Monday, February 8, 2016

Is Karl Barth a Good Guy or a Bad Guy?

In his book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, Dr. Michael Bird offers a two page excursion on how we are to think of the greatest theologian of the 20th century: Karl Barth. Like the doctrine of God's impassibility, evangelical theologians are all over the map on this one. There are those who embrace Barth and his fellow neo-orthodox theologians while others refuse to call him friend. Bird, I believe, offers some real words of advice especially as he sets Barth in his historic and theological context.

He begins by noting four things we need to know about Barth. First, Karl Barth was not an evangelical, but a European Protestant wrestling with how to salvage Protestant Christianity in the wake of (191) the first world war. The Great War exposed the many weaknesses of liberal theology. Barth, then, was not an inerrantist or a revivalists, nor was he fighting the "battle of the Bible" wars.

Secondly, Karl Barth is on the side of the good guys when it comes to the major ecumenical doctrines (191) like the Trinity and the atonement. Barth is both orthodox and Reformed.

Thirdly, Barth arguably gives evangelicals some good tips about how to do theology over and against liberalism. The German theologian was not sparring against Billy Graham, Bird writes, or the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but the European liberal tradition from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Albert Ritschl (191).

Finally, and I believe this is the best point Bird makes:
Evangelicals and the neoorthodox tend to be rather hostile toward each other. Many evangelicals regard the neoorthodox as nothing more than liberalism reloaded, while many neoorthodox theologians regard evangelicals as a more culturally savvy version of fundamentalism. Not true on either score. Evangelicalism and neoorthodoxy are both theological renewal movements trying to find a biblical and orthodox center in the post-Enlightenment era. The evangelicals left fundamentalism and edged left toward a workable orthodox center. The neoorthodox left liberalism and edged right toward a workable orthodox center. Thus, evangelicalism and neoorthodoxy are more like sibling rivals striving to be the heirs of the Reformers in the post-Enlightenment age. (192)
Therefore, There is much in Karl Barth that evangelicals can benefit from. Barth's theology is christocentric and he placed a strong emphasis on God's transcendence, freedom, love, and "otherness." (192) There are, of course, many things not to like about Barth including his understanding of election that tends toward universalism and his rejection of inerrancy.

Yet Barth is not the bogeyman of evangelical theology that must be removed. At times he is a friend. At times he is not.

For more on Barth:
The Greatest Theologians
Where Have All the Apologist Gone?
"The Great Theologians" by Gerald McDermott: A Review   
The Great Theologians: An Interview with Gerald McDermott
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