All posts in “Karl Barth”

Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1 (Review)

Book: Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1, 1959-1962 ed. by Eberhard Busch [Amazon link]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press [Publisher’s link]

Overview: A straight-forward, engaging collection of conversations, Q&As, and interviews, Barth in Conversation was a joy to read. This text is essential for students of Barth’s theology, whether you are new to it or already well acquainted with his work. Some of the most common questions asked about his theology receive direct, off-the-cuff answers, offering significant insight into his thought.


I’ve read a lot of books from Barth, but this one has earned a place among my favorites. I know I will be returning to it often.

This book collects interviews, conversations, and Q&A sessions which Barth gave between 1959-1962. This includes those from Barth’s visit to America. Notably, it records his Q&A sessions in Chicago and Princeton.

There is much to celebrate about this text, but I think its true value comes from the frank and direct answers Barth provides to some of the most common questions asked about his theology. These include answers to questions regarding universalism, hell, election, the Bible, communism, Billy Graham, Rudolf Bultmann, and the objective work of Christ.

To give you a taste, here are some notable quotes I enjoyed from the book:

[On Billy Graham:] I don’t think the Christian doctrine should be held like a pistol at man’s breast. Christian faith begins with joy and not with fear. Mr. Graham begins by making people afraid.

[On the Bible:] The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God.

[On the virgin birth:] I think I have good reasons not to discard Jesus’ virgin birth. But when someone is offended by it, I would not say, ‘You are, therefore, not a Christian.’

[On the experience of salvation:] I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel.

[On politics:] There is no possibility for a Christian to retreat from the political aspects of life.

[On military service and the bomb:] In the first three centuries it was impossible for a Christian to become a soldier. Today we are not yet that far again, but we are underway toward this goal. It must start with the fight against the atomic bomb.

[On the horrid conditions of American prisons:] These small cages were, for me, the sight of Dante’s Inferno on Earth.

[On his “unorthodox” reading of Calvin:] Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright.

[On existentialism and Bultmann:] If I had to choose between the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and that of Bultmann, I would, without hesitation, return to Schleiermacher. If liberalism at all, then let it be as Schleiermacher understood it! […] Existentialism is an arid affair.

[On alternative careers:] If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. […] And perhaps it wouldn’t be so far from what I am doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go.

And this was probably my favorite quote from the volume:

I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.

I also spent the last few weeks writing a series of blog articles which discuss quotes from the book. These include:

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall”

“The Bible is not Sinless”

As you can see, this volume is a treasure-trove of thought-provoking insights. The clarity and frankness of the text is also a great benefit for newcomers to Barth. The editors did a great job providing all the necessary background information, too. Overall, this book is a tremendous resource.


Conclusion: I highly recommend this volume. If you are at all interested in the theology of Karl Barth, then this book is an essential addition to your library. For an insightful look into Barth’s thought, but also for frank answers to some of the most common questions regarding his work, this is an incredibly valuable text. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Click here to purchase Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1

And keep an eye out for Volume 2, which is available for pre-order and out in September.

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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“The Bible is not Sinless” – Karl Barth (Barth in Conversation)

Biblical inerrancy—the belief that Scripture is completely without error—has become a central belief of evangelicalism. I am a member of several Facebook groups, including those in the Calvinist/Reformed perspective, and I have seen time and time again when a theologian or a preacher is dismissed solely because they have a “weak view of scripture”—meaning they do not profess inerrancy. In some cases, denying Biblical inerrancy is grounds for applying that dreadfully overused term, “heretic.” It is also why so many reformed Christians resist picking up a book by my favorite theologian, Karl Barth.

The issue of Karl Barth and inerrancy is a subject I discussed briefly in my book, Karl Barth in Plain EnglishThere my purpose was to show that Barth did not profess inerrancy, that, for Barth, the Bible is “vulnerable to errors,” and ultimately that his reasons for this are worth considering. Barth offers a carefully thought-out alternative to the rigidly dogmatic way so many have professed inerrancy: he at once highly-regards the Bible as normative for all theology, yet he does not have to deem it perfect to do so.

His reasons are clear: the Bible is not the Son of God. It is a human book. As a human book, it is vulnerable to the errors of human, historical limitations. It is not a divine oracle sent down from heaven. However, it bears witness to the Word of God, and it is thus an indirect form of the Word by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Bible points beyond itself to the Word of God; it does not contain within itself the Word. The Word of God is not bound to a book, yet this human book becomes God’s Word in its witness. We depend on the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, not on the “perfection” of a book.

Continuing a blog-series about the new volume, Barth in ConversationI wanted to share an answer Barth gave to the question of Biblical inerrancy. It provides us with insight into how Barth considered the Bible to be at once authoritative in its witness to God’s Word and yet limited as a human book.

