Thursday, January 10, 2008

Barth For Beginners

I picked this up from the web page Barth For Beginners
I was completely fascinated by Hendry's review on Karl Barth. I am tempted to say that Barth is the forerunner of Relational Theology. In fact, if we were to technically classify our kind of theology, it could be neo-Barthian.

There are only very minor points of disagreement but the "latter" Barth is right on, and mostly only because though he understands the Kenosis essentially, He was not able to completely and logically articulate its relevance to Theology.

Also, Barth continued to rationalize theological issues but could not divorce himself completely from some classical presuppositions.

267 - Barth For Beginners

Barth For Beginners
By George S. Hendry

Theological Beginnings: Introduction to Evangelical Theology was the title of the lectures given by Karl Barth at Chicago and Princeton on the occasion of his first visit to America. They formed the first part of a more extended course which he gave at Basel during the last year of his active professorship there and which will soon be published both in German and in English.

Barth began his lectures by defining evangelical theology. In contrast to the many competing theologies of the world, each of them striving to prove itself right, evangelical theology is essentially modest; for it speaks of the God of the Gospel who transcends all human enterprises, including that of theology. This God relates himself to man by his own deed, and theology, therefore, must always speak of this relationship in the direction from God to man and not from man to God. Theology presupposes human existence as the sphere of God's self-disclosure, faith as the acknowledgment of it, and reason as the capacity to seek understanding of it, but it never becomes dependent on these presuppositions. If it were to become dependent on a specific self-understanding on the part of man (as Bultman has urged), it would be thinking in the wrong direction and entering a new Babylonian captivity. Theology is a free science. Its absolute presupposition is the God who makes himself known in the history of his deeds, and therefore it must have the character of a "procession"-or what another theologian has called a recital of the acts of God. Above all it must remember that the supreme act of God is his relating himself to man in love. The God of the Gospel is Immanuel, God with us, and therefore evangelical theology must be "the most thankful and happy science."

268 - Barth For Beginners

The place of theology is determined by its object, namely God (who is also its subject). It must always start from here if it is to obey the law of its being. So, while theology is a word (theo-logia), it starts from the word of God, to which its own word is a response; from the divine Logos to which its own logic is an ana-logy. Theology is not called to repeat, or reproduce, or even to interpret the word of God, but to respond to it in confrontation and obedience.

God's word is the word of his good work for man. In it he discloses himself as man's God, and man as his creature and the object of his love. It is a word which "goes forth" from Israel, through Jesus Christ, to all men. Israel exemplifies all mankind; in the history of its failure to keep the covenant, it points beyond itself to Jesus Christ, in whom the faithful God now finds a faithful human partner, inasmuch as God himself is "identical" with this man. "The presence of God in Christ was the reconciliation of the world with himself in this Christ of Israel." The word of reconciliation is for all men; the particular applies universally. But, Barth emphasized, the word of God spoken in the history of Jesus Christ must not be isolated from the word spoken in the history of Israel. Theology must respond to the whole word of God; it must listen to the word as it appears in the conflict between God's faithfulness and man's unfaithfulness in the history of Israel; it must listen also to the word of reconciliation spoken in the word made flesh. The succession and unity of these two words form the whole word of God to which evangelical theology must listen.

Barth turned next to the theme of the witnesses. The men of the Bible are the primary witnesses, because they are called directly by the word to be its hearers and commissioned to proclaim it. Theology is concerned with the word of God in their witness, for there it has its only indirect, but certain, information about the word. The Old Testament contains the writings of those prophetic men (Barth uses the term "prophetic" in a comprehensive sense), who heard the word of Jahweh in the history of Israel, both his word of grace and his word of wrath, his commands, judgments and threats as well as his promises. Each wrote under the limitations and conditions of his time, his culture, and his individuality; nonetheless, they all gave authentic, trustworthy, and authoritative testimonies to the word of God. The New Testament contains the writings of

269 - Barth For Beginners

the apostles, who were commissioned to bear witness to Jesus Christ, in whom the covenant was fulfilled. Their theme was the mighty word of God spoken in his resurrection from the dead and revealing his act of salvation. They did not proclaim a "Jesus of history" nor a "Christ of faith"; nor did they begin with one, who existed before Easter, and proceed to another, who existed after Easter; they proclaimed one and the same Jesus Christ, Lord (Kurios), Son of God and Son of man.

