Barth on the Demons: A Critical Appraisal and Demuring

One area that I think I disagree with Karl Barth on is his “demonology.” I have been reading G.C. Berkouwer’s book The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And barthCritical Appraisal. In it Berkouwer, more broadly, engages with Barth’s doctrine of creation, redemption, sin etc. Within his discussion of Barth’s understanding of creation and evil (chaos), Berkouwer launches into a critique of Barth’s conception of demons as a symptom of Barth’s understanding of evil as chaos (something that has ‘non-being’ and is simply a negation of the good that God has created). Berkouwer underscores the fact, that as a result, for Barth, demons are not creatures, or creations of God; instead, according to Berkouwer, for Barth demons (the Devil etc.) simply inhabit a realm of non-creaturely-being that has no real place within the reality of God’s redemption/creation; the fall-out of this is that demons (and thus the Devil) are not really given ‘personal’ status within Barth’s conception of things. Berkouwer writes (at length):

When we consider these data, we cannot but ask whether Barth is justified in giving only a “brief look” at the demons in his work on Providence. Undoubtedly he is right when he says that it is possible to have too much respect for this “disorderly business.” The manner in which we give this “brief look,” however, must be determined by Scripture. Of course we cannot believe in the devil and in the demons in the same way in which we believe in God. Indeed, we can only say that in that sense radical unbelief is the only proper response. This says nothing, however, about the amount of attention that we must give to them. It is possible to pray “Deliver us from evil” without having an independent interest in the demons. It is not possible to think rightly about Satan other than in relation to God’s revelation. When we take seriously what the Bible has to say about the demons, we may come to the conclusion that Barth’s “brief, sharp look” in the last fifteen pages of his doctrine of election is symptomatic of the kind of thinking which we met in his conception of the ontological impossibility of sin. The demonic element becomes vague in its “apparent” reality and in its “being emptied” as chaos. The demons, we discovered in our analysis, have not been created. They exist “only because God, in saying Yes to Himself and to the creature, also necessarily expresses a No.” They have been vanquished by the positive Yes of God in His eternal election and in the reconciliation which has historically been achieved by Christ. The sharp issue which Barth took with the bad dream of dogmatics (that the demons are fallen angels) robs the revelation about the demons of its concrete character. Biblical demonology is only the “negative reflex of biblical Christology and Soteriology,” for this “kingdom” is the impotent kingdom, the vanquished kingdom, the kingdom of chaos.

Here Barth’s “demonology” touches upon his doctrine of creation. The demons stand outside of creation. They are not creatures. The words of II Peter and Jude are ignored, although they plainly speak of angels that sinned and that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling. John 8:44, however, receives full attention, where we read that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, who speaks “according to his nature,” who is a liar and is the father of lies and has nothing to do with the truth.[1]

This, for me, is an example of how “Dogmatizing” can run too far afoul of the Scriptural witness. That said, Barth’s emphasis can still be a healthy one in this regard; while Scripture, as far as I can tell speaks of demons and Satan as personal agents of evil and negation, we should not absolutize their existence relative to God (as Berkouwer agrees with as well). Nevertheless they have real personal extension, according to Scripture, into the created order and participate in that according to the taxis or order that God had originally created. But of course their place works within the redemptive and providential planning of God, and not afoul of that. They are agents who have been made ‘public spectacle of through the cross of Christ’, and in that reality God ‘uses’ them to accomplish his purposes.

But Barth’s development, as Berkouwer reports upon it, ultimately seems problematic to me, again, because he depersonalizes what Scripture clearly indicates as indeed a personal reality (i.e. demons). I am simply noting that I disagree with Barth on this count, even if it somewhat “dis-coherentizes” his broader program in regard to election, a doctrine of creation/redemption, etc. I think it is possible to still drink deeply from a Barthian fountain without always affirming everything Barth.

An Excursus on Evil

I think this excursus dovetails with what we were just engaging with, if not directly, indirectly as such.

I am afraid the above discussion of demons, Satan, etc. might run a bit academic (and academic reflection has its place!). But the above discussion has real life implications. We are enveloped and surrounded by a world that the Bible calls an ‘evil age’ or the ‘kingdom of darkness’ governed by the ‘Prince of the power of the air.’ We experience the fall-out of this in our lives in very personal and real, and often seductive and deceptive ways. Our relationships among family, friends, and strangers are fractured by the penetration of evil into the very fabric of our lives most particularly, and more broadly woven into the very tapestry of societies at large. We experience this brokenness, against the backdrop of evil disposition, in our personal lives as we sin daily; we experience this societally as we simply live in the world as sinful (yet “saved”) persons.

This seems hopeless, kind’ve. But, and this is where Barth runs strong, Christ is the real reality of creation. We have been redeemed from this evil generation and chaos that surrounds us even from the moment of our mother’s womb. So we get to live from the inner ground of creation’s reality, which is resurrection power in Christ’s indestructible life, and participate in a power that is as strong as the bond between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So we have hope, and ultimately this is Barth’s point (even if I demur from his idea of what demons are). Creation has always really been intended for Christ, and Christ has always by his own free determination as electing God and elected man been for us. So we have hope!

[1] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph Of Grace In The Theology Of Karl Barth: An Introduction And Critical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 239-40.

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2 comments

  1. When it comes to evil as nothingness (albeit, “nothingness is not nothing,” he writes), I will not venture to defend Barth, which is not to say that it is indefensible. I will have to revisit his treatment of demons, but his treatment of angels is most definitely not depersonalized, as I once blogged:

    https://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/to-deny-the-angels-is-to-deny-god-himself-barth/

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  2. You are right, Kevin. Ie Barth’s right hand and left hand theology as Berkouwer highlights that in his discussion.

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