The Symphonic Barth, Defying All Categorization

Karl Barth remains an enigma for most, it seems. They aren’t sure what to do with him exactly; or they are. This enigma is particularly acute in the Reformed and evangelical realms of Western Christianity. For some he is the clarion call of Jesus Christ himself, for others he is a minion of the devil; and for others there remains this enigmatic peculiarity surrounding Barth and his theology. pencilbarthThe Western mind is keen on the analytical and definition, it wants a hard and fast way to categorize everything; indeed, this is quite modern ironically. I say this is ironic because some of Barth’s most foremost critics have used Barth’s “modernity” as his Achilles heel, when their analytical approach is just as modern if not more so than his rather continental form.

I write all of the above to lead into a great quote from Mark Lindsay on Barth’s inability to be easily categorized or pigeon-holed by any would be interpreters; whether those interpreters be foe or friend, or somewhere in-between.

Arguably the single biggest challenge to Barth scholarship is the sheer volume of his work. Even discounting his thirteen half-volumes of (unfinished!) Church Dogmatics, his output was remarkable. The internal ‘insights and vistas’ of Barth’s theology itself add another layer of complexity to the interpretive task, as does his peculiarly individualistic manner of structuring his thoughts. As Webster and others have noted, Barth writes his Dogmatics as though he were writing a symphony.

No one stage of the argument is definitive…Barth’s views on any given topic cannot be comprehended in a single statement…but only in the interplay of a range of articulations.

Little wonder, then, that commentators and scholars have found it so difficult to adequately categorize him as one sort of theologian or another. Was he, as commentators as far apart as John McConnachie and George Hunsinger have suggested, a ‘theologian of the Word’? Was he, alternatively, a ‘dialectical theologian’, as he most commonly [sic] been described? Others have latched on to a dominant theme in his earliest published works and have tried to box him as a ‘theologian of Crisis’, even though the crisis of which he spoke in the aftermath of the First World War was radically different to the all-pervading sense of shock that beset the rest of Europe, including its intellectual life. Perhaps Barth can best be described as ‘neo-orthodox’—or even, as Bruce McCormack’s doctoral dissertation suggested, a type of ‘neo-Scholastic’? More recently, McCormack has challenged the entire analytical paradigm that has driven Barth scholarship since Von Balthasar’s 1951 textbook Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung Seiner Theologiae, by discarding the dialectical-analogical periodization that was normatively read into Barth’s early writings.

Such arguments over the interpretation of Barth’s theology apply in the first place to Barth’s theological method. Equally, however, the content of his theology has been the topic of strenuous debate. Cornelius Van Til and Stanley Hauerwas, to take just two examples, reflect the polarities. A little over sixty years ago Cornelius Van Til, a particularly scathing critic, asked rhetorically, ‘Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?’, only to answer (entirely predictably) that he had not.

It is, we believe, to do Barth injustice, and to do the church irreparable harm, when orthodox theologians fail to make plain that dialectical theology is basically subversive of the gospel of saving grace…No heresy that appeared at [Nicaea, Chalcedon, Dort or Westminster] was so deeply and ultimately destructive of the gospel as is the theology of Barth.

Barth and his entire system is, says Van Til, anathema to ‘historic Christianity.’ Conversely, Stanley Hauerwas, arguably the foremost theologian from the Anabaptist tradition throughout the past century, takes Barth to be the greatest authentic witness to the Word of God in the modern age, the one who ‘reclaim[ed] the scriptural and theological resources of the Christian tradition…’

Perhaps, then, one of Barth’s first commentators had it right: that it is impossible to fit Barth into any known theological scheme because to almost every scheme he is a scandalon. Moreover, his theology moves and never crystallizes. As Hugh Mackintosh realize early, Barth ‘offers clear principles, definite assumptions, but never a closed system. [It is] theology on the wing…’ In Barth’s own words (albeit in a different context), it is ‘a most precarious attempt to imitate the flight of a bird’ [Rom II, 184]. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested to a seminar group at Union Theological Seminary in 1931, ‘I do not see any other possible way for you to get into real contact with Barth’s thinking than by forgetting everything you have learnt before.’ Indeed, to cite Bonhoeffer at this point is particularly apt. Steven Haynes has recently noted that Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy has been appropriated by everyone from the liberal and liberation theologians to those on the far-right of conservative evangelicalism; his person and his work are so richly nuanced that he can, rather regrettably, be press-ganged into supporting almost any theological position. The same is perhaps not quite so true of Barth, but is clear that he resists being easily categorized and, as a result, has been both claimed and demonized by the entire range of theologies.[1]

What stands out most saliently for me in Lindsay’s development is the insight that he shares from John Webster; i.e. that to approach Barth adequately the “approacher” needs to do so as if Barth is a composer of a great symphony—as if we were approaching a symphony composed by Mozart. It is this melodic style that has thrown Barth’s interpreters off, particularly if his interpreters are antagonistic toward Barth in the first place (i.e. Van Til et al.); antagonism towards Barth “can” equal tone-deafness.

I also think it is corollary and fitting that, as Lindsay notes, Barth is scandalon or a stumbling block to his interpreters. I think this is fitting because Barth’s theological mode is given such foundational shape by the foolishness of the Gospel itself; itself called by the Apostle Paul, scandalon. Of course we wouldn’t want to suggest that Barth’s theologizing is the Gospel, but I would contend that it has the characteristics of the Gospel, such that attempting to easily categorize Barth’s theology takes on the same type of enigmatic novum character that the Gospel comes with.

I commend Barth to all.

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 19-20.