Book Review: Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy by Kenneth Oakes

Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0-19-966116-9 (hardcover) – 288 pp. Price $125.00

By: Kenneth Oakes

I want to say thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology& Philosophy for review. The following will not be a comprehensive review (i.e. of the whole book), but will focus on the last chapter of the book where Oakes provides a summary of Barth’s thinking on philosophy and theology; and then highlights some fruitful ways forward towards how Barthians might think about this relationship (and non-Barthians as well).

This book is a revised version of Oakes’ PhD dissertation which he finished under the watchful eye of the late and great, John Webster at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. In order to have an understanding of what Oakes covers throughout his development in the book here is the table of contents:

Click Here

Hopefully this whets your appetite to get your hands on this invaluable resource offered by Kenneth; you won’t be disappointed. It is indeed pricey given its academic title status, so maybe check your local theological library, or maybe request a review copy yourself. I have read volumes of secondary literature on Karl Barth’s theology, and I would have to say that Oakes’ book is among the best and most insightful that I have read. He writes in a clear, concise manner; providing coverage that is comprehensive, but at the same time does not sacrifice on detail. It is a well written well balanced book that any scholar could aspire to achieving in his or her own work.

Oakes’ Summary Insights on Barth’s Philosophy of Philosophy and Theology

According to Oakes Barth’s career of understanding relative to the relationship of philosophy and theology can be reduced to three recurring thematic entailments:

In the final years of his life, Barth’s thoughts on theology and philosophy changed little. The primary argument of the essay ‘Theology and Philosophy’ was a lengthy and rehashed presentation of material from GD: theology moves from God to creation and back again; philosophy moves from creation to God and back again. Both have the same tasks, although they undertake them in inversed and contradictory orders. This essay even repeated the clock imagery found in GD and the ChrD. There was also little new material in his post-retirement interviews and round-table discussions. Barth was constantly asked about theology and philosophy, and his usual response included (1) the independence of theology from philosophy (a classic Hermannian or ‘liberal’ point); (2) the exercise of Christian freedom when reading Scripture (as against Bultmann and his demythologization programme); and (3) the inevitable presence of philosophy within theology. All three of these points have precedents within the Göttingen Dogmatics. (pp. 249-50)

Personally this has been of issue for me ever since I came to the realization that I couldn’t read the Bible without presuppositions; that I couldn’t read the Bible nakedly as it were. And just as that tension is present in biblical exegesis, it is, as corollary, present when we think about how theology and philosophy implicate each other; or don’t. For Barth, as a modern, there were always the underlying currents of his context (which Kenneth just noted in sum), and how he brought those to his own theological project in one way or the other. But as is signaled by what I just shared from Oakes, Barth cannot be relegated to a facile place when it comes to considering this question; viz. in regard to how philosophy and theology relate. Barth was clearly committed to theological theology, as Webster might say it, and in that he believed that Christian theology ought to operate under its own terms and conditions as those are prescribed by the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

I think the best example of what the reader will find in Oakes’ work, in regard to the relationship between philosophy and theology, comes at the very end of the book in the last few pages of the last chapter. It touches upon the most salient point I can think of when attempting to engage with the question of philosophy and theology; viz. the question of correlation. Oakes writes (at length):

For the Barthian, the primary task and modality of theology is not correlation, for humans already live and think from within a multitude of philosophies. Correlating various and different myths, gods, and scriptures cannot be a major or necessary concern, as what is at issue is difference. Theology sees other philosophies and theologies being attentive to other scriptures, and concerned about the criticism of human knowing, being, and acting (or if this seem [sic] too anthropocentric, the world, objects, causes, etc.) in accordance with these scriptures. From the perspective of a philosophy that is attentive to Christian Scripture, these other objects may or may not exist, they may be better or worse named, and they may or may not be pertinent to the hearing of Scripture and the correction of church proclamation in accordance with Scripture. Yet why would one purposefully correlate YHWH with Zeus, some first cause with the transcendental unity of apperception, das Nihil with the State, money with inner experience, the infinite with the dialectic  of history? Why would one purposefully correlate Scripture with the US Constitution, Financial Times, Cosmopolitan, the Nicomachean Ethics, or of Grammatology? The issue for the Barthian is not correlating but differentiating, as the most pressing task of theology is the continual identification and worship of God as against the misidentification of the gods with God.

In its work of differentiation, theology reaffirms and follows God’s own active self-differentiation from the gods. Humans follow a multitude of gods, scriptures, and churches and so require a God to differentiate, identify, and present himself, his Word, and his works of love and rule. For the sake of following God’s own self-differentation, comparing and evaluating a whole range of other claims and pursuits may be helpful, and indeed necessary (as in the practice of Vergleich in CD III). Theologians may and should explore the differences between the ethics of Dionysius and the Crucified; between the freedom of the transcendental ego, the patriot, and the Christian; and between the optimism of technological progress and that of Christian hope for the restoration of all things. For the Barthian, such comparisons can be a mode of Christian theology if they are performed for the sake of acknowledging and confessing God’s own self-disclosure and differentiation, and not modes of curiositas or gestures towards the exigencies of academic politics. Of course, in the process of differentiation that which is being compared my turn out not to be so different, and this result would cause no surprise or embarrassment to the Barthian inasmuch as all intellectual and practical endeavors take place within a world created and loved by God and in which God became incarnate (CD III/2). (pp. 260-61)

