Saving Karl Barth

Among the new releases this year, I am most excited about D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press), which is scheduled to be released in a few weeks. Long is a professor of systematic theology at Marquette.

To this day, Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth is among my favorite books and surely among the most influential books in my own theological development. There is no equivalent book on Barth which penetrates with such grace and clarity the depths of Barth’s dogmatic project. Balthasar asks the really important questions, from a Catholic framework that joyfully embraces the “yes” of God toward humanity, from the Incarnation and then outward embracing philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and ecclesiology. Barth is less comfortable with the second move. If Balthasar is correct, the only real option before us is either (1) Barth’s purified Protestantism or (2) the loving arms of Rome! I happen to agree. Yet, Balthasar is also drawing the former toward the latter, or perhaps the other way around.

As many of my readers are already aware, Balthasar’s thesis is that Barth makes a significant move toward (more catholic-friendly) analogy, once Barth sheds the last vestiges of his early existentialism. Once again, I agree — as did Barth. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary, although highly appreciative of Balthasar, has challenged this reading in an important monograph, emphasizing the continuity of Barth’s early rejection of natural theology (especially the second edition of Romans) into his mature dogmatics, with its positive orientation in christology. This debate may be a matter of degree or emphasis. I have been more inclined, with Balthasar, to stress the importance of Barth’s turn toward “the humanity of God,” once he finally parts company with his dialectical colleagues and his own early formulations of a negative “capacity” within man (as found in Kierkegaard). Thus, I am rather content with Barth’s own reading of his development, even if his timetable is a bit off — on this point, see Keith Johnson’s insightful article, “A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism,” in IJST 14:1 (January 2012).

There are nuances that I am not recounting, but hopefully that will intrigue new students of Barth to purchase Balthasar’s volume on Barth and then Long’s volume. I am open in my own appraisal of these issues, but I will be forever indebted to Balthasar for giving me the right questions.


Stephen Webb at FT has been making battle with the resurgence of classical theism. Now he employs the help of Barth. His latest entry is a short treatment of Barth’s account of divine simplicity in Church Dogmatics II.1, §31. The appropriate section is “The Unity and Omnipresence of God,” pp. 440-490. It just so happens that I read this section today, in preparation for a Barth reading group tomorrow. So, it is rather fresh on my mind.

First, it should be clarified that Barth does not reject “simplicity” and “infinity” altogether. He is rejecting “absolute simplicity” and “absolute infinity,” which are derived from apophatic reflections upon creaturely limits. The “absolute” as such is not God’s absolute but, instead, something imposed upon God and limiting God. Barth is not denying God’s infinity, but he is expanding it to include spatiality and finitude — in accordance with Scripture. I will try to explain briefly.

As Barth has been doing this whole time in CD II.1, he is treating the divine perfections (attributes) as determinations of God’s love and freedom. God is the one who loves in freedom and is free in his love, as Barth defines God. The perfections of his freedom, such as unity and simplicity, are such that God determines their meaning; he is not determined by them. The reversal is what Barth perceives to have happened in the received tradition (orthodoxy), such as illustrated in Augustine, Anselm, and the Protestant scholastics. Statements of God’s simplicity are “put at the head,” not “in their proper turn,” as if God’s simplicity were derived from “the general idea of an ens vere unum” (446-447).

If God determines the meaning of his unity and simplicity, then these concepts are “not at our disposal” (448). They cannot be defined apart from “God’s self-demonstration” in his Word and work (459). Per usual, Barth gives a run through of passages from both the OT and the NT (see especially 451ff.). Following upon his exegesis, Barth will define God’s simplicity according to the determinations of his love:

…the simplicity of God consists in the trustworthiness, truthfulness, and fidelity which He is Himself…If He were divisible, dissoluble, or flexible, He would not be trustworthy…This divine simplicity, however, is not to be looked for in any other place than that in which the prophets and apostles found it, when it offered itself for them to find and they were found by it. [458-459]

So, God is without division in his unique self-determination as wholly faithful, not because God is bound by some prior concept of simplicity or infinity. Such prior concepts are answers to the question, what is necessary for existence to be extended beyond creaturely limitations? But, “The Christian doctrine of God has to face and answer questions put to it by the God who confronts man and not by the man who confronts God” (464). That should be memorized by every student of Barth. The concern to have a God who is without our limitations is actually a form of idolatry, and man will defend this “God” with the utmost zealotry. Rather, God determines his own “limits,” as his being derives from himself. He’s God. And God is without division in that he is wholly trustworthy and faithful. His fidelity is not one part of his essence, but of all. Nothing alongside him or apart from him can threaten his constancy and fidelity.

