Karl Barth is a Better Resource for Evangelicals Than Protestant Orthodoxy: Some Personal Miscellanies

I wanted to write a post on Karl Barth, off the top; which I like to do every now and then. Karl Barth for the evangelical has been a balm; at least for this evangelical. Some say that Barth, at least socio-politically, is more radical and progressive than many of us evangelicals; and this may well be so in some pointed ways (but not in general ways, I’d gather). But of course, that wasn’t the first hook for me when it came to Barth, the first hanger for me was and continues to be theological. It is here where I would argue, at great length!, that Barth’s theology is fitted to the evangelical impulse much better than what is being currently excavated by evangelicals today. I grew up in the Free church Baptistic (Baptist even) tradition, and in this tradition, we had certain contours of thought funding our conception of God and all things corollary. Primary of which can be captured in the children’s Sunday School song (which Barth famously responded with at a heady theological conference): Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. All the hallmark touchstones present in the Protestant Reformation are represented in that little song; i.e. the Bible, Jesus pro me, and God’s love (which implies a Trinitarian frame). Also present in the tenor of that song is the warm-hearted piety which funds much of the 20th century North American evangelicalism I was birthed into and formed by early on. Barth’s theology encapsulates and develops these sorts of themes in deep and theologically rich ways. These are some reasons why I was attracted to Barth’s theology, and why I would argue his theology is better suited for evangelicals than is the 16th and 17th century school theology of Protestant orthodoxy. It isn’t that the Protestant orthodox theology isn’t inextricably informative to Barth’s own theology, it actually is! It is just that Barth, in my view, does a better job of retrieving this theology, in constructive mode, in such a way that coalesces with the evangelical mood (that I’m aware of), than does the sort of repristination of that that is happening in the work of folks like Mike Allen, Scott Swain, Richard Muller et al.

Before this digresses into a polemical post, let me turn back to the positives of Barth’s theology, that have captured and captivated me for many years now. The primary hook for me—which I’ve mentioned before—is Barth’s reformulation of election/predestination. His, of course, is a Christ concentrated reification of double predestination wherein the eternal Logos, God’s Son, is not only the electing God, but the elected human for us. As such He assumes our humanity for Himself, and gives us His elect humanity which is realized in the resurrection and the ‘wonderful exchange’ (mirifica commutatio) II Cor. 8.9. There is more to unpacking Barth’s reformulation, but in a nutshell, this brought me into the influence of his theology. I could never accept the ‘classical’ idea of double predestination and election/reprobation therein; you know, the idea that God arbitrarily chooses particular individuals for eternal bliss, and the others (the majority of the world) he either passively or actively damns to an eternal hell (over their heads, without them even knowing any of this has happened before it’s too late). What allows Barth’s reformulation to work is that he eschews the Aristotelian metaphysics that funds the Protestant orthodox conception of double predestination, and the theory of causation therein, and opts for what came to be called ‘dialectical theology.’

Dialectical theology, or what can also be termed dialogical theology, is also another hook for me, when it comes to Barth’s theology. This mode of thinking moves beyond the typical boundaries set by analytical strictures, and allows the Christian thinker to think anew from the ‘rationality’ set down by the Gospel reality itself. This reality isn’t one that is ‘naturally’ discoverable in a pure nature, but instead it is sui generis, it is a ratio or logic that is recognized by faith; it is a ratio that comes with the Grace of the Gospel, as such it is relationally (analogia relationis) and thus dialogically oriented. Its orientation, in other words, is one that is grounded in God’s free choice to be for us and with and not against us in Jesus Christ. This sort of theology, grounded in the non-analogous reality of the Incarnation, necessarily is one that is driven by the event and ongoing encounter of this event of God’s life for us in the face of the risen Christ. In other words, it is a theology shaped by an I/Thou relationship; first and foremost, grounded in the eternal bond and singular person of Jesus Christ and the fellowship He has always already shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit. The character of this sort of theology, because of its relational nature, seeks to think its thoughts and articulate its words only after attentively listening to God speak; and only after the disciple has spoken to this God (in other words, it is a theology based in prayerful posture and life).

Another reason Barth’s theology is so significant to me is because of its Apocalyptical shape. In other words, Barth’s theology is grounded in the concept of God’s invading grace in Christ. As such, there is nothing stable in ‘this world,’ or ‘this creation,’ except for the fact that God’s Grace becomes present, afresh and anew in the encounter we (as Christians) have with Him in the parousia of Jesus Christ; something that for the intentioned Christian happens on a moment by moment and daily basis. Some might protest that this makes Barth’s theology a purely existentialist theology, but this would miss the definitive role that the doctrine of election plays in Barth’s theology; it would also misunderstand just how radical Barth’s overture was against the genuinely existentialist theology of his own day (and what he indeed was reacting against). Barth grounds His theology in the objective reality of who God is, as such, it is a theology from above, but one that is experienced from below as that comes to us in God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is this coming that grounds the new-creation through which the Christian can think God in the world; and at the same time recognize the fact that God is antecedent and thus distinct from the world He has come to reconcile unto Himself (thus honoring the Creator/creature distinction). But it is this sort of ‘apocalyptic’ in-breaking that shaped Barth’s theology; one that grounds theological reflection in the eschatos of God’s life in Christ, and keeps the disciple vulnerable to God’s voice and wit rather than their own.

These are some of the reasons Barth’s theology has been and remains attractive to me. This was all off the top and very quick; too quick. But these represent some of my unpolished thoughts, and thus impulses that subconsciously drive me on a daily basis as a Christian. In other words, I have so internalized much of this thinking that it plays itself out in my daily Christianity. In other words, I have tacit thoughts floating around in my head and heart that have taken shape over years of reflection that help fund my Christian life and well-being. And at one time these thoughts were only tacit impulses, indeed; it wasn’t until I ran into Barth that these impulses were given words and a grammar to think from in more intentional and articulate ways. Solo Christo

11 thoughts on “Karl Barth is a Better Resource for Evangelicals Than Protestant Orthodoxy: Some Personal Miscellanies

  1. I have lots of posts that get into that. I even have a category for Scott. Precisely at the point that he is basically critical of Barth’s most basic theological moves and prolegomena. It is very self evident in Scott’s writings and critiques; not to mention his published critique of Evangelical Calvinism.

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  2. I agree with your sentiment that Barth would be a better resource for evangelicals than the theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy. However, I wonder if Emil Brunner (whom I have taken to) might be a better resource for Evangelicals than Karl Barth. I think Brunner pushes back on the very same things Evangelicals push back against Barth. At the same time, I think Brunner offers a more moderate voice to the conservative tendencies prevalent within North American evangelicalism. I’d love to know what you’d think.

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  3. Hello, Beemin.

    Brunner has some good things to say. I find him undeveloped in certain ways. And I still think he fits too closely with the scholastics Reformed, particularly on his openness to a form of natural theology, that undercuts the relational emphasis that Barth’s type of Trinitarian-Christocentric theology offers instead. That’s not to say that Brunner doesn’t have some good themes, or that it has to be Barth or nothing. But my alternative to Barth isn’t Brunner, but TF Torrance. And I wouldn’t even say TFT is an alternative, but is the other resource that evangelicals, along with Barth, would serve evangelicals well.

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  4. Spot on, Bobby. But to sharpen your thoughts also take a look at Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth and the Pietists or my recent book, Luther for Evangelicals.

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  5. Paul, I actually have some posts here on the blog getting into what you’re referring to. Busch in years past was very helpful in getting into German pietism etc. I’ll have to check your book out.

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