A Response to R. Scott Clark’s sharing of Richard Muller’s Essay: What I Haven’t Learned from Karl Barth


Over at R. Scott Clark’s Heidelblog, the guy who once called me a lazy provocateur (which I thought was sweet of him), he just recently posted a 1987 mini-essay written by Reformed historian, Richard Muller. Let’s be clear and up front, neither Scott Clark or Richard Muller are fans of Barth; indeed, they could be placed in the category of some of Barth’s antagonists. Yes, if you read the essay from Muller in full you will notice a kind of passive-aggressiveness and academic backhandedness about it, but to be sure, the spirit of which Muller wrote this in, and I could only imagine, which Clark shared it in is anything but attempting to speak sweet nothings about ole’ uncle Karl.

My friend Jonathan Kleis has already written his own reflection and response to the Muller essay; it is very good, you ought to go read it. And I had planned on writing something up myself, when I first saw it a couple of days ago. I just had the chance to read it, and so now I will take this opportunity to briefly respond.

Muller in the essay offers three points on what he hasn’t learned from Karl Barth. He states, with explanation that: 1) he hasn’t learned how to do theology from Barth; 2) he hasn’t learned how to do biblical exegesis from Barth; and 3) he hasn’t learned how appropriate insights from the tradition of the church. I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with everything that Muller has said, but let me engage with a couple of things that piqued my interest the most.

Muller writes: “In the first place, I haven’t learned how to “do theology” from Karl Barth—and I would hazard the guess that no one else has either.”

Let me just say in response that I have learned (and am learning) how to do theology from Barth. Indeed many people have learned how to do theology from Barth, and continue to. When Muller says something as global as “I would hazard to guess that no else” has learned how to do theology from Barth “either,” we would have to conclude that he is only speaking to his own choir and not to the other choirs held up in other chambers of the church. Think of someone like Thomas F. Torrance, if anyone has learned how to do theology from Barth it is his best English speaking student TFT. Torrance wrote this of Barth’s theology and its impact in the foreword of his book on Barth Karl Barth Biblical and Evangelical Theologian:

It is a collection of papers originally produced as lectures or articles in which I have tried to present the theology of Karl Barth from the centre of his biblical and evangelical convictions, and in ways that may appeal to people who are deeply concerned with the historic faith of the Christian Church, but who have been prejudiced against Barth by uninformed criticism on the right and on the left. Those who are really prepared to read the Church Dogmatics, or even some of Barth’s smaller works like The Faith of the Church or Evangelical Theology, will learn to think rather differently of him. Some will find that far from being unevangelical, he was the most powerfully biblical and evangelical theologian of our age; and others will find that far from being an irrational fideist, and far from compromising faith in divine revelation, Barth was one of the most rational and rigorous theologians the world has seen. The main difficulty that people have with Karl Barth arises as they try to understand him within the dualist frame of thought that has prevailed within our western culture since the age of the Enlightenment, whereas Barth’s thought has moved far beyond that. Through probing into and recasting the foundations of theological understanding and bringing it into close alignment with the incarnation of the Word of God he has brought about in the rational structure of theology today the same kind of transition in the rational structure of scientific thought carried through by Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.[1]

Does this sound like someone who hasn’t learned how to do theology from Karl Barth; like someone who doesn’t have the upmost esteem for Barth and his theological offering for the church catholic? Clearly Muller is being rhetorical in his essay on this one point.

In the same paragraph we read from Muller (which I just briefly shared from in regard to “Muller’s ‘first place’” comment), we read Muller retort:

… As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle But Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content. The Protestant scho­lastics, whose works Barth read with respect, recog­nized in formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype only by the grace of God’s gift of rev­elation. Barth taught me where to find that rule for theo­logical formulation, but I cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.

Here we gain insight more into Muller’s own scholasticized locus-Ramist stylized idea of how theology ought to be done versus the way other people, Christian people, have chosen to engage in theological discourse and development. Again, when Muller writes things like this it certainly will get play with an audience like we find over at Clark’s Heidelblog, but in the broader Christian world Muller’s critique is not going to have the same bite.

George Hunsinger in his monumental book How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology has identified six motifs that help the reader—indeed it would help Muller if he was willing enough to allow it—to understand what Barth’s theological method is all about. When Muller critiques Barth’s theology for lack of closure, and the dialectic nature of it all, he should read this from Hunsinger so he might avoid making such silly comments going forward. Hunsinger writes of the ‘open’ nature of Barth’s theology:

 “Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.[2]

In other words, for Barth the nature of God Godself requires that things remain open without the type of “closure” that Muller wants from Barth. Muller tries to reign in some of his comments by bringing up ectypal theology indeed that is an appropriate move on Muller’s part. It is interesting then that Muller even has this critique of Barth to begin with, and this is why I find his comments on this point so silly. Barth just like Muller’s beloved post reformed orthodox theologians is simply attempting as a finite human being to know the holy Triune ineffable God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. For Muller the problem is that Barth wasn’t born in the 16th and or the 17th centuries; I’ve yet to find a theologian who Muller likes who isn’t someone we can find in those centuries.

And this is what I find most troubling about folks like Muller and Clark et al., they want to engage in repristination of a certain period of theological development which they deem sacrosanct and as magisterial as the development of the pontificate is for the Romans. Any constructive engagement with what folks like Clark, Muller, et al. deem orthodox (i.e. the tradition of the church) is ipso facto anathema.

But my question continues to be why?! Jesus is still Lord of his church, the church he said he would provide teachers for (Eph. 4). Jesus never said that those teachers would only be found in the 3rd and 4th centuries of the church, or in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries of the church; and yet that’s what we get from someone like Muller et al. Barth is one of a new crop of teachers who creatively and constructively engaged with Muller’s post reformed orthodox theologians; which Muller acknowledges himself in his essay. But since Barth deviates and reformulates, from the ground up as it were, the constructs and frameworks offered by the post reformed orthodox, Barth, for Muller&co., can only be one thing in the end: a heretic. And anyone else who appreciates Barth, as Torrance does, and others of us, are also, in the end simply heretics (and our salvation is questionable to them).

I am not surprised by this essay from Muller, I have read him voluminously, and he says harsher things about Barth&co. But I thought I would respond just a little, since I have spent so much time with both; both Barth and Muller.



[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), ix.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

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2 Responses to A Response to R. Scott Clark’s sharing of Richard Muller’s Essay: What I Haven’t Learned from Karl Barth

  1. Pingback: Excessive Verbiage, Dogmatic Exegesis, and Obedience to Holy Scripture | Reformissio

  2. Pingback: Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox? Further Response to Scott Clark and Richard Muller | The Evangelical Calvinist

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