As is typical for Barth, according to Oakes, the preponderance of the theological task is always Self-determined not by the theologian, per se, but by the Self-exegesis and regulation of all things in God in Jesus Christ. As such the ‘Barthian’, following after Barth, will work from the primacy of the Gospel as its own sui generis non-analogous reality, and understand that differentiation not correlation will be the common mode by which the Barthian theologian will engage in the theological practice. As we see in the quote from Oakes, there is almost a kind of accidental correlation that may well happen in say comparative analyses between various truth claims that can be found in the world at large. But the correlation would be from the top down rather than the bottom up; meaning the reason other truth claims might come upon “truths” in the world at large is because the world at large is circumscribed by the domain of God’s recreative and gracious life in Christ. For Barth the genuinely theological task is always a scandalous one precisely because it starts and ends in the foolishness and weakness of God as revealed in a particular man from the backwater of Nazareth.

But none of this is satisfying for the non-Barthian theologian/philosopher. They might detect certain informing theologies, maybe even correlations funding Barth’s theology; they might see Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and even Aristotle in the midst of Barth’s theological activity. They might attempt to use this as an ‘external criteria’ by which to disqualify the supposed Gospel-determined “foundationless” theologizing that Barth ostensibly engages in. Yet as Oakes develops; to attempt to read Barth too deeply in this area, while an interesting engagement, fails to appreciate the overriding commandeering that the Gospel plays in the material conclusions that Barth’s theology produces. Oakes writes:

Theology, for the Barthian, names the assemblage of philosophies that is attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth can swiftly dismiss a line of thought or an argument as ‘philosophical,’ and yet he never means by this epithet that theology is being to reasonable or thoughtful. Usually this label is functionally equivalent to ‘insufficiently scriptural,’ or what is essentially the same thing for Barth, ‘insufficiently Christological.’ Conversely, labelling an argument, theme, or method ‘theological’ cannot mean something very different from ‘scriptural.’ Barth is especially interested in the influence of philosophy upon the interpretation and exegesis of Scripture, because philosophy and ‘natural theology’ always remain so close to theology and to theology’s very source, Scripture. Yet he seldom shows much interest in these background philosophies or the influence they might exert, for undue attention to them might distract one from the actual task of reading Scripture and thus hinder the transformation these philosophies undergo when Scripture is read.

The ‘isolation’ of theology, if it is not to be established apologetically, can only be derivative of its attentiveness to Scripture and to the things to which Scripture is mindful. When Barth speaks of theology’s ‘independence’ he does not mean that theology is or should be insulated from other discourses. Theology can and should listen to those who have also been attentive to Scripture and to that which Scripture is attentive. Barth will sometimes use a variant of the word ‘pure’ to describe theology, but this adjective does not represent a theology anxious to defend itself against foreign despoilment or alien elements. ‘Pure’ does not mean that theology ought to be devoid of all things ‘philosophical,’ ‘foreign,’ or ‘human.’ As Barth notes, ‘let theology avoid all interests but its own, then it will not be isolated. It is isolated so long as it is afraid that it will be isolated.’ (pp. 256-57)

This might be the most basic and important observation of Oakes’ development, in regard to how philosophy functions in Barth’s theology. Personally I find this to be the most inviting thing about Barth’s approach; there is a genuine movement to use philosophy, but only in a way as if it is ‘passing away’ and as if the ‘Word of God will endure forever.’ In other words, as Oakes points out (my paraphrase), Barth doesn’t make much of the philosophies he may or may not slide in and out of, and this is because he’s more concerned with the theological task of allowing Jesus Christ to reinscribe the verities provided by the philosophies by the ultimate reality revealed in the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. That noted, Barth clearly sees many of the modern developments (i.e. Kant, Hegel, et al.) as the most pertinent categories towards articulating a theological grammar for the 20th century wherein Jesus Christ can be magnified most intensively; and in the lingua franca of Barth’s modern context. And yet, even if the hues of these various philosophers can be detected in Barth’s own theologizing, precisely because of Barth’s own locatedness, for Barth the philosophies themselves are only incidental for the task at hand; which is to produce theology that magnifies Jesus Christ. For Barth, as I read Oakes’ presentation, the categories he wants to think through are those revealed in and through Jesus Christ; because of the priority of the Christ’s reality, all other human languages (i.e. philosophies) will ultimately have to bow down to their Lord, who is the Christ.

Final Impression

I found Kenneth Oakes’ book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy to be one of the most insightful books I’ve read when attempting to get at the way philosophy functioned within Barth’s theological development. The only weakness with the work that I can think of is that it wasn’t long enough; I wanted more, I didn’t want the book to end.


Who Was the Real Karl Barth? A Friend or Foe of Evangelicals, or the Progressives and Mainliners?

