A and W
An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth
Karl Barth is well recognized as one of the most important and influential 20th Century Theologian. In the following introduction of his theologian, it will be illustrated in six parts. Firstly, the history background of 20th theology will be discussed. Secondly, the early theology of Barth will be illustrated. Thirdly, Barths Theology in his transition period will be discussed. The second and third parts will be discussed in a diachronic approach because it may be a better way to demonstrate how Barths Theology made responses to the challenges in the theological atmosphere. Moreover, it is easier to see the changes of Barths theological mind. Frothy, Barths mature theology will be discussed in a synchronic approach as his late theology are well structured. Fitfully, his contribution in contemporary theology will be commented; however, his frame of reference will be criticized if it is suitable to meet the contemporary paradigm. Finally, personal reflection will be shared at the end of the paper.
Background of 20th Century Theology
Nineteen century, the prologue of 20th Century Theology, is recognized as the great peak of Christ and intellectual expansion. However, it was also the period that the hostile critique of Christian began. As a brief summary, the major ideology in that period can be described in two themes. First, tradition is challenged. Second, Wests metaphysics was reshaped.
Nineteen century inhered the intellectual policy of Enlightenment in which one of them was the suspicious of tradition. Dogma and traditions of Christianity could not escape from the suspicion. Christianity was considered as a natural religion that is a matter of metaphysical knowledge. Theology in that time need to response with the resulting void. Some responses of theologian were that they presented the theology in a scientific way that psychology, sociology and metaphysical were employed. Fredrich Scheiermacher proposed the methodology considering religion as a feeling (psychology). Hegel treaded the theology in a way of the logic as thesis, antithesis and synthesis. (sociology/history). Hume and Kant considered philosophy and religion have the same matter but presented in different form.
The second characteristic in that period is the reshaping of metaphysics. It came together with the first characteristic to challenge the Christian Theology, especially the doctrine of Christ. It raised the studies of the sharp distinction between the historical Jesus and faith of Jesus. The dogmatic Christology was challenged. Therefore, there was a strong interest to cinematographic reproduction of Jesus life in order to seek the relevance to modern people. However, the modern science liked psychology, principle of analogy were employed in the Bible criticism for the reconstruction of Jesus life. As a result, Jesus is considered as an "exemplary good man" only.
As a result, the status/ authority of Bible were challenged by the modern intellectual science. We may raise if Christianity should follow the agenda setup by other discipline. Is it possible for Christianity setup their own agenda? In the following section, we will see how Karl Barth try to construct such science for the dogmatic of Church. His theology just like the music of Mozart (Barths favor musician) that is highly structured.
Early Theology of Barth
Learning Liberal Theology
Born in May 10, 1886 in the city of Basel, Karl Barth growth up in Christian family. His father was once a pastor but a teacher in an institution where liberal theology was objected. However, he learnt the Kants Theology, liberal theology and adopted the historical-critical method when he began the studies of theology in 1904 at Berne. He was also once the devotee of Scheiermacher:
according to the teaching of Scheiermacher and Ritschl, Christianity was interpreted on the one hand as an historical phenomenon to the subjected to critical examination, and on the other hand as a matter of inner experience.
As a Pastor
Barth left his academic world since 1909 for his pastoral works in Geneva. That was a modernization in Safenwil where was changed from agriculture to industry but it bring many social problems in that time. Thus, Barth devoted himself alongside of ministry, especially to socialism for the benefit of the workers. Under this situation, Barth began to think that the teaching of religion in that time might just imprisoned humanity:
A theology whose God was a "poious notion," a symbol of the heights and depths of the human psyche, really could not bring a true world of challenge and comfort, a genuinely freeing Word of the Lord. Such religious solipsism and self-justification which imprisoned humanity in itself
Moreover, Barth found the difficulties in his preaching: "empty pews, ineffective confirmation instruction". All his knowledge of historical-critical method cannot help him. Thus, he need other different theological framework that emphasizing the God but the human being.
Such critic and reflection prepared his objection to liberal theology when World War I broke out.
