Monday, 16 April 2007

What's it all about? Karl Barth

It seems that 20th century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth is all the rage at the moment. Ben Myres at Faith & Theology devotes every other post to something Barthian. So, you might be wondering, what's the fuss all about? Don't worry, you won't have to plough through the massive 4 volume Church Dogmatics to find out - David Sky will give you the low down.

This is important. You have not pronounced his name correctly if you make it rhyme with "laugh". Barth rhymes with "art" or "cart".
Barth (1886-1968) taught theology at a number of German universities, Gottingen, Munster, and Bonn. In the 1930's he opposed Hitler and was dismissed from his post. He returned to Switzerland and taught for the remainder of his career in Basel. In 1919 Barth published his seminal commentary on Romans, where he emphasised the "Godness of God". His major literary work was his massive, four volume Church Dogmatics.
Barth scandalised his admirers by conducting a long term affair with his assistant, Charlotte ("Lollo") von Kirschbaum. He would take "Lollo" on holiday with him, leaving his poor, long suffering wife at home.

Barth reacted against the liberal theology of the likes of Bultmann and found inspiration in the teaching of John Calvin. But Barth's dislike of the historico-critical method of exegesis left him seeming to be ambiguous about the historical basis of Scriptural events. Barth emphasised the revelatory character of events like the resurrection of Christ. At least in his earlier writings, he wasn't so sure about the historicity of the empty tomb.
Barth saw Scripture as a witness to the revelation of God rather than the inscripturated revelation of God in itself. He held that the Bible may become the Word of God to us in a revelatory event, but that Scripture was not the Word of God written. Barth so emphasised Jesus Christ as the revelation of God that he seems to have forgotten that we cannot know Christ apart from the witness of Scripture.
He was ambiguous about using the term "Person" to describe the three in the Trinity. Barth preferred to speak of "modes" within the godhead. He may not be charged with fully blown modalism, but the spectre of unipersonality cannot be entirely avoided. His model of the trinity is God as "revealer, revelation and revealdness". Again, this leaves us doubtful regarding the distinct Personhood of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Barth reformulated Calvin's doctrine of election to teach that God elects himself to save humanity in Christ. This leaves him open to the charge of universalism. If God has chosen to be the Saviour of all humanity in Christ, it is difficult to explain how all will not be saved. Barth's followers battle amongst themselves as to whether or not he was a universalist.
Christ assumed a fallen humanity when he became Man according to Barth. If "fallen" means anything, it means sinful. At the fall, humanity entered a state of sinful rebellion against God. What does this say about the union of the divine and human natures of Christ within the Person of the Son? Did the Son of God express himself through sinful humanity? If Jesus assumed a sinful humanity, he is part of the problem rather than the solution. He came in the likeness of sinful flesh. But we was without sin. He offered himself up without spot to God.

We may be able to learn certain valuable lessons from Karl Barth. But remember, Barth does not rhyme with laugh because his theology contains some seriously bad errors.


Reformed Renegade said...

I'm still waiting to find out why Barth (Bart) is so great. If I answered my friends ambiguously on the historicity & inerrancy of Scripture & on the charge of universalism as Barth has I'd be quite likely labeled a heretic or something close. Interesting as he may be, I'd put no greater emphasis on him than I would Tillich or Scheiemacher. Help!

Looney said...

Thanks David. Given that Barth doesn't seem clear on whether he is a universalist or not, I am inclined to write him off as an intellectual lightweight. Maybe this is why he is so popular in theo-blogdom?

David Sky said...

If renegade and looney agree with me, I must be right!

Ben Myers said...

Hi David -- thanks for this interesting post. The question of "universalism" is an interesting one -- and there are important reasons why Barth always protested against universalism. In case you're interested, I've tried to explain this in a short post.

David Sky said...

G'day Ben and welcome to my humble blog. I've looked at your post on universalism. You said,

"Barth protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism!"

Thanks for clearing things up for me.

Looney said...

Actually, I think this kind of Barthian muddle among theologians is a key reason that Christianity is having trouble being taken seriously.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Looking at the comments, I'm afraid that Barth will be naively dismissed because of all the potential problems listed in this post. I would suggest everyone read John Webster's short introductory book on Karl Barth for a more comprehensive appraisal of what Barth does in each section of the Church Dogmatics. The fact is that Barth's doctrine of election does some heavy biblical exegesis of John 1, something that Calvin neglected to do. Barth's doctrine of scripture keeps God as the primary acting subject (like any good Reformed theologian would). If you know Calvin's view of the sacraments, you'll appreciate Barth's nuanced view of Scripture as the Word of God. Barth views the resurrection as a historical/real event, but because it is a miracle it necessarily supercedes any attempt by scientific proof. This goes hand in hand with Barth's view of revelation, which is both veiled and unveiled, revealed and hidden at once.

Overall, writing Barth off as an intellectual lightweight is just plain silly. If Christianity Today and Pope Pius XII (among many others) call him the greatest theologian of the 20th century, that says something.

WTM said...

Re Looney's most recent comment:

Karl Barth is the primary reason why there is a form of orthodox Christianity that is taken seriously at all by academics who study theology or religion.

Re David Sky's most recent comment:

When Barth most clearly discusses his position on universalism (last few pages of Church Dogmatics IV/3.1), it is clear that he can neither affirm nor deny universalism on the basis of his understanding of Scripture. Anyone who would quarrel with Barth here must out exegete him, not to mention prove against him that we do in fact have the transcendent and free creator savior of the world figured out. Heaven forbid that God should ever surprise us!

