Contextual Theology, A Reflection for Karl Barth

There is often an attack on the reality that theology is contextual; this is a point that folks often bring out when they want to marginalize a theologian or a theological system that they don’t especially appreciate. This tactic, in my experience, is most often brought in to play when discussing Karl Barth’s theology. Again, as a result of a discussion I had yesterday, I have been prompted to reflect upon this once again. The point is usually made that because Karl Barth’s theology (for example) took shape in lieu of the Kantian ‘Modern’ backdrop, and in particular the Natural Theology abused by the Third Reich and Nazi Germany in World War II; that Barth’s theological approach was shaped ‘in response’ to these all compelling external forces which impinged upon the way Barth theologized. This claim is also made by folks who call themselves ‘post-colonial’ theologians (really post-modern), who want to marginalize what they consider to be an imperialistic hegemony of theological kingsmanship; which is to say that they think that Anglo-European/American dominated theological power-structures have imposed themselves on the way we think theologically, and thus the best way to relativize this power is to identify the ‘power’ that gave shape to the Anglo-European theologies in the first place. In Barth’s case, the usual suspect of “Evangelicals” and “post-Colonialists,” it is again, to go back to Barth’s time and place, and suggest (argue) that because Barth was located where he was; that his theology can really only speak to the context in which he worked. The charge is that the categories that Barth used (like Kantian) place his theology in an obsolete book-shelf somewhere in Berlin wherein the dust and moth-balls ought to have their due-course. The suggestion is that since we can now identify the forces that compelled Barth’s theology into existence; that now we can discard Barth’s theology (or only look at it from a distance) for something “cheezier,” or better — i.e. “their theology.”

Part of a counter-reply I would offer to this non-sense; is that simply identifying the contextual realities that were in place in a particular theologian’s life pretty much is meaningless. If by doing so, the critic thinks he/she has successfully de-legitemized said theologian’s offerings as a theologian. If we followed this practice to its logical conclusion, it would make all theologians irrelevant and incredible; since we are all locally situated in our particular contexts. And yet, these same critics fail to realize that given their own locatedness, that they themselves are making claims that some how transcend their personal situadeness in order to condemn the situadedness, in our case, of Karl Barth. In other words, these critics method is the height of circular reasoning (petitio principii). [Beyond that, these critics, ironically, are appealing to Kantian categories themselves]

Beyond this, some critics can agree with what I just said; but they still, as a result of identifying the contextual forces on Barth, want to challenge his material out-put as a theologian. Meaning that his insights and grammar do not hold sound or credible force for today because his family (theologically) affiliation represents a time and an era that these critics find to be incredible. In other words, they think working through Kant or Heiddeger and others to be an “unsalvagable” move that ultimately denies Barth a voice that says something that is “true.”

My own approach would simply be to respond: Indeed, we are all products of our times; we are all contextualized persons; and we all speak in response to other voices. So what! I would suggest that because of God’s concursus Dei, or his providential work alongside creation (creating situation and space for his purposes to be accomplished within his creation), that it is precisely because of our context and situadedness that we can speak about what matters about God. That through various crises and problems that this world situation throws up at God’s people; that in response to these crises, we encounter God’s Word to us anew. This can be witnessed throughout the history of interpretation in the Church of Christ; most notably, as I reflect, during the times of the Church Councils. The ones that were prompted by heresy against the truth of God’s Word in Christ. We have people like Athanasius who have come to be known as Christians who have stood in the face of dogmatic crises presented by people like Arius and others. Or we have had people like Martin Luther stand up against ecclesiopolitical-doctrinal crises, and in so doing he encounters the Word of God in Christ afresh and anew. Examples can be multiplied exponentially. The point is, is that all of these people were contextually located; and because of their contextual-historico location they were in a providential position wherein they encountered a fresh Word from God that (given one’s perspective) has resulted in a fruitful way forward for the body of Christ catholic (or universal). The ultimate example of this is of course the eternal Word’s incarnation. It was through his particularity and contextual situation (cf. Gal. 4, “the fullness of time”) that he provided universal hope for all times and places. It is this same ‘Word’ that breaks in upon us in our various contexts that allows us to speak theological truth that can have force for “all.” This is how I would seek to salvage Barth from the unsavory approaches that would like to marginalize him.

I, ultimately, don’t agree with everything that Barth has written or taught; but at the same time, the ground upon which I would disagree with Barth (if I do) is not to contextualize his theology out of existence. Instead, I would have to disagree with Barth the same way I would have to disagree with any other theologian—whether that be in 4th century Latin church, or the 21st century Post-modern church—it would have to be on material theological grounds; and not merely on genetic-causal grounds. The task for the theologian-historian is to help describe how a certain theologian’s ideas may have come to be; but the next task for the constructive-critical-theologian is to make a judgment about said theologian’s ideas based upon (for the Protestant theologian) the Reformed principle of sola scriptura. That is, how well does the theologoumena (theologian’s opinions) proximate to the teaching of God’s second Word in Scripture? This is the standard! It is not to make Barth irrelevant by appealing to contextual-cultural forces. If we were consistent with this method; then we could ultimately rub Jesus and the Bible out of the realm of the credible as well. Oh wait, that’s what some have sought to do . . .

I am really just venting here . . . thanks for paying attention 🙂 !