Monday, April 28, 2008

Engaging with Barth

Eds. David Gibson and Daniel Strange

Two confessions: firstly, I haven’t read a lot of Barth – just four parts of the Church Dogmatics and the collection of short essays in God Here and Now – so I am not an expert; secondly, I am a bit of a fan of Barth. I love his emphasis on the sovereignty on God, the invincible grace shown in Christ, and the uniqueness of Christian revelation. So I approached this volume with some trepidation. On the whole, when I have come across evangelical engagement with Barth in the past it has been shallow and harshly critical. Often, I was left wondering whether the critics were reading the same Barth I was! This book, however, has proved to be remarkably fair and even-handed, and I actually enjoyed reading it. It should be pointed out in advance, however, that this is not a good introduction to Barth – read the great man first, and then start on the critics! I would recommend getting a copy of God Here and Now – neither difficult not long, this will give you a great overview of Barth’s thought. Then maybe you can come to this book.

One of the most frustrating aspects of much evangelical engagement with Barth is the tendency to pick up on one point of his theology at which he disagrees, or is perceived to disagree, with reformed orthodoxy, and to critique him for his failure to be a conservative evangelical. This type of criticism, to my mind, fails to ask the important questions – such as ‘why does he disagree with conservative evangelicalism?’ and ‘might he be right?’ – and fails to notice that such disagreements on detailed points have their foundations in disagreements on much larger questions – such as ‘what is theology?’ and ‘how ought we to engage the Scriptures?’

This book is not without essays that fall into these traps – in particular, I found Sebastien Rehnman’s essay on Barth and logic to be frustrating – but thankfully the volume as a whole was much less frustrating than I had envisaged. Whilst some of the essays necessarily focus on narrow aspects of Barth’s theology, they generally try hard to put those aspects in the context of his wider construction and to show how questions about specific issues relate to much broader questions of methodology and indeed the very subject of theology itself. The essays with the broadest scope were, to my mind, the best. Henri Blocher on Barth’s Christological method – touching as it does on the very heart of Barth’s doctrine – excellently captures the ‘feel’ of the Church Dogmatics, which is saturated with Christ, but also raises (tentatively, and all the better for that) some issues and tendencies in Barth’s ‘Christological concentration’ which may be unhelpful, particularly the apparent collapse of time into eternity, and the incarnation into the immanent Trinity. A.T.B. McGowan’s critique of Barth’s view of the covenant shows the fair-mindedness of the volume as a whole – he sides with Barth over against reformed orthodoxy on the issue of the inter-Trinitarian covenant, whilst highlighting serious problems with Barth’s own doctrine (not least, once again, the vexed issue of the relationship of time and eternity). Garry Williams' essay on the atonement was also an excellent analysis of the issues involved in reading Barth on this central theme. It will come as no surprise that one of the main issues raised is the displacement of history in favour of eternity in Barth’s thought! Nevertheless, there is much that Williams seeks to affirm and encourages us to learn from in Barth, not least his emphasis on the objectivity of Christ’s cross-work.

There will be points during this volume where Barth fans will find themselves annoyed. I would suggest that Donald Macleod’s essay on Barth as ecclesial theologian misses the point of Barth’s doctrine of Scripture, and also seems to display the beginnings of confessionalism gone to seed – where the Westminster Confession is essentially seen as the finished product and not theologia viatorum. But on the whole the contributors seem to have wrestled with, and even appreciated, Barth as a positive contribution to theological discourse. At points (I won’t tell you which points!) I found myself siding with Barth against the essayist, but I did not often feel that he was being misrepresented. The concluding essay by Michael Horton on Barth’s legacy for evangelical theologians sums up the approach of the volume: “Confessional reformed Christians can learn a lot from Barth and his heirs. However, I remain convinced that where these roads diverge, the latter represents a declension rather than a renewal of the great Reformation legacy”. You may or may not agree, but this is the level at which evangelicals should be engaging with Barth.


  1. Anonymous8:54 pm

    4 parts of Church Dogmatics counts as a fair stagnating somewhere about pg35 vol 1 pt 1.

  2. Have you read "God Here and Now"? A great way in...

  3. I'd love to meet up with you in Oxford to talk about Barth!
    What did you think of Gibson's chapter on Barth's understanding of scripture?

  4. Ah I just realised that while Gibson edited this volume and contributed to it, his chapter specifically looking at Barth's view of Scripture is in the book that came out last year "The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures" ed. by Carson.
    What did you think of Mark Thompson's chapter on scripture in this volume?

    1. Wow, this is going back a ways... I think I'd be rather more critical of this volume nowadays, having read more Bartj. (The time/eternity stuff is just wrong-headed critique based on poor reading, in my [humble?] opinion). I don't particularly remember Thompson's chapter, but have just grabbed the volume and flicked through and it looks broadly positive... Let me know if you're in Oxford at any point and we can get a coffee or something. Always happy to have Barth-chat.