Here is the question Barth was asked:

In this connection how does Dr. Barth harmonize his appeal to Scripture, as the objective Word of God, with his admission that Scripture is, indeed, sullied by errors, theological as well as historical or factual? (CD I/2: 507-12)

Barth responds:

The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God. No wonder that seen from the perspective of the worldviews and the concepts of other ages; the question may arise whether we have to conclude that the Bible is not solid. I should never say such a thing, but would admit rather the occurence of certain, let us say, tensions, contradictions, and maybe if you prefer, “errors,” in its time-bound human statements. 1

There are two significant moves Barth makes here that will be important for those wanting to consider the issue of inerrancy for themselves. The first is to recognize that the Bible is an instrument; it serves a particular end. That means it is not in itself such an end. The Bible’s role is to point human beings towards the Word of God, and Barth makes an important point when he says that the Bible has proven itself worthy of this purpose. It is a “true and fitting” instrument. Therefore, it is reliable and trustworthy in its particular purpose.

But we should not make it into something it is not. The second move, therefore, is that the Bible is not the second incarnation of the Word. Surprisingly, however, I have heard it argued from inerrantist that in the Bible the Word of God “inscripturated” itself. That is nonsense. The Bible is not God-on-paper in the same way we confess that Jesus was God-in-flesh. The Bible, therefore, cannot be deemed sinless and infallible in the same way that Christ was sinless. Even if we attempt to claim that it is “perfect,” it cannot be in the same way that God is perfect. Might it be “perfect” in the sense that it is a “true and fitting” instrument to witness to God’s Word? Yes! But it is not free from errors because of its historical limitations. It remains a human book, despite being ordained by God for special use.

Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is worth examining more closely if you have concerns about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. You can read his full treatment of the Bible in Church Dogmatics I/2 but can also find helpful material in Evangelical Theology: An IntroductionBarth’s approach is a useful way forward between the form-critics of liberalism and the inerrantists of fundamentalism. Here we affirm with Barth that the Bible is reliable, true, and faithful in its witness to the Word of God, and thus it is normative in the Church and for theology. However, we confess that it is also a time-bound book, a book limited by human history. It is not sinless, therefore, but it is a suitable instrument.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle Loc. 4382-4391

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.

Divine Interpretation by T.F. Torrance: a Review

Book: Divine Interpretation: Studies in Medieval and Modern Hermeneutics by Thomas F. Torrance (edited by Adam Nigh and Todd Speidell) (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf&Stock) (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: Released only this month, this collection of essays by Torrance is a valuable addition to his current body of work. While the two essays on Barth stood out as the high points of the book, each essay was a masterful piece of scholarship.


Undoubtably, the great benefit of this book is the republication of two important essays on Karl Barth written by Torrance and published in the now out of print (and therefore very costly) volume, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianI’ve wanted to read this book for some time now, but the near $100 price tag has prohibited me from getting my hands on a copy.

The essays “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy” and “Karl Barth, Theologian of the Word”, were naturally the high point of the book for me. Yesterday I posted an article examining several quotations from the first essay. Reading my article from yesterday will give you a taste of this essay, which you can do so by clicking here.

Continue Reading…

T.F. Torrance on Universalism and Limited Atonement (as Dual Heresies)

I’ve been reading the newly released collection of essays by T.F. Torrance, Divine Interpretation: Studies in Mediaeval and Modern HermeneuticsWipf & Stock Publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy, and when I finish reading the book I will be posting my final thoughts here. But I wanted to share an important quote from the book before then.

I was excited to discover that this collection reprints an important essay Torrance wrote, which prior to this book was only available in the costly out of print study, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianThis essay is entitled “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy”, and includes some profoundly important remarks about how Torrance places Barth within the western tradition.

Especially insightful, however, is how Torrance explains the “dual heresy” of universalism on one side and limited atonement on the other. I’ll let Torrance explain more himself in this insightful quote. Comments in between quotations are my own, and bold text is also mo own emphasis. Enjoy! Continue Reading…

Trinitarian Theology after Barth: a Review

Book: Trinitarian Theology after Barth (Princeton Theological Monograph) ed. by Myk Habets and Phillip Tolliday, with a foreword by John Webster (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers), included in the Princeton Theological Monograph Series #148 (PUBLISHER LINK)

Overview: Like any collection of essays, there will always be those essays that hit a home run, those that intrigue great interest, and sadly sometimes also those that fall flat. In this collection there were far more home-runs and sparks of intrigue than in most of the collections I’ve read, and for that reason alone this is an excellent and thought-provoking book well worth your time. It will be of special interest for those wanting to study Barth’s Trinitarian theology, and particularly to examine the diverse streams of thought of those who have more or less followed after his work. Continue Reading…

The Final Written Words of Karl Barth

From the back cover of “Final Testimonies” by Karl Barth.

