Letter To A Bartian Professor
I originally wrote this letter to one of my “Bartian” (aka followers of Karl Barth) professor in my seminary. I am still hoping that he gets back to me eventually: in the mean time, however, I would like to also send my probings out onto the broad, wide seas of the world wide web, in hopes that someone out there will have some helpful thoughts or resources to send my way!
Mostly, I am hoping to get the other side of the debate, since I feel that my iTunes U class (“History of Philosophy and Christian Thought,” by Dr. John M. Frame, especially lectures 21-23), has argued strongly against Barth, and I don’t know who to read, for a voice championing his cause.
The traditional answer is for me simply to “dive into” the original documents, to read deeply of Barth from his own words. I am stuck with the dilemma, however, that if I were to do this at this point in my life, my thinking would likely become siginificantly shaped by Barth for life. Before I can ethially do this, however, I need to know whether Barth is on the level, and whether I should entrust my feeble, wandering mind to his tutolage. (Read more about my thoughts on this in “A Wise Shepherd of a Wandering Mind.”)
My solution is to read lightly of Barth and heavily of the second materials at least until I am able to see the major flaws in his thinking, so that when I do finally plunge in, I will know what to look out for.
If people have educated opinions to share, or pertinent resources – audio resources are highly prized!! – I would be very appreciative!
Dear Dr. X:
It has been a while since we talked in person, and it will be a while until we talk again, since I am hoping to take most of the rest of my seminary by correspondence. There are some things which I am really struggling with, however, and you seem to be the natural person to talk to about them, since they all tie back to Karl Barth.
Would it be possible to schedule a meeting by phone in the next few weeks, to talk about some of my questions? …
I know that your time is limited, and so I have chosen to write this rather long e-mail to maximize efficiency. In this way, you will be able to skim quickly over a concise presentation of my thoughts, rather than listening to my faltering attempts at verbal precision on the phone.
I had never heard of Barth until I entered seminary, and since that time, it seemed at times like I was hearing of no-one else! Naturally, this lead to a desire to know more about this man. Because there did not seem to be classes at (my seminary) which studied Barth as an objective subject, I looked online – specifically at iTunes U – to find some scholarly voices on the subject.
Those who seemed to have the most to say about Barth were Reformed “VanTillian” thinkers. You will probably not be surprised that these people had more critiques than affirmations when it came to Barth. Some of the material is beyond me, but in what I understand, I am feeling myself siding against Barth. I am hoping that you can present the other side of this debate, or at least point me to some names and titles which can speak in favor of Barth, as I continue to grow in my understanding of 20th century theology.
OVERVIEW OF MY EMERGING THOUGHTS
I am beginning to see Barth as analogous to Brevard Childs. As I understand him, Childs was a man who excelled for years at Liberal (secular?) hermeneutics, but eventually felt a distinct lack when he realized that the theology which he was practicing was different from the faith of the Reformers and left no room for the faith which he cherished in his own heart. The rest of his legacy could be described as a monumental striving to bridge the impossible gap between the historical-critical method and the Christian faith.
I mention Childs not to say that I have formed a final opinion of the man, but by way of illustration: Increasingly, I am seeing Barth’s legacy in a similar light – as a monumental attempt to bridge an impossible gap.
BARTH’S OBSTACLE: LESSING’S UGLY DITCH
It seems to me that Barth is stumbling over that same obstacle which Kierkegaard and others struggled with – Lessing’s ugly ditch. If I can put this problem into my own words, Lessing understands that history as based ultimately on sensory data, which is flawed. Also, in no time or place does anybody have a “God’s-eye-view” of events, and so it is impossible to draw true applications from the disparate events of one’s day. Finally, the transmission of data from one generation to the next is flawed. The upshot of this is that we cannot know with absolute certainty exactly what Matthew originally wrote about what he thinks he saw, even if we were to trust his words (which we should not): or, in Lessing’s words, “If no hostorical truth can b demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths,” (Gotthold Lessing, Lessing’s Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick, London: A & C Publishers, 1957, p. 55).
By the time Barth comes on the scene, the Liberal wing of the church had become quite comfortable setting up shop on “their side” of the ugly ditch, redefining Christianity around various systems of human perfectionisms through morality, romanticism, etc. Famously, Barth found the “faith” of Liberalism to be crushingly inadequate in view of WWI and the rise of the Third Reich in his native land of Germany. His solution is to engages in a thorough deconstruction of Liberalism (which I approve of), and then to spend the rest of his life trying to bridge Lessing’s ditch for himself, through existentialism (which I am not so sure about).
