I once read, years ago, David Steinmetz’s book Calvin in Context; now I am no fan of Steinmetz (he was Richard Muller’s doctoral supervisor), but I am a fan of placing theologians in their historical context. Consequently, I think it would be great if some author did a similar work on Barth, and call it Barth in Context. If someone were to do such a pointed work (and I realize Bruce McCormack has done this kind of work, in a way, with his coverage of Barth’s movement from dialectic, to analogy, to etc. in his book Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936), I would think a major focus would have to be Barth’s position against the natural theology of the ruling Nazi party.
For example, Barth is purported to be the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which was the confession that represents the sentiment of the so called ‘confessing church’ inhabiting the environs of Nazi Germany. Barth wrote therein:
8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)
8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
8.13 – 2. “Christ Jesus, whom God has made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30.)
8.14 As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.
8.15 We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
So Barth, because of his strong theology of the Word attempts to take away any ground other than that ground given by God in Christ as the reality by which theology is done and its wisdom lived. Our job as Christians, then, is not to prolongate or conflate the church with Christ, or the church with Christ and the State; our job is to bear witness to the reality that we are all confronted with, in particular in the church, in Jesus Christ who is Lord. Here is what Barth wrote in his Church Dogmatics IV/3.830-840; he is applying this not only to the Roman and Eastern errors, but also to the kind of Nazi ‘liberal’ Christianity that indeed helped to foster a climate wherein the State could co-opt not only the church (in its special witnessing role), but also God in Christ himself as the revelation of God:
In the sphere of Romanism and Eastern Orthodoxy we have examples of the transgression of this upper limit of the ministry of the community to the extent that in them the Church ascribes to itself, to its life and institutions and organs, particularly to its administration of the sacraments and the means of grace entrusted to it, and in Romanism to its government by the teaching office, certain functions in the exercise of which it is not only to subordinate to Jesus Christ but is ranked alongside and in practice even set above Him as His vicar in earthly history, its ministry of witness being left far behind as it shares with Him an existence and activity which are both human divine, and human in divine reality and omnipotence. Yet even outside these particular historical spheres there is no lack of notions and enterprises in which Christendom inclines more or less clearly and definitely to what is attempted along these lines, trying to give to its resolutions the character of semi-divine decisions, to its offices a semi-divine dignity, to its proclamation the quality of semi-divine revelation, to its sacraments the nature of once-for-all established channels of grace, to its efforts outside of itself the character of the establishment and extension of the kingdom of God, and in short seeking to understand and set up itself, the Church, as a direct representation of Jesus Christ, its existence as a vicariate, its action as a direct repetition and continuation of His. This is the very thing which it must not do whether on a large scale or a small, or indeed the very smallest.
It might be tempting to just see Barth’s concern only applicable toward the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Nazi church, the ‘Liberal’ church; but that would be a failure on behalf of the North American evangelical church to not see themselves very much so situated alongside these others in some ways (by imbibing a natural theology, for example). I digress.
I obviously think that if we read Barth in Context that focusing on his desire to disabuse the church of Jesus Christ of any kind of natural theology will have to be the prominent focus.