Who was the real Karl Barth? He’s not someone who would fit in with so called evangelicals, but he’s also not someone who would fit in with mainline or barthpicture2progressive Christians either; at least not in the North American context. Kenneth Oakes sketches Barth’s place this way:

One wonders what Barth’s prospects would be for employment at certain higher education institutions in the US given his acceptance of evolution, his socialism, his unwillingness to speak out against unpopular communist regimes, his suspect doctrine of Scripture, his use of the category of ‘saga’ to exegete the book of Genesis, his acceptance and use of a great deal of historical-critical methods, his universalism, his eschatology, his revisionist doctrinal tendencies, his freedom towards historical confessions, and his unusual personal life. Barth would also most likely encounter hiring difficulties at other institutions given some of his remarks on women, homosexuality, Judaism, Islam, and other religions, his biblicism, and his seemingly exclusivist understanding of revelation and the person and work of Jesus Christ….[1]

Now if you’re not looking to hire Barth, but instead looking for a great theological teacher to learn from then he will be a great resource. There are many things about Barth, as much as I talk about him, that I don’t agree with; Oakes’ sketch hits upon some of the aspects of Barth that that would entail. But his work in the areas of theology proper, Christology, theory of revelation, election, so on and so forth are invaluable; at least it is to me. That said, I still find Thomas F. Torrance to be the guy who constructively appropriates Barth best, and works Barth’s insights, particularly on election, into the tradition of the church in very orthodox ways.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 250, n.6.

Barth’s Five Warnings on Philosophy and Biblical Exegesis: Scripture Alone is Domina

Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy engages with Barth’s “five points” or as Oakes calls them “five warnings” for how to use barthstampphilosophy in Biblical exegesis. I thought it would be instructive to survey what Oakes writes as he engages Barth in this way. We will read what Oakes writes on this at some length, and then I will offer my own reflection and engagement with Oakes’ engagement with Barth.

Barth offers five ‘points’ to remember in the use of philosophy within exegesis, but one might as well call them five ‘warnings.’ (1) The interpreter of Scripture ‘must have a fundamental awareness of what he is doing.’ ‘Awareness’ does not mean compiling a list of hermeneutical influences or a constant reflexive monitoring between reading Scripture and reflecting upon oneself reading Scripture. The issue is one of humility, which in this context means acknowledging that every philosophy is different from and inadequate for reading Scripture. Prior notions of human agency, the good life, moral obligations, and the fundamental nature of being are not just different from those in Scripture, but they actively prevent hearing the Word. (2) The presupposed philosophy can only be a hypothesis. While the text must be approached with assumptions, reading Scripture requires a willingness to alter these commitments in order to hear the Word. More problematic than the unsuitable nature of one’s presuppositions is ‘false asceticism,’ when one abandons the task entirely either out of despair or fails to bring the whole of oneself and one’s philosophy to this task. One thus should not forbid exegetical attempts undertaken by others with differing philosophies. As one’s reading   possesses the character of a hypothesis or essay, one must be prepared to change one’s own thought forms and philosophies, perhaps even converting to a different philosophy in the process. (3) The philosophy used for interpreting Scripture cannot be given independent consideration or become an end in itself. Such an interest might overwhelm the actual endeavor at hand: the interpretation of Scripture. Barth is not finally uninterested in the tools brought forward, he merely presumes that decisions to employ or alter philosophies within dogmatics should be made in the course of exegesis itself and not in some pre-theological space which theologians may enter and exit. Bath states, ‘in dogmatics, it is no doubt possible and even necessary to think and speak historically, psychologically, politically and philosophically. But in dogmatics we cannot treat this kind of thinking and speaking with final seriousness.’ Unconditional loyalty should never be bestowed upon any philosophy:

In this connexion it is hardly relevant to distinguish between good and bad, between the philosophies of this or that school. Nor is it relevant to seek a philosophy which cannot become dangerous in this way. There is none which must become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot have without positing it absolutely. There is none which cannot possibly become dangerous, because there is none which we cannot posit absolutely, that is, in disloyalty to Scripture erect its presentation into principle and an end in itself.

Barth realizes that this is a vicious flattening of various philosophies and he immediately qualifies this conclusion in his next point. (4) While there is no essential or necessary reason to prefer one scheme or philosophy to another in interpreting Scripture, this does not imply overlooking ‘the immanental significance of the difference of philosophical schools and tendencies,’ or the fact that individuals have definite and justifiable reasons, whether aesthetic, logical, or historical, for preferring one school to another. As Barth notes elsewhere, ‘a free theologian does not deny, nor is he ashamed of, his indebtedness to a particular philosophy or ontology, to ways of thought and speech.’ His main concern is to deny any necessary link between a particular philosophy and the faithful reading of Scripture. This is not to discount a certain type of necessity or assert that one’s tools do not matter at all: ‘the necessity which there is is particular: in a specific situation this or that particular mode of thought can be particularly useful in scriptural exegesis, and it can then become a command to avail oneself of it in this particular instance.’ While there are particular necessities for using certain philosophies in concrete circumstances, trouble arises when any specific philosophy is evaluated into a normative one for all times and places. The Word of God is free to use any philosophy for its self-expression. Throughout the history of interpreting Scripture there has hardly been some form of thought dangerous in itself that has not become fruitful and useful through grace (that is, sanctified). (5) The most legitimate and fruitful use of a scheme of thought for interpreting Scripture is a critical one, and yet Scripture is not an object of criticism but represents a subject who criticizes. With this understanding of criticism, Barth can claim that ‘philosophy—and fundamentally any philosophy—can be criticised in the service of the Word of God, and it can then gain legitimate critical power.’ To assert anything else is to underestimate the judging and renewing potency of the Word. Barth uses this claim as a deflationary measure for theology, affirming that ‘it is not really a question of replacing philosophy by a dictatorial, absolute, and exclusive theology, and again discrediting philosophy as an ancilla theologiae … In the face of its object, theology itself can only with to be ancilla. That is why it cannot assign any other role to philosophy.’ Philosophy and theology are both ancillae, for ‘Scripture alone can be the domina. Hence there is no real cause for disputes about prestige.’ If Scripture remains the domina, the result is that ‘we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy,’ and ‘perhaps not in practice but in principle’ theologians can ‘adopt a more friendly and understanding attitude to the various possibilities which have manifested themselves or are still manifesting themselves in the history of philosophy, and to make a more appropriate use of them.’[1]

