Difficulties in the Theology of Karl Barth

Lately, I have been reading some Karl Barth, and once again, I have a renewed interest in this great theologian. I also had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with a retired professor who was a former student and personal friend of Barth. In the coming days and weeks, you’ll probably find me writing on Barth here or there.

I think a good starting point when discussing the theology of Barth is to acknowledge some difficulties in both reading and understanding Barth. I know a large number of people who hold notions about Barth’s theology that may be partially true or simply inaccurate. Some people do not engage the work of Barth because it is daunting, especially the Church Dogmatics (almost 10,000 pages in the Dogmatics alone). I guess I want to address some of these preconceived notions about Barth that I often hear and maybe help recover what Barth has to offer.

First, Barth’s concept of the Word of God is difficult to wrap one’s mind around at times and can easily cause confusion. What does it mean that the Bible becomes the Word of God? For evangelicals, especially those that affirm inerrancy, this is a major red-flag. Although Barth does not speak in terms of inerrancy and infallibility, Barth stills uses the Bible as the sole authority for the life of the Barth. The retired professor I mentioned above discussed this tension with me. He told a story about a class in which a student tried ot flippantly dismiss a section of Scripture. Barth jumped all over him, chastising for not taking the Word of God serious enough. Thus, Barth’s practice more closely aligns to that of inerrancy.

Second, Barth denies natural theology and natural law, or that people can know God through nature or an innate sense of right and wrong. This was even the point that him and Emil Brunner struggled over. But all this depends on Barth’s interpretation of the first couple chapters of Romans. Here, Paul speaking about the Gentiles writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (v. 20). Barth takes this to be Gentile Christians rather than just Gentiles at-large. From my reading, Barth’s view is still a minority position and has not gained much ground.

The third point of concern that is often raised is that Barth sounds like a universalist. While it is true that Barth thinks that all are elect, he uses the term “elect” in a different way than say Calvin did. Hence, Christ’s death was sufficient for all. In one of the later sections of the Church Dogmatics, Barth does address this concern and clearly states that he is a universalist. Most of us have just never gotten that far in the Dogmatics though.

These three concerns are almost always brought up be my fellow students when they see me reading Barth or hear me talking about him. Just because one has these hesitations though does not mean one should not read Barth. He has much to offer especially to pastors and preachers.

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