What Should Evangelicals Make of Karl Barth?

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Tony Reinke recently asked D. A. Carson the following:

Dr. Carson, you’ve edited what I think is one of the year’s most important books, titled, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Eerdmans; 2016), a 1,200-page feast of insights, an incredible achievement. I was drawn to the concluding FAQ, which you wrote, where you take up, among many other things, Karl Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. I’ve wanted to ask you about Barth more generally, maybe now is the time. Quite frankly I find Barth bewildering. On one hand his works seem to be littered with theological question marks, so I am cautious. Yet he is voluminously articulate when it comes to God’s majesty, and he is a rare theologian who seemed to operate with a robust appreciation for the spectrum of human affections. So on the other side I find Barth impossible to ignore. And over the years I’ve met half a dozen prominent theologians who actively read Barth devotionally, but they wouldn’t dare admit it in public. So help me out. What is a discerning Evangelical to do with Karl Barth?

Here is a transcript of his response:

Some people idolize Karl Barth as entirely in line with the heritage of John Calvin. Others demonize him as clearly emerging from one of the lower rims of Dante’s Inferno. In my judgment the truth of the matter is far more complex. There are many parts of Karl Barth’s writings that are luminescent. They are wonderfully evocative when he speaks of the glory and the greatness and the majesty of God and when he speaks of the importance of Christ. On so many, many fronts Karl Barth really was the premier theologian of the twentieth century in terms of volume of writings, profundity of analysis and so on. It would be nice if every movement that came along was right from the throne room of God or right from the pit so you could bless it or damn it and get on with life, but that is just not the way life is.

And so it is sad if knowledgeable pastors don’t make use of Barth, but it is even more sad if they make a wrong use of Barth. Barth has the capacity to say contradictory things without embarrassment.

There is a very famous story — I don’t know if it is apocryphal or not — in which somebody wrote to Barth and said: Professor Barth, I have discovered the following contradictions in your writings, what do you say about these contradictions? And Barth ostensibly wrote back and said: Well, here are some others. And lists a few more contradictions. Yours faithfully.

This is often called dialectical thinking, this sense of pushing to the extreme some element Barth finds in Scripture, and then pushing to other extremes some other element. It leaves him saying things that are sometimes not very well integrated, even when they are wonderfully evocative. And nowhere is this truer than in his treatment of the doctrine of Scripture.

Barth says many things that shows him affirming the truthfulness of Scripture, the reliability of Scripture, the authority of Scripture and if you take those things at face value, without reference to anything else that he says, then it is easy to imagine that he is essentially an evangelical in the history and tradition of the whole mainstream of the church. But he really isn’t. Part of it is because when he talks about inspiration and the truthfulness of Scripture, he wants to integrate both how God gave the Scripture, as Scripture, and how that Scripture is received by human beings, which requires the Spirit’s work in us to illumine us. He puts all those things together in one package and refuses to separate them.

By contrast Calvin separates them so that he insists that the Scripture is true and given by the Spirit of God even if nobody accepts it. Whereas they are so tied together in Barth’s thinking that he is uncomfortable talking about the truthfulness and reliability and Spirit inspiration of Scripture simply as Scripture without integrating it, as well, into the need for that Scripture to be accepted and received as it is the Word of God by virtue of the Spirit’s work within us to see that it is the Word of God.

And that has led many Christians trying to formulate Barth’s view as something like: The Scripture becomes the Word of God when it is received. Well, that is not quite what Barth says, but I understand why they want to say things like that. Moreover, there are a few passages — I listed some of them in the FAQ section of the book of Scripture — where Barth does say explicitly that there are concrete errors in Scripture. So on both of these fronts he is really different from the mainstream of the Church of Jesus Christ across the ages in affirming the truthfulness, reliability and inerrancy of Scripture.

Here are Carson’s FAQs on Barth and Scripture, summarizing David Gibson’s chapter, “The Answering Speech of Men: Karl Barth on Holy Scripture,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures.

9.1 How come Karl Barth’s views of Scripture have come back to be the focus of so much attention today?

There are at least three reasons.

First, Barth was certainly the most prolific and perhaps creative theologian of the twentieth century, so it is no wonder that people study his writings.

Second, Barth’s thought is profoundly God-centered, profoundly Christ-centered, profoundly grace-centered.

And third, his view of Scripture, though not quite in line with traditional confessionalism, is reverent, subtle, and complex, so scholars keep debating exactly what he was saying.

9.2 Doesn’t Barth say that the Bible isn’t the Word of God, but becomes the Word of God when it is received by faith?

In fact, he can affirm both; the question is, What does he mean? The “becoming” language is for Barth tied up with his insistence that the initial revelation of the Word and its revelation to the individual believer are tied up together in one gracious whole. The same is true with Barth’s treatment of inspiration. He refuses to speak of the Bible as itself inspired, but links together what is traditionally called the inspiration of Scripture and the illumination of the believer into one whole.

9.3 Doesn’t Barth claim to stand in line with the Reformers, so far as his view of Scripture is concerned?

Yes, he does, but he is clearly mistaken. Comparison with Calvin, for example, casts up not a few instances where Calvin happily speaks of the inspiration of Scripture, the text itself being God-breathed, regardless of whether or how believers receive it. Barth prefers to speak of the out-breathing of the Spirit of God in both the text and the believer, thus distancing himself both from the exegesis of Scripture and from the Reformed tradition. He appears to recognize his distance from Calvin in CD II/2, §3e.

9.4 Does Barth allow that there are errors in Scripture?

Yes, he does, though he refuses to identify them (but cf. his treatment of the fall of angels in 2 Peter and Jude, CD III/3, §51, where he finds a theological error in Scripture). For Barth, this seems to be part of the humanness of Scripture, though he insists that God’s revelatory authority encompasses the whole, errors and all. That in turn inevitably raises questions about how passages of Scripture that include errors (not identified) can be said to carry the revelatory authority of God.

If you want to learn more about Barth, here—to my knowledge—would be the best entry points.

1. Read Michael Reeves’ chapter on Barth in Introducing Major Theologians: From the Apostolic Fathers to the Twentieth Century (Crossway, March 2015; IVP-UK). You can watch a talk from Reeves below:

2. Read David Gibson’s chapter, “The Answering Speech of Men: Karl Barth on Holy Scripture,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures.

3. Get this introduction and reader of Barth’s flawed but magisterial Church Dogmatics.

4. Consider David Gibson and Daniel Strange’s edited volume, Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques (2009). Here are a couple of commendations for the book:

“Karl Barth was the most dominant theologian of the twentieth century, at once brilliant and baffling, majestic and frustrating. His influence, though, has scarcely waned. That is why this book is important. What we have here are some of the best essays I have read on Barth. They combine sure-footed knowledge of his ideas with critical insight into what those ideas mean. They are appreciative but also tough-minded and this combination is rare today. I commend this book highly.” -David F. Wells, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

“The house that Karl Barth built continues to loom large in the neighborhood of evangelical theology. The authors of Engaging with Barth are not content to admire it from the outside but survey it from within, carefully moving from room to room, noting both positive and negative features. They do a particularly good job examining the structural integrity (read ‘orthodoxy’) of Barth’s house, detecting here and there both worrying cracks and uneven surfaces. At the end of the day, they neither raze nor condemn the dwelling, but offer a fair and sober assessment that is invaluable for potential buyers—even for those thinking of staying only overnight.” -Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

 

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