Why Evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth: Part 1
January 12, 2013
I am going to do a series of posts on Karl Barth’s theology, with the particular aim of dispelling the Evangelical myths that kept me from him for so long. I am going to appeal to R. Michael Allen’s helpful recently released book, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader; and in particular I will be using some of Allen’s end notes on Barth’s theology that he provides in his book at the end of chapter 2. Let’s get started.
I was just talking with my mom today on the phone, and somehow we ended up talking about theology; actually the way that happened was that we were talking about the turn I have made personally from the theology I was trained in at Multnomah. So I was attempting to explain to my mom why or how my approach, in general, starts at a different spot than most of my former professors at Multnomah University start from. My basic premise, in explanation to my mom, was that I don’t feel the burden in doing apologetics (i.e. defending the inerrancy of scripture, arguing for the existence of God, etc.) before I can do Biblical exegesis, Homiletics, Evangelism, Christian Dogmatics, etc. I was explaining to my mom that Karl Barth & co. has proved a great resource for me in moving forward into a way of thinking and living theologically that is actually more Evangelical than the premises from which Evangelicalism finds its orientation (i.e. philosophical foundationalism, propositionalism, etc.). Allen’s comment’s on Barth, in this direction, help to provide further insight into what I was (and am) getting at:
 The subject matter of dogmatics is given to God’s people: ‘Hence [dogmatics] does not have to begin by finding or inventing the standard by which it measures. It sees and recognizes that this is given with the Church’ (I/1.12). Dogmatics is an activity of ‘the hearing church’ (I/2.797), a key theme in Reformed dogmatics that highlights the eccentric shape of Christian theology. Theology is by faith, not by sight, because it is governed by God’s speech, not our own immanent refelction, aspiration, or experience. Of course, dogmatics does involve reflection and real intellectual work, but this follows the prior work of God and (if done faithfully) never puts the cart before the horse. The hopeful confidence of those who do work in dogmatics is not grounded in or sustained by an optimistic assessment of their capacities, but by the promises of God to speak sovereignly, majestically, eloquently (see I/2.867). [R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 37 (Nook version).]
Thus, God’s Word (scripture) is not contingent or dependent upon my establishing it as Scripture; through my philosophically attuned eruditeness and argumentation; God does not exist because I have proven that he does through the Kalam cosmological argument, or the moral argument. Instead, this is inverted to its rightful orientation; there is an order of being/order of knowing, wherein, logically and chronologically God precedes his creation as the one who graciously created. He is Lord, and we are not. Once I think that I have to sustain his Word as his Word, then I have just displaced his Lordness, and undercut his capacity to contradict my thought constructs and words. I have taken his Word (scripture) captive by making its veracity contingent upon my giveness (being) instead of God’s; this is a burden and idolatry too great to bear!
As Allen highlights, genuine Christian theology for Barth & co. is genuinely Christian because it simply presumes upon the reality and giveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And it is through God’s primary giveness that the categories and emphases for how we do theology, ministry, preaching-teaching, evangelism, etc. take their shape.
As I explained this to my mom (who like me has grown up her whole life under Fundy/Evangelical emphases) she almost could not believe how anyone could not accept this; it seemed self-evident to her as I explained this to her, and the alternative theory of revelation that Barth & co. provides. My guess is that there are many American Evangelicals out there who are just waiting to have this kind of aha moment. So hopefully these posts will serve to fill this lacunae for any Evangelical who might happen upon this post[s]; and who is willing to thoughtfully engage in material consideration, and not give way to the usual caricatures and demonization that keeps most Evangelicals away from Barth & co. (which would include away from Evangelical Calvinism, so called, as well).