Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A very brief overview of Karl Barth’s theology

Below is an extract of my paper which I submitted for my Church History Survey's class. I wrote a short biography on Karl Barth and the following extract is a very brief summary of his theology. I have used mainly:
  1. Stanley Grez and Roger Olson's 20th Century Theology: God and the Word in a Transitional Age; and
  2. Benjamin Leslie's "Karl Barth" in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians, edited by Donald Musser and Joseph Price
as my references in the following. Endnotes are in accordance with Chicago manual of style.

The theology of Karl Barth may best be understood as an extended response to the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Protestant liberalism. Borrowing the language of Sφren Kierkegaard, Barth spoke of the "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and the human being.1 God is the one who is "wholly other," and if one is to know anything of God, it will not be found by gazing into the world of human experience. Barth summarized his own position by declaring, "The possibility of knowledge of God's Word lies in God's Word and nowhere else."2 The only way we are to know this God is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and nowhere else. When asked how one knows that this is true, Barth responded, "Proof of faith consists in the proclamation of faith. The proof of knowledge of the Word consists in confessing it."3

For Barth the only source of Christian theology is God's Word. He argued that this Word consists of three forms. The first form is Jesus Christ and the entire history of God's acts leading up to and surrounding his life, death and resurrection; the second form is the Scripture which is the privileged witness to divine revelation; the third form is the church's proclamation of the gospel.4 Barth views the latter two forms as God's Word only in an instrumental sense. The Bible is not statically God's Word, but they become God's Word when God uses them to reveal Jesus Christ.
Liberals had accused him of elevating the Bible to a special position free from historical critical inquiry; on the other hand, conservatives attacked Barth's subordination of Scripture to a nonpropositional event of revelation and his explicit denial of its inerrancy.5

For Barth, Jesus Christ is the only reliable path to genuine knowledge of God, since only Jesus is fully and decisively the self-revelation of God. Hence, every juncture of theology has to be understood in the light of God's act in Jesus Christ. This Christocentric structure provides the coherence and unity that makes Barth's massive theology a system.6
Barth understood the doctrine of the Trinity to be "what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian, and therefore what already distinguishes the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God or concepts of revelation."7

Barth advocated that God's love and freedom must be equally emphasized and balanced in order to do justice to the God of Jesus Christ. God's love is his freely chosen creation of fellowship between human beings and himself in Jesus Christ. This is revealed above all is in His gracious identification with sinful humanity in the cross of Jesus Christ. Barth went on to exegete the freedom of this love. He emphasized that God would still be love even if he did not choose to love the world. God has perfect love and fellowship within himself-in his triune life- before and apart from his love for and fellowship with the world.8 Even though God is absolute in relation to the world, Barth believed that the desire and decision for union with creatures in Jesus Christ is the ground and basis of the creation of the world itself. This led Barth to recognize that "God created the world for no other reason than to enter into covenant fellowship with it in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."9

According to Barth, Jesus Christ is the one elect and reprobate man, all other humans being are included in and represented by him.10 Thus, predestination means that from eternity God decided to acquit humanity at great cost to himself.11 Therefore Jesus Christ is the only truly rejected person and that all humans are elected in him. People may try to live a godless life in rejection of God, but "their desire and undertaking were nullified by God before the world began…What is laid up for man is eternal life in fellowship with God."12 Some accused Barth of universalism but Barth refused to give a straight answer to this accusation.

Barth's theological method is robust in its total reliance on revelation. Barth designed his theological enterprise to be independent from philosophical system or cultural, intellectual fads. He denounced the Nazism as a form of idolatry based on his understanding of the Scripture. Employing Christocentric approach in his theological method, Barth constructed a consistent and massive theological system that earns him the title of a theological giant. His interpretation and emphasis of the function of theology effected a number of significant changes to the theological landscape, including a renewed interest among theologians in the role of preaching, a desire to move beyond the historical-critical method to more theologically fruitful ways of reading Scripture, a recovery of the relevance of the doctrine of sin and a healthy suspicion of cultural ideology's subversion of the theological task.13
However, Barth's theological method has been subjected to a flow of heavy criticism. He was accused of leading theology beyond autonomy into isolation by refusing to subject the truth of revelation to every kind of rational justification. His methodology does not illustrate how theology can form intelligible bridges with other disciplines or with common human experience, and cast the Christian belief as esoteric to the outsiders.14 The second common criticism is the alleged Christomonism in his theological method. This is most prominent in his doctrine of election; if Jesus Christ is both the subject and object of predestination, where are God the Father and human beings in this scheme? Barth consistent method of deriving all theological truth from what can be said about Jesus Christ would appear to deprive human existence and all of culture and creation of what might be called theological dignity. 15
Nevertheless, in looking back at the church history, Barth's theology must be given significant credit for recovering the transcendence of God in the twentieth century and for exerting enormous influence among the theologians in the subsequent generation.

1. Benjamin Leslie. "Karl Barth" in A New Handbook of Christian Theologians, edited by Donald Musser and Joseph Price (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 52.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. &T. Clark, 1975), 222.
3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, trans. G. W. Bromiley et al.(Edinburgh: T. &T. Clark, 1975), 191-92.
4. Stanley Grez and Roger Olson. 20th Century Theology: God and the Word in a Transitional Age. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 71.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid, 72.
7. Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 301.
8. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, The Doctrine of God, Part 1, trans. T.H.L. Parker et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), 275.
9. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Part 1, trans G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 50.
10. Grez, 20th Century Theology, 74.
11. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, 167.
12. Ibid., 319.
13. Leslie. "Karl Barth", 58.
14. Grez, 20th Century Theology, 75.
15. Leslie, "Karl Barth", 58.

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