Tuesday, 3 July 2007

2007 Karl Barth Conference

If, like me, you were at home last week feeling miserable when you should have been at the Karl Barth Conference, you’ll be glad to read David’s overview of some of the highlights. The conference theme was the relationship between Barth’s theology and American evangelicalism – a fascinating and complex theme!

Barth himself had little good to say about the more conservative side of American evangelicalism. When in 1961 he was asked to respond to criticisms by Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark and Fred Klooster (to be published in Christianity Today), he replied: “The … presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest!” (Barth, Letters 1961-1968, pp. 7-8).

If you’ve ever read any of Van Til’s stuff on Barth, then you’ll know exactly what Barth is talking about! By a happy irony, though, America is now the land of Barth-studies – these days, students from Europe have to travel all the way to Princeton (or Scotland, of course) if they really want to study Barth....


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Well, maybe America is trying to make up for being the land of Tillich and the Niebuhrs while Barth was alive. :-)

I remember reading that Barth snapped at Carl Henry and called Christianity Today "Christianity Yesterday." :-)

Jim said...

Actually its because America is always 30-40 years behind the curve. Barth is popular now because its just now that Americans are discovering him.

He was surpassed decades ago in Germany and Switzerland. And rightly so- since anyone who disdains Zwingli is worthy of usurpation.


(There, that ought to fire up the Barthians).

Chris Tilling said...

Ben I know, and Barth also, but who is this Zwingli?

Wait, I'm pretty sure I know: He was the chap who invented that dance in the 60s.

Or something like that.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of something Bloesch once said: 'I believe that modern evangelicalism is hampered by being pre-critical, pre-Kantian and pre-Barthian. Helmut Thielicke refers to a Cartesian way of doing theology, in which the credibility of theology is made to rest on rational consistency and clarity of ideas rather than fidelity to biblical revelation'.

Jim said...

Ben, can you really allow people like Chris (The Devil) Tilling to comment? I mean really lad...... he's just so purely wicked.


Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Jason -- I love that statement by Bloesch. In fact, I thought it was the best moment of his entire 7-volume dogmatics!

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jim: well, since Jim (Beelzebub) West is allowed to comment here, I suppose it would be unfair to turn Chris away....

kim fabricius said...

Combining this post with the one on Gilead . . .

The Revd. John Ames is, of course, a great admirer of Barth - and the novel is set in that hotbed of theological ferment known as Iowa - and in the 1950s! Ames finds Barth's work "to be full of comfort."

Another character asks Ames, "'Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'", and indeed Ames has "wondered about that very thing any number of times."

So John Ames is not only a pastor, he is also a prophet!

(By the way, the name "Ames" is surely a play on the Latin amare, don't you think?)

Ethan Worthington, Aberdeen said...

The first ever Barth Translation seminar which followed the conference at Princeton was quite good as well. It was co-led by Darrell Guder and Dr. Karlfried Froehlich. There were about 10 of us there, so the setting was quite intimate. One of Guder's main goals for this gathering was to begin thinking through how a group like this might help Barth translation become a more consistent and communal enterprise. The best part of the seminar by far though--and i'm sure most there would agree--was the informal after dinner session at Dr. Froehlich's home the first night. Dr. Froehlich spent about 2 hours regaling us with personal photopraphs, letters and tales of his days as Oscar Cullman's assistant and a student of Barth in Basel. Some of you may consider booking a spot now for next year's session!

D.W. Congdon said...


I'm glad you found my review helpful. Of course, I didn't touch on all the papers, and certainly there is room for disagreement about what is the "best" paper. It was a great conference, indeed.


Gilead is such a marvelous book. I quite enjoyed the references to Barth.

derek said...

Ben, i really appreciate Barth's view of conservative evangelicalism in America. Also, i mentioned that Americans are always behind european thought, mainly because of their view of scripture, in my confessional meme.

