As Claude Welch put it, Karl Barth ushered in a “contemporary revivial of theology” with his highly influential Epistle to the Romans. Karkkainen agrees, stating that it is appropriate both “thematically and chronologically with Karl Barth (125).” Barth was one of those few extroardinary thinkers who possessed such originality while still striving to remain fathful to many (if not all) of the classical tenets of the faith. He was a “paradigm shifter,” whose influence is still heavy today.
Barth’s theology was born out of historical factors, like all are. He studied within the 19th centuries’ classic Liberalism. Such talk about how doctrines like the Trinitarian and Christological assertions of the 4th century church were “hellenistic deteriorations of dogma,” detracting from the pure and simple “gospel of jesus” were unsettling to Barth, as was the Liberal tradition’s overemphasis on the Immanence of God, viewed through experience. In a revealing quote by Barth regarding Schleiermacher, who Veli-Matti Karkkainen (VMK) informs us Barth saw as the backbone of the era’s “pervasive immanentism,” Barth accuses him of relegating “God-talk” into “man-talk,” at the expense of God–“the God who is sovereign Other standing over against humanity (125).”
The combination of the human-centered, experiential focus of Liberal theology with the by and large European Liberal church’s wedding with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime drove Barth back to the Bible and forced a rejection of their views. This foundational shift was made known with his Epistle to the Romans, which was likened to “a bombshell being dropped on the theological playground.” Now that we have a bit of canvas against which to view Barth, let’s look at the highlights of his understanding of God, at least according to VMK.
- In stark contrast to Liberalism’s focus on God’s immanence, in Barth’s theology God is radically transcendent. In fact, as VMK points out, Barth goes as far as to say that there is “absolutely no way to know God apart from revelation (126).” So if God is unknowable through practically any means other than His revelation, where do we find this revelation?
- The knowledge of God is found in Jesus Christ. It is important to note that Barth isn’t necessarily referring to Scripture, but rather to the God-man himself: “When holy Scripture speaks of God, it concentrates our attention and thoughts upon one single point . . . And if we look closer, and ask: who and what is at this point upon which our attention and thoughts are concentrated, which we are to recognize as God? . . . From its beginning to its end the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ (CD, 2/2, 52-54).”
- This assertion raises some important questions regarding knowing God. VMK points out that Barth is “skeptical at best” regarding whether or not people can know God apart from the revelation of Christ (126). Barth went from completely ruling out any form of “general revelation,” to backing off a bit. However, his fundamental skepticism and position for the absolute supremacy of the living Christ as revelation never changed. As VMK points out, this is b/c for Barth genuine revelation has inherent redemptive content. A vague “general revelation” of God, cannot properly be called “Christian revelation.” “Only knowledge of God that helps us know God as savior can be called Christian revelation (126).”
I think that Barth’s view of God’s transcendence, and hence his doctrine of revelation, gives us many key questions to think through today. I’m particulary interested in how giving the risen Christ primacy in revelation critiques our modern mind-set’s approach to epistemology, ethics, and the nature and proper interpretation of Scripture. I hope to blog on each of those subjects at somepoint.
For many this will be your first taste of Barth, particularly if you are an American. There is much more to talk about, but for the sake of readability, if it isn’t too long already, this is enough for now. The reality is that Barth literally wrote several thousand pages of work (he was a machine!), so whatever we do here will be a thumbnail sketch at best. Hopefully however, your appetite has been “whetted,” and you are ready to delve more into the heart of his thought. Tomorrow, Barth on the Trinity and his revival of the most ancient of Christian views on God.