I actually think that what Oakes quotes from Barth in this long development sums up the gist of what Barth’s ‘warnings’ are all about, it is this: “Scripture alone can be the domina.” Or when Oakes quotes Barth in a prior development of his book, this from Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1, 445:

Philosophy, ethics, politics, and anything else suggested here may all have their own dignity and justification in their own spheres but they are the philosophy, ethics and politics of sinful and lost man whose word, however profound and true it may be, cannot be recognized as judge over the Word of God which is addressed in the name of God to these sinful and lost men, as judge, therefore over Church proclamation.

Barth is a theologian of the Word who offers a fat theology of the Word. It is because the Word is so primary and primal for Barth that he’s unafraid of engaging with various philosophies and theologies. It is the freedom that the Word provides that allows, for Barth, the space to think constructively, imaginatively, and resourcefully; a space that I fear too many North American evangelicals shrink back from.

What we, as evangelicals and Protestants ought to maybe imitate in Barth is his willingness to be so unapologetically segregated by the Word of God, unto God, that all else is seen as relative, and potentially useful; as if the history and creation we inhabit isn’t a history and creation unto itself as an end, but that history and creation are God’s history and God’s re-creation in Jesus Christ; this is a theology of the Word. That the Word of God is not a preamble but is the amble by which all other reality can hope to find order and being relative to God.

What I see in Barth’s theology of the Word is a fearlessness, an anti-apologetic approach to all things; again, because he has a principial understanding of what Christian actually means when doing theology and philosophy.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 186-88.

Thank God for Jesus! Corrupted Interpreters that We Are

Karl Barth saw quite clearly, as a modern theologian himself, the hermeneutical problem that plagues each and every one of us. He had the 18th and 19th century theologians in mind when he penned the following, but the critique is applicable to all humans. I.e. there is not one period in the history of the church, or its intellectual history that has greater elevation than any other; I’m not spectaclesreally sure this has dawned on many of us. In my evangelical circles, particularly among the scholarly class there is a move back to Post Reformed orthodox theology as if it is the answer to what ails evangelicalism and the 21st century Protestantism in North America, and abroad. I’m not contending that there aren’t resourceful riches to be had from within that period of Protestantism, but again, it is theology done by broken human thinkers, just as much so as is present within the 18th and 19th centuries of the church. Here is what Barth writes in this regard:

We have to describe as a philosophy the systematized commonsense with which at first the rationalists of the 18th century thought they could read and understand the Bible, and later, corrected by Kant, the school of A. Ristchl, which was supposed to be averse to every type of speculation and metaphysics. It is all very well to renounce the Plationism of the Greek fathers, but if that means that we throw ourselves all the more unconditionally into the arms of the positivists and agnostics of the 19th century, we have no right to look for the mote in the eye of the ancient fathers, as though on their side there is a sheer hellenisation of the Gospel, and on ours a sheer honest exegetical sense for facts. There has never yet been an expositor who has allowed only Scripture alone to speak.[1]

The implications of this are deep and wide. What this should signal for all of us is that we need to have a sense of utter humility before the Word of God, and allow it, first and foremost, to do its interpretive work over and on us.

Barth is not saying we can’t know anything, just the opposite. Instead he is alerting us to the reality that what we can know of God, according to the Bible, is fully contingent upon God’s Word, and His confrontation and contradiction of our disordered faculties therefrom. In other words, we need to be inserted into the life of God Himself (by the grace of adoption) if we ever hope to have any knowledge of Him or even ourselves. Thank God for Jesus!

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/2, 728 cited by Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 185.

The ‘Blade and the Flint’, Human Suffering and the Knowledge of God: How Barth Affirmed Philosophy

Here at the blog I haven’t been short on pointing out Karl Barth’s disdain for natural theology and the analogia entis; and truly he did have disdain. But he also saw a proper place for philosophy; not a ‘half-baked’ philosophy (or theology), but a philosophy that truly sought to think ‘under the sun’ as it were. If we were to borrow John Hick’s thinking on correlationist versus non-correlationist theologies we could say that Barth does indeed, even within the theological enterprise, see ‘correlation’ or ‘correspondence’ between genuine philosophy and Christian theology; but only in a qualified sense (of course!). He sees, just as with the secular, philosophy producing the type of proper existential crisis that should attend any type of thought that is purely horizontal and abstracted from thinking human life apart from God. So the correspondence between philosophy and Christian theology for Barth has to do with the role philosophy can play in expressing the condition of the human location in the world apart from Christ; one of crisis and despair. It is precisely at this point that Barth can and does affirm the place of ‘genuine’ philosophy. Kenneth Oakes develops this further for us as he writes:

One of the more suggestive returns of the correspondence model appears in Barth’s exegesis of Romans 8:28–39. In a section entitled ‘Love,’ Barth explains the suffering of creation, the sighs of creatures, and the work of philosophy in this way:

