‘It’s time to move on’ from Barth

Roger Olson recently presented an article at his blog on Karl Barth and barthuniversalism. In the aftermath of that he provided further clarification and response to the response that he received from Barth scholars (off-line) as a result. In the comment thread of that particular post someone named JohnD made this comment about Barth as a theologian:

May I say that I think Barth is overrated and given too much attention in the scholarly world? Actually, I don’t know that he gets that much attention anymore, but those who are Barthian scholars are heavily invested because they’ve had to spend so dang much time with him. Naturally, they want to justify that expenditure. But I think it’s long past time to give him his historical moment (esp. the Commentary on Romans) but issue a verdict on Church Dogmatics: An overlong, overcomplex argument with himself, which he ultimately lost. His Calvinism was his nemesis. And the idea of wading into those multi-volumes to find this out borders on academic insanity.

The greatest theologians write to be understood. Barth wrote in a battle within his own mind and ended up muddying too many waters. I think he was a brilliant man but, in the end, a lackluster theologian, for the best write to be understood clearly. (e.g. Adam Clarke, Wm. Burt Pope)

I know Barth is given some sort of hallowed status among scholars who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, but I think it’s time to move on. [from here]

Well if Arminius is your man, I suppose it is time to move on, isn’t it?

Barth wrote as an exercise of worship and prayer to His Triune Christian God. He wrote so the angels could be baffled at the manifold wisdom of God showered on the least of these.

Do the ‘greatest theologians write to be understood’, ought this be their primary mode? Or, is the Constructive theologian more concerned with constructing a hyper-solid scaffolding upon which others can stand and move in even more constructive ways—till we reach the unity of the faith? Barth was the evangelical Constructive Theologian, par excellence! It makes no difference whether or not he is easy to understand or not; last I checked the God we worship is ineffable, and it is in the enveloping of this reality (God), that sends worshipping man to his wits end in order to speak with the tongues of men and of angels in order to express utter adoration towards our [al]mighty God of grace.

This is where so many fail to appreciate Barth’s genius, like JohnD (his sentiment is so common, methinks). Barth wrote for an audience of one, and in the process ended up writing for the many.

Anyway, there is a whole wake of After Barth scholarship that JohnD and so many others just don’t want to be aware of.

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15 thoughts on “‘It’s time to move on’ from Barth

  1. In one sense, I understand his frustration. The fact that virtually everyone is talking about Barth means that he either knows what they’re talking about or he ends up being left out. Of course on the other hand, he should probably question his own charge of incoherence if so many other people–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and even non-Christians–have found something interesting to be said in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

    There is one good critique that might be drawn from John D’s comment. Those influenced by Barth have not always done a very good job of moving their own expressions far enough away from the Barthian idiom to do much good in paraphrasing or defending Barth. Even some of the “how to” books don’t do a good enough job of laying out the presuppositions and arguments that underlie Barth’s dogmatic judgments. Hopefully this will change in the coming years.

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  2. At the risk of being curt, JohnD’s analysis belongs precisely where it is: buried in the middle of a comments thread on a blog. His comments evidence not only a failure to understand Barth, but even worse — a failure to care to try and understand Barth.

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  3. One more thing: I’ve often noticed that people who voice things like JohnD did in his comment have a particular view of how reason functions in theology. When they don’t see this relation between reason and theology in Barth’s work they assume that Barth is supremely irrational.

    I would encourage such people to read Barth’s CD 15: “The Mystery of Revelation” and to consider how Barth uses a concept like mystery and what role reason plays within this type of theology. I would also highly recommend John Webster’s article “Biblical Reasoning”–it’s not a piece on Barth, but it’s a Barthian describing the function of reason (and scripture) within the divine economy of salvation.

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  4. Matt,

    Thanks. I do agree with you that JohnD is not totally out to lunch, but then he is. For example, only 6 years ago I had no real undetstanding of Barth’s theology, and in particular his doctrine of election; but now I do. I agree that there is still a lacunae in Barth translation, but I think as the conceptual matter of Barth’s emphases is absorbed more and more by say Princeton MDiv students, as they pastor and engage with text and people the idioms will be invented, and people’s lives transformed bybthe good news that the Gospel has come into the far country and exalted us to the near country of God’s life in Christ.

    I also agree that as TF Torrance might redress your point, that many people fail to appreciate Barth because they continue to try to undetstand him through their procrustean mode logico-causal reasoning; and trying to read Barth or Torrance thru thse lenses leads folk to conclude that the dialectic theologians are mad.

