the foundations of my theology. Let me
comment, then, on what I haven't learned from Karl Barth.

In the first place, I haven't learned how to "do theology"

from Karl Barth-and I would hazard the guess that no one
else has either. As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have
the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas
that refuse to achieve closure. It is interesting and
sometimes even instructive to watch a brilliant mind play
with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from
every conceivable angle But Barths dialectical method,
which assumes the impossibility of stating divine truth in
human words and therefore continually negates and restates
its own impossible formulations, could easily and more
instructively have simply stated the problem of formulation
between two poles of theological statementand then
passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with
a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes,
Barth didand I think successfullydirect many
with no loss of content. The Protestant scholastics, whose
theologians of my generation back toward the Scripture and works Barth read with respect, recognized in formulae
toward the great tradition of the church, specifically toward remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human
the tradition of Reformation and post-Reformation
theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement
Protestant theology. Indeed, most of the useful and
about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype

only by the grace of God's gift of revelation. Barth taught predestination (Church Dogmatics U/2, pp. 60-88, 106me where to find that rule for theological formulation, but I 115). Barth recognizes, and I believe correctly, that the
cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.
Reformed orthodox theologians never proposed a
predestinarian system in which all doctrine was deduced
In the second place, I haven't learned how to do somehow from the divine decrees. Barth notes, however,
exegesis from Karl Barth. The first essay by Barth that I that the rather stark presentation of the doctrine of the
studied was the Epistle to the Romans. I began there, back decrees poses the problem of a Deus nudus absconditus, an
in my seminary days, because I believed that I had to read utterly absent or hidden God. Barth finds a clue to his
Barth, but 1 viewed the Church Dogmatics as a monolith solution in the argument of Amandus Polanus that God the
beyond the limits of my library acquisitions budget. I did Father elects not as Father but as God inasmuch as election
learn from Barth's Romans that my own inchoate objections is the common work of the Trinity in all three persons: thus
to the cold, historical-critical and essentially non- God the Son both elects and effects our election. From this
theological content of contemporary exegesis were clue, Barth moves on to overcome the problem of the Deus
objections that had some validity. And when Barth's preface nudus absconditus in his own doctrine of "Jesus Christ
pointed me toward the exegetical and hermeneutical electing and elected." What Barth does not note is that the
approaches of the Reformers, I found a way of access to the concept of the decree as an essential and therefore
theological meaning of the text for the present life of the trinitarian act of the Godhead, together with the definition
church. But as I read further in Barth's own commentary, I of election as occurring "in Christ," is typical of Reformed
found that its radically existential approach taught me more theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowhere in this
about the impact of Kierkegaard than the impact of Paul on older theology do we encounter the problem of the Deus
Barth's thought. Genuine contact with the text of Romans is nudus absconditus-certainly not as Barth defines it. Nor,
minimal in Barth's essay.
in addition, does Barth's collapsing of election into Christ,
so that the electing and elected Mediator is also the only
elect and only reprobate man, stand in any real relation to
Similarly, when I eventually began to work on the
the theological material on which he has commented and
Church Dogmatics and to see there the christological
from which he takes the clue to his solution to the doctrinal
principles of Barth's theology brought to bear on various
problem that he has posed.
texts of Scripture, 1 was frequently at a loss to see how the
text itself pointed in the direction chosen for it by Barth.
I can only provide a historical hypothesis as to what
Barths reading of the story of Judas is a good example.
has actually occurred in Barth's meditation on older ReMost commentators see in these texts (Matt. 27:1-10 and
formed concepts of election. The problem of the utterly
Acts 1:16-20) unremitting condemnation: in Acts, the text
absent or hidden God is not a problem of the older theology
concludes with a pointed citation of an imprecatory Psalm.
but rather a problem caused for Barth by the Kantian
Barth, however, m view of his doctrinal assumption that
background of his own thought: the God who stands behind
Christ is the only elect and only reprobate man, finds some
the phenomenal order as a transcendent and unreachable
hope in the fate of Judas. Nor is this moment of exegetical
noumenon is not accessible or know- able unless he can be
folly an exception: Barth frequently uses his overarching
located in some way in the phenomenal order. Christ
christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts
provides Barth with this location and, therefore, with his
that have, m and of themselves, no clear relation to the
sole focus of knowledge about God and God's acts. Barth's
person and work of Christ. The result is an incredibly
focusing of election on Christ, like Schleiermacher's
arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis, justified only by the vague
identification of Jesus as the one man continuously and
contention that it is both "christological" and "theological."
consistently conscious of his utter dependence on God,
I haven't learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth.
deals with the Kantian barrier to a doctrine of divine
electionbut it does not arise out of a meditation on the
In the third place, and by way of conclusion, I haven't Reformed tradition. Rather than let the materials of history
learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of speak for themselves, Barth used them as a foil for his own
the Christian tradition for use m the present. The Church exposition. This pattern of argument can be documented in
Dogmatics is doubtless a gold mine of materials from the many other places in the Church Dogmaticsas, for
history of Christian doctrinebut all too frequently, rather example, in Barth's several excursuses on the Protestant
than actually building on the foundation of these gathered orthodox theological prolegomena in the first two halfmaterials, Barth uses them as a foil for his own formulations volumes of the Dogmatics.
and fails to convey either the meaning or the direction of the
materials themselves. As an example of this problem, I In his method, in his exegesis, and in his use of history
would point to what is actually one of Barth's most Barth consistently fails to point his readers beyond his own
insightful historical excursuses: the discussion of individual theological wrestlings. His arguments are

