7 Things I Learned From Barth

Kenny Jahng —  2009/05/05 — 4 Comments

I recently had a chance to catch-up with Paul Kind in the thick of graduate work in theology at Princeton Seminary.  Because PTS is known for how the theological musings of Barth is found percolating throughout its campus, I asked Paul for his take so far on the timeless theologian of 20th century times.

karl-barth-time-magazine-coverIt’s noteworthy that Barth’s marquee work, Church Dogmatics has “CHURCH” in its title. For me, this quote rings true for how we are to elevate and yet connect theology to the work of the Church:

No single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture.
~ Karl Barth

Paul provides some great insights that whets the appetite for more Barth. Luckily for us all, there are literally millions of more words to consume if this suits your taste. . .

Many have said that Karl Barth was the foremost theologian of the 20th century. While holding academic posts in Germany and Switzerland, Barth published his fourteen volume Church Dogmatics over the course of about thirty years.

In his book, Disruptive Grace, Dr. George Hunsinger, describes the impact of this work in saying, “Thoroughly modern, he has rejected modernism in theology. Deeply traditional, he has left no stone of tradition unturned upon another.”

Considering the Dogmatics alone span over six million words, these concise ruminations can be considered the scratch on top of the scratch that scratches the surface. My hope is that it may also be the entry point by which some might engage this innovator of Christian thought.

Engaging Barth:

1.      Barth’s theology is radically and systematically Christ-centered.

He holds that Christ is the one Word of God which we have to hear, trust, and obey. In other words there is no other avenue for knowing or understanding God apart from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

2.      Barth develops a three-fold conception of the one Word of God.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God. The Scriptures are the Word of God as they testify to the Word Jesus Christ. The Church’s proclamation is the Word of God as it testifies to the Word Jesus Christ. In addition Barth develops the possibility that there may be other right and true words outside the church that attest to the Word. They are right and true as long as they witness to and align with Jesus Christ.

3.      Barth isn’t interested in abstractions, only particularities.

If God is revealed as God is in the self-revelation of Jesus Christ, then there is no point in hypothesizing or speculating about the characteristics of God apart from simply looking to Jesus Christ. Barth is adamantly opposed to any -ism’s or ideologies that purport to truth in their own right. All truth is made known in Christ.

4.      For Barth, there is a hard and fast link between the God revealed to us in history and God as God really is.

There is no hidden God behind what we know of God in Jesus Christ. Barth’s theology is centered on Christ and rooted in the particularity of his self-revelation in space and time. Christ’s revelation is true and makes God known. This is how we know that God is Triune. This is how we know that God loves and cares for humanity.

5.      Barth reframes the doctrine of election.

Rather than a double predestination (a la Augustine or Calvin) where some are eternally elect for salvation and some for perdition, Barth holds that Christ is the sole recipient of double predestination. All are elect in Christ and Christ takes on the punishment of all. Barth upholds the seriousness of sin, while also pointing to the reality that God’s grace has the final word.

6.      Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation could be summed up in three words: “God with us”.

Through the cross we have been justified, and through the resurrection we have been sanctified. In the crucifixion Christ is both the Judge and the one judged. In the resurrection God raises the Son from the dead and proclaims and empowers that which was accomplished through the cross.

7.      Just as God is with and for us, the Church is to be with and for the world.

In fact, apart from being for the world, the Church is not the Church. We are empowered in the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to the one true Word of God, Jesus Christ. This is the vocation of all believers and of the Church universal.
Some critics of Barth have contended that Barth puts too much emphasis on Christ. That by focusing so much on him everything else gets swallowed up. (In fact, he does write at length about the very things the critics say get swallowed up such as the role of Israel or human freedom.)

Do you think this is possible?

Is it possible to focus too much on Jesus Christ in Christian theology?

Paul Kind most recently served as pastor to the congregation of Fountain Springs Community Church in Rapid City, South Dakota.  He is currently a Masters in Divinity candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. When he is not writing term papers, his online thoughts land at http://paulkind.blogspot.com

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4 responses to 7 Things I Learned From Barth

  1. In one sense it is possible to focus too much on Jesus Christ, if the result is heresy. For example, denying or undermining the Trinity. So the question becomes: What is the "quality" of the focus or teaching on Christ? Barth is pretty solid. Thanks for your scratch on the scratch on the surface of Barth. I expected you to add that Barth is accessible, that is, 6 million words is intimidating, but you have said that you can pick him up and find him readable and interesting in whatever chunks you consume.

  2. @Kerry — That sounds like a great #8! How about this?

    8. Barth is like a premium all you can eat buffet.

    You can keep going back to him as many times as you want, each time taking as little or as much as you want. 6 million words doesn't have to be overwhelming, but rather exciting that there is so much to enjoy.

  3. Kenny you couldn't have put it better. And I'm really glad this got brought up. At first I was incredibly intimidated by the enormity of Barth's works, but the dogmatics are shockingly accessible.

    I also would add how grounded his theology is in Scripture. Often times he uses the smaller text footnotes to develop exegetically what he stating in the larger print material. So a good tip is that a lot of gold can be mined from the smaller print material!

  4. @Paul – How about this one?

    9. Size doesn't matter. In fact, smaller (type) might be better.

    Barth often times uses the smaller text footnotes to develop exegetically what he stating in the larger print material. Especially as much of his theology is grounded in Scripture. So a good tip is that a lot of gold can be mined from the smaller print material!

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