Karl Barth and the Confessing Church

I’ll just say it now. You will probably be reading about Karl Barth quite a bit in the weeks to come. Why you may ask? First, he is maybe the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century. Second, I am reading some of his works. And lastly, and maybe the primary reason, is because I am doing a presentation on him for a class. So there you have it.

Today, I just wanted to provide a short overview of what is meant by the confessing church that Barth proposes. But first some background. Barth lived in Nazi Germany and saw many colleagues and churches pledge allegiance to the way of Hitler. Barth was a part of a counter-movement, begging the church to remain the church that it was called to be.  This terminology may be linked to one of his many definitions of faith: “Faith is the act in which man relates himself to God as is appropriate to God.” Barth goes on to state that this act is called confessing and confession. It is the place where we acknowledge our limits and shortcomings as finite humans, therefore allowing the glory and light of God to shine in and through us. Barth maintains that as a confessing church, we must maintain a distinct language separate from the world. The church must be the church, a distinct entity from the culture in which it resides. When the church fails to upkeep its unique identity of being the body of Christ and the “manifestation of the Servant of God,” the church is in danger of slipping into the fray of the society around it. Barth writes, “One thing is certain, that where the Christian Church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all. Then it becomes the fellowship of the quiet, whereby it is much to be hoped that it does not become a community of dumb dogs.” Quite harsh, but Barth is trying to express the importance of the identity of the church and the foremost concern or maintaining this identity.

However, just because the church must hold dear to its language, that does not limit the influence of the church to the church itself. Barth emphasizes that the church exists in the sphere of the world and the church’s purpose is to express its language to the world. And this is where it gets tricky. We must communicate the identity of the church, namely the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to the world in a language that they understand. We cannot leave it in the language of the church. It must be translated to reach those outside the church. Thus, Barth is proposing, that although the church’s primary responsibility is to be the church, it cannot neglect the world around it. Thus, we see strands of Christ against culture in this view, but not to the point of withdrawing from culture. If anything, almost the opposite. The church’s responsibility is to communicate its language to the world. And because the church always exists within a particular culture and the Christians that make up the church still hold some worldly outlooks or perspectives, then a bridge must be constructed all the while not forgetting to be the church, the body of Christ.

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