The course I'm auditing this quarter - Karl Barth and Evangelicalism - has begun, and if Monday's introductory lecture was any indication, it should be a very interesting class. I've been reading Barth's "Evangelical Theology: An Introduction" as part of the required reading (well, not so much "required" for me, but...) and I'm a bit unclear on Barth's concept of the presuppositions of Christian theology, or lack thereof.
On the one hand, Barth says, "Theology cannot... presuppose anything at all concerning the foundation, authorization, and destination of its statements." He continues, "Were theology to presuppose the power sustaining its statements and itself, then theology would assume power in its own right, superior to that first and fundamental power... the very thing theology seeks would be lost whenever theology attempted to rely upon such an arbitrary presupposition." (p. 50-51)
But later on he states (p. 147) that the "reality of God's work an the truth of his Word" is a truth "radically superior to theology" and "is presupposed for it in the manner of a radical presupposition."
I asked Prof. Burton about this last night and he indicated that what Barth was apparently trying to say was that the only presupposition for the Christian is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth, all theology is founded upon and a response to God's revelation, which is seen ultimately in Jesus Christ.
Now, at this point, my thought was that if Barth saw Jesus Christ as the only presupposition for Christianity, it seems surprising that he didn't attempt to engage more fully in New Testament studies surrounding Christ's life, death and resurrection. But my professor quickly rebuked me for that assertion! :-) Barth was not interested in the "historical Jesus" or any other such evidentiary commitment. He was only committed to the revelation of God in Christ.
But this brings a couple of difficult questions to my mind. The first is whether Barth's insistence on presupposing the revelation of God in Christ without any subsequent presuppositions does not lead him to a sort of fideism that ends in a catch-22. Perhaps Barth would call it a paradox, and Christ certainly is that. But is this all that is left to us? Is there absolutely nothing we can say? Perhaps that is the crux of the matter: Faith in Christ involves being a witness in spite of the fact that you can really say nothing.
The second, and related, question is whether Barth's theology offers any real opportunity for genuine dialogue with other fields and other faiths. My concern is this: If we, as Christians, say that our faith is built upon God's revelation in Christ, and we need not acquiesce to any other inquiry or evidence, then there is no further room for debate. Which is perhaps theologically legitimate, but causes me great concern regarding the witness of Christianity in many cases.
What I mean is, Barth connects theology (and faith) closely with community and ethics. There is a proper sense in which Christians must rely upon the revelation of God to produce the fruit of the Spirit, which will be seen in the ethic of the Christian community. But when - as is very often the case - the so-called "Christian ethic" appears either non-existent or in such disarray that many Christians (to say nothing of non-believers) can make neither heads nor tails of the difference God's revelation in Christ has made in their lives, then what do we have? It seems of little use to stand on a foundation of presupposition-less revelation when the outworking of such a theology does not bear out in actual living. Is some amount of "realism," no matter how dirty that word may be for Barth vis-a-vis Niebuhr, needed?
These questions are bothering me, and I hope that I will gain additional clarity regarding these issues as the course progresses. I think Barth is definitely onto something, and I find much of great value in his theological perspective. I'm just not sure what to make of his intense commitment to presupposition-less theology. More posts to come...