Muller: What I Haven’t Learned From Karl Barth

By Richard A. Muller Reformed Journal 37 (1987): 16–18.

During the past year numerous celebrations were held, testimonials given, and articles written—all for the sake of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Karl Barth and recognizing his contribution to theology in the 20th century. I would like to do the same thing, but in somewhat muted tones. While I recognize Barth as one of the most eminent theologians of the age, I hesi­tate to proclaim him more important than Rudolf Butlmann or—if the whole sweep of post-Kantian theology is examined—than Friedrich Schleiermacher. And I cer­tainly would refrain from the judgment pressed upon us by some of Barth’s more vociferous followers that the great Basel professor is the most seminal thinker since Athanasius. That claim may be acceptable in Edin­burgh, within walking distance of the sacred precincts of T. & T. Clark, but from any other perspective either theological or geographical, it is excessive. Quite in con­trast to Athanasius and, for that matter, quite in contrast to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, Barth stands in the company of Origen, John Scotus Erigena, and, I would add, Schleiermacher, as a theologian almost as brilliant as those of the first rank but who, in contrast to those few truly great thinkers, produced an essen­tially non-normative theology.

Barth did—and I think successfully—direct many theologians of my generation back toward the Scripture and toward the great tradition of the church, specifically toward the tradition of Reformation and post-Reforma­tion Protestant theology. Indeed, most of the useful and insightful elements of Barth’s own thought derive from Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism. Dur­ing the formative years of my own theological training, when my professors fed me a rather steady diet of Bultmann, Noth, Schleiermacher, Macquarrie, Whitehead, and of course Barth, I learned from Barth himself to look elsewhere for the foundations of my theology. Let me comment, then, on what I haven’t learned from Karl Barth.

In the first place, I haven’t learned how to “do theology” from Karl Barth—and I would hazard the guess that no one else has either. As I peruse the Church Dogmatics, I have the consistent experience of excessive verbiage and of ideas that refuse to achieve closure. It is inter­esting and sometimes even instructive to watch a bril­liant mind play with concepts and subject them to intense scrutiny from every conceivable angle But Barth’s dialectical method, which assumes the impos­sibility of stating divine truth in human words and therefore continually negates and restates its own im­possible formulations, could easily and more instruc­tively have simply stated the problem of formulation between two poles of theological statement—and then passed on to another issue, finally providing the reader with a finished dogmatics in no more than three or four volumes, with no loss of content. The Protestant scho­lastics, whose works Barth read with respect, recog­nized in formulae remarkable for their clarity and brevity that all human theology must be ectypal, an imperfect, finite statement about God that successfully reflects the divine archetype only by the grace of God’s gift of rev­elation. Barth taught me where to find that rule for theo­logical formulation, but I cannot say that I learned the rule itself from Barth.

In the second place, I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth. The first essay by Barth that I studied was the Epistle to the Romans. I began there, back in my seminary days, because I believed that I had to read Barth, but I viewed the Church Dogmatics as a monolith beyond the limits of my library acquisitions budget. I did learn from Barth’s Romans that my own inchoate objections to the cold, historical-critical and essentially non-theological content of contemporary ex­egesis were objections that had some validity. And when Barth’s preface pointed me toward the exegetical and hermeneutical approaches of the Reformers, I found a way of access to the theological meaning of the text for the present life of the church. But as I read further in Barth’s own commentary, I found that its radically ex­istential approach taught me more about the impact of Kierkegaard than the impact of Paul on Barth’s thought. Genuine contact with the text of Romans is minimal in Barth’s essay.

Similarly, when I eventually began to work on the Church Dogmatics and to see there the christological principles of Barth’s theology brought to bear on various texts of Scripture, I was frequently at a loss to see how the text itself pointed in the direction chosen for it by Barth. Barth’s reading of the story of Judas is a good example. Most commentators see in these texts (Matt. 27:1–10 and Acts 1:16–20) unremitting condemnation: in Acts, the text concludes with a pointed citation of an imprecatory Psalm. Barth, however, in view of his doc­trinal assumption that Christ is the only elect and only reprobate man, finds some hope in the fate of Judas. Nor is this moment of exegetical folly an exception: Barth frequently uses his overarching christological principle as a heuristic key to unlocking texts that have, m and of themselves, no clear relation to the person and work of Christ. The result is an incredibly arbitrary and dogmatic exegesis, justified only by the vague conten­tion that it is both “christological” and “theological.” I haven’t learned how to do exegesis from Karl Barth.

In the third place, and by way of conclusion, I haven’t learned from Karl Barth how to appropriate the insights of the Christian tradition for use m the present. The Church Dogmatics is doubtless a gold mine of ma­terials from the history of Christian doctrine—but all too frequently, rather than actually building on the foun­dation of these gathered materials, Barth uses them as a foil for his own formulations and fails to convey either the meaning or the direction of the materials them­selves. As an example of this problem, I would point to what is actually one of Barth’s most insightful histor­ical excursuses: the discussion of predestination (Church Dogmatics II/2, pp. 60–88, 106–115). Barth recognizes, and I believe correctly, that the Reformed orthodox theo­logians never proposed a predestinarian system in which all doctrine was deduced somehow from the divine de­crees. Barth notes, however, that the rather stark pre­sentation of the doctrine of the decrees poses the problem of a Deus nudus absconditus, an utterly absent or hidden God. Barth finds a clue to his solution in the argument of Amandus Polanus that God the Father elects not as Father but as God inasmuch as election is the common work of the Trinity in all three persons: thus God the Son both elects and effects our election. From this clue, Barth moves on to overcome the problem of the Deus nudus absconditus in his own doctrine of “Jesus Christ electing and elected.” What Barth does not note is that the concept of the decree as an essential and therefore trinitarian act of the Godhead, together with the defi­nition of election as occurring “in Christ,” is typical of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. No­where in this older theology do we encounter the prob­lem of the Deus nudus absconditus—certainly not as Barth defines it. Nor, in addition, does Barth’s collapsing of election into Christ, so that the electing and elected Mediator is also the only elect and only reprobate man, stand in any real relation to the theological material on which he has commented and from which he takes the clue to his solution to the doctrinal problem that he has posed.