BARTH’S SOLUTION: EXISTENTIALISM
I find epistemology to be an ironic discipline, because while it is supposedly the study of “knowing,” those who spend too much time formulating a comprehensive epistemology almost inevitably end up with a system which warps all of knowledge around only one aspect of knowing. Thus, philosophers seems less in touch with reality, more inclined to insanity, and less able to function in the real world than their contemporaries, who apprehend reality in a more ad-hock fashion.
Existentialism, as I understand it, is an epistemological system which interprets all of reality around human experience. The old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, did it really fall?” seems to be a watershed question: an existentialist would answer “no:” since no human had an experience of a tree falling, it did not occur.
Barth seems to tip his hat to Lessing’s ditch in his discussion of “Historie,” then builds his theology of “Geshichta” around a basically existential understanding of God: we know God because we experience Him.
How? When? Where do we experience Him…?
First, we must understand that God is timeless – He is eternally present to us all, in Himself. Even as we rush through time, He is always near us, in the present. His entering into history seems historical to our perspective: however, to Him all of His intrusions into calendar-time are one – they all happen in “Geshichta,” in God’s special “time-space bubble,” if you will. God intruded into this world by setting it in motion, by talking to the patriarchs, by coming at Pentacost, by revealing Himself in sermons, etc. – but all of His intrusions are echoes forwards or echoes backwards to His prime revelation of Himself as Christ on the cross. The prime experience of God with this world was that moment when “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself,” (2 Cor. 5:19): that is, the moment at which the “being” in God overcame the “non-being” in God. All other events participate in that one event, but they are subordinate to it.
How is Lessing’s ditch bridged, then? God meets with His people ultimately in Christ, who is mediated through Scriptures and through preaching. These encounters are momentary from our perspective – but they are true existential occurrences of meeting with the divine. It is in these events – and in the fact that they are mediated only through Scriptures and Christian preaching (most definitely not through natural revelation!) – that a Christian may/must place their faith and trust.
Thus, Barth sees Scriptures as fallible, in agreement with Lessing and the Liberal camp: however, he sees God’s use of fallible Scriptures not as contradictory, but as an example of His great grace. The God who could speak through Balaam’s donkey, can also speak through such a book as Isaiah – a book written by three authors, handled roughly in transmission, and redacted beyond recognition by who-knows-who. (At least, that is what the Liberals believe)
IS BARTH BIBLICAL?
I am not sure whether I am understanding Barth correctly: I would very much like to know whether my brief sketch above is accurate!
If my sketch is accurate, I would tend to see Barth as “the best option, considering a poor starting-point.” If one accepts Lessing’s presuppositions, I suppose that Barth’s solution to the problem is among the best out there: but isn’t Lessing’s ditch the unique problem of a modern/scientific/empirical worldview?
LESSING’S UGLY PRECIPICE
I mentioned that Lessing has some dangerous presuppositions. I believe that the chief of these is one that runs deep to the core of our modern/scientific worldview: the belief that until science has spoken, there is no truth. No herbal remedy or folk cure should be trusted until “the experts” have done their job. Likewise, no text or document should be trusted until the experts have combed over it and sorted out the truth from the errors.
Here there is a problem, however. Although pop-scientists talk often about “facts” and “proven realities,” the fact is that the scientific method is a method of skepticism. Even something as basic as the boiling point of water is only likely to be at a certain temperature, given the known variables. Nothing is know for certain – there are only probabilities. Also, every few generations, the established norm is overthrown for a completely new paradigm. We can know nothing for sure.
For this reason, the most logical stance of a scientist is “skepticism.” Until a thing is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it should not be believed. Even when it is believed, the thing must be held loosely – there is no such thing as unquestionable fact.
I do not debate at all that Lessing’s ditch exists: however, I find it significant that it did not become a problem until the modern era. The ditch is not the problem: it is standing within the modern/scientific worldview which creates the problem!
TOWARDS A SCRIPTURAL HERMENEUTIC
According to Scriptures, there is no ditch. Rather, the Biblical writers predicate their words on accurate sensory-experience (1 John 1:1). They write their accounts guided by inspiration (1 Pet. 1:21, 2 Tim. 3:16), and bequeath their testimonies to “faithful men,” (2 Tim. 2:2, Col. 4:16) to be held to and expounded from (2 Thess. 2:15) without dimunition or alteration (2 Pet. 3:16, [Rev. 22:18-19?]), as an enduring and accurate possession of the Church and foundation for faith (John 20:31).
No bridge must be built from our side: God has already built one from His side, in the holy writ of Scriptures.