In my book, Karl Barth in Plain EnglishI wrote the following:

Karl Barth died in his sleep on the morning of December 10 [1968], having spent the evening listening to Mozart and writing yet another theology lecture.

Barth left that lecture unfinished. His last written words abruptly end mid-sentence. What could be more testimonial to Barth’s career than this unfinished sentence? He remained engaged his entire life, even in his later years, with so many social and political issues right alongside the many theological issues of his time. His work remains unfinished, but breathtaking still, like Gaudi’s majestic Sagrada Família in Barcelona. It is this enduring faithfulness and diligence to the Word of God which makes Barth one of the most productive and inspiring theologians who ever lived. 1

I wanted to share that unfinished sentence, Barth’s final written words, for anyone who might be interested in it.

Barth was invited to attend an ecumenical week of prayer in Zurich, and to give a special address to a group of Reformed and Roman Catholic believers. It was this address that Barth worked on before his death. He gave it the title, “Starting Out, Turning Round, Confessing”.

It is only about eight pages long and remains in an unrevised state; but regardless, even in this brief sketch Barth was characteristically focused on Jesus Christ, writing, “He, Jesus Christ, is the old and is also the new. He it is who comes [to the church] and to whom the church goes, but goes to him as him who was. It is to him that it turns in its conversation.” 2

In the final paragraph, Barth seems to have in mind the need for the church to listen attentively to the fathers who have gone before us. Busch rightly notes in the epilogue that Barth himself should be counted among those we should listen to attentively. But without further ado, here are the final written words of Karl Barth (brackets contain Busch’s corrections):

In the church that is in the process of turning round the saying is true that “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” “All live to him,” from the apostles to the earlier and later fathers. They have not only the right [but also the relevance] to be heard today, not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively. The church would not be the church in conversion if, proud and content with [?] its sense of the present hour, it would not listen to them, or would do so only occasionally, loosely, and carelessly, or if it were to rob what it has to learn from them of all its effect by [accepting] what they want to say to it . . . 3

Busch thinks Barth’s sentence might have been finished like this: “…by accepting what they want to say to it, perhaps with much reverence, but only as a statement of the insights of their own day.” 4

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Notes:

  1. Page 12
  2. Final Testimonies, 59; LINK
  3. Ibid., 60
  4. Ibid., 63

“Karl Barth in Plain English” – Table of Contents

Karl Barth in Plain English is now available on Amazon Kindle, and soon in paperback format.

I’m incredibly excited for this book, which has been the product of years of reading and studying Karl Barth. In this book I hope to present a clear and concise overview of Barth’s major ideas; written for beginners, by a beginner.

The book resolves around the eight major ideas I’ve chosen to focus on from Barth’s thought. In between the major chapters on these ideas, I present “Sidebar” chapters and “Sermon” chapters. The sidebar chapters are the clarify a difficult aspect of Barth’s thought, or to engage him with contemporary issues. The sermon chapters include quotes from Barth’s sermons, which I have found helpful in understanding his theology.

Join me on Tuesday, June 13th for a Facebook Live celebration of the book, where I will answer questions, read excerpts, and discuss writing the book!

Here then is the table of contents for my new book:

Introduction

Biography

The Structure of Barth’s Church Dogmatics

CHAPTER 1: Nein! to Natural Theology

SIDEBAR: God’s Humiliation and Natural Theology

SERMON: The Great “But”

CHAPTER 2: The Triune God of Revelation

SERMON: God Without Jesus

SIDEBAR: Mode of Being

CHAPTER 3: The Threefold Word of God

SIDEBAR: Biblical Inerrancy

SERMON: They Bear Witness to Me

CHAPTER 4: There is No Hidden God Behind the Back of Jesus Christ

SIDEBAR: The One Who Loves in Freedom

SIDEBAR: No Hidden Will of God

CHAPTER 5: The God of Election

SERMON: Preaching Election

SIDEBAR: Universalism

CHAPTER 6: Creation and the Covenant

SIDEBAR: Non-Historical History

SERMON: The Fear of the Lord

CHAPTER 7: Reconciliation

SIDEBAR: Limited Atonement and Calvin’s “Horrible Decree”

SERMON: The Divine Life

SERMON: Have You Heard the News?

CHAPTER 8: The Church and Ethics

SERMON: You May

God With Us and For Us: a Closing Reflection

Books to Continue Your Study 


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