The man in this world knows only of the sighs of the creature and of his own sighs, (8:22–23), he can at least know (1:19–20) insofar as he does not evade the ‘emptiness’ of his existence (8:20), the dialectic of opposition, the relativity, and the homesickness of everything given, intuitable, and objective. Suffering sees to the salutary opening of our eyes, and, directly tied to the given boundaries of suffering, in its essence as the interpretation of this fact stands the philosophy worthy of its name. Thus in its not-knowing of God and his Kingdom, in its knowing the sighs of all created things, we agree with every truly profane, but not with any half-theological, consideration of nature and history. For precisely this not-knowing and this knowing are the blade and the flint from which, insofar as they together in spirit and truth, as the new and third thing, bursts forth the fire of the not-knowing knowing of God and of the knowing not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence, the fire of the love for God because he is God (5:5), while the theological, apparent knowledge of God and the apparent not-knowing of the emptiness of our existence neither meets in spirit and in truth, even less in fire, nor is able to ignite the fire of love for God.

Here Barth poetically describes a serious, critical philosophy, one that knows the suffering of creatures, and does not know the Kingdom of God. Philosophy is at its best, and most worthy of its title, when it is existentially involved in suffering and epistemologically sceptical regarding God. Philosophy is at its best when it is ‘serious’ and ‘profane.’ A philosophy of nature and history that is ‘half-theological’ is not as helpful to theology, nor as truthful about God and the world, as a philosophy that honestly considers human longing and suffering. It is this philosophy, and not an apparent theology or an apparent philosophy, which contains the blade (knowing suffering) and the flint (not knowing God) from which the fire of love for God might be ignited.

In addition to linking genuine philosophy to suffering, Barth also ties it to death. Barth calls death the ‘highest law’ in the world during his exegesis of the Adam and Christ contrast in Romans 5:12–21. All attempts at renewing and overcoming suffering and pains of the present world, including those found within ethics and philosophy, stand under the law of death:

morality can only appear as the denial of the body by the spirit, philosophy can only recognize itself in the form of the dying Scocrates, the spiritual life can only appear as the opposition to the affirmation of the natural life, progress can only happen in the restless negation of everything that is given and that exists, every flame (other than the flame of the Lord in Ex 3:2) can only burn as it consumes.

The practices and knowledges of ethics, philosophy, and religion all belong to the old world, to that which is passing away, even though they may still act as blade and flint and be transformed. Barth see this relationship between philosophy, truth, and death physically manifested in Nietzsche. While Nietzsche was ‘confronted by the truth,’ he finally perished before it.

The clearest example of the correspondence thesis can be found in the foreword to Romans II. Barth writes, alluding to Ecclesiastes 5:2,

‘God is in heaven and you are on the earth.’ The connection of this God to this man, the connection of this man to this God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the sum total (Summe) of philosophy in one. The philosophers call this crisis of human knowledge ‘the origin.’ The Bible sees Jesus Christ at this crossroads.

It would be difficult to find a more revealing passage as regards Barth and the correspondence thesis. McCormack argues, while Spieckermann implies as much, that ‘it was clearly the critical idealism of Heinrich Barth which was in view here. Karl was not offering a theoretical reflection on the relation of theology and philosophy.’ From the passages above it is clear that Barth does not have just any philosophy in mind when alludes positively to ‘philosophy,’ but critical, serious philosophy. The allusion to ‘the origin’ does suggest that Karl has Heinrich’s critical idealism and Ursprungsphilosophie in view. Nevertheless, Barth’s remark is also a more ‘theoretical’ and general reflection on the relation of theology and philosophy, for this passage still presumes there to be a correspondence between critical philosophy and modern Protestant theology. This ‘crisis philosophy’ can refer in particular to Heinrich’s Ursprungsphilosophie, and yet it is also clear that ‘serious’ philosophy, a ‘crisis philosophy,’ or a ‘philosophy worthy of its name’ would include other philosophers as well.[1]

This is how Barth saw philosophy as a legitimate enterprise; it has correspondence with the human condition as that condition is narrated by the life of God in Jesus Christ. A condition that lives in crises and anxiety apart from its proper ground and orientation in Jesus Christ. Does this genuine philosophy, for Barth (according to Oakes’ accounting), have the capacity to enlighten people about God? Nein! Instead it has correspondence with what the cross of Jesus Christ and the God-man declare as it and He put death to death.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 82-4.

‘Parables’ and the ‘Analogy of Faith’ in the Theology of Barth’s Romans II

As we all know by now Karl Barth was not a proponent of natural theology, or the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’). But what we do find in Barth is an appeal to ‘secular parables,’ something equivalent to what Thomas Torrance, in his own way, calls ‘social co-efficients.’ barthblackwhiteThese Barth parables are grounded in his alternative approach to the ‘analogy of being’ in his analogia fidei or analogy of faith stylized mode of theological endeavor. Kenneth Oakes in his book Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy helps us gain further insight into how parables functioned in Barth’s thought, particularly as that was operative in Barth’s Der Römerbrief II. Oakes writes:

