Tag Archives: Karl Barth

Just Arrived

This could be the biography we have been waiting for: Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict by Christiane Tietz. Karl Barth died in 1968 and until now we have not had a full and critical biography. Many books contain a brief overview of his life, and most of these draw on Eberhard Busch’s 1976 Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts.

The work by Busch, Barth’s last assistant, is justly regarded as a classic and is in itself an immensely important resource. Despite its quality and wealth of biographical data, however, it is not a critical biography. Hopefully Tietz’ volume will fill this lacuna.

I came across the German edition in Dresden in 2019 and didn’t know it existed. It was published in 2018. I bought it as a reading goal for when my German has been recovered sufficiently. To have it in English, though, is a blessing. (On a side note, I owe an incalculable debt to translators of theological works, especially G.W. Bromiley – and Bible translators, of course! May their tribe increase.)

Christiane Tietz is Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Zurich. Before that she was Professor of Systematic Theology and Social Ethics at the University of Mainz. The book has been translated by Victoria J. Barnett, one of the general editors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition.

The book has gone to the top of my reading list for the winter break. At 488 pages it may be the only book I read over the break! But, it comes with pictures.

Evangelicals and Nationalism

Much has been written about Evangelical support for Donald Trump over the last few years. Was this support an aberration? How could so-called Bible-believing Christians have supported so unlikely a candidate? Why did they resonate with his rhetoric and policy positions? In a recent interview on Politico Elizabeth Neumann, herself an Evangelical and so a sympathetic observer, identified several reasons why some American evangelicals fell for this temptation.

Religious nationalism is nothing new, of course, and nor is it restricted to North American Evangelicals or Christians generally. Many Christian groups over the centuries have fallen in line with the nationalist aspirations of their political masters. Where the head of the church or religion is also the head of state, the problem is compounded. But the head of state need not be the head of the church for religious nationalism to take hold of a population or certain segments of it. When a nation views itself and its destiny in terms of empire, and where a cultural synthesis occurs between church and state so that the aims of the church become aligned with those of the state, the conditions are ripe for the emergence of religious nationalism.

Part of the problem here, as Neumann contends, concerns the authoritarian streak that runs through some streams of Evangelicalism. But part of it might also be traced to a theological malaise in which the Christian imagination has been subverted and co-opted to the vision of the secular order. In a brief discussion of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany James Hawes argues:

It is worth hammering this point home: if you’re trying to forecast whether a random German voter from 1928 will switch to Hitler, asking whether they are rich or poor, town or country, educated or not, man or woman and so on will scarcely help at all. The only question really worth asking is whether they are Catholic or Protestant (The Shortest History of Germany, 164).

He cites Jurgen W. Falter: “Hitler’s strongholds were clearly in the Lutheran countryside.” Further, only 17% of Nazi voters came from the predominantly Catholic regions (Der Spiegel, 29 January, 2008, in Hawes, 164).

Why and how did this religious support for Hitler surge between 1928 and 1933. No doubt part of the answer to the story is the ongoing suffering and shame of the German people which Hitler manipulated to his own purposes. But the Protestants were vulnerable to this manipulation also for theological reasons. Over the preceding centuries, and arguably back to Luther’s appeal to the German princes to support the Reformation, German Protestantism had actively looked to political authorities for support and in return also supported the political authorities.

Karl Barth also recognised the theological roots of Protestant support for Hitler’s regime in the preface to the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics, published in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power in Germany.

Or shall I rather bemoan the constantly increasing confusion, tedium and irrelevance of modern Protestantism, which, probably along with the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, has lost an entire third dimension—the dimension of what for once, though not confusing it with religious and moral earnestness, we may describe as mystery—with the result that it has been punished with all kinds of worthless substitutes, that it has fallen the more readily victim to such uneasy cliques and sects as High Church, German Church, Christian Community and religious Socialism, and that many of its preachers and adherents have finally learned to discover deep religious significance in the intoxication of Nordic blood and their political Führer? (CD I/1: xiv).