Finally, in a less sarcastic and more irenic mood, I am always pleased to find people in the more conservative Reformed circles who actually take the time to read Barth carefully. Indeed, Barth gave Berkouwer a lot of credit for doing this very thing, and it can even be argued that Barth made adjustments on the basis of some of Berkouwer's criticisms. In any case, I don't know why is should be so hard for Reformed theologians of any stripe to engage with Barth.

Looney said...

"Karl Barth is the primary reason why there is a form of orthodox Christianity that is taken seriously at all by academics who study theology or religion."

Perhaps it is impossible for both academics and ordinary people to take the same religion seriously? Where ever academic theology has reigned, Christianity has not prospered. Where Christianity prospers, the influence of academia is negligible.

WTM said...


I find your most recent comment so misguided and ill-informed that I can do nothing except register my profound disagreement and leave you to what I perceive to be prodigious delusion.

derek said...


Let me humbly suggest you take time to read JP Moreland's book "Love the Lord with all your mind."

Although i doubt he would be a Barth fan, he does a great job demonstrating that a major reason the West came to write off christianity was due to the lack of intellect that had developed in Western Christendom.

So in response to this statement by you,

"Perhaps it is impossible for both academics and ordinary people to take the same religion seriously? Where ever academic theology has reigned, Christianity has not prospered. Where Christianity prospers, the influence of academia is negligible."

is in fact not only naive, but actaully the opposite of the truth of the situation. When Christianity flourishes, a well-formed intellectual commmunity is nearly always a part of that.

Looney said...

Derek, I just got back from our church English sub-group deacons meeting: 3Ph.d's, a few masters degrees, several seminary degrees and 2 more seminary masters in progress. There are only 10 of us. We live by our minds here in Silicon Valley, but we are still orthodox and nearly fundamentalist.

WTM goes to Princeton Seminary. 100 years ago, they had a professor named Henry van Dyke who split the Presbyterian denomination over his universalism. In his writings, Jesus is guru, but not Lord and Savior. Henry van Dyke did not have a Christian testimony, even though he was the head of the denomination and a genius.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Looney, I'd like to hear what you perceive to be the difference between "loving God with all your mind" and "academics." Obviously you have some discrepancy in mind, no?

As for your caricature of Princeton Seminary, I can assure you that there are many fundamentalists at Princeton today, and Princeton has a long history of it. Read some Charles Hodge or B.B. Warfield and you'll see what I mean. Today, Princeton's student population is conservative by majority. The faculty is liberal by majority. Of course these are general categories, but even given their shades I think it's safe to say that Princeton is a unique combination.

Looney said...

Chris, I fear I am using too much of Dr. Shy's bandwidth.

My intent was to caricature universalism in order to get back to the thread topic. I actually love academia and am very much involved, but more on the engineering side. I envy those who get to go on for more theology classes.

The flip side is that using the mind means not being blindly impressed. In the 19th century, the modernists repeated endlessly that to reject their ideas was to cease using your brain. Recently, we have been hearing that if you believe in ID, you are some sort of a retard. (keep in mind that engineering = science + ID.) The newest spin is that if you don't accept modernist theology, then you don't love God with all your mind.

May God's blessings be on David Shy and his blog as he tries to prove that one can love God with all his mind and still be orthodox.

Aric Clark said...

He held that the Bible may become the Word of God to us in a revelatory event, but that Scripture was not the Word of God written. Barth so emphasised Jesus Christ as the revelation of God that he seems to have forgotten that we cannot know Christ apart from the witness of Scripture.

But we DO know Jesus apart from scripture. Scripture is a primary source for knowledge about Jesus, but not the only. There is the testimony of the apostles transmitted through the church. The inward witness of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments themselves and of course God's ongoing revelation.

Scripture itself is the witness of the church not an arbitrary standard outside of the church as though it were only a "source" and not also depository. The church creates scripture not the other way around.

Chris TerryNelson said...

I share your distaste for modernist theology, and I think if you read Barth you would absolutely love the potshots that he takes at the 19th century theologians he studied under and ultimately rejected in 1914. His rejection of liberalism is what put him on the map (his commentary on Romans did that), and I fear that conservative evangelicals are actually on their way back to a 19th century way of thinking about the faith. ID is a great 19th century byproduct.

David Sky said...


What I said about Scripture's witness to Christ was not meant to deny the witness of the Spirit. Without the Spirit's witness in, through and by the Word we cannot know Christ as a living, saving Person. The sacraments are given meaning by the Word. Without the explanatory power of Scripture, the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper have no symbolic meaning. The same goes for the water of baptism. As a Protestant, I don't agree that the church created Scripture or in continuing revelation.

I do not want to separate Scripture from the Church. The church is called into being, sustained, sanctified and directed by the Word. See Vanhoozer's Drama of Doctrine for a full account of the Scriptures in theo-dramatic relation to the Church.

Darren said...

Webster's "Karl Barth" is not an easy read, but definitely a great resource for a more thorough and accurate look at what the good professor was up to. David, I appreciate the attempt at a "KB 101" summary, but there are numerous errors and misleading statements above.

One of the greatest struggles that followers of Karl Barth currently face, especially in the English-speaking West, is against those who continue to caricature and otherwise misrepresent the man and his theology. Much of this seems to stem from our teachers and our teachers' teachers, who read CD 1.1 when it was first published in English only half a century ago and failed to later correct their misunderstandings by reading the full Dogmatics.