In its relation to the Biblical witnesses evangelical theology has to recognize their human character and to focus on their intention or orientation to the word of God rather than on the conditions and limitations under which they thought and spoke. At the same time theology has to recognize the primacy and uniqueness of the Biblical witnesses, and it must not seek to set itself above them in a schoolmasterly manner. The men of the Bible knew more about the word of God than theology does, and theology must sit at their feet, not, indeed, to receive instruction from them in astronomy, geography, zoology, and the like, but to become acquainted with the God of the Gospel who encounters it also in the mirror and echo of the prophetic and apostolic word. This is the one thing necessary. Yet this one thing is a unity in diversity, a diversity which springs not only from the diverse conditions under which the Biblical witnesses spoke and wrote, but also from the diversified movement of the history of the covenant itself. The witness of the Bible to the word of God is "polyphonic," as Barth puts it, and therefore theology has to move among a succession of loci (topics) and not to bind itself to one monotonously. Theology has to hear and speak the word of God on the basis of the Biblical testimony. Barth rejects the thesis of Bultmann and his school that the task of theology is to take the message of the Bible and translate it into the language of modern man. This thesis assumes that the message of the Bible is relatively easy to grasp, but Barth contends that this is not the case at all. The word of God is not obvious in the Bible, but it has always to be sought. This is the task of theology; and, Barth suggests, instead of asking how the Bible can be brought to modem man, it might do well to ask how modern man can be brought to the Bible.

The theological task has its place in a very concrete sense in the community (Barth, like Luther, prefers this term to "church"). The

270 - Barth For Beginners

community represents the secondary witnesses; it is the society called to believe and testify to the word, not only with its words, but also by the whole manner of its existence and action in the world. The special. function of theology in the community lies in the area between the community's hearing of the word and its speaking of it. Does the community speak the word truly-not in accordance with some extraneous norm of truth, but in accordance with the truth of the word itself? This is the question with which theology has to deal. In principle it is a matter for all members of the community, but specially those who are commissioned to do the speaking, in the sense of preaching, teaching, and so forth. It is not a hobby for a few; all "Christian witness must always be forged anew in the fire of the question of truth." Theology may properly become a professional responsibility, but as such it is discharged vicariously for the community as a whole. Theology is related to the community and its faith in much the same way as jurisprudence is related to the state and its law.

As the life of the community is continuous with its past, theology has to take account of what has come to it by tradition. It will assume the basic trustworthiness of the tradition; but it will never allow itself to be determined by it or renounce its critical freedom and responsibility.

Theology must exercise its freedom and responsibility first of all in relation to holy Scripture, which is the primary element in the tradition of the community; it must test the canonicity of these primary witnesses to the word of God by seeking the word of God in them, "by engagement in the exegetical circle that is inevitable for the understanding of those texts." Theology must also exercise its freedom in relation to the confessional element in the tradition; it will willingly and gratefully learn from the wisdom of the fathers enshrined in the creeds and confessions; it will not set up some phase of this tradition as a permanent and binding orthodoxy ("there is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy"); yet, if it is faithful to its only authority, it will find itself faithful also to the confessions of the early Church and of the Reformation for long stretches of the way. A particularly important task for theology, Barth suggests, is the critical scrutiny of the theology of yesterday, since this is largely determinative of the life of the community today. The theology of

271 - Barth For Beginners

one generation tends to react against that of the preceding generation; yet just for that very reason it does well to keep in touch with it and to pay close attention to it. Barth's own example provides the best illustration here.

