What's Tony Thinking

Adventures in Barth


Perhaps some of you have been tuning into the current Crackers and Grape Juice study, “Adventures in Barth”? I am part of the panel, or “posse,” discussing the reading.

We began with the Barmen Declaration, which just marked its 90th Anniversary. Written largely by Karl Barth, it was the protest against Hitler, National Socialism and the so-called “German Christian Church” on behalf of the “Confessing Church”. Other prominent names associated with that movement are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller.

From Barmen, the Adventure has taken us into Barth’s multi-volume work, The Church Dogmatics. It’s the kind of thing you want to read in a study group and maybe with a Barth scholar as a guide. We’ve had two of those with us, Mark Edwards and Marty Folsom. I’ve been reading Marty’s Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics for Everyone.

While I’ve read bits and pieces of Barth’s work along the way, I’d never before gone deep. Partly because no one was teaching Barth at Union when I was there, which is telling. And partly because Barth’s work is dense and demanding.

But more than that, Barth’s project is really an assault on liberal Protestant theology. What do I mean by that? Was Barth a fore-runner of America’s “Religious Right”? Hardly. As noted, Barth was among the most active in opposing Hitler and the compromises that the German Christian Church made with him. Compromises very much like the “Christian Nationalism” movement today in the U.S. Moreover, Barth was a member of the Socialist party and active in political actions of the working class.

The liberal theology of which I speak, and which dominated the German scene as Barth came of age, took its starting point in some aspect of human experience. Say the experience of awe or dependence, suffering or alienation, politics or class consciousness. Paul Tillich would be a good example.

In our own time, the categories in human experience that served as a starting point have shifted to things like gender, sexuality, race, oppression or building “the beloved community.”

“The world sets the agenda,” is kind of the rallying cry of liberal theology (and in many ways it is now also the cry for conservative, MAGA embracing, churches). Another name for all of this is “natural theology.” Our human concerns, needs and experience are the starting point of natural theology.

Barth said a strong “Nein,” to all this. Seeing his eminent liberal teachers cave to the Nazi movement in the name of German unity and love of the fatherland (Making Germany Great Again), Barth thought the whole theological enterprise needed to be re-thought and grounded in a different approach. For him the starting point is not human experience but the Word of God, which meant first of all, Jesus Christ and the “strange new world of the Bible.” Not natural theology, but revelation and revealed theology.

Though hardly a Barthian scholar, I’m a Barthian by instinct or disposition. I hope that doesn’t sound presumptuous. What I mean by that is that I came into ministry in what I would call a therapeutic era when, again, the starting point was our human experience. What makes me happy and fulfilled? What are our needs and fears? What do I find helpful to me in my personal, spiritual journey? How can Christianity or the Church speak to my, or our, needs?

While one cannot simply dis-regard such questions, they make us humans the focus in ways that aren’t always helpful, and can become quite self-preoccupied. Moreover, they really deprived us of the comfort and power of the Gospel itself. So phrases like, “Let God be God,” and “It’s not about you,” became associated with my ministry, which is what I mean by saying I was Barthian by instinct.

How this played out in my preaching, in particular, is that I didn’t take as my starting point a human experience or need. I didn’t start with say a generalized virtue like “inclusion” and exhort people to be (more) inclusive. I started with the a theological claim like, “All have sinned and all stand in need of grace.” Nor did I start with a human problem, say grief, and look for a Biblical passage to add to the human wisdom on the subject. I started always (still do!) with the Biblical text and asked, “Is there a word from the Lord?”

In this week’s session I quoted a bit from The Church Dogmatics, cited by Marty Folsom in his book mentioned above. It captures what Barth calls us to do, and what I have tried to do.

“I have found by experience,” writes Barth, “that in the last resort the man in the street who is so highly respected by many ecclesiastics and theologians will really take notice of us when we do not worry about what he expects of us but do what we are charged to do.”

I’d paraphrase that along these lines: When preachers and the church take their bearing from what people say they want and need and find relevant, we end up like golden retrievers at a whistler’s convention, i.e. running to and fro, trying to respond to whatever is new or hot or the latest. If, on the other hand, we preach the good news of what God has said and done, what God is saying and doing, we might actually have something to say.

I close with this from Marty: “In coming to church, people should expect to meet with the God who speaks. It is best to come with a sense of wonder, but not wondering what is in it for them. The goal is to know the reality of God and to connect deeply with the God who made them and loves them. Hopefully, they will leave as those who didn’t even know what they were missing.”

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