frequently brilliant. They succeed in undercutting many of

the cherished notions of the liberal theology out of which
Barth himself came. They also remind us strongly of the
uniqueness of Christianity in an age when the relativizing
approach of the "history-of-religions" school has often
threatened to dominate scholarly discussion of theological
ideas. The great value of Barth's theology is that it points us
toward our own theological roots. The great irony of Barth's
theology is that, once it has directed us back toward
Scripture and the tradition, it gives us very little help in
interpreting them for the present. When I study Augustine,
Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, I am constantly aware that
each of these writers was conscious of a duty not only to

meditate on Scripture and tradition but to mediate both

Scripture and tradition to their own time and to the next
generation of the church. These writers always point beyond
their own work to a greater churchly taskand they do so
by adopting methods that can be emulated, by proposing
exegetical arguments that open Scripture to the present by
respecting the text and not bending it to agreement with any
overarching heuristic principles, and by dealing with the
tradition of earlier theological meditation not as a foil for
their own opinions but as a pathway and guide in discerning
the meaning of a theological issue. I haven't teamed this
approach from Karl Barthbut I will always be grateful to
him for pointing me to the place where I could learn it.

A Cheer and a Half for Barth

Colin Brown
1986 was the year for saying nice things about Karl Barth.
But we are now well into 1987, and the problems of the
world seem more intractable than ever; the big questions of
theology keep being asked. Does Barth help us with them?
Does his thinking really make the kind of breakthrough in
theology that Einstein's did in physics? Was Barth a modem
Athanasius defending the faith almost single-handedly
against heretics in the church and the powers of this world?
Was he the Calvin, the Aquinas, the Augustine of the 20th
These days when I think about Karl Barth I cannot
help thinking about Barth's remarks about Kierkegaard.
Back in the early 60's Barth wrote a short piece entitled
"Kierkegaard and the Theologians." It was later published
in Barth's Fragments Crave and Gay. Barth suggested that
there were three kinds of theologians. The first were those
theologians who may have heard about Kierkegaard and
even read something by him, but who never passed through
his school. Thus they never learned from him. The second
were those who immersed themselves in his writings but
never thought about much else. The result was that they
failed to graduate from the final year of Kierkegaard's
school. The third were those theologianspresumably
including Barth himselfwho have read Kierkegaard,
attended his school, but have passed out of it to learn from
other schools. What Barth said about Kierkegaard could
equally well be said about Barth himself.
My own acquaintance with Barthwith his thought and
writings, that is, for I never met him in person began in
1958. My first close encounter is vividly impressed on my
mind, for it was an encounter which changed the course of
my life. In the summer of that year I had got my B.D., and
in the fall 1 was ordained to serve in a group of churches