World War I
Germany declared war that started World War I in 1914. The bankruptcy of liberal theology was declared as 93 German intellectuals (most of them are Barths theology professors) supported the war policy. Does the situation match the critic by Barth mentioned above that the teaching of religion did not bring people challenge? But became the tools of people to develop their man-center theology that used to for fulfilling their purpose and desires? Barth discard liberal theology. Then, Barth immersed on the studies of Roman to discover the strange, new world of the Bible since the beginning in June 1916. His revised edition commentary on Roman published in 1922 just like a bomb on the playground of theology.
Roman ~ Bomb on the Playground of Theology
In this section, Barths theology illustrated in Roman will be discussed. He claimed that he was writing the "full-blooded theology" that the reader was longer for. It may imply that the readers have been imprisoned by the historical-critical method and human-center theology. It is claimed before, religion of Christianity was used as tools for fulfilling the personal desire by the liberal theologian. Barth proposed a new emphasis on the transcendence of God that bomb the playground where the gospel was turned to a religious message that tells humans of their own divinity instead of recognizing the gospel as the Word of God. Barth claimed:
....like a man clutching at a rope when he was falling. When he wrote his commentary on Romans to describe what he had found, he discovered that the rope and rung a bell which could be heard all over Europe. This brilliantly sophisticated young liberal had learned again what the Epistle to the Roman was all about -- that God, the living God, had come to deliver perplexed, self-contradictory men like himself from their sins through the power of Jesus Christ.
His emphasis on the Bible, the difference between God and man and the faith mentioned in dialectic theology are introduced.
Barth took up the Reformation understanding of Bible and consider it as the Word of God instead of the historical-critical method:
...The historical-critical method of Biblical investigation has its rightful place... but were I driven to choose between it and the venerable doctrine of inspiration, I should without hesitations adopt the latter, which has a broader, deeper, more important justification... Nevertheless, my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavor to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit.
Moreover, Barth described God as the Wholly Other in the commentary. In other words, God is totally different from human expectations and desires. The differences just like the Kierkegaard mentioned infinite qualitative distinction between the time and eternity. It was stated through the mention of the relationship between God and man just like a tangent striking a circle. Therefore, the revelation of God was not the Gods response to humans religious quest but his judgment on it as idolatry. Thus, theology should be developed from the revelation from above; but not from human-center theology that based on the human experience or reason.
In the second edition of Barths Roman, method of dialectical theology was used. It should be noted that this term was not in a sense like Hegelian dialectic. In fact, he became increasing reluctant to use such term. The term should be understood as a confession of the brokeness of our thinking, to which only contradictions of reality. It can be further illustrated in a Kierkegaard sense. As there is a difference between the human sinfulness and the wholeness of God, it is impossible to combine these two extreme except the leap of faith by the finite human mind.
As a summary, Barths theology in that period move beyond Scheiermacher in the following way:
To conclude, Barth concerned to "Let God be God" who is the wholly other having the sovereignty. He illustrated that it is impossible for a man to use God as their tool because there is infinite difference between the two parties. And the solution of the dry liberal theology is the faith.
Transition Period of Barths Theological Mind
In 1930, Barth took up his third university position at Bonn in March, 1990.
In this period, Barth got insights from the Books of Anselem but showed strong objection to the traditional natural theology of Thomas Aquinas. This period is considered as the turning-point of his thinking as it help to advance his dialectical theology toward his mature theology of the christocentric thinking in Church Dogmatic.
Insight Given from the Studies of Anselem
Here are the six contribution of Anselems Theology to Barths construction of his final theology:
Analogy of Faith
Instead of analogy of being that claim that the knowledge of God can be learnt from the analogy of the nature that was regard as "an invention of the Antichrist" (CD I/1, x); Barth raised the proposition of analogy of faith which also have the characters of development from above and Gods initiative. It emphasis that:
the knowledge of God is not an innate capacity within human nature experience, but is possible only because God graciously gives it in Jesus Christ who is both God and human.
