During my first year of seminary I discovered Karl Barth. He was grappling with theological challenges that were new to me, he was operating within a theological tradition that was largely foreign to me (names like Ritschl, von Harnack, etc. meant nothing to me at that time), and there was an aura about his approach to theology that felt reverent and profound. I became intensely interested. Many an afternoon of 2006 and 2007 was spent struggling through Romans and Church Dogmatics—and then onto the secondary literature, especially Bruce McCormack. With enough distance from that episode now to have some critical reflection on it, I remain grateful for it as a stretching experience, though now (as then) I don’t think of myself as a “Barthian” in any sense.
Along the way, I’ve said a few things about topics like Van Til’s critique of Barth, why I think there is value in studying Barth, where I disagree with Barth, and the relationship between Barth and evangelicals.
Barth has been under fire lately due to recently expanded awareness of a moral failure. For some, this was grounds for a kind of final rejection of Barth. I can sympathize, but at this point I share Matt Emerson’s more guarded reaction. I do think there is value, especially for American evangelicals, in engaging Barth in a patient, critical, non-dismissive way, regarding him neither as a savior nor a poison. Here I share four benefits of reading Barth.
1) Barth is a window into historical theology
The small font excursus (that is the plural of that word) of the Church Dogmatics are a tour de force of engagement with the theology of the church throughout the centuries. Wading through the Dogmatics is working through the shelves of a theological library. I’ll never forget slogging through the Church Dogmatics a bit in 2011 and marveling at how Barth would go off on the doctrine of papal succession, or Aquinas vs. Duns Scotus on whether theology is a speculative or practical science, or Luther’s doctrine of preaching, and so forth. He’s a beast.
Not to say Barth’s engagement with historical theology is without idiosyncrasies. He apparently has little use for revivalists like Edwards or inerrantists like Warfield. (Its interesting to contrast he and Bavinck in this regard.) Nonetheless, reading the Church Dogmatics with careful attention to the historical conversations Barth is weaving in and out of has a high educational value.
2) Barth pulls you into different conversations
Culturally and historically, reading Barth pulls you into a different theological context. Most American evangelicals are familiar with Rob Bell’s Pneuma videos, but have no idea who Adolf von Harnack is. Barth forces you out beyond outside the American-evangelical neighborhood into developments that characterize the broader world of 20th-century European Christianity.
This is one way to grow in under-developed areas of our theology. We tend to concentrate on the doctrines over which we have had to fight. Thus, American evangelicals put a lot of focus on the doctrine of Scripture, and the atonement, and creation, and so forth. Reflecting on Barth’s appropriation of the anhypostasis-enhypostatis distinction, or following the McCormack vs. Hunsinger/Molnar/van Driel debate about whether Barth makes God’s revelation determinative of his being—whatever you conclude about such topics, you will likely become a more well-rounded theologian in the process. It’s a healthy, stretching experience, like traveling or learning a foreign language.
3) Barth forces us to engage the challenges of modernity at their roots
Many of the cultural challenges we face today are, at their root level, an extension of what came before in the 19th and 20th centuries. To be sure, the times have changed. Western people today tend to like Christianity’s miracles but dislike her ethics; 100 years ago it was the opposite. But all of this is related to the broader development of modernity, and the turn from classical sources of authority. So when we feel the weight of Barth’s struggle throughout his career to affirm divine transcendence in the face of the challenge of modernity, we get a little perspective on the challenges of our own times.
Even where don’t follow Barth in his solutions, reading him helps me more accurately grasp the nature of modernity, and the challenges that we are up against today. You are better equipped to think about intersectionality or Jordan Peterson if you have first thought long and hard about Kant’s critical philosophy or higher biblical criticism. 21st century American culture has a history.
4) Whatever Barth’s errors are, it’s a good chance that they are not the ones you have heard
Early evangelical engagement with Barth was highly influenced by key spokesman such as Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, and Carl Henry. As I have written, I think there were denominational/institutional factors at play in all this, and I think the subsequent criticisms of Barth that became stock-in-trade among evangelicals largely border on caricature. (It is interesting to compare Bonhoeffer’s and Barth’s respective legacies among American evangelicals in this regard: their reputations differ far more than their views).
While I’ve written critically of some of the older evangelical evaluations of Barth, especially Van Til’s, I’ve also been helped by the more recent ones. The writings of Michael Horton on Barth (for instance, here or here) have been most helpful to me; also helpful are the chapters by Henri Blocher and Donald Macleod in the second of these books.
At the end of the day, I am not exactly sure how to place Barth, but I cannot and do not regard him as a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, as some have painted him. On this point I am with Carl Henry. He was, of course, very critical of aspects of Barth’s theology. Their interchange in in Washington D.C. in 1962 has become iconic. Yet in his autobiography he also said, contrasting Barth with Bultmann:
whenever I conversed with Karl Barth I had the clear sense that, however flawed was Barth’s dialectical theology, I was in the presence of a believer in the gospel (Confessions of a Theologian: An Autobiography [Waco: Word, 1986], 243).
None of this, of course, entails that we should not criticize Barth! But I think more first-hand reading will go a long way in the process—toward both accuracy and learning.
To conclude, here is a video of Barth talking about God’s revelation. How interesting it would have been to sit down and talk with him!