Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Reading this work by Karl Barth has been in many ways enlightening.  One hears so much about him, both good and bad (depending upon the source), but it is hardly fair to form an opinion only on the basis of secondary evaluations.  One must read Barth to give a fair estimation of Barth.

Barth first shows himself to be a true dogmatist.  Using the points of the Apostles Creed as its outline, he presents to the reader an overview of Christianity as he understands it.  His theology is pre-critical:  he is not concerned with historico-critical data or exegesis.  Rather, he begins with the Creed as it stands.  It is a “given.”  As far as he is concerned, it is the orthodox Church’s interpretation of Christianity which stands — it must only be rejuvenated.  To Barth, it is not only unnecessary but impossible to “prove” that the Gospel is true.  It is to be accepted by faith alone.

In fact, the paradox of Christianity is a recurring theme in the book.  Barth is quick to allay the doubts of those who remained puzzled by what seems impossible, unnatural, or contradictory.  That is to be expected, and nothing to worry about, he says.  He does not attempt to explain away such things, or make them acceptable to reason, as would the typical apologist.  Jesus Christ — wholly God, yet wholly man?  The crucifixion — humiliating, yet exalting?  The Holy Spirit — divine and yet indwelling imperfect humanity?  Barth is right in this:  such things defy reasonable explanation.  Such things are, to the intellect, “a stumbling block, and the rock of offense.”  But to the one who, like Barth, accepts by faith the paradox of Christianity, such things are “the power of God unto salvation.”

What Barth does is to begin with the Creed, the foundational truths of orthodox Christianity, and go on from there.  It is his intention not to reinforce them, but to revitalize them and, perhaps, to set them as a reminder to those who have been slack.  Vitality is, of course, a necessary part of true Christianity.  It is the action involved in moving from a head-knowledge of the Scripture and of Christian doctrine toward the fulfillment of the Christian life.  It is the visible sign of true Christianity (although mere activity must not be confused with real vitality).

But Barth only begins with the points of the Creed.  From that simple and acceptable basis he expands, often tangentially, to what many would see as unbiblical philosophies.  A case in point:  orthodox Christianity accepts the idea of a real Hell, a real Judgment, and the necessity of rebirth (baptism to some) in order to attain eternal life.  Barth accepts their terminology, but does not adhere to orthodox interpretation.  Although not explicitly stated, Barth exhibits leanings toward Universalism.  To fit the pattern, he redefines such terms as Hell, Eternity, and Judgment:  Hell is an existing state of separation from God due to an individual’s rebellion, not a place of internal punishment.  Eternity is used figuratively (?) by the Bible, representing a state of timelessness which exists until the Second Coming.  And although Barth does have some conception of judgment (“By this we shall be judged, about this the Judge shall one day put the question, Did you live by grace …?  Have you been a faithful servant …?” p. 152), yet in this book one cannot find a definition of “judgment” other than Christ revealing himself, and proving that he is, indeed, Lord of all.  There is no punishment aspect mentioned.  Furthermore, Barth makes no mention of a continued separation between believers and non-believers after Christ returns.  As far as can be seen, Barth expects all men to be united at that time.

So how does Barth deal with the “eternal fire” passages in the Bible?  According to him, they are metaphorical — the biblical writers were expressing the horror and discomfiture of the unbeliever’s separation from Christ (in the present world) in metaphorical terms.  The literal view of Hell and a divine wrath are, to him, a product of a faulty hermeneutic.  The picture of the Wrath of God, Barth claims, is a construct of artists, such as Michelangelo, who sought sensational themes for their paintings.

Barth is not without his merits.  He demonstrates a high view of God.  He prefers the designation of God as “the Father” to more generic term such as “the Almighty.”  In fact, he reacted strongly against that term, and noted that Hitler referred to God in that fashion.  Barth considers God as more, much more, than some obscure power.  Father better describes God in terms of his character and his relationship to man — power is merely one of his attributes, as is Creator, and should not be separated out as a general designation.  The fatherhood aspect of God is demonstrated by his grace — and to Barth, all God does is a product of his grace.

Along with Father, another favorite designation of God is “God in the Highest”  Barth emphasizes that God is far above man, farther than man’s imagination extends.  He is not a product of man’s need to worship an ideal “higher self.”  God is GOD, and is only known by man because he has revealed himself.  God is “a timeless Being, surpassing the world, alien and supreme … the living, acting, working Subject who makes himself known” (p. 38).

Likewise, Barth demonstrates a high Christology.  However, he makes an unwarranted connection between Christ and Israel.  Barth believes, in a nutshell, that Israel as a nation was called out, not just to be a holy nation, but to evangelize the world.  Since Israel failed, Jesus Christ was sent to “fulfill” Israel.  It is true that Israel was separated out from the world in order that God might reveal himself to man, and might be glorified.  But was evangelization of the world God’s immediate motive?  Certainly, the ordinances handed down by Moses served to set them at odds with the rest of the world.  In fact, they were ordered to have no fellowship with non-believers.  This speaks against the theory of an evangelical mission.

Actually, there is a great non-parallel between the missions of Israel and of Christ:  Jesus Christ was sent in order to die for man’s sin, that whoever would believe in his vicarious sacrifice could attain eternal life.  Israel never suffered for any sins other than its own, and God never said, “Believe in Israel.”  Israel was not the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Barth’s otherwise high Christology suffers from lack of emphasis on Christ’s redeeming work.  His emphasis is upon Christ’s revelation at his Second Coming.  The Christian’s fate is to be that Christ truly exists and that He will, indeed, appear one day.  Then their faith shall be proven valid.

A secondary emphasis is upon Christ’s suffering — suffering as a man on the earth, and suffering at the end on the cross.  But this suffering, in Barth’s eyes, is not so much to pay the debt for man’s sins, as to put man in touch with his sins, to make him realize the suffering he deserves.  Man must conceptualize, mentally, his guilt.  In his realization of his guilt man is saved.

Barth never commits himself to a clear statement of Universalism, but a strong implication runs throughout this book.  He notes that Christ died for all men, and that is true.  He goes so far as to acknowledge that some men will reject Christ — but he never implies that they will be lost.  Evidently, he expects all men to be restored when Christ returns.

All in all, Barth reads like any evangelical writer.  He displays a love for God and for Christ that should warm the heart of any true Christian.  Certainly there are problems:  he leans too heavily on his own speculation and does not use Scripture often or carefully.  For instance, his misuse of Philippians 2:6, “God thinks it not robbery to be divine, that is, He does not hold on to the booty like a robber, but God parts with Himself” (p. 116).  While the thought may be perfectly good and correct, the usage is faulty.

Yet the Christian reader can feel a certain kinship with Barth, as one should feel a certain kinship with a Christian of another denomination, or even a Jew who truly loves God.  Certain of Barth’s ideas are, perhaps, erroneous — but Barth is not a heretic.  There is no reason the Christian should not read his works, if one is a mature and discerning believer, and maybe even quote Barth in a sermon.

At the very least, Barth is food for thought — and there are plenty of people whose minds could use a little nourishment.

Originally a book report presented to Dr. Gary McGee, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, for THE/HIS 636 Contemporary Theology, August 31, 1985.  Dr. McGee deemed the report “Excellent,” and assigned the grade “A.”

© 2014 Paul A. Hughes

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