Home > Barth for Armchair Theologians, John Franke, Karl Barth > Barth for Armchair Theologians: Chapter 2-3

Barth for Armchair Theologians: Chapter 2-3

In Chapter 2 of “Barth for Armchair Theologians” John Franke continues to trace the biographical developments of the young Barth as he began his time as a Swiss pastor.  As someone who has read mainly the later Barth (Church Dogmatics III.3-IV.2) some of the statements that Franke recounts are quite stunning, but helpful to understanding Barth’s beginnings.  Most notable has to be Barth’s comment regarding the Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Jesus Christ: “If Jesus were like this I would not be interested in him” (Pg. 22)  Franke also highlights Barth’s involvement with Christian socialism and his involvement in the struggles of his parishoners.  This all leads to the most illuminating part of the chapter, where Franke describes Barth’s break with liberalism.

Franke points out that Barth’s break with liberalism began in the midst of World War I, when many of his teachers had given their stamp of approval to the German war effort, much to the chagrin of Barth.  “For Barth, the fatal flaw in the liberal approach to theology was it limited ability to speak about God in ways that challenged the assumptions and presuppisitions of a particular culture… Hence, the God of liberal theology appeared to Barth to function as one who simply sanctioned the values and norms that society had established and certified them with a divine seal of approval.” (Pg. 31)

What we might ask led to Barth’s shift?  It was a return to the bible, and a new way of reading the bible.  “The bible is not primiarly about history, religion, morality, and the like, but rather God.  God is the content of the Bible.  It is not right human thoughts about God that make up the content of the Bible, but rather right divine thoughts about human beings…. it <the Bible> stands over against our knowledge and will as something Wholly Other.

It was this view of the bible, coupled with his intense study of the Epistle to the Romans that led to the “bomb that went off in Switzerland” (to quote one of my former professors); Barth’s commentary on Romans.  The new central piece of Barth’s thinking became the idea that God was “Wholly Other”.  I personally had never made the connection between Barth’s frustration with seeing God’s blessing too easily pronounced over World War I with his emphasis on God as “Wholly Other” who could not be co-opted to affirm human interests.  Rather, according to Franke Barth argued “… that the Bible legitimatizes only one truth, one store, and one kingdom, the kingdom of God.” (Pg. 46)

Franke then attempts to explain Barth’s “dialectical approach” to theology.  Even as someone who is familiar with this I was highly suspicious that this section would come across as being at all readable.  However, I am happy to report that I think it’s clear and readable.  “He <Barth> speaks of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the center of human knowledge of God yet also asserts that human beings do not have the ability to understand what has been revealed.”  To put this into my own words, God’s revelation through Jesus Christ is something we know happened, but within the frameworks that we have we cannot understand and comprehend it.  It is the “Wholly Other” acting in our world. There is a simply beautiful paragraph that I was going to try and summarize but it simply cannot be done

Barth’s dialectical approach to speaking about God meant that standard assumptions concerning theology in both liberal and conservative traditions, had to be rethought and reconstructed.  Hence, Barth tended to be wary of straightfoward propositional statements about God, revelation, and truth which would suggest that we as human creatures are in a position to speak knowingly about things that are of neccessity, because of the Creator-creature distinction, known only to God in spite of revelation.  Propositions are too static for speech about God.  Yet he also wanted to affirm, indeed felt compelled to affirm, that God had indeed been revealed and made known in Jesus Christ.  Hence it was neccessary to do two things: first, to recognize and acknowledge the inadequacy of human langauge with respect to God; and second, given the necessity and responsibility of human beings to bear witness to their Creator, to rethink and redeploy patters of theological speech that were dynamic and more reflective of a God who cannot be pinned down, contained, or put in a box” (Pg. 48)

Yes – go back and read that again.  It’s that beautiful.

Franke wraps up chater 3 by introducing the Lambech lecture, which Barth was invited to give in Germany to a group of Christian Socialists.  In it, Barth actually argues against that which he used to support and says that in the end God alone can save the world and put things right.  Another quote:

“In light of the resurrection, human beings can no longer live under the illusion that we can change the world for God or on behalf of God, but we can live in the assurance that god can and will overcome and transform the world and bring about the Kingdom of God.  This is our hope” (Pg. 55)

Needless to say, thus far I am impressed and enjoying Barth for Armchair Theologians.  As I said in a post a few days ago my review is far from objective (no review really ever is) as I’m a huge fan of Barth and count John Franke among my friends.  However, it is helpful to see the care in which John has focused on Barth’s early life instead of diving directly into the Church Dogmatics and that this book is approached as a biography.

Chapter 4/5 to come tomorrow…

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