Saturday, February 27, 2016

What should evangelicals REALLY make of Karl Barth?

Earlier this week, the Gospel Coalition carried an article by Justin Taylor, reporting some brief comments of Don Carson's on the theology of Karl Barth, particularly as it relates to the doctrine of Scripture. There is a lot to like about Carson's comments, especially the fact that the major misunderstandings that seem to characterise a lot of American conservative reading of Barth (I'm thinking of Van Til, Schaeffer, Frame) seem thankfully absent. Even the disagreement is done in an irenic style, as one would expect from Carson. This is all good.

Having said that, I did (of course) have a few thoughts, and since it is good to share, here they are.

Firstly, let me say something about contradictions. Sometimes reading Barth it feels like his thought is heading off on two parallel lines, and it is difficult (impossible?) to see how they will ever be brought into contact. I think the doctrine of Scripture is a clear example of this: Barth insists strongly on the mere humanity of Scripture; he insists equally strongly that Scripture is the place we turn to hear the authoritative word of God. Is it just that Barth is being unduly 'extreme' about either of these positions? I don't think so. As far as I can see from my reading of Barth, this sort of structure springs from the fact that his theology is genuinely 'eccentric', meaning simply that it has its centre outside itself - in the reality of God himself. When it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, the humanity and divinity of the witness it bears are genuinely contradictory from a human point of view, and at no point can they be logically brought together or co-ordinated; they are brought together only in the act of God himself working to bring them together. In other words, if God doesn't exist, Barth's theology will be self-contradictory - but then, of course, it will also be meaningless.

I think this sort of structure can be seen in various aspects of more traditional theology without causing any disturbance. Consider, for example, the Biblical truth that God is a god who punishes evil, and the equally Biblical truth that God is a god who forgives. These are two parallel lines stretching to infinity, apparently without ever touching. They are brought into contact only at the cross of Christ; the action of God makes two apparently contradictory statements to be in fact identical (in the sense that they have an identical referent). If this is "dialectical thinking", it is more Biblical than Hegelian, and I don't think we need to feel threatened by it.

Secondly, it is true that Barth affirms that there are errors in Scripture, although he does say at one point that Scripture's errors are more illuminating than the truths of other books (can't find the reference for this one right now). It is not clear to me that Barth ever makes use of the idea of errors in Scripture; he doesn't build anything on it. It feels to me that he thinks himself obliged to affirm the presence of errors in order to assert the true humanity of the Scriptures, against what he regards as a dangerous fundamentalism which overlooks this aspect of Scripture or at least minimises it. I think he is right to see this danger, but wrong in his defence. Although to err is human, not every human errs in every single thing they do. It should be entirely possible for Barth to affirm that Scripture is free of error in what it affirms (propositionally), but that it is still a human book, not in itself divine revelation unless God brings the human and divine together in the event of the Spirit's illumination.

I suspect this is related to Barth's Christology. Barth claims that Christ's human nature is thoroughly Adamic, that is to say fallen - it is like our nature in every way. This is a substantial departure from mainstream orthodoxy, but it is worth noting that he is also clear that Christ did not take on our fallen nature in order to do in that nature what we ourselves habitually do - i.e. he did not actually sin, but carried our sinful nature in obedience to God. Might he not, in parallel, have affirmed that the humanity of Scripture meant it was thoroughly capable of error, without in fact erring?

Thirdly, it is worth highlighting that perhaps Barth's greatest concern in all his theology, and certainly in his doctrine of Scripture, is that the church must continue to rely absolutely on God, and on his present day activity. There is no sense in which God, having acted in the past in Christ and in the inspiration of Scripture, now leaves his revelation in the hands of the church and the world. No, revelation is always God's personal activity. Although Scripture and preaching (and even the human nature of Christ?) constitute the locus of revelation, they are not themselves revelatory unless God acts by the Spirit to make them such. God is in control, always the subject of his own becoming object. In practice, that means whenever we turn to Scripture, or stand up to preach, or sit to hear a sermon we are genuinely driven to prayer, that the impossible would happen in the grace of God, and the words of men would be to us the true and living word of God .

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