Barth gives an extensive treatment of the common coupling of “omnipresence” with “eternity,” as they are placed under the heading of “infinity.” Barth is convinced that “infinity,” as a predetermined concept, is doing more work than it should. It constrains God in his capacity to include finitude within his infinity. “God’s ‘infinity,’ if we want to use this expression, is true infinity because it does not involve any contradiction that it is finitude as well” (467). The point, for Barth, is that a concept of infinity that cannot contain (or make space for) the finite is not God’s infinity. As we have said, it would be a limitation provided by the concept, not by God’s own determination. As such, it would not be God’s infinity at all. Here is a longer excerpt:

We certainly do not deny that God is this too, that He is infinite, i.e., that He is not bound to the limits of space and time nor to the forms of space and time generally as the determinations of His creation. But we must add at once that God is infinite in His own divine way, and not in the way in which this can be said of created spirit. …The infinity which as a concept stands in antithesis to infinitude, and therefore to this extent the isolated concept of infinity, is quite insufficient to describe what God is in relation to space and time. God’s ‘infinity,’ if we want to use this expression, is true infinity because it does not involve any contradiction that it is finitude as well. For there is no reason why God in His essence should not be finite in the same perfect way as He is infinite. But to be finite in this perfect way necessarily means in such a way that His finitude does not prevent His being infinite, and therefore that while finitude is that which limits and is a determination of His creation, it does not involve any limitation or defect in God. [467]

So, Barth is “stretching” the concept of infinity to include, for God, the concept of finitude. This is not the first time that concepts have been stretched for theological reasons. It seems like ousia was stretched for the sake of God in the fourth century. For people who believe in the Trinity — wherein Greek categories are modified beyond all recognition — I find some of the criticisms of Barth a bit odd. The orthodox christology, likewise, has the temerity to say that one hypostasis can have two different natures in each’s fullness! I am beginning to think that Christianity has a habit of borrowing and significantly modifying the capacity of categories.


I am reading through the opening chapter of John Frame’s recently published Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Some have described it as his “magnum opus,” though it appears to be just a distillation of his four-volume Lordship series. It features the obligatory forward by J. I. Packer, the evangelical equivalent of a papal imprimatur or nihil obstat. John Frame is not my cup of tea. Anyone who writes with such bulk must justify the bulk with imaginative prose and wonder-inducing insights. Frame does neither.

Anyway, I was struck by his odd criticism of Barth’s definition of theology:

Theologians often prefer very long definitions. One of Karl Barth’s definitions of theology is an example:

“Theology is science seeking the knowledge of the Word of God spoken in God’s work—science learning in the school of the Holy Scripture, which witnesses to the Word of God; science labouring in the quest for truth, which is inescapably required of the community that is called by the Word of God.” [Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 49-50]

Here Barth tries to bring a large amount of theological content into his definition. This attempt is understandable, since every theologian wants his concept of theology to be governed by the content of theology. So he tries to show how the very definition of theology reflects the nature of the gospel, the content of Scripture, the preeminence of Christ, the nature of redemption, and so on.