While notorious for his dialectics, Romans II is one of the most analogical works within Barth’s oeuvre. Romans II belongs alongside CD III/1 and III/2 given prominent and significant role the concept of ‘parable,’ or Gleichnis, plays throughout the commentary. While Spieckermann has noted the presence of an ‘analogy of the cross’ in the commentary and Beintker has pointed out the analogies between divine acting and speaking and human acting and speaking, the full extent of Barth’s use of analogy and the pivotal functions it serves have largely been ignored. In contrast to the analogy of faith he develops in CD I/1, whereby a correspondence exists between God and the subject who knows God, in Romans II Barth talks about parables between the corruptible and the incorruptible, between each ‘moment’ in time and the ‘Moment’ of revelation, between this world and human history and the coming world, between Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection, and even between the No-God of our own making and the one true God. When discussing Romans 8:1–2 with an eye to Christ taking on the likeness (omoiōmati) of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3), Barth notes ‘there remains nothing relative which is not relatedness, nothing concrete which is not a reference to something beyond itself, nothing given which is not also a parable.’ In Christ, God has taken up what is worldly, historical, and ‘natural’ and has re-established its relativity to God. Everything corruptible is indeed a parable, but only a parable, of the incorruptible God, who is still qualitatively different from creation. Neither dialectics nor the infinite qualitative distinction can negate the myriad of analogies that arise from Barth’s use of the concept of parable. The different types of dialectics in the work often serve the same purposes as Barth’s invocation of ‘parable’ in Romans II: to relate and distinguish creation and God, to qualify  all statements about God as statements made by fallible humans, and to emphasize the ‘not yet’ of God’s final redemption over the ‘already’ of the salvation wrought by Christ. The infamous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ does not obliterate  the possibility of analogies between God and the world, but provides the infinite difference which provokes and enables the use of analogy in the first place.[1]

It might seem like Barth is playing fast and loose here; it might seem like he is opening the door to natural theology by attempting to find analogies in the creation, analogies that point to God. But remember, as Oakes underscores, these parables are first given context from within Barth’s ‘analogy of faith;’ and these analogies, in the creation, are given telos as they find eschatological reality within the orientation of the new creation realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So for Barth there is no abstract creation or naturum purum (pure nature), there is only what God has created in the first and second Adam by His Triune grace. There is no nature/grace duality in Barth; for Barth, even his doctrine of creation is funded by a strong doctrine of grace, a grace that ‘goes all the way down’ (to quote a Torrancism).


[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 75.

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.

The ‘Young Marburg’ Barth against Charles Ryrie, Thomas Aquinas, and the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The first time I attended Bible College was just after I graduated high school in 1992; I attended a small Conservative Baptist Bible College in Phoenix, Arizona, at that time called Southwestern College (it is now called Arizona Christian University). I was a bible and theology major, as such I had an introduction to Systematic Theology class; it was taught by an old school theology standingthomasaquinasprofessor, meaning he was of the very conservative, almost fundamentalist type (and he was also an old guy). The text he had us use for our primary theology text was Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth. When the title says ‘Basic’, it indeed is very basic theology, almost completely cut off from any of the confessional riches available in the Protestant past. But what is typical of Ryrie’s theology relative to other “evangelically” oriented theology texts is his appeal to philosophical proofs for the existence of God in the prolegomena of the text itself.

For Ryrie’s part, the first proof for God’s existence he appeals to is the cosmological argument; he explains it this way:

General revelation comes to mankind in several ways.

1.Through Creation

1.Statement. Simply stated this line of evidence (the cosmological argument for the existence of God) points out that the universe around us is an effect which connotes an adequate cause.

2.Presupposition. This line of evidence depends on three presuppositions: (a) every effect has a cause; (b) the effect caused depends on the cause for its existence; and (c) nature cannot originate itself.

 3.Development. If something now exists (the cosmos) then either it came from nothing or it came from something which must be eternal. The something eternal in the second option could either be the cosmos itself which would have to be eternal, or chance as an eternal principle, or God the eternal Being.

To say that the cosmos came from nothing means it was self-created. This is a logical contradiction, because for something to be self-created it must exist and not exist at the same time in the same way. Furthermore, self-creation has never been scientifically demonstrated and observed.[1]

Ryrie goes on and elaborates this further, but this represents a good representation of his line of thought. Clearly there are more sophisticated presentations of this argument, starting with Thomas Aquinas himself, and even by contemporary thinkers like William Lane Craig. But the basic tenets of the argument are presented by Ryrie, and are probably what most young bible college students, seminarians, and pastors have been exposed to in their training.

I open this post up like this to actually transition to a critique of approaching theology proper, to approaching God in this way. For the rest of this post we will consider young Karl Barth and his critique of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

The Marburg Barth

Karl Barth attended Marburg University in Germany under the watchful eye of Wilhelm Herrmann, among other theology and biblical studies professors. Barth graduated from Marburg in 1908, but did not immediately enter pastoral ministry, instead he stayed on in the Marburg area and wrote for Die Christliche Welt. Kenneth Oakes gives us more background information:

Slow to enter pastoral work immediately after his university studies, Barth stayed in Marburg for another year, working as an editorial assistant for Die Christliche Welt, a journal published under the direction of Martin Rade, a friend and colleague of Herrmann. Thus from 1908-9 Barth was allowed to imbibe more deeply the ‘modern school’ and Marburg theology….[2]

During this time, according to Oakes, Barth wrote two pieces that caused some controversy, at least for some.[3] We will consider the second piece, which has to do with Barth’s critique of the cosmological argument, and that whole mode of theologizing. Oakes details this at length for us:

