Christian History: Neo-Orthodoxy – Karl Barth

Karl Barth

There’s one of him smoking a pipe in the exact same place, but couldn’t find a larger one. Not sure why I’m mentioning this.

Soren Kierkegaard, for his part, would not exist at all in the theological consciousness; having died at an early age in 1842, the Denmark native fell into relative obscurity during the 19th century. Unsurprising for a writer of such force and vigor, however, German theologians and philosophers alike rediscovered him and interpreted his work to their own ways and devices. One of the most radical of these, especially from the Christian perspective on display here, came from Karl Barth. A provincial pastor who merely wished to preach to his flock, his commentary on Paul’s’ Epistle to The Romans dropped, we might say, like a bombshell on the battlefield of Christian theology, which increasingly slid into liberalism and irrelevance.

Karl Barth emphasized, primarily, a return to Scripture and God’s Word in opposition to the liberal impulse of rejecting such a source as “outdated”. The exaltation of human faculties, for Barth, took such liberties with a holy God that such methods were something akin to blasphemy, to bringing God to the level of human discourse (a form of idolatry would, furthermore, elucidate the point a bit further). In Barth’s words:

The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men…The known plane is God’s creation, fallen out of its union with Him, and therefore the world of the flesh needing redemption, the world of men, and of time, and of things — our world. This known plane is intersected by another plane that is unknown — the world of the Father, of the Primal Creation, and of the final Redemption. The relation between us and God, between this world and His world presses for recognition, but the line of intersection is not self-evident.

If this sounds familiar, then you read Kierkegaard in some way. But Barth takes the characterization of God and God’s Word to an entirely different level of transcendence, even beyond Kierkegaard. Jesus does not merely come into the world; he breaks into the world in what we call a “vertical-existential” sense, that he cuts the worlds from above. Think of a Cartesian diagram and you get the idea; we are the X-axis, and God in Jesus Christ the Y axis which breaks into our reality on one point in the line – with Jesus’ resurrection. So says Barth:

The name Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known world . . . as Christ Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above. Within history Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem or Myth. As the Christ He brings the world of the Father. But we who stand in this concrete world know nothing, and are incapable of knowing anything, of that other world. The Resurrection from the dead is, however, the transformation: the establishing or declaration of that point from above, and the corresponding discerning of it below…The Resurrection is the revelation: the disclosing of Jesus as the Christ, the appearing of God, and the apprehending of God in Jesus. The Resurrection is the emergence of the necessity of giving glory to God: the reckoning with what is unknown and unobservable in Jesus, the recognition of Him as Paradox, Victor and Primal History. In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it. And, precisely because it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier — as the new world.

Barth’s theology is like the Reformers of Protestant past, the Word of God. Revelation from God is theology’s subject matter. But the Word is dynamic, not static – rather, it is an event theology, God speaking to us in Jesus Christ as the personal revelation. Barth saw Scripture study as a form of control by human beings who wished to codify and put God into a box where God could be stow ed away for later use if God became too dangerous! Thus, he transferred the Word from an object, the Bible, to a subject, God, who demands a response in actual events. God’s Word, therefore, does not exist either in the written or proclaimed (as in preached and spoken) word alone, but becomes as such when God chooses to speak through that medium, which Barth calls the revealed Word. In this sense does the Bible becomes an indirect source of knowledge about God, a witness and a record but not the thing per se. Authority rests on God alone – hence, Barth also rejects the “natural philosophy” of the past and his contemporaries. Even when Paul says this in Romans 1:

 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Barth shouts a definitive “Nein!” to such thoughts. Really, he did, writing a short pamphlet against Emil Brunner, who thought Barth ignored clear Scriptural dictates to meet his own end. Of course, Barth throws that right back into his face by noting that such constructions are human theological makings, not the actual state of affairs. So we reach a standstill, then. Human concepts and ideas are always the issue in question in Barthian theology – the Gospel must excise itself from human attempts at redefinition and idolatry. Barth summarizes this line of thought:

He meets us as the One who is hidden, the One about whom we must admit that we do not know what we are saying when we try to say who He is.

Such ideas are admirable in that they recognize the ineffable qualities of God, as well as God’s transcendence. However, there is a great difference between the authority of Scripture – a multifarious book with one divine authority and many human authors – and a complete authority based on one particular idea, specifically the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The overt emphasis on pure “Christology” seems too reactionary and problematic. Setting a general rule can be a good idea prima facie to establish primacy, but even Scripture does not attempt that project with its various genres. One could call it reductionist in the extreme, again trying to find the “real” authority while ignoring the one in plain sight. At the same time that Barth affirms the Word and its freedom, he also puts God in the same box by establishing Christ as the general rule! God’s one word to humanity, therefore, is in the Word – Jesus Christ the person.

The focused Christology can become a distortion to other parts of Scripture, allowing far-flung interpretations of various parts of Scripture and Christianity. Christ as first assumption, rather than God the Father (or whatever you want to call it) or the Holy Spirit, makes yet another kind of distortion of the original idea of a triune God. Barth affirms the qualitative gap of Kierkegaard at the cost of Christian community, humanity, and personality – even Kierkegaard was willing to place Scripture as an authority. How could a personal God become so alien to humanity? Certainly, this cannot be the God of Christianity. To avoid the historical questions, Barth takes God to a transcendent position, but at what cost?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.