just outside the city of Nottingham in England. Up to that

point I had envisaged a lifelong ministry in parish work. At
the same time I wanted to be as well-equipped as possible
for a teaching, pastoral ministry. In my B.D. I had chosen to
take all my electives in Old Testament. I was seeking a firm,
biblical foundation for my life and ministry.
It was in this frame of mind that I went for an
interview with Alan Richardson, who was at that time the
Professor of Christian Theology at the University of
Nottingham. Instead of doing the usual post-ordination
training, I had the opportunity to do a further degree at the
university. I jumped at the chance. As I went to my
appointment, I had two subjects in mind. One was a study
in the Book of Deuteronomy, which I then thoughtas I
still doto be a book of crucial importance for
understanding both the Old Testament and the New
Testament. The other subject that I had in mind was Karl
Barth. I had heard of Barth. He sounded fascinating, but I
did not know much about him. In my conversation with
Alan Richardson I happened to mention Barth first, and we
never got around to talking about Deuteronomy. There and
then it was decided that I would do research on Karl Barth's
theological method with special reference to his
understanding of the Word of God. My career as an Old
Testament scholar stopped dead in its tracks. Three years
later my thesis was accepted, and I went on to a teaching
job and to other things. Later on my work on Barth was
published under the title Karl Barth and the Christian
Message (1967). By that time I was already deep into study
of 19th-century Christology.
Back in the late 50s as I began to read Barth's Church
Dogmatics, I had the sensation of walking through an art
museum which contained some pieces that looked familiar
and others with puzzling and unusual perspectives. It took
me the best part of a year to figure out what Barth was

saying. His words sounded orthodox and Reformed, but the

way that he put them together was different from anything
that I had seen before. Barth had a certain aura about him.
Some of his ideas put old questions in a new light. To Barth
the Bible was not simply the record of what God had said in
the past. God continues to speak through it m the present.
Even Barth's description of Scripture as witness to
revelation was not intended to downplay its importance.
The term itself was biblical (John 5:39). It made sense to
see Scripture functioning in a way similar to that of the
disciples in Matthew 10:40: "He who receives you receives
me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me." In
receiving the message of the divinely appointed and
inspired witnesses, we may in some sense receive Christ,
and in receiving him we receive the Father also.

of God in Christ. He dismissed the idea of Gods preserving

grace in the created order with the words: "Taken by itself it
might just as well be our condemnation to a kind of
antechamber to hell!" Although it might not have been
apparent at the time, Barth's comment anticipated the
universalism of his later covenant theology.

The story of the rift between Barth and Brunner is well

known. In his later years Barth even appeared on television
declaring that no communication was possible between
Brunner and himself. They were like an elephant and a
whaletwo creatures of God that could not communicate.
Barth left it to Brunner to decide which he wanted to be. To
many outsiders the comparison was amusing but
regrettable. It would be nice to think that it was
uncharacteristic. Yet Barth frequently gave the impression
Barth's presentation of the Trinity was more illu- that he divided people into two groups- those that were
minating than any account I had previously come across.
deemed worthy of being admitted into the dialogue and
I liked the way he grounded his understanding of revelation those that were kept at arm's length.
m the Trinity and regarded the Trinity as the basis of our
knowledge of God. Barth's idea of the threefold form of the
Theology aside, for many people Barth's political
Word of God in Christ. Scripture, and proclamation opened stances present a troubling enigma. They can admire Barth's
up new ways of thinking about the incarnation, the Bible, refusal to say "Heil Hitler" before a lecture on theology.
and preaching.
They can applaud his stand with the Confessing Church
against Nazi totalitarianism. But they are puzzled by his
But for all that, there were things that did not seem to attitudes toward other forms of totalitarianism. As late as
add up. Barth's insistence that the Bible was simultaneously 1949 Barth expressed regret over bloodshed under
the Word of God and the fallible word of man seemed to Communism, but professed to see Soviet Marxism as "a
treat the problem as if it were the solution. I have to admit constructive idea, the solution of a problem which is a
that I often find Barth's exposition of other people's ideas serious and burning problem for us as well " He declared
more illuminating than his presentation of his own ideas. that it would be absurd "to mention a man of the stature of
The small-print passages in the Church Dogmatics where Joseph Stalin in the same breath as such charlatans as
Barth reviews the ideas of others are to me much more Hitler, Hess . . . etc."
rewarding than the large- print sections where Barth
elaborates his own thought often enigmatically and at In my researches into Barth's theological method I began to
inordinate length.
see that the issue involved much more than Barth's view of
Scripture and its inspiration. From the famous Commentary
Many things prevented me from becoming a true on Romans onwards there seemed to be some kind of
believer in Barth. Among them was his sparring match with controlling idea at work which affected the way that Barth
Emil Brunner in the 1930's on the subject of natural thought about things. G. C. Berkouwer suggested that the
theology. Barth is generally thought to have won the controlling theme of Barth's theology was the triumph of
argument on points. But in the course of the bout he made a grace. Barth himself welcomed Berkouwer's sympathetic
number of spectacular swings which missed wildly. Barth's interpretation of this thought, but declared that the idea of
denial of revelation in nature (which he later backtracked the triumph of grace was an abstract idea. Barth insisted that
on) in favor of revelation solely through the Word was at his theology was not based on an abstract idea but on Jesus
variance with what Paul said in Romans and Acts. Barth did Christ.
not seem to appreciate the truth that the Word that became
incarnate in Jesus Christ was the same Word which created
If I were to try to formulate the theme which I see
the world. Barth seemed so bent on arguing his case that he running through Barth's many writings, I would put it like
failed to appreciate what Calvin had so clearly recognized: this. All God's dealings with human beings are effected m
as creatures we have a sense of God inscribed on our hearts. and through Jesus Christ, in whom God's grace triumphs.
Christ is the mediator of revelation no less than of salvation.
The debate with Brunner revealed other disturbing Indeed, revelation and salvation are really two terms for
things. Barth had already abolished the distinction between describing ways of looking at the event of Jesus Christ. The
common and saving grace in favor of the one saving grace Barth of the 20s and 30s was preoccupied with the question

