The Stories of Two Barths: Chaser or Gateway Drug?

The following is a guest post Michael Allen, associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He has written a number of books including Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (London: T & T Clark, 2012).

Allen-Karl-Barths-Church-Dogmatics-An-Introduction-and-ReaderMy theological twin, Scott Swain, recently tweeted:

It’s important for Protestant theologians to get Karl Barth and to get over Karl Barth.

Apparently this was controversial, as it kicked up some rather excited demurral. I’m not on twitter, but Scott’s tweet makes me wish (momentarily) that I was. It’s brilliant in both its distinct points: Get Barth. And, yes, get over Barth. Punchy, but wise. But it’s also not surprising that it drew such ire, and I want to explore why.

Two narratives shape how one thinks of Karl Barth and his theology, at least among those who view him as a relative good of significant note.[1]

If one reads Barth in one story, then getting over him would be futile.

If one reads him as part of another story (which I deem more plausible), then doing so makes all the sense in the world.

Admittedly the stories are somewhat too neat, but I do believe they prove instructive just the same.

The First Story: Barth Is the Chaser that Ends the Party

Narrative number one involves a story of the onward progress of the Word of God. I emphasize that final prepositional phrase (“of the Word of God”) because I do not take these persons to be beholden to belief in modern progress as such. They honestly claim that God—and God alone—will lead his people to ever-greater illumination regarding his Word. Following the fundamental principles of the Protestant Reformation, then, they expect the church to be continually reformed by God’s Word. Note, the church does not reform itself, for progress is not a matter of optimism in one’s intrinsic capacities; rather, God reforms the church through his Word. They believe God to be active, his Word to be powerful, and thus they expect doctrinal progress (alongside other forms of progress, no doubt, ranging from the moral and social to liturgical and ecumenical).

What progress do they affirm? Barth clearly offers so much here: theological realism, a scripture-soaked imagination, a Christ-centered particularism, conversation with a wide-ranging litany of Christian witnesses from the tradition, a vivid sense of the singularity of Jesus and the grace of his work. We could list still more gains. Further, they note that Barth offered this in the modern era, attesting the gospel in a (more advanced) cultural setting. While they may not buy into modern progress as a philosophy, they do believe we cannot turn back the clock on philosophical and cultural developments even though we must see how the gospel sublimates them. Thus, they take it as rather strange that one would seek to “get over Karl Barth” unless one is claiming to want to move forward to something still more contemporary (say, T. F. Torrance or, for the slightly more exotic, Wolf Krötke or Helmut Gollwitzer). In this narrative, Barth signals the latest significant advance of the active Word of God, received thoughtfully by his servants, and he beckons us come to him. This is the first story of Barth.

The Second Story: Barth Is a Gateway Drug to Something More

But there is another story of Barth, which I deem to be more viable and convincing.

Narrative number two affirms those basic principles but contextualizes them within a story of marked decline. The advance of God’s Word by his Spirit’s power nonetheless runs its course through a human and even ecclesial history that manifests twists and turns, struggles and sins. The modern era, particularly in Europe, was a time of remarkable decline and of giving up territory in terms of historic orthodoxy. Barth and others confessed as such when he took up the newly established honorary chair in reformed theology at Göttingen. John Webster has traced the way in which Barth worked feverishly in the 1920s at reading not only biblical texts but also the Reformed theological tradition carefully. By the time he turned his hand to the dogmatic task, he was able to steer back towards the realm of historic orthodoxy. In so many ways he returned a focus to exegesis, to conversation with the history of doctrine, and to resolve in speaking in a Christian and theological manner. All the positives mentioned above would be affirmed here as gains, even if sometimes taken as limited gains or intertwined with some problems or at least with some tension-laden supplements. And I might add that other areas are not only returns to earlier achievements but genuinely extend theological reflection in a profound manner worthy of emulation, an example of which I take to be his penetrating focus upon the agency of the exalted Christ.

Perhaps most notably, however, this story observes that Barth saw himself as a theologian doing “church dogmatics” and thinking after the confession of the people of God and, even more signally, receiving the intrusively life-giving Word of God from the outside. They take it as rather straightforward, then, that Barth’s own trajectory would suggest moving in his work and through his witness to the greater fullness of the catholic and Reformed theological tradition where that Word has been heard in even more alert and nuanced ways. A number of examples could be offered, which might likely include a greater desire for a more nuanced rendering of covenant history than the sometimes reductive exegesis offered in CD II/2, to gleaning from the way that (having listened well to Barth) Kate Sonderegger has nonetheless suggested that we better follow the canonical order of teaching by beginning with the oneness of God as was dominant in the classical Reformed and catholic tradition, to more patient attention to the doctrine of creation in its own right (even to Calvin’s teaching on nature and grace on the matter!), and to a number of matters sacramental and scriptural (where, at the end of his life, John Webster was gesturing toward advances beyond Barth). In this narrative, Barth represents a remarkable move towards receiving historic orthodoxy in an intelligent manner yet again in a place where it had been decimated and occasionally a genuine advance on particular topics, but he is fundamentally a witness gesturing us to go still further. Again, Webster serves as an example of one who remained to the end committed to listening and learning respectfully from Barth but who had been led by him to still greater riches in the catholic and Reformed tradition.

