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Friday, June 30, 2006

Barth and the Problem of Grace and Nature Dualism, with special emphasis on the Bible as the Word of God

Over at Pilgrim.Not.Wanderer, I've been discussing Barth's doctrine of the Word of God. I appreciate Pilgrim's critical eye for Barth, as I have the tendency to plunge wholeheartedly into any theologian that I like with blinders on. However, I think Pilgrim's concerns for Barth's early trajectory of theology, while good concerns in themselves, are not warranted, esp. when we read the later works. This is copied from a comment left in the comment box.

And God speaks and acts and enters into covenant with us. So He can't really be "wholly other" in any way that is meaningful to us as God's people.

I know somehow this fits into his unfolding dialect[ic] style of theologizing somehow. But why think this way to begin with? Why talk this way?


I think Barth saw exactly the problem that you are sensing here. In fact, later on he criticized his early work for being too transcendental (like the Romans commentary in 1916). However, even early on Barth saw his polemical mode of writing as a necessary "ground-clearing" in order to put forth his positive message. It's important to see both aspects in his writing.

In order to understand Barth, one needs to understand the theological liberalism in Europe that he broke from (and is largely responsible for breaking for the benefit of the Church). Any of Barth's early writings have pretty specific and cutting language to describe his contemporary theological setting. The jist of it is this: theological liberalism assumes that God is immanent in creation and specifically in His creatures to such a degree that the distinction (or the "qualitative difference" as Barth would say) is virtually lost between God and humanity. Instead, basically ALL human language (that is, modern language), and the various ways that we extend ourselves through history, culture, religion, etc. are the GRACE of God. "But is this true grace?" Barth wants to ask. It's here that Barth gets a lot of influence from Kierkegaard. While it's important to not see Barth as post-modernist (as some scholars like to heroicize him), you can see how Barth saw the brilliant lie all around him:
"Here was a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its religion and morality reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.”
Or listen to an address by Barth in 1916 called “The Righteousness of God,” where he suggests that at the hands of “the happy gentleman of culture who today drives up so briskly in his little car of progress and so cheerfully displays the pennants of his various ideals, the longing for a new world has become the joy of development.”

Morality, the state and law, religion – the building blocks of what Barth later called “liberal, positive, cultural Protestantism,” are nothing less than self-wrought human righteousness, an evasion of the sheerly critical, utterly different, will of God. “His will is not a corrected continuation of our own. It approaches us as Wholly Other.”

For all their talk about grace, the liberals had domesticated it and robbed it of its true power. This is very similar to the critique of "cheap grace" that Bonhoeffer lobs at the increasingly nationalist Lutherans of his time in "Cost of Discipleship."

Now, how does this connect with your discussion with the Word of God? First of all, I should clarify that to understand Barth one must understand his exegesis of Scripture first. I think too many people, me included, put so much weight on his rejection of liberalism that we give it too much credit for his later thought. I don't want to give you the impression that Barth is merely a product (or anti-product, as it were) of his context. And this is certainly not the case of his theology. Barth, for all we might disagree with him, is trying to be true to Scripture in his theology. It's always important to have this in mind, even as Barth could confess that "I am a child of the 19th century."

That said, I think this discussion of the Word of God needs to ask questions regarding our own context: is there a domestication of grace going on now with regards to how we view the Bible? If there is, then we might need to heed advice from Barth.

First, Barth wants to confess the Bible in a biblical way, in a way that does justice to what the Bible says about itself, and what the biblical writers would say about their own writings. This means that it's not "just" a text as the liberals would want to see it, although it is certainly a human work. Nor is it supernatural in the way that conservatives like to make it out, simply just raw divine speech. It is not simply a deposit of God-info, a frozen artifact that we now need to unpack for all its theological nuggets. God is a Living God, and His word is a Living Word.
If I may vent a bit as you have, my frustration with evangelicals lies in their consistent misinterpretation of the Bible, both in what it is, and (therefore) what it says.
Behind the word "biblioatry" I suspect Barthians are (or at least should be) making this claim, which I support: the Bible is not God's Word given to us so that now it is OUR possession. The Bible remains God's Word, which means that it is God's possession.