    I have read Webster’s Biblical Reasoning, and I agree; this woyld prove a fruitful exercise for those who mis-read Bart and Barthians over again. Webster’s Domain Of The Word is an even more expansive and sustained treatment that would likewise serve the JohnDs well. Thanks, Matt!

    Btw, are you studying at the same school for your PhD that Ben Myers earned his from.

    @Darren,

    At the end of the day, and with our American context understood, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment. JohnD represents the attitude I was exposed to over and again in both my undergrad and seminary experience ( except for my class with Paul Metzger who did his PhD on Barth under Gunton– he was regularly ridiculed for being a Barthian by other faculty). As far as I am concerned, this kind of attitude can go back to Gehenna where it has been inspired! The reality is that mant students are being ripped off royally; like I was for years and years, and that is truly tragic! I have a feeling that JohnD is a faculty member at some college or seminary somewhere; and that is too bad!

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  5. There’s a saying: “Don’t feed the trolls.” But while we’re casting bread under the bridge anyways…

    You know, there are people I respect who have “moved on” from Barth. It’s a total system of thought, but it’s far from all there is, and if you wish to do something else, more power to you. And there are people I respect who simply don’t do Barth. And there are certainly smart people who disagree with Barth’s projects. But however one wishes to deal with him, the man is not a “fad”; he is, objectively speaking, one of the most prolific and influential theologians of the last century, and his fingerprints can be found in all sorts of places that don’t officially bear his name. And the man hasn’t even been dead for half a century! I don’t even have to teach the underlying metaphysics and ideological groundwork, because it’s still being taught! (Even though really I do, because most people aren’t well-versed on what happened 15 years ago, but still…)

    Frankly, I think we could be done with folks like Reinhold Niebuhr, if one were looking to cull the rolls. His brother was the smart one. And I’m down with never looking at another page of Lewis in my life, though I won’t knock him too hard because he at least knew his job was storytelling. One must still know them, especially for their contexts, but if you wanted to tell me that they’d “had their day” I could see that. Bit-players on the scene, however useful, must leave the stage sometime. Chesterton, too, could be left behind. Valuable, insightful, but archaic, and not generally necessary. I fail to see how Barth fits this category.

    All that said, a little indulgence: I would like to highlight this little gem, bolstered as it is by preferential name-dropping of two 19th-century Methodist apologetes who demonstrate little in the way of theological greatness themselves: “The greatest theologians write to be understood.” Or, as I like to call it, “I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like.” And I like what comes to me packaged for my understanding, especially when it supports my opinions.

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  6. Matt Wilcoxen,

    Even better 🙂 !

    Matt Frost,

    Good points! I’m sure that your quotation from the Methodist apologetes was the one JohnD had in mind. And your critique of that is dead on, I think! I like to call it the problem of received theology (which has the same problems as the “Received Text” or Textus Receptus 😉 ). And it is this kind of static “Received” theology that somehow passes as Evangelical theology nowadays, but all it does, really, is reflect the kind of God that is driving said theology; the kind who is the Unmoved Mover, and static in Himself.

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  7. Matt, you must certainly be on to something. The line “The greatest theologians write to be understood,” paired with the name-dropping of a couple of the commenter’s (quite obscure) favorites, betrays the likelihood that either (1) he has tried to read Barth and found him too difficult; and/or, (2) his instructors have impressed upon him the notion that Barth just isn’t worth the extra effort that he sometimes requires.

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  8. Yeah, we should definitely drop Barth. We don’t need any multi-layered, complex humans wrestling with the Living Word in many texts. That would cause confusion! That would be the Church being redeemed humans instead of Rome-esque God-on-Earth! Why, we certainly have no well-loved theologians from Hippo or Geneva like that!

    Jesting aside, while there are some parts where I might depart completely from Barth, you can’t just dismiss him because you can’t understand him! What madness.

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  9. I was sad and angry at the same time reading that comment. I certainly don’t agree with everything I read in Barth and I admit (as anyone will who is honest) that sometimes I have to work through his writing (especially in CD) to get what Barth is saying.

    But I end up knowing more of the Scripture and of Christ when I do and consequently, I become a better theologian and preacher for the effort. And since Barth’s goal was to see the Word proclaimed, I think I honor his effort even when (or especially when) I disagree with him.

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  10. Cal,

    Indeed!

    Hey, I got your email a few days ago, sorry I haven’t responded yet. I don’t know of anything like what you are asking about, other than TFT did have some fun things to say about Carl Henry :-).

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  11. Good points, Michael. And I think you’re right about disagreeing with him, or at least being in critical appropriation of him. I am sure that Barth would prefer thoughtful engagement with his thoughts rather than simple and shrill acceptance of them, simply because he is BARTH!

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