I think this is a mistake. In his Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr warned biblical scholars of the fallacy of supposing that the meanings of biblical terms were loaded with theological content. The meaning of Scripture comes not from its individual terms, but from its sentences, paragraphs, books, and larger units. For example, the word created, just by itself, out of all context, teaches us nothing. But “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) teaches us a great deal. “By him all things were created” (Col. 1:16) teaches us even more. The same warning is appropriate for theologians. Certainly our theological methods and conclusions must be derived from God’s revelation. But our definition of the word theology need not recapitulate those conclusions, though it must certainly be consistent with its conclusions. That is, the definition of theology cannot be a condensation of all the content of the Scriptures. Yet it must describe an activity that the Scriptures warrant. [pp. 4-5]

Frame then goes on to expound his own definition of theology: “the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (p. 8). As for the above passage, how on earth does Barr’s criticism apply to Barth’s definition? I am basically familiar with Barr’s criticism of Barth in general, and Barth’s exegesis in particular, but how is Frame connecting this to Barth’s definition of theology? He’s not. It’s just bizarre. Barth is defining theology, not biblical terms like δίκαιος (“righteousness”) and then weighting them with greater theological content than the text allows (which is Barr’s criticism of nearly every theologian!). Moreover, how is Frame’s definition of theology superior? And what’s the point of all of this, besides appearing to be pedantic?

So, I found this section exceedingly curious.

John Leith audio lectures

November 22, 2013

Leith, John H.

Union Presbyterian Seminary has recently published several audio lectures and sermons from John Leith, professor of theology at Richmond for three decades and a fine interpreter of the Reformed tradition. He loved the Reformed tradition in all of its breadth, whether Calvin or the Westminster Assembly or Karl Barth. The lectures can be found at the Foundation for Reformed Theology.

A good place to begin is his lecture at Columbia Theological Seminary’s Alumni Forum: “The Reformed Perspective,” from 1978. You can stream or download (right click).

As for books, his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is still the best all-around introduction, serviceable to a broad audience. Your next stop should be his Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making.

Leith-Reformed-Tradition  Leith-Assembly-at-Westminster


R. Michael Allen (Knox Theological Seminar) is known to some readers of this blog for his publication last year, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (T&T Clark), an excellent tool for classroom use. Prior to that, he published Reformed Theology in the T&T Clark series, “Doing Theology.”

His most recent monograph is a study of the doctrine of justification: Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies (Baker Academic). He recounts his journey at the publisher’s website, as a once enthusiastic critic of the Protestant doctrine under the sway of the New Perspective. Things changed as he studied history and dogmatics:

But now I have written Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, arguing that the Protestant doctrine of justification is exegetically defensible and theologically essential to filling out catholic teaching on God’s relations to creatures in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This book manifests something of the journey I’ve been on now for a decade. I found that rising familiarity with the exegetical riches of the great teachers of the church (from Irenaeus and Gregory to Thomas and Bonaventure to Luther and Calvin) shows their brilliance as aids and our own limits as modern researchers. I’ve also seen that too often protests regarding the Reformation stem from really bad understandings of what it actually involved, too frequently based in reading of poor secondary sources rather than in careful study of primary texts. I hope this book serves as a useful prompt to further reflection in these two conversations: how do we think well of justification in light of the wider gospel of Jesus? And how do we go about the task of Christian theology and of a faithful Christian reading of the Holy Scriptures today?

At CBD, you can read an excerpt of the book’s first chapter. It appears that he is fruitfully borrowing from John Webster.

Also, the publisher has an excerpt on Barth’s “sense of proportion and order”: Barth, Justification, and the Gospel.

I do find it fascinating and encouraging that Allen teaches at a seminary (Knox) that is owned and operated by a PCA congregation, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, now pastored by Tullian Tchividjian. Needless to say, a friendliness toward Barth is not exactly commonplace in the PCA orbit.

After reading this painful dumbing-down of the Trinity/gender debate by Zack Hunt at Evans’ blog — painful for those of us who do not consider trinitarian metaphysics as “boring” — I read the article from Kevin Giles that was linked. In fact, some trinitarian metaphysics may help all of us out.

Both sides are wrong. Let’s first ponder the critical move in Giles’ thesis:

If the Son is eternally subordinated to the Father, and cannot be otherwise, then he does not just function subordinately, he is the subordinated Son. His subordination defines his person or being. Eternal functional subordination implies by necessity ontological subordination. Blustering denials cannot avoid this fact.

First of all, whether subordination “defines his person or being” is not the same thing, but Giles is correct to see the same result. If subordination defines the Son’s being (and not the Father’s being), then there is a division within the being of God — which is heresy. If subordination defines the Son’s person, then the same division occurs in the being of God, because the person (per Nicaea) is wholly God. So, an attribute of the person must necessarily be an attribute of the being, or else the logic of homo-ousia (same-being) breaks down.