I can only provide a historical hypothesis as to what has actually occurred in Barth’s meditation on older Re­formed concepts of election. The problem of the utterly absent or hidden God is not a problem of the older theology but rather a problem caused for Barth by the Kantian background of his own thought: the God who stands behind the phenomenal order as a transcendent and unreachable noumenon is not accessible or knowable unless he can be located in some way in the phe­nomenal order. Christ provides Barth with this location and, therefore, with his sole focus of knowledge about God and God’s acts. Barth’s focusing of election on Christ, like Schleiermacher’s identification of Jesus as the one man continuously and consistently conscious of his ut­ter dependence on God, deals with the Kantian barrier to a doctrine of divine election—but it does not arise out of a meditation on the Reformed tradition. Rather than let the materials of history speak for themselves, Barth used them as a foil for his own exposition. This pattern of argument can be documented in many other places in the Church Dogmatics—as, for example, in Barth’s several excursuses on the Protestant orthodox theological prolegomena in the first two half-volumes of the Dogmatics.

In his method, in his exegesis, and in his use of history Barth consistently fails to point his readers beyond his own individual theological wrestlings. His arguments are frequently brilliant. They succeed in undercutting many of the cherished notions of the liberal theology out of which Barth himself came. They also remind us strongly of the uniqueness of Christianity in an age when the relativizing approach of the “history-of-religions” school has often threatened to dominate scholarly discussion of theological ideas. The great value of Barth’s theology is that it points us toward our own theological roots. The great irony of Barth’s theology is that, once it has directed us back toward Scripture and the tradi­tion, it gives us very little help in interpreting them for the present. When I study Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, I am constantly aware that each of these writers was conscious of a duty not only to meditate on Scripture and tradition but to mediate both Scripture and tradition to their own time and to the next gener­ation of the church. These writers always point beyond their own work to a greater churchly task—and they do so by adopting methods that can be emulated, by pro­posing exegetical arguments that open Scripture to the present by respecting the text and not bending it to agreement with any overarching heuristic principles, and by dealing with the tradition of earlier theological meditation not as a foil for their own opinions but as a pathway and guide in discerning the meaning of a theological issue. I haven’t learned this approach from Karl Barth—but I will always be grateful to him for pointing me to the place where I could learn it.

Thanks to Traever Guingrich for the electronic text.

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  1. I noticed a possible OCR error:
    “I haven’t teamed this approach from Karl Barth…”
    should, I presume, be
    “I haven’t learned this approach from Karl Barth…”

    • No idea. Only God knows what is in a man’s heart. What we can measure is what he wrote and said. His theology was neo but it was never “orthodox.” He denied the distinction between law and gospel. He denied the covenant of works and the pactum salutis. He rejected the biblical teaching on baptism. His doctrine of Scripture was Anabaptist and existentialist. His theology was dialectical—he said yes and no about the same thing at the same time. He was (so Berkhouwer) an universalist (everyone shall be saved). None of that is orthodox and we’ve only scratched the surface. He identified with the Reformed tradition but he denied much of it.

      Evangelicals who never knew Van Til or other of his older critics (e.g., Berkouwer) need to be aware that Barth was never received as orthodox by those who still confess the historic Reformed faith.

  2. Regardless of it being addressed in the article, when it all comes down to it, is that not the most pressing issue – whether he trusted in grace alone by faith alone thru Christ alone to the glory of God alone (?) Agreed, only God knows the heart.

    Thanks, Dr. C.

  3. Since when was the pactum salutis a fundamental article of the Reformed faith, let alone Biblical Christianity?

    • Alexander,

      I did not claim that the PS is a fundamental Christian doctrine or even fundamental to the Reformed faith but it was widely taught by Reformed orthodoxy and its abandonment in the modern period has not been to our benefit. It’s just one of the many ways Barth abandoned the Reformed faith and it’s part of the reason it is incorrect to categorize him as a “Reformed” theologian.

      For more on the history of the PS see the chapter in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. See also the John Fesko’s recent two volumes on the history and theology of the PS.

      part 1
      part 2

  4. Geeky proofreader comments:

    “m and of themselves” should be “in and of themselves,” and ” for use m the present” should be “for use in the present.” These are in the fifth and sixth paragraphs, respectively.

    Great article!

    • Frankq,

      It might be easier to list the ways in which Barth finally sympathized actually with what the Reformed confessed. I’m not sure where Barth actually agreed with the Reformed confession.

  5. Muller made a comment that summarized my own reading of Barth: he never was able to bring these historical insights to closure. I’ve read about 4 individual volumes of CD. Some of the discussions are quite interesting, but even then they never seem to “land.”

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