I believe that I understand the present-day authorities of the Church better than they understand themselves when I ignore their well-known resentment against what should have been their most important task, appealing from authorities badly informed to authorities which are better informed. I am firmly convinced that, especially in the broad field of politics, we cannot reach the clarifications which are necessary today, and on which theology might have a word to say, as indeed it ought to have, without first reaching the comprehensive clarifications in and about theology which are our present concern (CD I/1: xvi).

A great danger for the church is that it loses its theological moorings and so substitutes other commitments and convictions in place of Jesus Christ—‘the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death’ (Barmen Declaration, Thesis 1, 1934). Barth, too, understood ‘there is within the Church an Evangelical theology which is to be affirmed and a heretical non-theology which is to be resolutely denied’ (CD I/1: xv). It is evident that the non-theology to be denied was the theological assimilation to National Socialism that occurred in the so-called German Christians.

Some—certainly not all—North American evangelicals fell into the same danger in their naïve support for the Trump agenda. This is not to say, of course, that everything Trump did was evil. But by accepting the Trump package, these evangelicals lost their ability ‘to discern what is excellent’ (Philippians 1:10) and in the end accepted and even celebrated a leader who exemplified a form of life alien to that of Jesus and his kingdom.

Pierre Maury on ‘Election and Faith’

In 1936 at the International Congress of Calvinist Theology conducted in Geneva to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, French preacher-theologian Pierre Maury presented a paper entitled ‘Election et Foi.’ Karl Barth would later recall that the address had made a profound impression on him, providing the decisive contribution to his own thought on the doctrine of predestination.

Maury’s lecture has been recently translated and published in English thanks to the work of Simon Hattrell, in his edited volume Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a ‘Decisive Impetus’ to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. The volume includes testimony from those who knew Maury, including Barth, as well as three lectures by Maury that provide a good insight into his thought concerning election, and a number of additional contemporary essays discussing the doctrine in Barth and Maury’s theology.

Over the next few weeks I will provide a summary of Maury’s lectures in order to make more generally available what he said that so impressed Barth. Of course, better yet would be to buy the book!

The 1936 lecture itself, is quite short. Maury begins by indicating the approach he will take to the doctrine, which initially sounds characteristically Reformed:

We did not give ourselves life nor will we be able to avoid death. We have not chosen to live; we cannot choose to not die. It is therefore not a question here of our choice, the one that we make, but the choice of which we are the object, that which is made (or not made) of us. These are those insurmountable limits, which are imposed on us, which election calls to mind (42).

Since the doctrine of election trumps all our categories of reason and wisdom, we cannot approach it philosophically but only in accordance with faith, led and guided by the Scriptures. Hence the title, ‘Election and Faith.’ Scripture will be the guide of faith and not a teacher of philosophy. “It will lead us in some points to not follow what Calvin heard in it. But that will not be being unfaithful to him; on the contrary, that will be truly Calvinist” (43).

When we begin with Scripture, however, we find that election is christologically ordered. For Maury, the eternal and the incarnate Christ is the origin, ground, and goal of God’s election. This election is entirely free, wholly God’s initiative, and yet at the cross it is shown to have cost God everything.

We will take our stand, therefore, in speaking of predestination, on this solid ground, where the hidden mystery of God becomes the revealed grace which is offered to us. We can truly say that outside of Christ, there is neither election, nor knowledge of election . . . Outside of Christ, we know neither who the God who elects is, nor those He elects, nor how He elects them (43).

Jesus Christ is not merely the point of the knowledge of divine election, but is in himself the election:

So the election is nothing else than the eternal and temporal existence of Jesus Christ, our mediator. For it is in Him, in Him crucified, in Him alone, that God has met us. Because it is in Christ, we know that election is not some unfathomable eternal caprice or whim, a game played out in the infinitely distant idleness of eternity but a concrete reality, our reality. It bears the marks of the historical and real life of Jesus Christ, living, dying, rising for us (46).