Now why make this distinction? Because evangelicals like me want certainty, and we want certainty on our own terms, i.e. the world's terms. The life of faith in modernity (and postmodernity, which is just another form of modernity in my opinion) has ironically consisted of discovering new methods to apologize to this world for our identity as Christians. Yet the life of faith as Jesus describes it has no affinity with this world. While evangelicals are willing to confess their counter-cultural Christian stance in ethics, they seem to think that the realm of knowledge plays by a different set of rules. So the Bible has been made into the foundation of our knowledge of God, instead of God being the foundation (and means) of our knowledge of God. That is why revelation is such an important piece for Christian theology. It helps not to domesticate God in the text, but sees him both above it and in it at once (similar to how we think of the way in which we hold that Christ is both divine and human). But notice, it also helps not to domesticate the Bible, nor us as readers. We are all (God, the biblical writers' testimony, and us) in relationship to one another through God's act. [here I'll add a new tidbit] There is no way to know God except through revelation. There is a long debate between Barth and Brunner regarding how and where revelation takes place, and whether or not "nature" has enough grace embedded in it that all humanity can and should recognize God, a la Romans 1 . I think Paul was being ironic in talking about universal human knowledge of God, and it's is a foundation that he wants to quickly throw away. I can't go into this now though. See Doug Cambell's essay in International Journal of Systematic Theology, 1999.

The Bible is the Word of God, but in no different a way than a preacher's word is the Word of God. The Bible does not point to itself as God's Word (I'll welcome a proof-text here to prove me wrong); it points to God. That is, it testifies to God's "speech-acts" (to use the trendy language of today) in the history of Israel and the Church. Likewise, the preacher (if he/she is fulfilling their commission), is preaching the Word of God as they point beyond themselves to God. We have to ask "what about those that hear or read the Word of God?"

This is where your critique of Barth (even if it's misappropriated) is right on. If human language is indeed too wretched, and God is so wholly other that we cannot have relationship or correspondence with Him, then we're indeed walking away from what Scripture tells us about God and His grace towards us in Jesus Christ. There is no other God except this One. Barth does not want to overshadow the human being, and I think that's why he makes such great effort to speak about our "hearing" and "knowing" of God in the first volume of Church Dogmatics.

Ultimately, Barth's critique against himself came when he realized that the God who acts and speaks to us through grace is God's being IN HIMSELF. I think this is one of the most beautiful trinitarian insights that Barth offered to theology - that the "God for us" is the only God there is, and there is no other God behind Him (i.e. God the Father as the God of Providence and Wrath that we might have inherited from less Reformered thinkers).

By the way, you say at the beginning of your first post :
Or if I hear any more about how the bible "contains" the word of God... or about how the word equals revelation, and that the revelation of God is the "self bestowal" of the person of God, and specifically not a linguistic-message/word/promise/announcement /judgement from God... then I'll loose it again.

God's self-bestowal does not negate or even operate separately from the language of God, since they are made one in each "speech-act." That is, God's speech is God's act, and vice versa. Whether these Barthians mispoke or you misheard, to say that self-bestowal is NOT a linguistic message/promise/judgment is antithetical to Barth, in my reading of him.

To me it says more about what Barth was setting himself up against. But is Barth's strategy of dealing with an admittedly good enemy a good one? A faithful one? Or do we have way better resources with which to deal with this stuff nowadays?

I think Barth would applaud this question, since he always said at the end of his life (as he had gained recognition as the great Protestant thinker of his time) that he wished people would write more about the things he was "trying" to write about (i.e. God), and to do them better than he did, instead of just writing about him. If anything, Barth should be given credit for having always pointed away from himself as John the Baptist does in Grunewald's Crucifixion. This was Barth's favorite painting. To him, theology always had the task of pointing away from oneself and towards God, saying with John the Baptist: "He must increase, I must decrease." That said, no one has surpassed him yet (especially if you look at ALL his work, and not just excerpts of early works, which is a requirement for reading any theologian I think). There have only been a handful helpful corrections, and a LOT of revision of the early Barth interpreters like Torrance, von Balthasar (generally seen as Pro-Barth), and Van Til/Schaeffer (generally seen as Anti-Barth).

I recently picked up the best beginner's introductory text on Barth that I've read so far (and I've read 5 or 6 of them). It's part of the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, it's written by John Webster. Very comprehensive, and manages to sum up the themes of the Church Dogmatics in a very concise and clear manner. It also brings a lot of healthy criticism of Barth by contemporary theologians towards most of his doctrinal treatments.

This is sufficiently long, but to interpret Barth means to bring various angles on that matter. I'll go ahead and post this on my Karl Barth Society of Amherst. It'll be interesting to see what corrections I get handed. Feel free to respond there and here, as it'll make it easier for me.

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