Thus, our knowledge of God was got from the revelation of God through the faith; by analogy, it is possible to understand other man and other created things. For example, we learn the definition of love through the Gods revelation by faith, by analogy, we can know what a truly human love would be in the creaturely world.
To conclude, the emphasis of Barths theology was changed from the negative distinction between God and man to the positive knowledge of God given in Gods self-revelation of Christ. Barths theology was stepping toward a absolutely theological and therefore totally biblical theology that are free from (existentialist) philosophy.
Barths Mature Theology
By May, 1934, Barth as a leader to draft the declaration of Barman that asked the church to make clear choice between Christ and Hitler. Then, he was suspend from teaching and need to return to Switzerland for his completing of his Church Dogmatic as he insisted not to make oath of loyalty to Hitler.
Church Dogmatic is considered as the academic works of Barth which was different from his prophetic work that are making challenges to the theological and social issues. Please note that the role of Church is emphasized in this work:
When the word "Church" replaces the word "Christian" in the title of the book, that means... that dogmatic is not a "free" science, but one bound to the sphere of the Church, where and where alone it is possible and sensible. (Church Dogmatic, I/1 ix)
It is impossible to include all the themes in Church Dogmatic in such introductory paper. Thus, some topics are selected to introduce his main theological mind. The selected topics are: Christocentric based theology and Revelation, Trinitarian Theology, Theological method, Gods Word and the Bibles.
Although five doctrine are selected for introduction, it can demonstrate the basic characteristics of Barth theology. They are: christocentric, emphasis on Gods transcendence, revelation, objectivity, debating with liberal (other schools of) theology. Moreover, the selected doctrine are highly inter-relating with each-other. It can demonstrate how Barth take efforts on building a well-structure framework of theology. Once the basic themes of Barth are understood, it is easier to understand his other doctrines.
Christocentric based Theology and Revelation
In Barth Theology, the event of Jesus Christ, including his life, death, resurrection, exaltation and eternal union with God the Father, is the beginning, center and end of every doctrine. All other doctrine were built based on the christocentric. In other words, it can be found that Gods revelation in Jesus Christ was Karl Barths all-consuming passion. Jesus Christ, the A and the W , is the beginning and end of Barths Theology. But what revelation is?
Revelation may be understood as The God is the self-revealing God, revealing is an activity of God as active and gracious agent which communicates with us. It should be noted that the Christocentric revelation did not exclude all interaction between man and God from the Jesus of Nazareth; but stating the inclusiveness of Gods grace in Christ. It can be illustrated through the example mentioned by Barth:
God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so (CD I/1, 60)
Therefore, it was necessary to test the spirit in order to affirm that the word was spoken by God. The commentary on Barman Declaration from the Church Dogmatic gave better understanding on revelation. It should be bear in mind that Christian, Nazis both talk about God in that time. They may consider that Jesus was revealed through Hitler in order to support their political view and orders:
"We see in race, folk and nation, orders of existence granted and entrusted to us by God. Gods law for us is that we look to the preservation of these orders."
"Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler... Hitler struck out for us, and through his power, his honesty, his faith and his idealism, the Redeemer found us."
"The life and death of Jesus teaches us that the way of struggle (Hitlers writing, My Struggle) is also the way of love and the way of life."
It showed that we need distinguish the teaching of Jesus and Nazis as the teaching of Jesus "is tested to us in Holy Spirit". Nevertheless, Church did learnt a lesson from the historical event of Barman as God was believed to revealed there. Moreover, they are learnt to choose Jesus as the Lord:
"...the Confessing Church was, so to speak, only the witness of a situation in which simultaneously there took place a remarkable revelation, as there had not been for a long time, for the beast out of the abyss, and a fresh confirmation of the old revelation of God in Jesus Christ"
"Jesus Christ, as he is testified to us in the Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we are able to hear, whom we are to trust and obey in life and in death."
It is shown that Barths understanding of revelation was different from the tradition teaching of revelation, e.g. doctrine taught by Church, witness by Church, subjective experience.
