This morning at seven, after sitting up with a poorly child for three hours, I became a member of what is, I imagine, a fairly exclusive club. I turned over the last page of volume III/4, and there it was: I had read the whole of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics at least once (and some volumes two or three times). This has substantially occupied my brain for the last five years, and I dare say will continue to require investment of cognitive ability well into the future as I wrestle with what I've read. Over the next few days, I wanted to share a few of the things that make me love Barth, even when I disagree with him, and hopefully give any suspicious evangelicals a chance to rethink any lingering antipathy they may have towards the great man.
Today, just a brief thought: I love Barth because he does theology.
That may seem pretty obvious, but actually I think there is very little theology going on in evangelical circles much of the time. There is quite a lot of exegesis, and a substantial amount of Bible reading, but not much pushing beyond this to do theology proper. Barth does theology.
One of the things that you notice when you get into the Church Dogmatics for the first time is that, whilst Barth regularly offers Scriptural exegesis and Biblical argumentation, this is usually confined to the small print passages. (For those unfamiliar with Barth's opus, CD contains two font sizes; the larger gives the main flow, whilst the smaller gives the detailed argumentation, and often offers interesting insights into historical theology as Barth sees it). The method being used is clearly very different from that of the conservative evangelical 'systematic theology', which tends to begin each major point with a section, or multiple sections, of Scripture. Barth's text flows with ideas, and when it stops to add argumentation it feels like an excursus. Does this mean he is less 'Biblical'? For those who have been taught to consider him a holder of a very dubious doctrine of Scripture, this could be the logical conclusion.
In fact, Barth is thoroughly Biblical. But he is a theologian. He is working at one remove from the Biblical text, or if you like at a point between the Biblical text and the contemporary world, or perhaps more accurately at a point in the contemporary world where the Biblical text and its message can be heard. He is not trying to present 'what the Bible says', in the manner of a systematic theologian; he is trying to present what he has heard the Bible say - and that is different. And that is connected to Barth's insistence on theologia viatorum - theology always on the way, never having within its possession divine truth, but only human echoes of divine truth. Theologia viatorum is theology liberated not to try to say divine things, but to say the human things which God demands. And therefore it is theology than can improve on itself, that can listen again, and can try to say again what it must say in response to what it has heard.
Of course there are others beside Barth who pursue this method, but I first really saw it in him, and I love that about him.