of the knowledge of God. This knowledge was possible

only through Christ. As the great edifice of the Church
Dogmatics slowly arose, Barth's attention shifted to the
doctrines of God, creation, and reconciliation. Here again
the teaching was given a christological interpretation.

have never regretted the time I have spent reading Barth. He

has been a major stimulus to my thinking. But just as Barth
felt obliged to move from Kierkegaard's school to other
schools, so today we must move on from Barth as we
wrestle with the problems of the world and the questions of
theology. To have a Christ-centered theology sounds a fine
thing. But the question that we have to ask is whether
Barth's Christ is the same as the Christ of the Bible. No one
put the answer to that question more aptly than Brunner
when he said that Barth's view of salvation was a
"speculation." In the last analysis it was "Natural Theology
on the basis of a statement which has a Biblical core."

The older covenant theology of Reformed orthodoxy

was replaced by a covenant theology in which Jesus Christ
himself was seen as the covenant on which both creation
and redemption were based. The union of the divine and
human natures of Christ in his one person became the basis
of the union of God and humankind generally. God had
taken humankind into partnership wi t h himself on the basis
of t hi s union. He had cre at ed the world wi t h this union
I still think that Ba rt h can be read wi t h profitif
in mi nd- The C al vi ni st i c doc trine of double only as a stimulus to think other thoughts. I can even st and
predestination received a christological reinterpretation. among those who are cheering. But I cannot bring myself to
Jesus Christ was the elect for ail and the reprobate for all. cheer quite so long and so loud as the rest.
All human beings had been reconciled in him. The basic
difference between the be liever and the unbeliever lay in
the fact that the believer knew of this reconciliation and
responded accordingly in faith and obedience. The
unbeliever, on the other hand, was still trying to live the life
of the unreconciled despite the reconciliation that had
become a reality in Christ.
Barth's view was not entirely new. Some of his key
ideas had been anticipated in the 19th century by the
Anglican Christian Socialist Frederick Denison Maurice.
Admittedly Maurice had not worked them out with the same
dogmatic precision as did Barth. Nor does Barth seem to
have drawn on Maurice for his inspiration, for his writings
never refer to Maurice. But like Maurice, Barth believed in
the priority of Christ over Adam, that sin was a reaction to
grace, and that all human beings were in Christ already.
Like Maurice, Barth was pushed to the brink of
universalism. When questioned on this, Barth denied that he
was a universalist of the same kind as Origen. This reply
left unanswered the question of what kind of universalist
Barth actually was.
Barth never got around to giving a full answer to the
question, for the Church Dogmatics never got beyond the
fourth volume. The fifth volume, which would have dealt
with eschatology, remained unwritten. Barth fondly
compared his magnum opus with the cathedral at Strasbourg, which was never finished. On the question of
universalism Barth played down the passages in the New
Testament which spoke of judgment. He claimed that there
was no such thing as a rejected individual, however much
such a person might have rejected God's love in Christ.
Such persons were not really rejected. They were trying to
live the life of the rejected.
These days Barth's theology does not preoccupy my
thoughts. It stopped doing so a long time ago. However, I

