So a while back, I talked about reading through one of Barth’s more accessible books with some folks. I think a few people picked up the book, but we never really figured out a way to generate a meaningful conversation over it. In my own re-reading of it, I started feeling bad about the recommendation. “Accessible” may not be the first word that comes to mind for my friends who are reading it. So in lieu of a legitimate reading group, and in a spirit of wanting to honor the folks who actually spent some cold hard cash on the book, I’m going to blog my way through it in the the hopes that one or two of my reflections will help others to make some sense of what’s going on there. That is, of course, assuming that I’ll be able to make any sense of it myself.
In the introduction (which is oddly called, “Commentary”), Barth sets out to define what he means by the terms “Evangelical” and “Theology”. While there is some overlap between Barth’s use of the word “evangelical” and more current uses of the word to describe a conservative movement within the larger Church, Barth isn’t caught up in quite the same turf battles of recent American church history. Importing our meaning onto his meaning will be more frustrating than helpful. That said, Barth did write in response to the liberal Protestant theology of his own place and time. This is an over-simplification for sure, but liberal Protestantism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to reinterpret Christianity in terms of universal human experience, thereby removing any of its particularity. Once Christian faith has been reduced to vague spirituality, then faith becomes a matter of religious feelings or “consciousness”. In as much as there are parallels between early 20th century liberal Protestantism and early 21st century (post-)evangelicalism, Barth’s critique is as relevant today as it was in his day. I’ll leave it to you (or we can take it up in the comments) to make the connections.
So when Barth wants to define theology, he is blatantly affirming that the object of study is God. “Evangelical” theology goes one or two steps further to say that God has revealed himself as not simply a divine being, but specifically a triune God, and one discovers this trinatarian God in the pages of scripture. I realize for some reading that this shouldn’t need to be spelled out in any detail. In most people’s mind Christian theology tries to makes sense of the God of the Bible, but in Barth’s day (and perhaps ours) this is not what theology had become. Theology for some is not study of God, but a study of man’s experience of God or religious feelings or intuitions. I’m not suggesting that those aren’t important subjects worthy of study, but they aren’t necessarily theology proper. One can (and many have) responded that all we are able to study is man’s experience of God. This isn’t necessarily the place to rehash a whole long history of epistemology and religious experience. Instead, I’ll simply make the somewhat naive suggestion that if we make it our goal to start with humanity and our experience of God, then we are committing ourselves to a never ending game of navel gazing. On the other hand, if we take the scriptures at their word that God has revealed himself and we set our sights on describing that self-revelation, then even while acknowledging all the limitations of human creatureliness, Barth suggests we are at least aiming at the right target. I understand that some would see any and all talk of God as the ultimate game of navel gazing, and that the whole theological enterprise is predictably circular. My sense is that any discourse on reality in general has a certain element of circularity to it, which is exactly why we need a Word from without to save us from that fate. Anyway, this line of reasoning could go on and on. Eventually, one simply has to acknowledge all the complexities and then define what one is going to attempt and then go from there. That is more or less what Barth is doing in this opening section.
There is much more that Barth can and will say about this act of God’s self-revelation. My insanely brief commentary on Barth’s “commentary” in Evangelical Theology doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, but hopefully these thoughts can help you to begin to make sense of the context in which Barth is carrying out his theological vision.
6 Replies to “Evangelical Theology – “Commentary””
” My sense is that any discourse on reality in general has a certain element of circularity to it, which is exactly why we need a Word from without to save us from that fate. ” ….
my sense is that there is a way to transcend ” circularity ” . this, with or without a Word from ” without “.
Perhaps there is a Word Only from without , or perhaps not. how is one to Know? Perhaps both.
Perhaps neither ? Who is Barth ( or I ) to Know?
as for me, …. what i do have is my insight and experience …. my unknowing ( Thomas Merton )…… and yes, my navel. 🙂 lol.!!!!
As You said in this beginning; …. this is about Knowing God. imho; God is far beyond my small ability to Know. ~ ~ ~ ~ …. —–> and i Love You. xo, rishi ~
also… how is it that Barth, or anyone, can speak of God’s Revelation without it being a specific revelation to Them; … their personal experience… ? ahhh ~ i have soooo many ????’s.
Hi Saptarshi – Thanks for being interested. I don’t think anyone doubts that people experience the divine in subjective ways. Nor does any theologian I am aware of think we can “know” the Divine in a complete way. However, if the Divine makes itself known in any way at all, even if in only the smallest of ways, then (as Barth would suggest) the very act the Divine’s self-disclosure reveals something about the character/nature of this God. He is a God who in some sense wants to be known. I think people are suspicious of any attempts to talk about this “making known” in an seriously rigorous way, but even with all the limits of intellect, humans have always used their rational capacities to make sense of the Divine. I think we can all agree our knowledge will be incomplete, but to not think about God would be to deny, the intellect that is one of the things that makes us human. But yes, certainly “far beyond our small ability to know.” One of the defining marks of the Christian faith joins in making that assertion, left to our own we cannot know. And yet, God graciously makes himself known, even if only in part. Thanks again for reading along!