Election is, negatively, God taking all our sin and alienation on the cross. This is grace. Here, here alone, but here truly, we see that God is love. Election, therefore, consists in the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Before the cross, too, we understand this paradox: the price of free election. For election does not cost us anything, but God it cost His Son. For God to extend grace, to forgive, is to give everything, to give everything for us who cannot give Him anything. . . . This is the night of the ninth hour. What does this darkness mean? Revelation says: punishment. And the Son believes it: punishment, God’s wrath. The only one who will understand grace in election is the same one who understands that it is fulfilled in Christ dying, smitten by God, deserted by men. The only one who will understand how election is sheer pardon is the one who, before the cross, does not come with arguments or with good works, with religious emotion or objections, but who stands there speechless because they have nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to put forward (47-48).

The human response to this election is to choose, decisively, for or against. At the cross we see ourselves—and so judgement, rejection, and condemnation; and at the cross we see God—and so grace, acceptance, and justification. This is double-predestination, though in Maury’s hands it refers not to two separate classes of people (salvation for some, damnation for the rest), but is applied to each person. The church may and must speak of double-predestination but only in this way. That is, it may preach ‘the word of the cross.’ Indeed apart from the cross, double-predestination is solely an eschatological concept: we cannot sort anyone into these categories.

The elect, in their election, accept everything from the cross: condemnation and grace, judgement and forgiveness, demand and promise, renouncement and life. They accept, that is to say, they no longer have anything, they allow everything to be given to them . . . Predestination is therefore very much double (51, 52).

When asked, upon whom does salvation depend? Maury responds as expected: upon God, of course! Though this answer is known only in faith. Faith is a decisive human act with no opt-out clause. Faith is to risk everything in our reply to this judgement and grace addressed to us. “To accept Jesus Christ, to be chosen by God, means to choose to turn away from ourselves forever. That means to have from now on an absolute Lord . . . ” (50).

To look to the cross is to respond in kind. In choosing Christ we no longer choose ourselves but embrace a vocation to be conformed to Christ. There is a life that is appropriate to the elect: a life of continuing faith lest the believer transform God’s election into their own possession; a life of prayer since all depends on God—and the truest prayer is that which asks for the Holy Spirit; and finally, a life of obedience to the God who has and continues, to call them.

Pierre Maury, "Election et Foi (Election and Faith)" in Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a 'Decisive Impetus' to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election." Edited by Simon Hattrell, 41-59. Second edition; Eugene: Pickwick, 2019.

A Good-Friday Prayer

O Lord, our God:
We have gathered this day in order to consider how You carried out
Your good and strong will for the world and for us all by letting our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your dear Son, become captive that we might become free,
by letting Him be judged guilty that we might be innocent,
by letting Him suffer that we might have joy,
by giving Him up to death so that we might live eternally.

Of ourselves we can only go astray.
And we have not deserved such deliverance, not one of us.
But in the inconceivable greatness of Your mercy
You have shared our sin and our misery in order to do such great things for us.
How else should we thank You except by comprehending,
laying hold on this great deed, and letting it hold sway?
Yet how can that happen unless the same living Saviour,
who for us suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried but now is risen,
come Himself into our midst, speak to our hearts and consciences,
open us to Your love, lead us on to entrust ourselves entirely to it,
and to live from this love and from it alone.
In all humility but also in all confidence,
we beseech You to grant this through the power of Your Holy Spirit.
Amen.

(Karl Barth, Selected Prayers, 34, adjusted)

New Edition of “Election, Barth & the French Connection”

The second edition of Simon Hattrell’s (editor and translator) book on Karl Barth and Pierre Maury is now available from Wipf & Stock. This is an enlarged edition of the book with several additional essays including one by myself entitled “The Light of the Gospel: Election and Proclamation.”

I am both privileged and grateful to have been asked by Simon to contribute to this revised edition. I had purchased and read the first edition and found it a very fine addition to Barth scholarship, which will, I hope, now be improved with the addition of the extra essays and other materials.

Click on the link below for some more information about the book including an interview with Simon. You can also visit Simon’s website for more articles and details about the book and other topics.