For Protestant, the sacred text (final revelation?) was regarded as the authority instead of the relation to Gods revelation. Barth warned that:
But we should be fool- real fools in the biblical sense of the word- if either to ourselves of others we pretended to be the expert bearers of revelation, appealing for our authorization. (Church Dogmatic, I/1, 38)
On the other hand, Scheiermacher regarded religion as a priori. Thus, man was the center of theology but not the revelation. However, it fell prey to the absolutism. It will lost the objectivity of theology.
Barth objected strongly to natural theology including nature culture, philosophy, human moral sense, feeling consciousness, rationality and civilization. He insisted that the knowledge of God can be obtained through the revelation of Christ only and nowhere as there is infinite distance between God and man, revelation and reasons. He claimed:
the logic of the matter demands that, even if we only lend our little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follow the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. (Church Dogmatic, I/1 222)
To conclude, the concept of revelation with christocentric base was insisted by Karl Barth that can be reflected from his views on the revelation of Jesus (tested by Spirit), the status of Bible and objection to natural theology. The concept will be integrated in other doctrines developed by Barth.
Barth placed Trinitarian Theology at the beginning of his work as he believed that the doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian. The Barths argument of Trinity, showed us his skills of constructing a theology but not just from church traditional dogma simply that had no argument behind. It is very important to response to his opponent who demanded reasons in theology.
For the theologian in Switzerland, Christ was singular and unique self-revelation of God. This lead to the problem who the self-revealing God is as there is only one God. Barth took an assumption that the actually must lie the corresponding possibility. Thus, it was possible to make such deduction:
If Jesus Christ is who faith says he is - the unsurpassable self-revelation of God - Then he must be in some way identical with God himself and not merely an agent or representative of God. Behind and within the actuality of the event of revelation, then, lies it possibility - the Triune God.
It is very important for as he argued that Jesus was truly divinity as well as truly humanity. Therefore "Jesus Christ is not a demigod. He is not an angel. Nor is he an ideal man.", but "the reality of Jesus Christ is that God Himself in person is actively present in the flesh.". It is very valuable in that time as it counter-attack the popular understanding of Jesus that have been mentioned at the beginning of this paper.
It should be noted that Barths Theology is based on the Christocentric self-revelation and rejecting the method of natural theology. Two features of his theology, positivistic ground and scientific thrust, are introduced to show the differences between Barths methodology and others.
Barths methodology was different from the theology in his time that theology need to be interpreted by other disciplines. Barths theology is regarded as positivism that means:
a system built immediately on some theological foundation and not having any substantial or dependent connection with metaphysical or philosophical foundations
Of course, Barth was not the first one used such methodology as reformation had used it before.
The second features of Barths methodology was scientific thrust that was the inductive method of proceeding from particulars of datum to general statements. He treated the self-revealing triune God as the object of constructing the theology. Barth was not the first one to adopt such approach but he was in advance of them:
"It was, of course, said the Holy Scripture is the Word of God to the extent that is presents Christ. But the program of Reformation theology did not allow for any radical consideration of the meaning, importance and function of Christology in relation to all Christian knowledge." (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 366)
Barth applied his belief that his doctrine was based on thematic expositions that can be found in the small print exegetical passages in the Church Dogmatic.
It is suggested that Barth contribute to build a science of theology that may be a frame of reference comparable with other disciple. God is the object and subject (as he is the wholly others) for the studies. As a result, theology is regarded as an independent discipline and have no need to be studied with other agenda.
Gods Word and the Bible
As mentioned above, the only source of Barths Theology was the Word of God. The Gods Word was understood as three different modes that were in a sequence and Christ was the first priority in the sequence. Firstly, the entire history of Gods acts in Christs life formed the first mode. Secondly, Christ was not the product of philosophical deduction, Bible that make witness to Christ formed the second mode. Finally, the Church make witness to the Christ whose revelation was recorded in Bible formed the third mode.
Barth made distinction between the Word of God and the Bible. In other words, they are two different matters which is different from the traditional belief of Church. Word of God was understood as living subject which repeat the action from time to time while the Bible liked one of the happening (event) of Word of God. As Barth claims:
The Word of God still happens today in the Bible; and apart from this happening the Bible is not the Word of God, but a book like other books.
