Karl Barth: Partner for the philosophical theologian?
Tuesday night's class was a glimpse into the early ministry of Barth, including his time as a pastor in Safenwil from 1911-1921. After pastoring for nearly a decade, Barth began to struggle deeply with what he saw as a disconnect between the content of the Bible, and the issues the people dealt with in their daily lives. This struggle became more and more pronounced, as he struggled to make preaching meaningful to the congregation. The turning point came as Barth began to uncover the "strange new world of the Bible," a world that is not human, but God's. What Barth realized was that although the Bible is a book which contains stories about persons and events, faith in the truth of Scripture has nothing to do with "human thoughts about God, but the right divine thoughts about men."
In other words, Barth saw that "the Bible tells us not how we should talk with God, but what God says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found his way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with [us] and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible." (Barth as quoted in class handout)
This this closely connected to Barth’s understanding of the "threefold" Word of God: As Barth explained, Jesus Christ is Word of God Incarnate. Additionally, there is the Word of God written (Scripture), and the Word of God proclaimed (the faithful witness of the Church). It is true that we only know Jesus Christ through the revelation contained in the written and proclaimed Word, BUT, we can only see/hear/know the meaning of the written and proclaimed Word as a result of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Christ is primary, and without Christ, the Bible becomes nothing more than a book.
One of Barth's primary "formational influences" was Theological Liberalism. Much of his theology was aimed as a response to this "liberalism," which was basically (as Barth saw it) the surrender of theology to the philosophies of the Enlightenment. One of "liberalism's" primary motivations was the conviction that questions raised by the Enlightenment and modernism must be engaged theologically. Barth's criticism was that in so doing, theology ceded the ground to these philosophies and cultural ideologies, which reduced theology to phenomena that were to be studied and subjected to human interpretation and experience. Barth argued that theology must never become anthropocentric, and he was vigorously opposed to any system or idea that limited God's sovereign freedom to do whatever God chooses.
Barth was not fond of Tillich or others who tried to philosophically systematize theology. He saw them as intellectually dishonest. This was a bit troubling for me to hear, as my interests lean primarily toward the realm of philosophical theology. In Barth's view, Tillich (and the majority of Evangelicalism and Apologetics, for that matter) said, "Bring your questions to the Bible and God will answer them." Barth said, "No. You come to the Bible and God will ask you the questions." Barth was deeply appreciative of all the sciences and arts in their own right, but did NOT think that theology should be co-opted by any of them, or should serve any of them... all other sciences should serve theology!
Talking to Prof. Burton after class, he assured me that Barth's issue is not with philosophy per se (after all, Barth's brother was a philosopher), but with philosophers who are doing philosophy under the guise of theology, and even more, Christians who have let their theology become subject to any philosophy.
This creates an immense challenge for me as I continue along my current educational path: How do I keep from subjecting my theology to any philosophy, while at the same time attempting to speak honestly into philosophical structures that may understand and, indeed, require me using a different "language"? I can certainly see Barth's point that it would not be faithful for me as a Christian to accept the subjectification of theology, but is there a way to balance honest theological study with proper engagement of philosophical constructs and ideologies that might be of assistance to theology? This is certainly no easy task.
Of course, there are many opportunities for theology to critique philosophy. But there are also, I think, times when philosophy can and should critique theology, especially theology that has drifted from its true center and purpose. There is always the danger of philosophy becoming an idol... and for that matter, the same is true of theology. Lots to think about...
Tonight (Thursday) we will be looking at Barth's "Epistle to the Romans," a profoundly influential work that catapulted him into the spotlight of Christian academia.