Presskit for the 2nd Edn of Election Barth and the French Connection

The Christian’s Political Duty (10 Theses)

Last week I posted on Barth’s “conversation” at the Zofingia Student Association meeting on June 3, 1959. At this meeting Barth addressed the questions put to him, What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? He responded with 10 theses as follows:

  1. The Christian is witness to the kingdom of God (= basileia) that has come in Jesus Christ and is still to be revealed in him.
  2. As a witness of the kingdom of God, the Christian is first and foremost a citizen of this kingdom.
  3. The Christian lives in each particular time and situation also as a citizen of a state in one of its different and changing forms.
  4. The Christian acknowledges the kingdom of God in the provisional order of God for the establishment and preservation of relative justice, relative freedom, and relative peace in his state.
  5. The Christian does not mistake the state, in any of its many forms, for the kingdom of God.
  6. The Christian does not fear or deny the state in any of its many forms, because each state contains something divine.
  7. In view of the kingdom of God, the Christian distinguishes between forms of the state insofar as they more or less correspond to the divine appointment.
  8. The Christian, as a citizen of the state, bears witness to the kingdom of God, insofar as he decides in each case for the more appropriate form of the state, meaning the more righteous form.
  9. The Christian decides about the preferable form of the state as well as about the form of his support for it, with a new, free orientation toward the kingdom of God in each particular time and situation.
  10. The Christian is always obligated to assume the particular political stance and action that correspond to his reflection on the kingdom of God (“Conversation in the Zofingia 1 (1959)” in Busch ed. Barth in Conversation Vol. 1, 1959-1962, 2-5).

The first three theses are uncontroversial. The wording of the fourth is a little obscure, but is simply declaring that the state is a divinely ordained institution for the establishment of (a relative) justice, freedom, and peace in human society. This, too, is uncontroversial as is thesis five. The sixth thesis is controversial, especially Barth’s assertion that every form of the state contains “something divine.” One immediately thinks of his own repudiation of Nazism in the 1930s. In his comment on this thesis Barth argued:

Ancient Christianity existed even in Nero’s empire. There is no anti-Christian state, and there is no civitas diaboli. The Christian is therefore protected against political scepticism or political despair. A Christian will affirm the state in each form. He distinguishes [certainly between better and worse forms of the state, but he does so] while never pronouncing an absolute yes or no. Therefore [since “each state contains something divine,”] he [the Christian] is not forced [or justified] to take a stance of neutrality [toward the state]. [Rather] he distinguishes between states of lesser or greater justice (4).

It may be that the “something divine” is nothing more than its institution as a state. It seems, though, that despite Barth obviously making a comment about the nature of every state—and about divine sovereignty, his intent is to describe the Christian’s posture toward the state; there is no room for scepticism, despair, or neutrality. A state cannot be proclaimed absolutely evil or just, but must be distinguished according to its relative degree of justice, and according to thesis seven, the canon for this assessment is the kingdom of God.

Theses eight and nine form a pair, with the Christian deciding in each case for the more appropriate form of the state and the nature of their support for that more appropriate form. They are not bound to traditions, conventions, concepts of natural law, or other approaches of response to the state. They may, of course, resort to such ways of response, but are free in each situation to evaluate the state in the light of the kingdom of God, and respond appropriately. Nor is the Christian required by God, theology, the church, or Scripture to support only this kind of state, or that. Nor is the Christian’s posture toward the state always critical: “it is possible for him to work actively within a dictatorship: for example, by enduring, by waiting in the quiet hope that the trees will not grow sky-high, or even by cooperating (more or less)” (4). This liberty—Barth’s refusal to prescribe a Christian posture or mode of action—is also the theme of the final thesis. The Christian must always take a stance; the Christian must always act, but they are free to do so in accordance with their own reflection on the kingdom of God. In this, “the Christian has . . . no choice, but rather only one possibility: the stance that he has been commanded to take” (5).

