Why Study Barth?

People often ask me why I am interested in spending some time studying Barth. This morning in a meeting I jotted out an answer to this question, as best as I am currently able to articulate. Here it is:

Barth is a helpful dialogue partner for thinking through how to do theology after the rise of modernity. Since Barth is very conversant with Scripture and historical theology, studying him forces you to interact with the broader Christian tradition. So he is a good person to focus on to learn theology in general. But Barth is also trying to understand the Christian tradition in light of the rise of modernity, and studying him is therefore also an entry point into the massive theological question of the modern era, namely, how to do Christian theology after modernity, after the breakdown of classical metaphysics and epistemology. If we don’t agree with every particular of Barth’s answer to this question, we can at least appreciate the depth and ingenuity of his attempt to grapple with it, which far exceeds that of many of our theologically “closer to home” conservative friends, whose writings could be read and understood without ever knowing that a man named Kant lived.

In my assessment, Barth is a basically orthodox theologian engaged in a thunderous revolt against the unorthodox tradition in which he was raised, trying to figure out how to maintain this revolt towards orthodoxy without discarding the categories of thought and legitimate insights of his unorthodox, liberal tradition. While I am perplexed and unsettled by some of Barth’s specific moves, I find the central thrust of his theology, which I interpret to be the attempt to start theology with God, rather than human thoughts, to have much that is beautiful and compelling. I think the central theological question driving all of Barth’s post-1915 theology is the problem of revelation, namely, how can God reveal himself to humans without ceasing to be God? Barth’s (Christological) answer to this question is worthy of careful reflection – though at the end of the day, I must part with him exactly here.

Studying someone from a different theological tradition is a lot like interacting with someone from a different culture. Its often difficult to understand what they are saying (not least because of language differences), and it can be an uncomfortable experience because it calls into question many of your assumptions and habits and general way of looking at the world. But in the end, it is always a broadening, widening experience. In my opinion, refusing to sympathetically hear thinkers of different traditions tends toward a kind of narrowness of thought, just as an unwillingness to interact with people from different cultures tends toward a certain cultural narrowness. On the other hand, spending a few years grappling with someone like Barth can be a lot like spending several living abroad. Eventually, you come home and reacclimate to your original setting to some extent, but you don’t ever look at the world in the same way again. You can’t.

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  1. Hi Gavin,

    Thanks for this. I agree with much of your reasons for wanting to study Barth. Just be aware that both his exegesis of Scripture and his historical theology have been called into serious question of late (by James Barr and Richard Muller respectively). Also, you want to be aware of current Barth scholarship which has shown that there is essential continuity between Barth and 19th century liberalism (here I am thinking of the work by Bruce McCormack).


  2. Jim, thanks for commenting. I’m not familiar with Barr and Muller – I’ll be on the lookout for them. Let me know what books they have written on him. I think McCormack is saying that Barth was operating in 19th century categories, but he allows for some pretty strong final discontinuties betweeen Barth and the 19th century. Thats my take, anyway, largely formed from McCormack’s essays in _Orthodox and Modern_.

  3. Hi Gavin, Thanks for this.

    Its funny, I came to a very different conclusion reading McCormack’s book. However, taking all of McCormack’s corpus, especially his “Critically-Realistic,” and “What Has Basel to Do With Berlin,” it is clear that what forms the heart of Barth’s theology is actualism and a “non-metaphysical” ontology. That places Barth in fundamental continuity with modernism and (especially) the neo-Kantianism of his day. Therefore, it also places him in fundamental discontinuity with everything else before the modern period! Especially, and particularly, an Augustinian and Reformed doctrine of the Trinity and soteriology.

    Which is fine as it gave us a stimulating modern way of re-interpreting classic doctrines. It was a great theological thought experiment.

    But one thing an honest read of Barth must conclude is that it is not “orthodox” in the historical sense of the word.

    On the others, read James Barr’s classic “The Semantics of Biblical Language.” As for Muller, read just about anything. He has several articles in the Calvin Theological Journal which are worth consulting, especially his “Calvin and the Calvinists” parts 1 and 2. For a more extensive bibliography on Muller see (and here I apologize for being self-referential) my “Trinity and Election” in the 2009 WTJ, and my forth coming article on Turretin, Barthianism, and the Covenant of Works in the Confessional Presbyterian.


  4. Jim,

    I’ll check out those books, and your essay as well. I agree with you that actualism is at the core of Barth’s thought, and I think it is actually his actualism that is at the root of many of his differences with evangelicals – for example, his eccentric doctrines of election and Scripture.

    I am sure his actualism drives Barth into problems, but does it drive him all the way out of orthodoxy? I think I’d want a little more flexibility in how philosophical influence and a particular ontology affects someone’s theology. Augustine’s theology was pretty significantly affected by neo-Platonic ideas. Aquinas’ writings are shot through with Aristotle. Even Edwards has a lot of actualism in his doctrine of God (depending on how we define “actualism,” which is another issue here). I’m wary of interpreting someone too much through a particular philosophical influence in their thought. Also, I want to leave room for what Carl Henry called “blessed inconsistency” in Barth’s position.

    On McCormack’s view of Barth, this is an example of the kind of statement I have in mind from Orthodox and Modern (p. 36): “that Barth was not absolutely wedded to his Kantianism, that is was, in the final analysis, his Christology which determined both his doctrine of election and his use of Kantian categories in explicating it – the proof of this lies in the fact that his Christology could be elaborated and defended without resorting to Kantianism at all.”

    I’m a new comer to all things Barth, and still trying to find my way – but enjoying the exploration. So feel free to respond further, it would help to hammer things out a bit.


  5. Hi Gavin,

    Thank you for your interaction here.

    I guess, in answer to your question, it depends on how you define orthodoxy. Can you hold Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, revelation, the Trinity, or election and still be orthodox. Its a valid question. Of course, I am using the term orthodox in the historic sense – what jives with the great “catholic” theologians of the faith. Even McCormack acknowledges that Barth’s Christology is not Chalcedonian in substance (pun intended?).

    I will e-mail my most recent article I am preparing for publication in which I actually interact with your article in the Presbyterion. In this way we can take our exchange off line, if you are so inclined.