Where Barth went wrong
December 15, 2010
Emil Brunner has a provocative section in Truth as Encounter (2nd ed.) where he lays out precisely where Barth went wrong in the development of his dogmatic thinking. I don’t agree with Brunner here, but his assessment is highly stimulating for deeper reflection on the nature of authority in the matter of faith. Enjoy.
It was an event of the greatest significance when Karl Barth, soon after the end of the First World War, when the faith of the Reformers seemed about to be extinguished, had the courage in his Letter to the Romans once more to take the Biblical message seriously. In so doing he linked up with the Biblicism of the “Swabian fathers,” especially the two Blumhardts, Johann Christoph the father, and Christoph the Son, and in accomplishing this the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard, in its opposition to the idealism of Hegel, did him invaluable service.
These were the beginnings of his theology. At that time Karl Barth, adopting a word of Kierkegaard, used to speak of theology as “the little pinch of cinnamon,” and would have energetically repudiated all thought of a theological system. But soon there came a turning point in his thinking. This time, too, as in the age of Protestant orthodoxy, the thing happened quite imperceptibly through a change of emphasis in the understanding of faith. It began with the adoption of the ancient Catholic doctrine natus ex Maria Virgine. This myth plays an insignificant part in the New Testament witness to Christ. Neither Paul nor John nor any other of the apostolic writings proclaim the Son of God as one begotten in a supernatural manner. This substantialist understanding of the truth of God that encounters us in Jesus Christ is alien to them, and still more so the belief that in this “miracle” we apprehend the thing of decisive importance for faith in Jesus Christ. The truth of God that encounters us in Jesus the Christ has no relation to this, nor do the oldest Confessions of the Christian fellowship make any mention of the virgin birth. The truth that authenticates itself in our conscience has been replaced by a supernatural fact, which “must be believed” on the strength of authority. This was the point from which long ago the transformation of the confession of the ancient church took its departure. It was in the direction of this “faith” that the dogma of the church developed as the doctrine of the Triune God and of the two natures in Christ. It was this doctrine, summarized in the Creed, which Karl Barth from 1924 onward expounded in his Dogmatics as the subject of belief. The change showed itself in three symptoms.
a. His adherence to the orthodox teachers of the seventeenth century became continually more marked. Heppe’s Dogmatics of the Reformed Church, the well-known collection of quotations from the orthodox Reformed theology of that time, was made an integral part of his own system.
b. Like the old Scholastics, he found it necessary to draw ever finer distinctions to satisfy the requirements of the intellect, so that the volumes of his Church Dogmatics continually swelled in bulk, and became a gigantic work comparable in size to one of the medieval Summae.
c. He traveled ever farther from his starting point, the “Swabian fathers” of whom I have spoken, especially the two Blumhardts. The thing common to them was the fact that their faith did not rest upon doctrine, but upon the Word of God understood in its unity with Biblical history, and, secondly, that they saw in the God of the Bible the transforming power of life, and that because this transformation had come to a halt since apostolic times, they hoped above everything for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the promised consummation of the rule of God. There is hardly a trace of this hope left in Karl Barth. Just as significant is his increasing alienation from Kierkegaard’s existential and dynamic view of apostolic faith, and from his searing criticism of “Christianity.” For the Karl Barth of the Church Dogmatics, all this was pietism, a declension from pure doctrine.
[Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter, 2nd edition, The Westminster Press, 1964, pp. 41-43.]
This particular section of Truth as Encounter was entirely new to the second edition of Wahrheit als Begegnung, published in 1963 by Zwingli-Verlag in Zurich. So, these reflections on Barth’s development were written at the end of both Barth and Brunner’s careers.