The second and more revealing piece as regards theology and philosophy is a talk Barth wrote against the cosmological proof for the existence of God. In this piece, Barth begins with an explanation of the argument’s formulations in Thomas Aquinas, the defence of the possibility for knowing God in Vatican I, Leo the XIII’s recommendation of Aquinas in the 1879 Aeterna Patris, and the censuring of the agnosticism of modern philosophy and philosophy of religion in the 1907 encyclical Pascendi. He covers the distinction between the natural knowledge of God and the revealed knowledge of God, along with their concomitant disciplines, natural and revealed theology. He then considers the cosmological argument as found within J.A. Becker’s work and Thomas’ five ways. He defends Thomas against the common charge of pantheism, although he thinks Thomas comes close to such a position at times. Nevertheless, Barth is still worried about the status of God’s ‘Persönlichkeit,’ a good Ritschilian concern, in Thomas’s doctrine of God. Barth wonders whether the free and textured identity and agency of God is lost when God is described in abstract and impersonal terms such as the highest thing, the most necessary being, or the first cause.

The cosmological proof has two serious problems. The first is philosophical. Barth brings the full weight of Kant’s critical philosophy onto the proof. Following Kant, he argues that the cosmological proof tacitly depends upon the ontological proof, and that the ontological proof (or at least Anselm’s version of it) fails insofar as the proposition ‘God is’ is deemed to be analytic (the predicate ‘is’ adding nothing to the subject ‘God’). The cosmological proof fails, as the ontological proof on which it relies is specious. The second problem is theological. Barth argues that even if the cosmological proof were true, what it proves would remain quite different from the God of Persönlichkeit:

Such is clear: the way of the syllogism, of the subordination of individual, empirical things underneath universal concepts, absolutely does not reach a final, real, and in this respect transcendent being, but only to the idea of one, to the idea of a being about whom there is nothing to say other than that he is the negation of his not-being on the one hand, and that he is absolutely prior to everything finite on the other; by its construction and the concepts used such a being remains entirely within the world.

By definition, philosophical metaphysics can neither reach the God beyond the cosmos nor his specific ‘personality,’ and in this judgment Kant and the modern theology are in complete agreement.[4]

Remember, this is the young Barth, barely a college graduate, but this type of critique from him in regard to ‘natural theology’ and knowledge of God given foundation through philosophical proofs, would perdure in Barth’s thought and life throughout.

In a very reduced sense Barth is arguing that the philosophers might be able to prove a conception of godness all day and all night, but at the end or beginning of the day all they’ve proven is something they were able to conceive of through their own intellectual prowess; i.e. they haven’t begun to access the holy of holies and touch the feet of the living and true God.

I agree with Barth, in contrast to Ryrie, Aquinas, Craig, et al., and this of course is what makes Barth such a controversial figure for so many evangelical theologians (young and old) to this day. They fundamentally disagree with Barth’s critique of something like the cosmological argument since they base so much of their theological methodology and approach upon the foundations laid by people like Thomas Aquinas and the rest of that tradition which is imbibed deeply by the post-reformation reformed orthodox theologians.

What This Has Meant To Me

As I noted, my seminal introduction to systematic theology started with Charles Ryrie, and a very basic presentation of the cosmological argument or proof as a credible foundation for how I could know with certainty that God exists, and that he exists in a certain way. But this has never satisfied me. Later I went to Multnomah Bible College, this time I was presented with more sophisticated instruction, but at base the way I was taught to think of God from Ryrie remained the way I was taught to think of God by my professors at Multnomah. It wasn’t till I attended seminary, at Multnomah’s seminary, where I was finally introduced to historical theology, and I began to explore, quite deeply, the history of ideas and how they were given formation. It was a breath of fresh air to realize that there was another way, a way that I believed was more faithful to the God I was encountering over and again as I read Holy Scripture.

I was introduced to Barth and Torrance (a bit), in seminary as well. I graduated from seminary in 2003, but it wasn’t until about 2006 that I started reading Barth and Torrance intensely, and I found what I was looking for in their critiques and way of thinking; particularly as that has to do with this very issue. I had already given up on the idea that God could or should be “proven,” but it wasn’t until I hit Barth and Torrance that I really appreciated how to work that out by focusing on revelational theology; by focusing on Christ as the key. Yes, in seminary, in my studies of John Calvin and Martin Luther et al. I was introduced to what is called kataphatic or ‘positive theology,’ and I relied on both Calvin and Luther, deeply, to enable me to move forward into a revealed theology approach.  But what I found in Barth and Torrance were teachers who took that to the next level, and offered a grammar and way to think that filled out what I only latently picked up through Calvin and Luther.

It is refreshing to know that God cannot nor should not be “proven.” If we think he can be the foundations for how we are thinking of God, by definition and method, are not supplied by God in Jesus Christ, but instead by our own trained wits. Our wits will always let us down, but the Word of God will endure forever.


[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (USA: Victor Books, 1986), 28-9.

[2] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4]Ibid., 29-30.

The ‘Young’ Karl Barth and Wilhelm Herrmann’s Impact on Barth’s Anti-Natural Theologizing and other Miscellanies

I am currently reading Kenneth Oakes’ published PhD dissertation researched at the University Aberdeen entitled: Karl Barth on Thoelogy&Philosophy. The copy I have is a review copy graciously sent to me by Oxford University Press. I will be posting from this book along the way as I read it, which will culminate ultimately in a final summarizing “book review;” but I intend these barthyoungposts to be like mini-reviews of Oakes’ book along the way—even if what they really are end up only being my reflections upon whatever I am reading at a particular moment from Oakes’ book.

