Wednesday 22 April 2015

Barth - the Enigma (der erste Teil)

For a long time now I've been intending to do a series on Karl Barth. Barth (pronounced Bart) is hailed by some as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Today his views still have currency and influence among many Protestant churches, and even reach into strange and wondrous backwaters such as Grace Communion International (the former Worldwide Church of God).

A lot of Christians have a superficial image of theologians locked in: be-speckled, study-bound, pedantic, withdrawn from the real world. As misplaced as that might be, Barth nonetheless embodies the stereotype. He is famous for his resistance to Hitler, but perhaps not deservedly so. I would even go so far as to suggest that no single individual has so negatively impacted on the viability of Christianity in the years since World War II as this one man.

What appears here will not (could not) even scratch the surface of Barth's thought. His published works - excluding articles and miscellaneous papers - passes six million words in length. Barth was also a complex - very complex - thinker and writer. I intend to avoid that sort of entanglement and attempt instead to cut the Gordian Knot without getting caught up in the futility of trying to unpick it. If that sounds a tad arrogant one can only take comfort in the reputation the man had himself for arrogance.

It's quite an assignment for a pipsqueak blogger, but I've loaded my super-soaker anyway. 

Not to say that Karl Barth didn't have, like everybody else, redeeming features, both in his theology and his personal life. My contention is simply that the man has been horribly over-rated, and that he and his followers have led the church down a dead-end. You're free to agree or disagree, though I suspect most readers will simply be wondering: "Who was this Barth dude?"

More next time.


  1. Wonder why the pretentious Tkach & Johnson are obsessed with him as they swing hard right to orthodoxy? Will look forward to analysis, insights.

    1. That should be Johnston with the t, GCI writer infatuated with hard core Protestant theology.

  2. You yourself know that it was mere sophistry, and sophistry so twisted, involved, tortuous, and puzzling, that scholastic theology might well be described as a species of secret magic. The denser the darkness in which any one shrouded a subject, the more he puzzled himself and others with preposterous riddles, the greater his fame for acumen and learning. ~ John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto.

    We may think that so far as religion went the difficulty was that “hard or misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge.” ~ John Locke, “The Epistle to the Reader” in his An Essay on Human Understanding.

  3. Karl Barth had been a feature of GCI for a while before I ever decided to look into his theology seriously. I avoided it for a while because I felt like the hyper-theological verbiage he seemed to generate in GCI was off-putting. But in 2013, I felt like I needed to try to understand Barth's viewpoint. It was quite a ride over choppy waters and I made landfall nowhere.

    I took a single idea that Barth innovated and tried to understand how he arrived at that idea as an exploration of his methodology. (It is worth mentioning that Barth's writing is voluminous and fairly inaccessible. His Church Dogmatics is a muliti-volume set that runs to 9,000 pages in German. In English it is a work of nearly opaque prose.) The idea I focused on was Barth's assertion that Christ was both Elected and Elector. Now that's novel. How did he arrive at that? I have no fondness for Calvin but his doctrine of election seems to have an exegetical origin. So what exegetical support did Barth use to reach this conclusion?

    I will not go through the lengthy research I did on this single idea and is origin. But in summary, I have a load of email correspondence generated by my efforts to figure out how Barth came to this unusual conclusion. I communicated with GCI Ministers, a Trinitarian faculty member at Azusa Pacific, a faculty member at Carey College in New Zealand and, in general, wherever I might find some insight. I read a few articles written by various credible theologians on this topic. And l communicated a lot with someone that I know only as "GCI Info". (It is odd to me that GCI retains the Armstrongite practice of masking identities. The old WCG used to carefully hide the names of ministers and the locations of congregations. So I actually have no idea who GCI Info actually is but it gives the impression of a secretive and perhaps illicit and underground organization. I am sure that appeals to some because if its cachet of exclusivism.)

    -- Neotherm (to be continued)

  4. (Continuation)

    This is already getting too long. The result was, after many days and much communication, that nobody could tell me what the exegetical foundation of Barth's view on election was. Yet is is a fairly straightforward concept and is prominent in Barthian Theology. In general, the responses I received fell into the following categories:

    1. Don't read Barth, read Torrance.
    2. Answers written in the abstruse code of hyper-theological academicians. Long on verbiage, short on meaning.
    3. The idea that understanding theology was a special gift (the implication being that I did not have the gift).
    4. The idea that the English translation of the original German was inadequate to bring forward the poetry and meaning of Barth. (I read some German so I know this is not fully the case. Barth's "poetry", I believe, is based his use of portmanteau words. This is novel in English but common in German. German readers would probably not regard it as poetical.)
    5. Honest admissions by theologians outside of GCI that there really was no exegesis to be viewed.
    6. The idea that exegesis may not be the necessary requirement for establishing theological principle. (I recoil at this because it reminds me of a salesman sitting in a library in Des Moines, Iowa developing an off-the-wall theology and egotistically presuming that it came directly from God.)

    Finally, I arrived at a conclusion that coincides with this statement from Dr. Mary Cunningham, Lecturer in Historical Theology, University of Nottingham, in reference to Barth's recruiting John 1:1-2 and Ephesians 1:4 to underpin his view on Elector/Elected:

    “This juxtaposition of texts is essential for Barth’s argument, for it is AT THE VERY LEAST NOT APPARENT that John 1:1f deals with election or that Ephesians 1:4f refers to Jesus Christ as electing God and elected human.” (PT-style emphasis mine)

    I would not venture the say coldly that the Emperor Has No Clothes. He may have a fig leaf here and there. But I think he would certainly feel uncomfortable on a mildly chilly day.

    -- Neotherm