Friday, 10 November 2006

Ten propositions on Karl Barth: theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian. Sounds like a no-brainer. And, yes, fundamental motifs of Barth’s theology have a definite Reformed pedigree – e.g., the glory, majesty, and grace of God; the primacy of the Word in Holy Scripture; the polemic against idolatry; the doctrine of election; the relationship between gospel and law; sanctification. But for Barth, the Reformed tradition was not so much a body of doctrine as a habit of mind. Observe that Barth got himself up to speed with Reformed dogmatics only after he had become famous for his two editions of Romans and taken up a lectureship at Göttingen. His was a theologia reformata only as it was also a theologia semper reformanda. His conversations with his Reformed forefathers, while deferential, were always critical. And the doctrines he inherited he always re-worked with daring and imagination.

2. Karl Barth was an ecumenical theologian. While recognising that theology is always confessional – there is no Archimedean point, you’ve got to stand and start somewhere – Barth insisted that the intentio theologiae must be catholic. His net was broad, its mesh tight, and he cast it far and wide: the magisterial Reformers, of course, but also the Fathers West and East, the medieval schoolmen, the Protestant scholastics, the nineteenth century liberals. Barth had a vibrant belief in the communio sanctorum, and could echo Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” The universal church was Barth’s oyster, and he found pearls (as well as grit!) throughout its history. His Catholic colleague at Basel Hans Urs von Balthasar paid Barth the ultimate compliment when he said that his friend was “a theologian and not a reformer.”

3. Karl Barth was an ecclesial theologian. When Barth began his writing and teaching career, theology was in captivity to the university. His teacher Adolf Harnack was aghast at his student’s cavalier attitude to the academically respectable historical-critical method, and his liberal peers dismayed by their colleague’s hostility to apologetics. However, for Barth, theology is the servant of the church, “called to perform the simple task of being the place where the church evaluates its own proclamation against its given norm, revelation” (John Webster). Hence Barth’s mature theology settled into the form of Church Dogmatics. The German title is Die kirchliche Dogmatik, which (George Hunsinger observes) might just as accurately be rendered Ecclesial Theology. And as the heart of the church is worship, so the soul of theology is prayer. For Barth, we can only talk about God because and as we talk to God.

4. Karl Barth was an exegetical theologian. Barth’s theology began in preaching; it is a homiletical theology. Indeed William Willimon suggests that no one “should venture to interpret Barth who is not a preacher.” And while Barth said that “preaching is exposition, not exegesis,” it certainly begins in exegesis, which he understood as the prayerful attentiveness to “the strange new world of the Bible.” Although Barth moved from the pulpit in Safenwil to the lectern in Göttingen, Münster, Bonn, and finally Basel, and preached very little until the end of his career, exegesis lay at the heart of his dogmatic enterprise. It is not surprising, therefore, that some readers of CD skip the large print altogether and go for the fine print of Barth’s close yet creative readings of scripture. Barth would be horrified at the widespread biblical illiteracy in today’s church, and were he suddenly to appear in our midst, his first words to us would no doubt be his last words to his students at Bonn before he departed for Basel in 1935: “Exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!”

5. Karl Barth was a moral theologian. For Barth, the imperative of ethics is inextricably connected to the indicative of dogmatics. In announcing who he is, God tells us what to do. But for Barth the moral life is not rule-based, nor even biblicist: dogmatically mediated and contextually located, it is, above all, a matter of prayerful and thoughtful discernment. Nor is obedience a burden, indeed it is perfect freedom: it is gospel precisely as law. And it begins in gratitude: “Grace,” Barth said, “evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” Barth would have agreed with Blake: “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” He would also have had some sympathy with Blake’s radical politics! For Barth there was no such thing as a purely personal ethics; as a moral theologian he was, ipso facto, a political theologian. The author of the Barmen Declaration declared: “A silent community, merely observing the events of the time, would not be a Christian community.” And while the “Red pastor” of Safenwil knew that the left often gets it wrong, he mischievously suggested that conservatives rarely get it right.

