The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth.

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy in his first chapter entitled The Earlier Barth concludes a section in that chapter with a summary of the characteristics that formed the core of who the young Barth was. This was a time prior to pencilbarthBarth’s ‘conversion’ to the Barth that so many have come to know through his more mature writings found in his Church Dogmatics. What’s of interest, at least to me, is that as we see in Oakes’ development, even in the young Barth there are many recognizable traits that will emerge later in the maturing and older Barth. Here is what Oakes writes:

A number of the young Barth’s intuitions and practices have now been covered. Barth’s earlier theology is stamped with ethical, experiential, and individualistic characteristics. It is focused on the ‘historical’ and the concrete over the transcendental and the abstract, and is highly suspicious of the effects of metaphysics upon the doctrines of God and Christ. Particularly worrisome are the neutralization, reification, and intellectualization of God at the hands of metaphysics. Faith is generated by God, and it is primarily an affective and practical matter that is either indifferent or hostile towards apologetics and metaphysics and impervious to the yet good and necessary work of historical and psychological knowledges. In a telling sign of his freedom from historical Protestantism and Protestant confessions, Barth can even criticize the Reformers for understanding faith as a matter of believing certain things to be true. Revelation is the inner communication of an objective Jesus Christ, and this revelation is objective even if not primarily cognitive. Barth can even call religion and the religious life ‘irrational,’ insofar as they lie outside the strictures and sphere of transcendental consciousness even if they still motivate and ground cultural consciousness in reality. There is a fundamental passivity of the human being before revelation, but the human being, nevertheless, actively responds and submits to revelation. The young Barth can look favourably upon Socrates, Plato, and Kant while criticizing the re-emergence of metaphysics within theology inasmuch as what impresses him the most are Socrates’ questioning and critical spirit, Plato’s emphasis upon the good, the true, the beautiful, Kant’s ethical austerity, and the moral, self-involved nature of all three of their philosophies. Finally, while Jesus Christ should not be identified with the church or with any kind of Christian worldview, he is and should be identified with the social movement.[1]

One of the traits, noted by Oakes, that is most controversial in Barth’s theology (for people who approach Barth’s theology), and one that remains throughout Barth’s life, is his posture towards metaphysics. Later on his animism, if we can call it that, towards metaphysics is circumscribed by his heavy concentration upon Christ, and even more pointedly, by his doctrine of election. Instead of an Augustinian a priori method for thinking God, for Barth there is a focus on an a posteriori method for knowing God; by encountering the personal Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth Christ exhausts God’s Self-revelation, as such any a priori metaphysical reflection about Godness detached from Jesus Christ becomes a non-starter for Barth. Thomas Torrance makes this clear when he writes of Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[2]

Because of this Barth is often charged with being someone who has historicized God’s revelation; even more foreboding that Barth has Hegelianized theology; or even that he has offered a kind of positivistic theology. While some of these things may be true, at a certain level, in reality none of these charges actually take much care in attending to Barth’s reification and constructive appropriation of his own modern context. In other words, I would contend, that even though Barth was as much of a product of his own context as we are, he was self-critical (or he became such throughout his life) enough to materially move beyond some of the negative connotations of the labels that he has been tagged with.

But still, what of metaphysics? Does Barth’s ostensible allergy towards metaphysics place him at odds with the pre-critical, pre-modern tradition of the church; the tradition given shape in various streams of theological development by appeal to both Aristotelian as well as Platonic metaphysics when attempting to speak of God and his ways? There are obviously different ways to answer this, which in our North American context has resulted in what has become known as the ‘Barth Wars.’

What is clear though, particularly from Oakes’ summary, all that we have received from Barth started in seminal ways for him very early on in his theological development. Truly, Barth, the young and old was a modern theologian, but one who sought to constructively and imaginatively engage with the tradition of the church; so much so that George Hunsinger identifies what he calls the Chalcedonian pattern framing Barth’s theology. This is why I personally am edified by Barth so much; while he serves as a polarizing figure for some, he doesn’t for me. He represents a modern Christian thinker who loves Jesus Christ, and who seeks to express that love for the church of Jesus Christ in ways that engages with the whole stream of the intellectual history available to him in the Christian church. I find his focus on Jesus, and as such his de-emphasis upon metaphysics, refreshingly ‘biblical.’ Barth attempts to think from the ‘event’ of God’s Self-revelation as attested authoritatively in Holy Scripture; he attempts to allow the contours of Scripture’s themes and motifs to dictate the way he speaks of God. It is his dialectical approach, at this point, that I find truly refreshing. Barth does not attempt to artificially impose intellectualized or scholasticized ‘fixes’ on the teachings of Scripture as they find their reality in Jesus Christ; he is content to live within the tensions and pressures created by the living and ineffable God who is Triune as given literary attestation in the written Word of God. Sometimes metaphysics aren’t all they are cracked up to be, they can do more damage than good to the Word of God by imposing certain emphases and characteristics upon God that are not true to who he is as revealed in Christ and spoken to in the Bible.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

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One Response to The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth.

  1. Pingback: The Early Barth. The anti-Metaphysical Barth. The Biblicist Barth. — Other Reformed Theology | Talmidimblogging

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