Why evangelicals Shouldn’t Fear Karl Barth

I am putting two posts from the past into one. This has come up again in my life, and I want to attempt to explain why as an evangelical Christian I think reading Karl Barth fits better with the aims of evangelical theology in general, than not. Typically evangelicals demonize Barth to the point that he becomes nothing more than a raving Neorthodox, Bible denying liberal. Which is complete nonsense. Here are those posts.

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.

barthI 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:

[3] 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).

Part Two

I am continuing this shortish series of mine on why Evangelicals shouldn’t be afraid to engage with, at least, Karl Barth. In my first post in this series I explained how I grew up in an Evangelical tradition (and still inhabit it in barthderspiegelways—I consider myself an Evangelical, at least sociologically, if not doctrinally, in some ways), and how that tradition made Karl Barth off-limits; how that tradition made Barth sound as if he was an evil ‘Liberal’ theologian, worse yet, a Neo-Orthodox theologian (which I had know clue at that point what that even was … other than it sounded scary and Neo!). Well, this series of posts, as the title highlights, is my weary attempt to demystify that pipe smoking Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in ways that illustrate (at least) why an Evangelical Christian should not fear this Swiss-man.

This post in particular briefly touches on Barth’s view of Scripture [I am using some end notes provided by R. Michael Allen from his Reader on Karl Barth’s theology to make this series go ’round]. As an Evangelical I was taught that Karl Barth, if in no other area, was most dangerous when it came to his view of Scripture; that he was an evil INERRANCY denier! It is true that Barth (and Thomas Torrance for that matter) did not endorse a Fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy, but that said; he also was not militantly seeking to destroy people’s faith either—in this regard. Instead, Karl Barth wanted to provide a theory of revelation (and an ontology of scripture) that took it away from the manipulation and assumed lordliness of man (whether this evinced itself in rationalist/positivistic liberal theology, or rationalist/positivistic Fundamentalist theology)—and this point actually overlaps largely with my first post hereBarth engaged in a process of demolition which sought to level the foundation and cornerstones upon which the Fundamentalists and Liberals had built there theories (or lack thereof) of revelation and scripture. He sought to reobjectify God’s Word as truly God’s Word in Jesus Christ for us, and then subordinated the words of scripture the Lordliness of Jesus Christ as his last and final word (the alpha and omega) which gave orientation to the written Word of scripture. By doing this Barth intended to provide a grammar that disallowed man’s own subjectivism to be the ground and orientation upon which scripture found its reality; Barth’s concern here was that if scripture became contingent upon man saying that scripture was scripture, that scripture could no longer function in the way God had intended it. And that way was to be the ordained place wherein we encounter God’s final Word to us in Jesus Christ; giving way to Christ and the Spirit, and their usage of scripture to contradict the idolatry of our human hearts (including the idolatry of biblical scholarship and their criterion and methodologies which they constructed to prop scripture up as scripture in whatever relative form that might take). Here is how R. Michael Allen summarizes this:

[I]t is important to remember that Barth believes all things and persons (including God) have their ‘being in becoming’, though they do so in very different ways. The Bible has its being in becoming by God’s free decision to make it his Word again and again. Barth’s point is not to render its nature  as Word dependent on the subjective experience of the reader, but the renewal of God’s objective decision to speak through it. Barth has been misunderstood frequently by friend and foe alike. For helpful analysis of this point, see Bruce L. McCormack, ‘The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism’, in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics (ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura Miguélez, and Dennis Ockholm; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), pp. 55-75. [Allen, p. 38]

In case you are missing what is being communicated here; for Barth Scripture and Revelation are something that becomes over and over again, it is an event that happens. By presenting a theory of revelation in this way Barth could take scripture away from us as if it is some sort of static and absolute given (God’s revelation all by itself … annexed from God’s living voice in Christ) that we possess like a bag of chips; and give it back (so to speak) to God’s free, self-determined ongoing voice that is presented to us anew and afresh through the Holy Spirit’s breath which he breathes through the lips of Jesus for us (see Jn. 14–16). Allen writes of Barth in this vein: “[B]arth’s concern about the doctrine of inspiration ‘freezing’ this relationship of the written word and the willed revelation of God impels his talk of the Bible’s ‘becoming the Word of God’.” (p. 38)  So, Allen continues, “[T]he primacy of Jesus as the Word of God – that is, of God electing to be for us and with us in personal form – undergirds the graciousness of all human knowledge of God. The actuality of the written Word and the proclaimed Word flows from the incarnate Word and the very depths of the free Lord’s eternal decision to be with us and not without us…. (p. 38)

Why you shouldn’t be afraid of Karl Barth on scripture in plain language

Because when he was at a theological conference in the States somebody asked him why he believes in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; he answered ‘Because Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so.’ And he was serious. How can you be afraid of a theologian who gives a response like this? But more, Barth is way less concerned with destroying the idiosyncractic and Americanly inspired doctrine of inerrancy, and more concerned with ensuring that we have a view of scripture that allows God to have the key to scripture instead of us. Barth wants to give us a theory of revelation, or just a view of scripture, that genuinely has Jesus at its center, and that sees him as the canon of scripture instead of the church or the academy. Barth wants to provide a view of scripture that makes sure that we aren’t able to make God into our image, but that our self projected images are contradicted by his image revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15).

For Barth, Scripture is living and active, because its reality is seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 4.12; 7.25 etc.). He clearly rejects inerrancy in its American form (but so does the rest of the Christian world), but he does not reject the inerrant Word of God who is Jesus Christ, and he sees Scripture as Scripture because it has been and is ever anew inspired and illuminated by the Spirit’s breath as we are introduced over and over again through its human words to its reality in Jesus Christ.


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