Orthodoxy, Barth Style

karl-barth_with-pipeG. K. Chesterton has his way of defending orthodoxy. Karl Barth has his. Chesterton was a literary fencer, thrusting and parrying his opponent with ease, as he deftly used words to inflict damage on his opponent. In my limited reading of Barth, he seems to much more of a middleweight boxer, theologically jabbing his opponent time and time again, with knockout punches thrown often at precisely the right moments. I greatly enjoy the masterful art of Chesterton’s writing, as readers of this blog know, but I am starting to warm up to the fighting style of the great Swiss theologian from Basel too.

As I stated earlier, Karl Barth – the 20h century Swiss Reformed theologian – was a mighty antidote to Liberal Protestantism that was en vogue at the time. In fact, he is a mighty antidote to liberal Catholicism as well. One of his main opponents seems to have been Paul Tillich, the standard bearer, so to speak, for Liberal Protestantism. Tillich’s theology is based very much on natural knowledge to the almost complete negation of revelation in any meaningful sense. In what I’ve read, Barth was instrumental in causing divine revelation to be taken seriously again in theology; revelation as in God actually became flesh and dwelt among us as Scripture reveals to us. This was otherwise known as a move back to orthodoxy. Here is an excerpt from his 1935 work Credo (Wipf & Stock, 2005):

Care should be taken to avoid regarding this presupposition of the Biblical witness (which after all Dogma does no more than make explicit), as a metaphysic superfluous and alien to Christian faith, and therefore getting rid of or emasculating it. The Theology of modern Protestantism has done that again and again. This modern Protestantism has punished itself with the most varied and disastrous relapses in to just those heathen religious views which the Church fathers of the first centuries rightly and successfully resisted. It can be asserted and proved with the utmost definiteness and accuracy that the great theological-ecclesiastical catastrophe of which the German Protestantism of the moment is the arena, would have been impossible if the three words Filium eius unicum [His only Son] in the properly understood sense of the Nicene trinitarian doctrine had not for more than two hundred years been really lost to the German Church amongst a chaos of reinterpretations designed to make them innocuous. This catastrophe should be a real, final warning to the evangelical Churches, and, especially to the theological faculties of other lands, where so far as trinitarian dogma is concerned, no better ways are being trodden. Christian faith stands or falls once and for all with the fact that God and God alone is its object. If one rejects the Biblical doctrine that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, and indeed God’s only Son, and that therefore the whole revelation of God and all reconciliation between God and man is contained in Him – and if one then, in spite of that, speaks of “faith” in Jesus Christ, then one believes in an intermediate being and then consequently one is really pursuing metaphysics and has already secretly lapsed from the Christian faith into a polytheism which will forthwith mature into further fruits in the setting up of a special God-Father faith and a special Creator faith; and in the assertion of special spiritual revelations. The proclamation of this polytheism can most certainly be a brilliant and a pleasant affair, and can win continuous widespread approbation. But real consolation and real instruction, the Gospel of God and the Law of God, will find a small and ever-diminishing place in this proclamation. The Church of Jesus Christ as the assembly of lost and rescued sinners will come less and less to be built by this proclamation. How could it be otherwise than that error at a crucial point makes it utterly impotent? It is just here that a circumspect Dogmatics will give warning. It will have to ask the whole Church to consider that the ground out of which it has sprung and out of which alone it is able to live, is the admittedly rigid and uncompromising recognition that no one knows the Son, but the Father, and no one knows the Father, save the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him (Matt. xi. 27).

In the paragraphs immediately preceding the one above, Barth speaks of the neccesity of the revelation of Jesus Christ. We cannot come to a specifically Christian dogmatics through natural knowledge alone, or with natural knowledge at all, as Barth would say. In fact it is only in the light of Christ that the weight of our sin becomes fully realized. Only in the light of Christ’s sacrifice is the great chasm that separates us from God made known. If our sin is not really that bad, as we are want to think, then why did God have to condescend to become man and die for us? And we must recognize that Christ had to die for me because of my sins, not merely for others as the word “us” can mislead us to believe. Only in this light, is our metaphysical situation before God (to steal a phrase from Deitrich von Hildebrand) made known. And the fact that God died for us and for our sins is a matter of revelation, not mere philosophical reasoning. Revelation is indispensable for the Christian.


3 Responses to “Orthodoxy, Barth Style”

  1. 1 Michial November 7, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    I was brought here by Google Alerts, so you don’t know me.

    But I do think it’s interesting that Evangelical Protestantism (a group in which Barth included himself) has pretty much left Barth out to dry. I went to a Protestant religious college, and “Barth,” along with “Bultmann” and “Tillich,” was a borderline bad word. I get the latter two, but as you mention, Barth is pleasantly conservative, even in his view of Scripture, which is where most Evangelicals say they diverge from him.

    In the meantime, from my understanding, he enjoys a certain privileged status in the Catholic Church–as your blog demonstrates.

    I like this post. Thanks for writing it!

  2. 2 Mark November 7, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Yes, Barth holds somewhat of a privileged status in the Catholic Church mainly because he was so influential on Hans Urs von Balthasar, the greatest Catholic theologian of the same time period.

    Now, your average Catholic will not know who Karl Barth is, but for those Catholics who follow theology, especially that of the last century, will surely know the name.

  3. 3 Mark November 7, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    I should also note, that because the average Catholic does not know who Karl Barth is is why I wrote this post. He’s a thinker every Christian with an interest in theology should know about.

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