However, we must properly define “person.” If we agree with Barth (and John Webster and Lewis Ayres et al.) that “person” in trinitarian metaphysics is not a distinct, self-subsisting subject of operation, then “person” needs to be defined as a mode of the single divine subject. As such, the modal operation of the Son’s subordination can indeed be eternal without causing a division in the being of God — because subordination itself is an attribute of this single divine being. Subordination, thereby, signifies an attribute that is not foreign to the Father. But, in order for this attribute of subordination to exist within the being of God, the persons of Father and Son eternally enact this subordination, of one mode to the other. Otherwise, subordination would be foreign to God altogether, with no immanent ground in God for the work of redemption ad extra.

This “enactment” is derived from the common agency of the singular divine subject, so it is not “forced” upon the Son nor is it proper to say that “the Son cannot do otherwise,” as Giles puts it. This is why Giles (and Hunt and Evans) continually move from subordination to oppression, as if the latter obviously follows from the former. That would be the case if the Son had a distinct agency apart from the Father who may “impose” the subordination of the Son, but it is not the case if we follow Barth (and Nicaea) as defined above.

Schleiermacher and Barth

August 29, 2013

Alasdair I. C. Heron, Professor of Reformed Theology at Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg from 1981 to 2007, wrote a solid introductory survey of Schleiermacher and Barth’s dogmatic projects in an article first published in 1986 and now available for download in HTS Teologiese Studies:

“Barth, Schleiermacher and the task of dogmatics” (pdf link)

For all of their differences, there is “a similar kind of questioning,” as Heron describes it (397). Barth’s counter-achievement “was necessarily related to that which it opposed. Barth and Schleiermacher may indeed be poles apart, but the poles are those of an ellipse, in which the second can best be appreciated in its tension laden relation to the first” (395).

Thankfully, Heron does not slight their differences nor fall prey to the “Barth didn’t understand his relation to modernity” shenanigans. (Yes, on a blog, I can get away with saying, “shenanigans.”) However, Heron focuses on the “God as wholly other” tactic that was most forcefully expressed in Barth’s Römerbrief. While Barth never abandons this orientation and indeed deepens it in profound ways, as Heron acknowledges, there is a conscious shift in Barth’s development away from over-reliance on Idealist categories (temporal/eternal, finite/infinite, etc.), appearing to do some of the exegetical work in Der Römerbrief, and toward specifically dogmatic categories of christological provenance in the Church Dogmatics. But, this goes well beyond the scope of Heron’s essay, which aims to give us a helpful overview from which further discussion can responsibly develop.

Heron does have this balanced insight into both Schleiermacher and Barth’s advancement, from their epoch-making first shot (Reden über die Religion and Der Römerbrief, respectively) to their mature dogmatics:

Further similarities can also be seen in the way that the later work of Barth and Schleiermacher developed. Some would characterize these by saying that both became more “conservative” following their first, radical beginnings. But “conservative” is a slippery concept, whether it is understood politically or theologically. It would be more precise to say that both worked from their starting points to include and gather in, in an essentially consistent development, a wider and deeper appreciation and appropriation of the fruits of earlier Christian theology. Both went on to become, in the strict sense of the word, ecclesiastical theologians, conscious of the responsibility of their work for the life and witness of the wider Christian community. Once called to chairs of theology – Schleiermacher in Berlin, Barth first of all in Göttingen - they found themselves confronted with other tasks and responsibilities than those of relatively independent thinkers. In particular, they were faced with the question of how they were to teach them – a question which can have a sobering effect on the most effervescent spirits if they feel its real force. (400-401)

Barth’s assessment of Schleiermacher can be found (1) in his Göttingen lectures of winter 1923/24, which ends with an autobiographical account, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher,” (2) in his Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century from 1947/52, and (3) in the many excursuses throughout the Church Dogmatics, in which the index is most helpful for locating Schleiermacher.

Is Christ offensive?

August 26, 2013

Crucifixion by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Yes, but we cannot stop there.

