Disagreements with Barth

I thought it might be helpful to flesh out what I referred to in my last post on Barth but did not discuss, namely, areas in Barth’s theology which I find troubling. Ironically, I part ways with Barth in many of the very areas I have been most helped by him, and many of the problems I see in Barth’s thought are the very things he himself railed against so often. Rather than provide a list of specific doctrines I disagree with, I’ll discuss some of Barth’s general ways of thinking that are underneath (and often driving) what I see as his errors.

To begin with, I think Barth has an over-wrought view of divine trancendence. This is somewhat understandable insofar as Barth is reacting against the extreme emphasis on divine immanence of his modernist upbringing; and in some ways his emphasis on trancendence helpfully highlights the immensity, freedom, and Lordship of God, over and against human aspirations and culture. Yet Barth stresses trancendence so much that he seems to absolve the possibility of a robust doctrine of creation (manifested in his utter rejection of natural theology) or history (manifested by his idealism and failure to recognize the significance of historical transition). In my opinion, Barth fails to acknowledge the ways God can be (not exhaustively, but truly) known through finite mediums in the world he has made, as well as the ways temporal sequence (e.g., creation-fall-redemption) affects our theological categories (like creation in God’s image, sin, and salvation).

Even after Barth recognizes that the “wholly other” language for God in his earlier writings is a philosophical category, his later writings on revelation and epistemology seem to emphasize our finitude more than our sinfulness as the ultimate problem. But in the Bible, God’s immensity is not unknowability. Barth’s concerns on this point often feel more like those of the 19th century rather than the concerns of the “strange new world” of the Bible he sought to follow. And in general – as Barth scholars Bruce McCormack and John Webster have recently shown – Barth seems to be basically operating in 19th century modernist categories, despite the ferocity of his attack on this tradition. Though he is revolting against 19th century modern theology, he is still somewhat enmeshed in it.

In addition, I think Barth, despite all his warnings against free speculation, has a marked tendency toward his own certain kind of speculation, abstraction, and innovation. For example, in his doctrine of election, Barth – the same Barth who has warned us a thousand times of our need to stay rigorously tied to the Divine Word in all our thought of God – seems to drift away from the biblical view of election as something that divides humanity into two groups into one that unites all humanity in Christ, who is himself the elect and reprobate one. Barth wants to avoid speculation, but his argument that because Jesus Christ (significantly, not the logos asarkos!) is both the subject and object of revelation, therefore election must embrace all of humanity – this itself is highly speculative. How could a creature know such a thing about an eternal reality (election)? The movement from “Christ the electing God” to “all men are elect in Christ” depends on the (speculative) assumption that Christ the electing God does not reprobate, and this flies in the face of the Scriptural witness regarding the elect and reprobate, the sheep and the goats, those who names are written in the Book of Life and those whose are not, etc. Don Macleod has a powerful critique of Barth on this whole issue on pp. 336-339 of Engaging with Barth, especially footnote 52 on p. 337.

Evangelicals often (rightly) question Barth’s doctrines of Scripture and election, but it is not as often recognized how both these points are the manifestations of a deeper philosophical commitment – namely, a particular ontology (i.e., view of being) known as actualism. Actualism is, generally speaking, a tendency to view reality in terms of events and relationships, rather than in more static terms (as in essentialism). In Barth’s theology, everything comes back to actualism. His attack on philosophical systems notwithstanding, Barth’s relentless love for symmetry seems to drive him to impose his own systems and categories of thought onto theology. One can feel Barth struggling throughout his career to locate theology solely in the Deus dixit of theology, but at crucial junctures it feels like his actualism is really driving the boat.

Barth’s concern in his revision of traditinal understandings of election is to avoid speculation, to steer clear of all abstract thinking about God. He wants to locate all proper knowledge only in God’s self-unveiling in Jesus Christ. But as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, “if revelation is centered in Jesus Christ, there must be by definition a periphery to this center. Thus, as we [Roman Catholics] say, the order of the incarnation presupposes the order of creation, which is not identical with it” (quoted in the Cambridge Companion to Barth, p. 108). It is this false view of divine trancendance in which God is hidden everywhere except in the humanity of Christ that leads Barth to his Christocentrism/Christomonism and his hesitancy in speaking about the logos asarkos and his strictures on the extra-Calvinisticum; and it is his Christocentrism/Christomonism which in turn leads him to his doctrine of election with its incipient universalism. Hence I say Barth’s greatest strengths and his greatest weaknesses are interwoven: both are bound up with his attempt to preserve the Godness of God in theology.

All these critiques come from someone who genuinely enjoys and profits from reading Barth, and who honestly still feels like a beginner at trying to understand him. At this stage in my theological development, I resonate deeply with Carl Trueman’s statement in his intro to Engaging with Barth that “interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value . . . great theologians are most helpful at precisely those points where I disagree with them, for it is there I am forced to wrestle most passionately, and there that my own thought is clarified and strengthened.”

3 Comments

  1. I have just stumbled upon your blog and think it so erudite and well written that I have entered it in my favourites.

    Which denomination are you training to be a pastor in? Being a Brit I don’t know that much about how things work in the US apart from in the Episcopal Church and I follow events there because of being a UK Anglican.

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  2. Gavin Ortlund

    Thanks for commenting, Sue. Lord willing, I will serve in a reformed baptist setting. When I was in England for a semester in college, I worshiped at an Anglican church and really enjoyed it.

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  3. Reformed Baptist, sounds interesting. Best wishes for your ministry.

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