Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ten propositions on Karl Barth: theologian

by Kim Fabricius

1. Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian. Sounds like a no-brainer. And, yes, fundamental motifs of Barth’s theology have a definite Reformed pedigree – e.g., the glory, majesty, and grace of God; the primacy of the Word in Holy Scripture; the polemic against idolatry; the doctrine of election; the relationship between gospel and law; sanctification. But for Barth, the Reformed tradition was not so much a body of doctrine as a habit of mind. Observe that Barth got himself up to speed with Reformed dogmatics only after he had become famous for his two editions of Romans and taken up a lectureship at Göttingen. His was a theologia reformata only as it was also a theologia semper reformanda. His conversations with his Reformed forefathers, while deferential, were always critical. And the doctrines he inherited he always re-worked with daring and imagination.

2. Karl Barth was an ecumenical theologian. While recognising that theology is always confessional – there is no Archimedean point, you’ve got to stand and start somewhere – Barth insisted that the intentio theologiae must be catholic. His net was broad, its mesh tight, and he cast it far and wide: the magisterial Reformers, of course, but also the Fathers West and East, the medieval schoolmen, the Protestant scholastics, the nineteenth century liberals. Barth had a vibrant belief in the communio sanctorum, and could echo Faulkner: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” The universal church was Barth’s oyster, and he found pearls (as well as grit!) throughout its history. His Catholic colleague at Basel Hans Urs von Balthasar paid Barth the ultimate compliment when he said that his friend was “a theologian and not a reformer.”

3. Karl Barth was an ecclesial theologian. When Barth began his writing and teaching career, theology was in captivity to the university. His teacher Adolf Harnack was aghast at his student’s cavalier attitude to the academically respectable historical-critical method, and his liberal peers dismayed by their colleague’s hostility to apologetics. However, for Barth, theology is the servant of the church, “called to perform the simple task of being the place where the church evaluates its own proclamation against its given norm, revelation” (John Webster). Hence Barth’s mature theology settled into the form of Church Dogmatics. The German title is Die kirchliche Dogmatik, which (George Hunsinger observes) might just as accurately be rendered Ecclesial Theology. And as the heart of the church is worship, so the soul of theology is prayer. For Barth, we can only talk about God because and as we talk to God.

4. Karl Barth was an exegetical theologian. Barth’s theology began in preaching; it is a homiletical theology. Indeed William Willimon suggests that no one “should venture to interpret Barth who is not a preacher.” And while Barth said that “preaching is exposition, not exegesis,” it certainly begins in exegesis, which he understood as the prayerful attentiveness to “the strange new world of the Bible.” Although Barth moved from the pulpit in Safenwil to the lectern in Göttingen, Münster, Bonn, and finally Basel, and preached very little until the end of his career, exegesis lay at the heart of his dogmatic enterprise. It is not surprising, therefore, that some readers of CD skip the large print altogether and go for the fine print of Barth’s close yet creative readings of scripture. Barth would be horrified at the widespread biblical illiteracy in today’s church, and were he suddenly to appear in our midst, his first words to us would no doubt be his last words to his students at Bonn before he departed for Basel in 1935: “Exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!”

5. Karl Barth was a moral theologian. For Barth, the imperative of ethics is inextricably connected to the indicative of dogmatics. In announcing who he is, God tells us what to do. But for Barth the moral life is not rule-based, nor even biblicist: dogmatically mediated and contextually located, it is, above all, a matter of prayerful and thoughtful discernment. Nor is obedience a burden, indeed it is perfect freedom: it is gospel precisely as law. And it begins in gratitude: “Grace,” Barth said, “evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” Barth would have agreed with Blake: “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” He would also have had some sympathy with Blake’s radical politics! For Barth there was no such thing as a purely personal ethics; as a moral theologian he was, ipso facto, a political theologian. The author of the Barmen Declaration declared: “A silent community, merely observing the events of the time, would not be a Christian community.” And while the “Red pastor” of Safenwil knew that the left often gets it wrong, he mischievously suggested that conservatives rarely get it right.

Read more at http://www.faith-theology.com/2006/11/ten-propositions-on-karl-barth.html

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