I am currently in the early part of chapter 1, the chapter is entitled, appropriately: The Earlier Barth. For anyone who has even spent a cursory moment with Barth they will be expecting some sort of mention of one of Barth’s more prominent teachers, the famed Wilhelm Herrmann (1846–1922). As Oakes develops the impact that Herrmann had upon the young Barth that stands out to me are the contours of thought that bleed through into Barth’s lifetime project; one of which is his segregation of “religion” from history and philosophy. Oakes’ sketches this type of development in Herrmann this way; you will notice the genealogy that not only impacted Herrmann, but as consequence of relation, impacted Barth’s theology one way or the other.

The struggle for the Selbständigkeit of religion in modern German and Prussian theology has a long and distinguished history. It found one of its most forcible exponents in a young Friedrich Schleiermacher and his Reden (1799, 1806). In the second of his Speeches Schleiermacher handles the Wesen, or essence of religion and distinguishes religion and religious knowing from both ethics and metaphysics. Piety or religion, a young Schleiermacher famously argues, is neither a doing (Tun) nor a knowing (Wissen), and so religion is independent of both ethics and metaphysics. Hermann adopted and carried on Schleiermacher’s quest for the establishment of religion’s independence. This task was most notably undertaken in his 1876 Die Metaphysik in der Theologie and 1879 Die Religion im Verhältnis zum Welterkennen und zur Sittlichkeit. In both of these works Herrman sharply distinguishes the ‘knowing’ characteristic of ‘knowledge’ of the world and of religion, granting the latter a free and independent sphere. These works antedate a similar attempt to distinguish faith and metaphysics by Albrecht Ritschl in his 1881 Theologie und Metaphysik. In this slim but influential volume Ritschl argued for the removal of metaphysics and philosophy (especially the philosophies of Aristotle and Hegel) from theology so as to extract any vestige of natural theology. Ritschl even thought that orthodox Lutheran dogmatics, and in particular the works of F.H.R. Frank and C.E. Luthardt, were guilty of dabbing in natural theology. In the cases of Schleiermacher, Herrmann, and Ritschl, establishing theology’ independence meant distinguishing between religion, ethics, and metaphysics.[1]

I am sure that none of these contours of thought, for those familiar with Barth’s theology in general will surprise anyone. But I find it interesting to have a trace understanding (if not more) of Barth’s informing theology since, for one negative reason, so many of Barth’s critics attempt to guilt him by his various associations and lines of thought. In other words, Barth’s critics often think that just because they can identify some sort of Kantian, Hegelian, Schleiermacherian, or other influences in Barth’s thought, that by virtue of that alone he should at best be regarded as heterodox and not orthodox. But honestly such criticism of Barth is simply engaging in, for one, the genetic fallacy, and for two, poisoning the well; there are numerous other fallacies engaged in when critiquing Barth along these lines. All I can say to such critiques is: so what! We all have informing voices, and we all are conditioned by those voices one way or the other. The salutary thing about Barth, the genius thing about Barth is that more than others, in some respects, he was able to become aware of his informing voices, critically aware, and in turn offer critique where it was necessary, and appropriate under the pressures of his christological concentration where it was appropriate to do so.

As Oakes continues to write he reiterates the impact that Herrmann had upon the ‘young’ Barth:

His commitment and dedication to Herrmann ensures that Barth’s earlier thought bears the marks of centuries of reflection and debate within Prussian and German intellectual life. His thought, like that of all pupils, is the outcome of wars waged and treatises made long before him. The education in which he was formed was not only broadly post-Kantian in its distinction between religion and culture, but also had dealt with and responded to higher criticism of Scripture, a secularized reading of church history and confessions, and the History of Religions school. This inheritance meant that some distinctions were already put in place for Barth: a strict split between faith and history and the God of faith and the god of metaphysics. Otherwise put, there was a strong distinction between (1) the individual’s experience of faith and God’s love and forgiveness; and (2) either a transcendental or empirical determination of the human subject and its knowing, and being in general. The work of theology falls within the first realm, while the work of psychology, history, and philosophy in the second.[2]

Again, for anyone who knows Barth these themes are not surprising at all. But what might be enlightening to realize is that just like any of us Barth had a context, an informing context; a context that shaped and conditioned Barth’s life’s work one way or the other. One thing in particular that stands out to me as we look at this sketch of Barth’s background is the aversion to ‘natural theology’ that his teacher[s] had. Often we will hear it asserted that Barth developed his anti-natural theology because of his German/Nazi context; indeed, it well may be the case that this reality heightened this mode for Barth. But as we can see through Oakes’ development this anti-natural theological bent was already seeded into Barth’s life by his teacher Herrmann and the context he was surrounded by, theologically, as just a young virtuoso. There is more to this background, particularly with reference to this aversion to natural theology, but we will have to get into that later. Nevertheless, I think we should bookmark this point in regard to Barth’s development. He indeed ended up being known for his anti-natural theology, but this was just one thing of many he inherited from his intellectual predecessors and informers.

[1] Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 22.

[2] Ibid., 27.