In other words, the Bible and the Church witness were used in instrumental sense that are subordinated to the revelation of Jesus. However, Barth was blamed both by liberal and evangelical theologian. For liberal theologian, they blamed Barth as he did not use the historical-critical approach while the evangelical theologian may blame him as he subordinated the Bible to the event of revelation. Actually, Barth planned to put all authority under Christocentric ideology. He began his argument that:
what we have in the Bible are in any case human attempts to repeat and reproduce this Word of God in human words and thoughts and in specific human situations. (Church Dogmatic, I/1, 113)
Using the wording of modern hermeneutics, the above quotation can be understood that "the readers are undergoing a process of re-writing the Bible Text during the process of reading." Therefore, it would have a risk that the Bible, witness of Christ, became a human value judgment. Thus, Barth insisted that the Word of God and the Bible had NO way depended on the subjective experience of the individual or on scholarly conclusions based on internal and external experience.
To conclude, Barths understanding of doctrine of the Word of God has no contradiction with his frame of reference of Christocentric because he placed all human authority subordinating to Christ who was witness by the Bible.
Comment of Barths Theology
The comment on Karl Barths Theology is quite controversy. Although he is regarded as one of the theologian of neo-orthodoxy which try to rediscover the significance for the modern world of certain of the doctrines that had been central to the older Christian orthodox. Someone regard him as a friend to evangelism while some regard him as a foe. Perhaps, different approaches for evaluation will result different evaluation. In other words, different perspectives can only view part of the Barths Theology; therefore, different comments are obtained. In the following, general comment on Barths Theology will be introduced first. Then, the pros and cons of the themes that have been mentioned above will be discussed. My personal comment will be intervened in the discussion too.
Bolich comment give Barths theology with positive value:
...the "positive" critics are nearer the truth in regard to Barth, that Barth did move progressively closer to the older orthodoxy, and that he can teach evangelicals much of great value.... (the critics of Barths theology) is admittedly sympathetic.
This comment do reflect the contribution of Barths Theology. No one can deny his contribution of construction of orthodoxy with framework and struggling in order to move beyond the liberal theology. It also remind that the cons of Barths theology should be understood sympathetic.
As Barth need to counter-react the challenge of liberal theology in his period that is on one extreme, his theology is needed to be placed on the other extreme to make such earthquake. However, the problems he handled are not simply to be judged to be "yes" or "no". When Barths theology are forced to be placed on other extreme; it leads to some problems as well. Thus, it should be handled sympathetic.
Donald G. Bloesch, give us some valuable insights on the comment of Barth Theology in his book The Evangelical Renaisance:
In my estimation one has the right to criticize Barth only when one sees the errors that he warns against and seeks to counteract. Barths contribution to the contemporary theological discussion must be taken seriously. This great theologian cannot be dismissed, for too much of what he says rings true. Even those who find themselves in serious disagreement with him would benefit from wrestling with his works.
According to Bloeschs idea, Barths theology can be used as checklist to check our theological through the wrestling with Barths work. In fact, Barth have setup a good example that he always make struggle with liberal theology and traditional orthodox theology before working out his theology. Do we just inherit all the traditional dogma from Church without any reflection? As Carver Yu, former department head of Religion and Philosophy department in HKHU, mentioned that most Hong Kong Christian just read the magazine of Next, East and Sister, etc. but do not make in-depth reflection of the rich treasury of Christianity. Without the process of struggling, the valuable treasury of Christianity cant be absorbed by us.
It should be noted that his theology is not developed without social context. For example, his Roman and the draft of declaration of Barman like prophetic writing in his period. Even, his writing emphasis is change to the academic work of Church Dogmatic, he said that "he decided for theology because he felt a need to find a better basis for his social action." On the other hand, unlike that music of Mozart which serve the entertainment of the court / noble; his theology is for the weak as well:
(Gods command is) a call for counter-movements on behalf of humanity,... a call for the championing of the weak against every kind of encroachment on the part of the strong.