A Suggestion

Our posture toward Barth will relate to the story within which we view him. I can’t help but think that the second narrative the more viable, and I observe that the first narrative tends to be convincing to those involved in the professional world of Barth Studies as their major theological interest while the second narrative plays out across the work of a host of figures who respectfully engage with Barth with a still deeper commitment to tracing beyond him ways in which the Christian confession might be thought more fully. Folks such as the late John Webster, Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Horton, Kate Sonderegger, Fred Sanders, or my colleague Scott Swain come to mind. One would be hard-pressed to find dismissive or ungrateful reflection on Barth in their work, but their gratitude takes the form of taking him seriously enough to delight in going deeper into the tradition and most especially into biblical exegesis than he might have done. In this approach Barth is a gateway drug, we might say, to more in the world of Reformed catholicity in its patristic, medieval, and modern treasures, rather than treating him as a chaser that ends the party.

Two concluding thoughts come to mind by way of suggestion.

First, I have trouble noting these narratives without seeing the first one as possessing a much more vigorous sense that theology is a constructive or poetic practice involving creation as part of its movement and, thus, progress and contemporaneity holding a high prestige. On the other hand, the second model seems to suggest much more of a receptive model, wherein the first mode of theology’s practice and its defining characteristic at every point is its hearing that which has been said. (Of course, Barth himself offers analysis of these two modes of thought in speaking of the hearing and the teaching church.) Without denying the integrity of created being and activity in its intellectual mode, it seems to me that Christian teaching—especially the character of the gospel itself—demands the second posture be treated as more definitive: theology is a positive and receptive task, not a poetic or creative practice. While the Word always confronts us from outside, the theologian is not to be a savant but fundamentally a student who listens ever deeper, ever wider. It is a shame when Barth, who sought to tune our ears to that wider chorus of saints, is left playing solo.

A second observation is also worth our attention. Barth was used to help right some wrongs. We do well to be grateful. Profoundly grateful. His confession was vital. His ministry inspires and informs. He was also put to such work in a setting that was far less theologically resourced than many others today (this is not my judgment alone for, again, he noted as such early in his teaching career!). And, today, I know there are settings that are so bereft of biblical fidelity and Christ-centeredness that his theology would be a remarkable move in the right direction, but others live (thankfully) in settings that have maintained a vibrant biblical and confessional witness (albeit always with limits and failures) wherein embrace of his thought as a whole would involve some declensions. We are wise not to forget that contextual reality. While I would not want my presbytery to take on his theology in its most notable revisions to the catholic and Reformed confessions, I can still read, show gratitude, and celebrate what good was worked in that setting through him.

What of Barth? While we would be foolish to chide him for somehow leading the church astray from an orthodoxy it did not possess at that time in any lively way, we would be equally unwise to pretend that he wasn’t himself grasping for something more than that which he was able to provide. As we should appreciate that he beckoned people unto the Jesus of the Word, perhaps we should also seek go past where he might point us to the still more faithful testimony of others.



[1] Two other narratives could be added as possibilities, though I don’t think either worth our worry.

First, some would suggest that Karl Barth brought liberalism into the church like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is hard to see the value of such an approach, given that Barth’s church did not need liberalism coming in from outside, for there was plenty within already. He was by all accounts seeking to restore some notion of orthodoxy, even if not arriving quite where one might like in that regard. While some in the USA may have sought to broaden its churches and loosen doctrinal standards by making use of him (e.g. elements in both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches prior to their merger as the PC[USA]), that is another matter not attributable to Barth himself. To chide Barth for making the Reformed church broader is like looking at Paul’s biography and noting mainly that he circumcised Timothy rather than the more contextually notable fact that he did not circumcise Titus.

Second, others would suggest that Barth did work to move a liberal church back towards orthodoxy and, thus, was an impediment to the onward march of progressivism. Such liberal or revisionist approaches would demand a much more basic response regarding the nature of the Christian faith, of biblical teaching, and of the commendable value of historic orthodoxy (to whatever degree Barth led there).