6. Karl Barth was a scientific theologian. Not that Barth engaged with the natural sciences, he didn’t. Indeed his disciple Thomas Torrance found Barth’s indifference to science, and his conviction that science and theology are not only non-interactive but non-complementary disciplines, to be perhaps the greatest weakness of his mentor. Nor was Barth the least bit interested in methodology. Rather Barth was scientific in the sense of the German wissenschaftlich, following the observation of Martin Kähler that “every particular subject requires its own from of wissenschaftlich analysis.” In other words, Barth was scientific in the sense that he tailored his theology to the nature of the object of its investigation, namely the person and work of God. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, Barth’s theology was strictly scientific precisely because it was so exactingly Trinitarian and Christological.

7. Karl Barth was a poetic theologian. Indeed Maurice Wiles described Barth as a “theological poet.” Not since Luther has a theologian used such colloquial, energetic, and expressive language. Formally, Barth rejected rhetoric – “No eloquence!” was a slogan of his, particularly in preaching; materially, he was a master of it. Indeed Stephen H. Webb devotes a whole book to the subject: Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth (1991). And quite right, because how you say something is a significant part of the something you say. And because he was speaking about God, how could Barth avoid stretching his God-talk to breaking point – dialectical discourse corresponding to a dynamic deity, the word on the wing imitating (as he put it) “a bird in flight”? Barth is particularly adept in his deployment of irony and hyperbole, and his metaphors are always apt and memorable – and often explosive, a quality that attracted the novelist John Updike. Hence too Flannery O’Connor’s bon mot: “I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.”

8. Karl Barth was a contextual theologian. In Karl Barth: Against Hegemony (1999), Timothy Gorringe shows the way Barth’s theology interfaces with and responds to the events of his time, how socially situated it is – even if often in contradiction, “against the stream.” In a sense, all Barth’s work is occasional. In June 1933, when he said that the urgent task was to get on with theology “as if nothing has happened,” Barth was not suggesting that the church withdraw to the hills in denial of the Nazification of Germany, rather he was declaring that National Socialism must not be allowed to set the agenda for the church. For Barth, theology must be related to the contemporary without being dominated by the contemporary, and so “more like the needle of a compass than a weather vane” (Eberhard Busch). Barth himself said: “My thinking, writing, and speaking developed from reacting to people, events, and circumstances with which I was involved.” But Barth also said: “Revelation is not a predicate of history, but history is a predicate of revelation.” So, yes, the Bible in one hand – the right; the newspaper in the other – the left.

9. Karl Barth was a joyful theologian. The evangel was at the centre of his life as well as his thought. But he delighted in the truth wherever he found it: bilingual, Barth was equally fluent in the languages of Zion and Babylon. Like God himself, he was an unashamed humanist, and an irrepressible lover of God’s good creation. Of course he adored Mozart, but, a keen film-goer, he was also head-over-heels about Marlene Dietrich, whom he intended to give a place in CD, “probably in eschatology.” And hilaritas, for Barth, was an inestimable virtue. “What a pity,” he once said about some over earnest fundamentalists, that they don’t “think it worth mentioning that human beings are the only creatures that laugh.” And one of his grandchildren wondered whether “the many creases in my face had developed because I spent so much of my life laughing.” And laughing at himself too. Just four days before he died in 1968, aged 82, Barth told some friends that he had finally found out why there was no end to his volumes of Dogmatics – “the lady in the hoop skirt,” all 28.6 pounds of her (another theologian called CD “Moby-Dick”): “My doctors discovered that my colon was much too long.” No wonder Barth has been called the “happiest theologian of our age.”

10. Karl Barth was a nomadic theologian. He was always a pilgrim in via, writing his doxological Dogmatics in a tent rather than a temple. It sounds trite to say that Barth was a theologian for all the ages, but it is surely significant that he has been called a modern, late modern, and post-modern thinker, with, for example, some scholars pointing to the obvious influence of Kant and Hegel, while other scholars have drawn parallels with Wittgenstein and Derrida. CD, of course, remained incomplete, an unfinished symphony, an un-spired cathedral. But perhaps that is not so much because Barth ran out of time. Perhaps it is because any dogmatics is inherently a work in progress, a fragment however huge. After all, every end is, in fact, a new beginning; it is just that we seldom recognise it at the time.

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