Of course this doesn’t make any sense to the modern scholarly community…but whose approval/disapproval do we fear in the end?
RETURNING TO BARTH
In reading Childs and Barth, I kept feeling like they were working very hard…but I had no connection with the enemy against which they fought. At the end of decades of hard-won ground, it seemed they had returned again (and barely!) to the level of my Sunday-school teacher. Finally they were able to speak of a God who communicates to us through Scripture, who died for our sins, who loves us and who made a wonderful place for us to be with Him after death. Although I greatly admire their wisdom on some points, and stand in awe of their monumental careers, I cannot help but wonder: have these theologians spent their lives climbing out of a hole which I could just as easily walk around?
A TENTATIVE WAY FORWARD
Evangelicals, of course, solve Lessing’s problem by saying that the Bible is “inerrant.” I like it that this provides a quick and easy path across the ditch, but it seems to be a bridge of glass. This is saying, in effect, that Scriptures have passed all of the tests of science, before and in spite of any evidence to the contrary. As soon as someone comes in contact with Liberal scholarship, or one error (no matter how tiny or inconsequential!) the entire system shatters. Also, it affirms the critical flaw with the whole system – it allows Science to set itself up as judge and jury over God’s word.
My thoughts on this are very tentative: however, perhaps what must be done is to begin with God, and allow every man to be a liar. What do Scriptures say? They begin with a God who is, and a God who speaks. He is the judge of all the earth, and none judge Him. The grass withers, the flowers fade – but the word of our God stands forever.
In ancient Greece, the cross of shame and “folly” was a crucified Lord, and a bodily resurrection: perhaps our cross of shame in this day is a Bible which demands that we hold it above the opinions and preconceptions of the ever-shifting scientific consensus…?
SOME FOCUSED QUESTIONS
I have touched on many things in my words above: when we talk next, I hope that these focused questions will help to guide our discussions:
1) Do I have Barth nailed, or am I seeing him too much through the lenses of the secondary material?
2) If so, where can I go to hear the other side of the perspective?
3) Do I have Lessing, the ditch, and Liberalism somewhat figured out?
4) Do you agree with me that there may be a way to circumvent the ditch, by abandoning some aspects of modern/scientific thought?
5) Do you see a thesis in here somewhere, or should I just do this research on the side, for my own benefit?
I look forward to our conversation!
Thank you and God bless!
SOME ADDITIONAL MISC. POINTS, JUST IN CASE THERE IS EXTRA TIME
- I have also heard that Barth conflates the person and work of Christ, by saying that Christ is the work of God. This makes sense in an existential framework (I am my experiences, as I progressively reveal/discover who I am by making free choices which lead to new experiences), however I don’t see it borne out in Scriptures, where the Father and the Son and the Spirit act – at times simultaneously, in harmony but distinction. (e.g. who was speaking in Mat. 3:17? Who was coming down from the Father, and resting on Jesus?)
- Barth says that when we meet with God, it is instantaneous, and we are immediately left with only memory and longing. This, to me, places Barth exactly where he started – trusting faltering sensory data and memory/memory-transmission. If there is an ugly ditch separating us from Matthew, how can I trust Barth – or, for that matter, my own memory – when relating a more recent occurrence of “Geshichta”? The difference between trusting your own memory and trusting the gospel accounts is not a difference of quality, but of quantity: you still must blindly place your trust in potentially flawed systems of data-recognition and information storage and transmission…right?
- In “Evangelical Theology,” Barth says that the love of God comes before the wrath of God. How does this fit with the teachings of Scripture that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”? Also, when Peter preached on Pentacost, he started with the bad news. Once people were “cut to the heart” over their sin and the wrath to come, he shared the gospel. Barth seems to have things backwards here…
- Perhaps tied to the above comment…I have heard that Barth talks of sin/salvation/redemption as all occurring within God. This is the moment when God’s “non-being” is overcome by His “being.” How does this fit with the Scriptural teaching that “there is none righteous, no, not one,” which would seem to imply that the problem of sin is in us humans, not in God? Also, there is that tired out accusation that Barth can’t seem to free himself from….isn’t Barth being a universalist here? I heard that in one of Barth’s books (a collection of sermons), Barth reveals that his sermon which he preached to convicts in prison was that, “You are already redeemed – now live like it!” Is this a misrepresentation? If not, isn’t this promoting works-righteousness, and false security? I have also heard that Barth’s theology on this point has dramatically reduced the desire and effectiveness of missionary work in the 20’th century. Again…just wondering how much of this is true, and looking forward to some answers or hints towards resources. Thanks a bunch!