Kierkegaard was fond of our Lord’s pronouncement in Mt 11.6 and Lk 7.23 that blessed is the one who is not offended [μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ] at him. Fred Denbeaux (d. 1995), Presbyterian minister and longtime professor at Wellesley, has a nice summation of Kierkegaard on this point:

What is the offense of faith? It can take many forms. We would welcome a God of light, but he comes to us crucified. We would welcome a God with whom we could be happy, and instead we are confronted with him whom we have slain. We are offended because we can never come before God neutrally but always in guilt. We are offended because the Christ who comes does not come in the form that we expect. We would be happier if he came as a god of war, so that we could join our sword to his in the battle against unrighteousness (always conveniently with the enemy and never with ourselves.) But the Christ does not come with a sword, and he asks us to put our sword away; so we are offended.

Therefore, Christ is always the occasion of either offense or faith. He is the one either before whom we stumble and fall on our knees or else from whom we turn in defensive pride. He is our Saviour, but we shall never know him as such if we become offended, because it is from ourselves that he saves us.

(Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, ed. George L. Hunt, NY: Association Press, p. 55)

Amen. There is more to Kierkegaard than this, as every Kierkegaard scholar is more than anxious to remind us! But this prominent theme is why Kierkegaard is such a necessary stage through which every theology student should pass. I hesitate to say, “stage,” as if we should ever forget this offense — we should not. Yet, Christ is the light that overcomes darkness (Jn 1.5).

Creation is offended at Christ in its rebellion against God — in its desire to secure some other foundation than the love of God in his promises. Yet, this eternal love and these promises of blessing are the true foundation, the original foundation — the light. Thus, faith in Christ is not merely repentance at the offense and a casting aside of the former self; faith in Christ is an embrace of the true creation that was pronounced “good,” including the self made new in him.

This transition from nein to ja is what Barth belabors at numerous points in his Church Dogmatics, as in the doctrine of justification (especially § 61.2, CD IV.1). It requires extensive belaboring because the nein remains a truth of mankind in his opposition to God and God’s opposition to this “impossibility.” Thus, a facile ja that negates the law or wrath has nothing to do with God’s righteousness. The opposition to God is an “impossibility,” in Barth’s terminology, because it is not a possibility of creation. It comes from elsewhere. If there were ever an inscrutable mystery, it is the “non-existence” of evil.

I understand the perplexity at Barth’s designation of evil as das Nichtige, which is nevertheless not das Nichts [nothingness is not nothing]. Evil “exists” in some shadow, false reality, not the reality of God’s creation. While perplexing, this allows Barth to affirm creation with a seriousness that exults in joy, not remaining in a quandary of dialectical tension. Of course, this is framed according to his christology, not some immanent principle discernible within creation. As I see it, Barth fulfills Kierkegaard’s aim at bypassing the dialectical impasse of Idealism — not through faith as such, but through Christ.

This accounts for the pronounced optimism in Barth and his dislike for tragedy. Christ offends, indeed, but there is more. We were created for him.

Hiking with Barth

August 20, 2013

Fred Sanders, theology professor at Biola, has some nice reflections on Barth:

Barth & the Bible in Yosemite

I also appreciated one of his past posts:

Karl Barth’s Methodist Cleaning Service



I have finally finished the “19th century German theology” page, which I had announced two years ago! The page link will be on the top of the blog:

It did not take two years — I just forgot about it until now. I have expanded the number of titles, and I will add more as I come across new discoveries. Where multiple editions are available, I have selected the best quality scan.

What is my justification for providing this resource? Modernity happened, like it or not. Even if your affinities are closer aligned with Protestant scholasticism of the 17th century, your theology will be impoverished by ignoring the intervening development of theology. These works are stimulating, rigorous, fascinating, profound, and — believe it or not — often faithful to our Lord. They are not monolithic, as different schools emerged and contended with each other, and the result is one of the high points in the history of theology. I am aligned with Barth in his criticisms of this period, but there would be no Barth if it were not for this theology. In fact, Barth’s carefully nuanced reading of Schleiermacher — ardent rejection and loving affection — is a model for us all.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 125 other followers