This leave us a reflection that if our theology just like a intellectual game in the Bible seminary? What should be the value of theology studies? What should we to do to face the social injustice?
Christocentric based Theology
No Christian will disagree to place Christ as the center of theology; however, Barths extremely emphasis leads to some problems. Although, he seems to be very successfully to organize his doctrine in a Christ-center framework, where is the position of Father and Holy Spirit in his theology?
Distinction between God and Man
As Hans Urs von Balthasar comment: "where God and man meet in the center through Jesus Christ. There is no other point of encounter between the top and bottom portions of glass" It have the advantage that it lead us to know that there is completely different between God and man; thus, a man would never become a God. This can help to critic the monarchy system where the leader is worship as a God. However, the extremely distinction leads to the rejection of natural theology that make some problems.
The rejection of natural theology makes some problems. How can it harmonize with the teaching of general revelation of Paul in Roman? Moreover, if one do not have any concept of God; it seems it is very difficulty for him to know God. Take an illustration, an ant may only know the two-dimension world; it is very difficulty for him to understand a man who is in three-dimension. As man is created in Gods image, would God leave us some basic idea about God to favor our understand Him but not the infinite difference between the two ends?
Moreover, as the culture of a country is also rejected in the rejection of natural theology. It means that the absolute revelation of above must replace the original culture of the country where Christianity is preached. For example, it is extremely difficult for a Chinese to abandon the worship of ancestor if he accept the Christianity. Therefore, Barths framework is difficult to be apply in cross-culture situation. Furthermore, the dialogue among religion seems to be impossible under this framework.
Barth has the contribution to recover the doctrine in 20th century.
Many theologian appreciate Barth methodology is (relatively) objectively in handling the theology. Starting from Gods revelation and tested by the Holy Spirit/ Scripture. It seems to have the advantage that it prevent peoples intellectual participation that may distort the revelation of God. Moreover, the great theme of the gospel is no longer to be interpreted by other discipline like the philosophical themes. Thus, theology can be remained as the irreducible science of Gods Word.
The spirit of the method is good, but it may be fall into the trap of cyclic-paradox when in apply. When Gods revelation is under testified, it need the Holy Scripture as the reference point. However, what is used to testy the Holy Scripture? The revelation? Therefore, this system have no other reference point from other disciplines to verify it as theology seems to be beyond autonomy into isolation. As a result, the outsiders of theology may consider theology as mythical and obscure. Moreover, when a man testify the revelation, mans rational system participates in it. Wentzel van Huyssteen summarized this problem:
Barth is justified in rejecting the reduction of the object of theology to mankinds religious consciousness... But the assumed axiomatic datum of God and His revelation offers no escape ... because the positive quality thus given to revelation can offer no alternative to subjectivism in theology. A positivistic theology of revelation that adopts a highly esoteric method makes it extremely difficult to convince others that the basic tenets of theology - Gods, revelation, Holy Scripture, inspiration, etc. - are not the constructs of subjective whim, whether personal or directed by an influential tradition.
Thus, it seems that the Barths suggested method is quite ideal, but it encounter difficulty when in application. Furthermore, it should be considered that if the emphasis of objectively scarify the mythical experience of a faith?
Barths exegesis tend to be theological only but not historical-critical. When the goal of the exegesis is used to serve the preaching and faith of Church, his theological approach can give more captivating and enduring result than the historical-critical method. However, the positive contribution of historical-critical approach cannot be overlook. Barth overlooking this problems lead to the problem that he failed to explain the theological and exegesis difference when encounter.
Should a student of Religious Studies just immerses himself in the sea of theology and ignore the social context? Should we insist to receive the vision from above but not from our philosophy thinking to apply the faith? How should we response to the challenge of times?
The Challenge of Times
Rise up, servant of Christ!
Alert, yevan guards, be watchful,
Fix your vision up high,
Make straight your way and faith apply.
The prophets torch shall you relit,
Expose the false, Enlightn the blind;
Devote your hear and spirit,
The bound to free, the lost to find.
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