I believe that my theological pilgrimage is a great case in point. i went to an independent christian church (isn't that an oxymoron?) based bible college. Sadly, i only heard about Barth once or twice, mainly during our discussions over theories of scriptural inspiration. Needless to say, Barth wasn't too well received. Other influential thinkers of the past like Brunner or Bultmann, or more current ones like Gunton, Jenson, and Williams weren't even mentioned

I had no idea how influential he (Barth) was until i started my masters in Wichita Ks, where my teacher was a former student of Ray Anderson and T.F. Torrance. His (my teacher) view of God blew me away! There was a whole world outside of American Evangelicalism. Honestly, i felt a little bitter (and still do) about the lack of concern for broadening my perspective during my undergraduate. I felt like i had been indoctrinated a bit.

My hope is not so much that American evangelicalism does away with biblical inerrancy (it probably wouldn't hurt to do so, but i think folks like Fabricus are a little too harsh on the concept), but that they allow others outside of the citadel of American Orthodoxy to shake them up a bit. American theology i believe has fallen into the trap of believing that they have it mostly figured out.

They need to follow Barth and "begin again at the beginning."

kim fabricius said...

Hi Derek,

If I'm "a little too harsh on the concept" of biblical inerrancy, it's not so much because of the doctrine itself, because it is new-fangled, implausible, unnecessary, and - yes - heretical (basically because of its solecisms regarding the grammar of the relationship between human and divine agency). Mistakes I can live with; after all, I live with my own all the time! No, it's because of the paranoid way its holders have of unchurching those who don't credit it - we're not "Bible-believing", and we're all lumped together as "liberals" - that's what really gets my goat. Of course I can only speak from my own experience in the UK; perhaps its advocates are more charitable in the US, Australia, etc.

kim fabricius said...

Another thought occurs to me: that it wasn't only Barth's "liberalism" that made him a theologus non gratus in the US, it was his socialism. Americans have always been unable to distinguish European social democracy from aberrant forms of Marxism like Soviet communism.

derek said...


I can understand your disdain for the uncharitable attitude inerrantists display towards those who don't agree with their view. Also, i appreciate your honesty in admitting that some of your problems with it are due to the way you treated by inerrantists.

Sadly, the situation is no better here in the US. In fact, my initial guess would be that the derison towards people that don't affirm inerrancy would be worse here in the US rather than in the UK.

However, i think that many would disagree with at least two of your claims regarding inerrancy, the claims that it is a) unnecessary, and b) heretical. i find b) to be a rather odd accusation. Would you elaborate on that some more?

kim fabricius said...

Hi Derek,

Briefly, I can't see how the doctrine of inerrancy (as I usually encounter it) avoids bibliolatry, particularly with its speculative hypothesis of the "autographic text"; a docetic or hypostatic-union reading of biblical authorship (as if Mark et al. were not creatures, indeed sinful creatures); conversely, an implicitly contrastive understanding of the relationship between divine and human agency which, in effect, reduces God to the status of a creature; a commodification of revelation, usually collapsing it into a corpus of propositions that are just there (in spite of the lip-service given to the testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti, the hermeneutical activity of the Holy Spirit seems to me to become otiose); a proud textual theologia gloriae rather than a modest textual theologia crucis.

I know all this needs a lot of unpacking, but that this isn't the place for it. David Congdon, at Fire & Rose, not only writes quite brilliantly on the subject, but he also provides a lot of resources and links. Of course he is not reponsible for my specific takes!


kim fabricius said...

Hear ye, hear ye:

After a few conversations and further reflection - and in the interests of world peace - allow me to withdraw the term "heretical" from my description of inerrancy ("new-fangled, implausible, unnecessary" still stand!). At least with respect to sophisticated, if not popular, forms of the doctrine, the term is imprecise at best and inaccurate at worst (though I find it hard not to use the word "docetic", and see very real problems here with what seem to me to be unacceptably contrastive assumptions about the relationship between divine and human agency and causality). The word "heretical" is, in any case a real conversation-killer and therefore inappropriate for a blog of the stature of F&T.


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