In the final lecture Barth stated that everything he had said hitherto lacked the support of what is usually considered sound evidence; it had no firm foundation, and appeared, instead, to be hovering in mid-air. Theology has no presuppositions other than its object, which is the word of God, but the word of God is not a presupposition by means of which theology can lay a secure foundation for its statements. The power in which theology does its work is not a power which it has at its own disposal and control. It is the power of the Spirit of God, who is the flowing air in which alone theology can breathe freely. The Spirit is God's freedom to disclose himself to men and to make men free for him. The Spirit, who "spoke by the prophets," who originated the conception of Jesus Christ, who enabled the disciples to proclaim the mighty works of God, "became the factor whose existence and action make possible and real the existence of Christianity in the world." In this sense theology must also be spiritual; only in the power of the Spirit can theology function as "a humble, free, critical and happy science of the God of the Gospel."

The danger of an unspiritual theology may take either of two forms. The first occurs when theology is afraid to yield itself unreservedly to the leading of the Spirit and defers to other authorities, when it "rotates in circles of historicism, rationalism, moralism, romanticism, dogmatism or intellectualism." The other occurs when theology assumes that it possesses the Spirit ex officio, as it were. "The presence and action of the Spirit are the grace of God who is always free." The Spirit cannot be domesticated in the Church or any of its offices. "Only when he is sighed, cried, and prayed for, does he become present and newly active. Veni Creator Spiritus! Come, Ocome, thou Spirit of Life."


  1. All theologians and theologies have their strong points and I am sure that Karl Barth had many of them, but in no way can he be called a relational theologian or a proto-relational theologian.

    He maintained that God (the Father) is Absolute and that God relates to humanity only through the Word,the Second Person of the Trinity. This makes the Father non-relational and Barth's theology non-relational. It also non-scriptural and destroys the integrity of the Trinity.

  2. Thank you Relates. I agree with you knowing that Barth was still expositing from a Reformed view. It is amazing that after Barth declares that one can know God ONLY through God's own revelation through Scripture, he gets different conclusions than we get.

    That is why I did mention at the start that, Barth, with all his intelligence and attempts to think "outside the box" is still shackled by classical thought.

    However, I was impressed mainly by the wording and phrasing purportedly of Barth's views by this review by Hendry. It does spell relational mostly.

    Also, I think we need to differentiate between the "earlier Barth" and the "later Barth" as some authors believe that his theology between both eras were not exactly the same, but I honestly have to admit that I have never touched his Church Dogmatics apart from summaries by different writers.

    Having said that, his qualification of the scope of revelation is the foundation not only of Relational Theology but any credible Judeo-Christian Theology for that matter. True Theology has to be based ENTIRELY on God's opinion and NOT ours!

  3. I think that I agree with you, I am not entirely sure. You call yourself sola scriptura, and certainly scripture is central in our understanding of YHWH.

    Being Trinitarian I understand that YHWH reveals the Divineself through the Son-Word, that is primarily Scripture; the Holy Spirit, that is Love; and the Father, Creator, that is created Reality.

    The Father and Spirit unable us to understand the Son. This is important because many think that they are "sola scriptura," but they are not because because they don't understand scripture from an objective view, but from a Western cultural point of view.

  4. I suggest that you read my blog on "Honest" hermeneutics entitled "Axiomatic Foundations...." You will [hopefully, pleasantly] see that I am completely strict with my Biblical hermeneutics. By strict, I meant, STRICT in caps. That means, I do not even attempt to interpret what Scripture DOES NOT say or imply. I only concern myself with what is revealed in Scripture and DO NOT make excuses for God like most classicists do. If God says something like HE RELENTS, I interpret that as God being perfect and all-wise and is the BEST COMMUNICATOR and who can select THE BEST LANGUAGE with the CORRECT CONTEXT and TIIMNG in HISTORY, that HE MEANS EGG-ZACTLY WHAT HE SAID, that HE ACTUALLY RELENTED. No garbage anthropomorphic interpretations which basically imply that GOD DID NOT pick the RIGHT language and timing to communicate His truths. That is what I call GENUINELY SOLA SCRIPTURA! If that isn't, WHAT IS?????