Why Karl Barth is not Simply a “Gateway” Drug

Michael Allen just wrote what I can only take as a rejoinder post to the one I wrote in response to Allen’s “theological twin” on Twitter; the post where Swain says to “get” and then “get over” Barth. In Allen’s post he references the “controversy” that was spawned by Swain’s tweet, but as I look around the only person I see who really pushed back at Swain’s tweet, either on Twitter or allensbarthvia blog, was me. For the rest of my post here (which is really just a quick registering of the fact that I’ve read Allen’s post) it will be premised upon what Allen wrote in his post (so you’ll need to read it first, it is pretty short). Here is what I quickly wrote in response to Allen on my Facebook page:

This is interesting. Since I’m pretty much the only one I know of who pushed back at Swain’s Tweet on Barth, both on Twitter (although there were a couple more who questioned Swain on Twitter), and via a blog post; I can’t help but think this post from Allen, while not directly directed at me, is directed to me (this post). What’s interesting about Allen’s post, and Swain’s Tweet (and his explanation on Twitter) is that what Allen essentially writes here (while much more charitable in tone) is basically what Richard Muller writes of Barth in an essay he wrote in the late 80s, one that Scott Clark recently shared (this one which I responded to here). Basically, Allen and Swain are agreeing with Muller, that Barth relatively speaking, in his context, provides for something positive in his own way and time; but it wasn’t sufficient. The thesis Allen is offering is basically the one Muller offers in his essay: i.e. the idea that the thing that Barth really offered that was good was to point people past Barth back to the post reformed orthodox theologians and others in the history of the church—e.g. Allen’s “gateway” premise.

The reason this has provided frustration (controversy) for me is because I see what Swain and now Allen has written as a passive-aggressive continuation of the Carl Henry/Cornelius Van Til legacy. Yes Allen’s tone is even softer than Muller’s, but at base he is basically suggesting the same thing that Muller more aggressively was arguing for in his essay. There’s a hat-tip and then a moving on to the orthodox things (things which Barth fundamentally reformulated).

I have benefited some from Allen’s reader on Barth’s CD, primarily because he offers some choice and select readings of the CD therein. But what he writes in his article here sounds to me like a softer gentler Richard Muller.

And the reason I’m so vociferous about this is not because I’m a fully fledged “Barthian,” it’s because I don’t see Barth as someone who can materially or formally be engaged with (in a gateway fashion). In other words he offers a totally different paradigm than those who Swain, Allen, Muller et al believe are orthodox; and I know they all know this. So to say that Barth is a gateway means exactly what Muller says in his article. The reason I take a stand here is because I think the lines are being blurred, and de facto Barth’s theology is still left where it was for Muller et al in Allen, Swain, et al. I.e. Barth is a marginal theologian who did the best he could in the time and circumstance he lived in, but his best offering was to point us back to the post reformed orthodox and “classical” tradition. This is what Allen is saying. But that’s not really a meaningful way to engage with Barth, it’s a hat-tip and a moving on. I don’t think Barth is a figure who is simple someone you hat-tip, I said as much in a response to Phillip Cary’s article on First Things (First Things published my response to Cary on their site).

Okay, so that is what I wrote in my Facebook response. The way I see folks like Swain, Allen, et al. “gatewaying” Barth is to simply locate Barth in his place as a modern theologian in the German context. It is disingenuous, in my view, to act like someone is actually engaging with Barth, when that engagement is really a “gateway” or a portal to deeper and purer waters; the waters that Muller speaks of in his mini-essay. In other words, when Allen writes, “While the Word always confronts us from outside, the theologian is not to be a savant but fundamentally a student who listens ever deeper, ever wider. It is a shame when Barth, who sought to tune our ears to that wider chorus of saints, is left playing solo.” If you read Cary’s article, actually, and then couple that with the harder tone of Muller’s essay, what you’ll get in a softer gentler voice is something like Allen’s post. Barth’s theology is too revolutionary, paradigmatical, to simply be engaged with as a gateway. I know that Allen and Swain know this, I just wish they’d be as forthright as Muller was in his essay.