This Fall I’ll be taking a semester reading course on the massively influential, 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. I’ll be focusing on his doctrine of God, with a particular emphasis on his treatment of the divine attributes or “perfections”, to use his terminology. My hope is that it will help me do some preparatory work in thinking through the structure and shape of the doctrine of God for my (hopefully) eventual dissertation on the attribute of God’s holiness.
Also, I’ve been wanting an excuse to take a deep dive into his Church Dogmatics for a while. So there’s that as well.
As a Reformed(ish) Evangelical, mentioning that you’re going to be spending time with Karl Barth may raise some eyebrows, though. Well, not in all circles. (Even here at Trinity, in the house that Carl Henry built, we’re regularly encouraged and expected to be able to read widely beyond traditionally Evangelical authors.)
Still, Barth’s kind of odd and difficult to understand on some key points of doctrine. And when even when you can understand him, he says some things about Scripture, God’s being, etc. that have left people predictably (and not unfairly) uncomfortable. Even (maybe especially) if you’ve never read him, you know to be cautious.
There’s a fear that once you dive in, you might get become disoriented in the haze of all that heavy dialectic and be lost, if not to Orthodoxy, then at least to the regular patterns of English language usage.
So what value is there for someone of fairly traditional theological instincts for spending so much time poring over his mountainous tomes and the mists of difficult secondary that enshroud them? Especially if you suspect you might spend a fair amount of time disagreeing with him?
Carl Trueman actually has one of the better answers for the skeptical.
In the foreword to a collection of essay by Evangelicals interacting with Karl Barth on a host of issues, Trueman sort of sets the scene for why Barth remains such a relevant figure for Evangelical theological interest. Towards the end he lists a few issues like the appeal of his dynamic doctrine of Scripture, some of the cross-appeal with developments in philosophy of language, and the focus on narrative in theology.
At this point he asks, “But is Barth the answer?”
On one level, I would most definitely say no. For myself, I believe Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian, offers a more helpful resource on each of these points; but, on another level, interacting with Barth as a great mind wrestling with serious issues is surely of tremendous value. I often tell my students that 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.
–Engaging With Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, ed. David Gibson and Daniel Strange (15)
So, first off: Herman Bavinck, y’all. ‘Nuff said.
But more seriously, at the almost purely negative level, then, Trueman says that wrestling with a high-caliber thinker you know you disagree with can help you more fully grasp the logic of your own position, as well as strengthen your theological resolve.
I have seen that time and again, especially in my readings in atonement theology. Some of the most beneficial works I have read were the critiques, precisely because the strength and force of their objections forced me to clarify points at which my thought was too fuzzy. Or in other cases, I had to work to ground my logic even deeper in Scripture, studying passages more deeply in their context and so forth.
Put less negatively, with creative thinkers like Barth, the very “weirdness” of some of the moves they make stretch you and press you deeper into the logic of the issue.
For instance, reading about the way Barth has reordered and coordinated his reading of God’s attributes in distinction to the classical discussion has helped some blocks start to fall into place for me. Instead of treating the more “metaphysical” or incommunicable attributes of “freedom” like independence, omnipresence, and so forth first, as the tradition typically did, Barth flips the order and deals with attributes of “loving” like holiness, patience, and so forth. But why?
To overly-simplify, thought that starting out with the attributes that give you free, independent God tended to leave you with problems when you got around to thinking about that free God setting about actually loving anything outside himself. The metaphysical logic of independence seems to take over undermine our ability to talk about God’s love. In order to counterbalance that problem, Barth starts with the God who definitely loves, and then sets about thinking through how this God is free.
Of course, what’s fascinating is that when you start thinking through developments in 20th Century theology, much of looks like an exercise in making the opposite “mistake” (if you buy Barth’s critique). So much theology starts with an account God’s loving (process, panentheism, etc.) and then has all kinds of trouble talking about God’s freedom or independence. To engage in a bit of clarifying caricature, instead of a cold, self-contained, metaphysical box, you’ve got a warm, co-dependent, metaphysical mess.
In which case, you start begin see some of the appeal of the old logic a bit better in hindsight. But that sort of thing becomes clearer in light of the sort of transitional figure like Barth that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the (over-neat) camps.
And that’s just one example.
Now, given what I have read of Barth in the past, I’m hopeful reason to read Barth for the simple, positive reason that Barth was brilliant. So I’m thinking I’ll profit plenty beyond the weirdness and stretching.
Well, if after all that you’re still worried about me, just know I’m also taking a class on Calvin this Fall, so that ought to even things out.
Soli Deo Gloria