Taido – sorry for being behind the times here, and I don’t know how far I’ll make it through ET, but willing to give it a go. This is the first time I’ve ever read Barth, so I’m having a bit of a hard time understanding some things, and hopefully you can give me some hints.
I’ve read through the Commentary a couple of times and hopefully I’m not too far off the mark in saying that he’s defining ET as being concerned with God as he has chosen to reveal himself in the events of history, even current or future history, but especially the history of Jesus of Nazareth; that ET deals with man’s existence, faith, and reason but only in a subordinate sense; and that since God is disclosing himself to and for man that this is “Good News” in distinction to the “bad news” of some of the other theologies. (did I get close? 🙂 )
But I’m having a hard time with a couple of areas that Barth seems to heavily emphasize. The first is that he seems to labor over the point that he does not desire to compare the other theologies critically or take a position “on behalf of one against all the others, nor will the others be subordinated and related to this one.” These other theologies each consider themselves to be the one that is the best because “even should it not be the only right one, it claims to be still more right than the others.” Barth asserts that “the best theology (not to speak of the only right one) of the highest, or even the exclusively true and real, God would have the following distinction: it would prove itself … by the demonstration of the Spirit and of its power” (p. 4). He later says that ET must not boast that it is “the most correct or even the only correct theology”, but rather it “can and should base its thought and speech on the decision and deed by which God lets his honor pale all other gods” (p. 7).
So on this point I have two questions for you (and maybe he answers this later in the book?):
1) Why is this particular point so important for him? and
2) how does it work to say that theology (a science, a discipline and not a person) can prove itself (i.e., it sounds to me like someone needs to prove its truth, either God directly or people; but if God needs to prove himself directly how does Barth envision this? and if people (“theologians”?) it sounds to me like this is exactly what Barth is trying to avoid)?
The second problem I have is that it seems to me that he spends the first eight pages insisting at every turn that ET must have God alone as its object and not man’s existence, man’s faith, man’s reason, or man’s theology (de-emphasizing any dominance on the part of man in the enterprise of ET); and then the last two pages of the chapter stressing the fact that God exists not “wholly other” but as the “God of man” (emphasizing the centrality of the importance of man to ET). He spends the first eight pages insisting that the aim of the book would not be to set ET as the best or most correct against the other “theologies”, and the last two pages describing his idea of “theo-anthropology” as being “good news” as opposed to the “bad news” of some of the other theologies (and in that sense, implying that the “good news” of ET is in some way better than the “bad news”).
On this point, am I correctly reading these contrasting emphases, and if so, is there contradiction there, or is he intentionally putting them in tension?
Thanks for your feedback… this is a fun exercise. Miss you and FN!
This is quite the comment, and I’m not sure you haven’t given it a closer reading than I have! But I’ll do my best to give a clarifying response.
I think you nailed it on what ET is… “God as he has chosen to reveal himself in the events of history.” On one level, what more can we do? It is often helpful to understand what he was writing in response to. So if you wanted to parse the statement as you have it, he would be pushing on some who might want to speculate on “God” in abstraction from history or revelation. Simply a metaphysical/philosophical exercise. Getting at the God behind the one revealed in history. But then he would also seek to stress that we really are talking about “God”, not just man’s various understandings about God. Or worse, just reducing all talk of God to simply humankind’s projections of who God is. Of course, holding these things in tension is more than a little tricky and Barth may be guilty of tipping one way or the other himself at times.
On the issue of having the ‘best theology’, I think Barth wants to exercise some humility. Not something theologians are necessarily known for. I think he wants to recognize that he doesn’t necessarily have the corner of the market on right thinking and that there have been other ways of discussing theology over the centuries that don’t necessarily fall into his pattern of thought. And then the bit about God “proving it” flows form a recognition that mankind is incapable of determining who God is or constructing a theology that gets it all right. That said, he really does believe in a God who makes himself known who is free and active and alive in the Spirit. So it isn’t humankind that asserts God’s authority (or a theology of God), but it is God himself who does that. One can say that this is an existential understanding of God, but wording it in that way continues to orbit in a anthropocentric epistemology that I think Barth is wise to avoid.
Which presses on to your last question. Yes, he is doggedly committed to doing ‘THEO-logy’ and not reducing theology to anthropology. And yet, he wants to recognize that theology isn’t something that doesn’t have any relevance for humanity. That God isn’t simply for God, but that theology happens at all means that God intends for man to be the beneficiaries of God, and be extension talk about God. So I see less of a tension and more of an extension.
Ok, certainly not as robust a response as your careful reading deserves, but that’s my sense of things. So glad that you are reading along. He’s an important thinker in many ways and his voice deserves to be heard more often than it does.
Hope all is well with you!