Why I Went to the Party at All

Richard J. Mouw
Well, the Barthian party is over. Of course, the Barthian
project goes ontheologians will continue to write about
Barth and even to write like Barth. And we can expect other
scholars besides theologians to take a new look at his
writings. In recent years people have begun to pay closer
attention to what Barth said about politics and economics
and male-female relations and vegetarianism and music and
poetry. That kind of discussion will certainly go on, and will
probably broaden in scope.

ology wascontrary to my previous impressiona positive

contribution to the theological discussion. I am grateful that
Berkouwer helped me to leave behind the all-too-typical
pattern in my evangelical youth of bearing false witness
against Karl Barth. And I am happy that institutions like
Fuller Seminary and The Reformed Journal and the
Eerdmans company are leading the way in reinforcing the
appropriate correctives today.

But I must confess that I worry a bit about a rather

different sort of false witness among evangelicals these
days. The present danger seems to be an inflated set of
claims about Barth's real or potential contribution to
evangelical thought. So now that the celebration is over, I
want to offer a candid comment about the positive
Nor can we oppose parties held in his honor. I don't. In contribution Barth has made to my own thinking.
fact, 1 attended a major Barthian gala held at Fuller
Seminary last Maylectures, symposia, receptions, even a
Frankly, there isn't much to talk about here. And that
banquet. To be sure, I did not go into the thing with quite is what I feel compelled to say, having witnessed the
the jubilation that many other celebrants did; but that is partying of last year. 1 really haven't found Barth to be very
neither here nor there. I often set out for parties with a helpful in shaping my own theological views. And I'm a bit
grudging reluctance I have to work a bit at disguising.
skeptical when other evangelicals speak m glowing terms
about what he has meant in their development.
At a number of points, though, the party itself added
to my problem. People were often unstinting in their praise
Two clarifications are necessary, though, if f am to
for Barth's work. And that made me uncomfortable at times, make my meaning clear. First, when I go to Barth looking
especially since the celebrations that I happened to witness for help, I do so as someone whose work is in the areas of
both as flesh-and-blood gatherings and on the printed philosophy and ethics. These aren't exactly the areas of
pagetook place primarily in conservative-evangelical Barth's strength, on any accounting of the situation. To ask
him for help in the task of Christian philosophical
formulation is a bit like asking a kosher butcher for pork
There is, to be sure, some justice in this fact. Con- recipes. That seems obvious. Barth's weakness as an ethicist
servative Protestants have sinned much against Barth, and is, I know, a point I will have to argue against some fairly
there is something to be said for overdoing it a bit in the well-known theological ethicists. But I do find such insights
opposite direction. I am one of those who in my own small that Barth has to offer in this area rather spotty and
way once sinned against Karl Barth. Early on in my own unsystematically presented.
studies, I embraced the notion that Barth was nothing but an
old 'modernist" in a new disguise.
Second, I do not mean to suggest that Barth doesn't
make true and innovative proposals for theological conI came to that view by reading some books and articles sideration. But I am inclined to think that his truths have to
about Barth. I gave up that view when I read some books be distinguished from his innovations.
and articles by Barth.
Let me explain. The things I can get excited about in
Having come to the conclusion, then, that Barth was Barth are items that function for me as reminders of what has
not as bad as I had been led to believe, I read G. C. been said before. I think Barth says many "od Reformed
Berkouwer's critically appreciative study, The Triumph of things. But most of these things I also d in previous
Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. That book helped to Reformed thinkers, such as Calvin and Bavinck. Where
shape my enduring assessment of the value of Barth's Barth differs from those Reformed giants, I tend to disagree
contribution. Berkouwer convinced me that Barth's the- with him and side with the earlier thinkers.
And it ought to. Barth was an important thinker who
occupies a significant place in 20th-century intellectual
developments. No sensible scholar can be opposed to a
serious study of his life and work.

he sets out to improve on past formulations regarding, say,

In short, what I learned from Berkouwer is that many the doctrine of Scripture or the nature of election or the

of the good things Barth says are reaffirmations of

important emphases already in the Reformed tradition. To
the degree that this is the case, I have learned to celebrate
his work. But where Barth departs from the formulations of
a Calvin or a Bavinck, I find him less than convincing. And
not because I buy the view that earlier must always be better
than later. I just don't find Barth convincing or helpful when

proper pattern for understanding the person and work of

Jesus Christ.
That is my dissenting word about Barth. It doesn't
mean that I will refuse ever to attend another party in his
honor. But it does mean that I wouldn't want to go under
false pretenses.

You might also like