It is clear that in the final theses Barth applies his theology of the divine command to the Christian as citizen. Also clear, is that he is thinking as much about the believers in the communist east as he was in the democratic west. His answer to the two key questions asked: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? are that (a) the Christian is to witness to the kingdom of God within each particular form of the state, including the support of justice, freedom, and peace in human society as an analogue of that kingdom; and (b) no, the Christian is not committed to a pre-determined political stance, but are always to act in accordance with their (no doubt theologically-informed) understanding of the kingdom of God.

A Christianity that “Deserves to Perish”

On June 3, 1959 Karl Barth was a guest at the Basel chapter of the Swiss Student Association Zofingia, a fraternity established 200 years ago in 1819, and of which Barth himself had been a member in his student days. The photo shows him at a function in about 1906 (seated RHS). Now a famous theologian, Barth had been invited by the association to address the question: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance?

Barth responded by writing ten brief theses on the topic, delivering his short address and then took questions. It is clear that the primary issue concerning his audience was communism, especially Russian communism. One interlocutor insisted it was a Christian duty to resist it. Barth responded:

Reaction against Communism [is] only necessary when the Russians are at Lake Constance. We have not yet passed the test [that would then have to be passed]. What we have done up to now is stupid chatter and has not freed anyone from Russian subjugation. To join in, sounding the same note and writing condemning articles, is not necessary since virtually everyone is agreed about Communism. It was different at the time of National Socialism. An acute danger was manifest. Whether out of fascination or fear of attack, numerous people all over Europe began to yield and proposed accommodations. 

To this, one Dr Gerwig answered: “Communism is a great danger for Christianity. We must fight before it reaches Lake Constance.” And then came Barth’s marvellous riposte:

A Christianity that is in danger of Communism deserves to perish. The best and surest weapon against Communism is that one become a good Christian.

Barth was often criticised because he did not condemn Communism in the 1950s the way he had condemned the National Socialists in the 1930s. He argued that they were two completely different systems and so not comparable. This does not mean he supported Communism; he did not. But I love his comment. It is rhetorical, to be sure, but he is speaking of a form of Christianity rather than the lives of individuals confronting a brutal empire. Nonetheless, a “good Christian” is one who understands and lives in accordance with reality of the world-reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ, and so is bound to him as the “one Word of God which we have to hear  and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 1). Bound to Jesus Christ, the Christian is liberated from every lesser allegiance and claim, and find their life and hope solely in him and the promise given to humanity in him.

Further, Jesus Christ is God’s mighty claim upon the Christian’s life, and thus “through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 2). The church is “solely his property, and it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance” (Barmen Declaration, thesis 3).

This kind of Christianity has a role to play within the culture but is neither over-awed nor overwhelmed by it. In word and deed it bears witness to the coming kingdom, even if the result of this witness is suffering and shame. It holds fast to its confession in the midst of a sinful world “with its faith as with its obedience” (thesis 3).

This is a Christianity that knows whose it is, a Christianity for whom Mark’s gospel and the letter to the Hebrews (not to say, the Book of Revelation) are not alien, but well-known, lived. They know First Peter and walk in the path of its author, as he walked in the path of the Master.

My guess is that Barth would say the same today to those Christians concerned at the increasing secularity of Western culture: “A Christianity that is threatened by secularism deserves to perish.”

Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth (Review)

David Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth 
(Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2016). Pp. xiii + 223. 
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5137-9

Last week I reviewed Galli’s recent introductory biography of Karl Barth for evangelicals, and expressed the hope that evangelicals might engage with the Swiss master. This review is for those who have decided that they would like to do this but perhaps are unsure where to begin. Those new to Barth and seeking an understanding of his life and work will find David Guretzki’s new book helpful. Guretzki’s primary aim, restated several times in his text, is to ‘provide a guide—a handbook of sorts—explicitly designed to help new explorers of Karl Barth to get quickly acclimatized to his thought’ (xi). Further, he aims to get his readers reading Barth for themselves and relying less on secondary assessments and commentary (205; cf. 180). Whether he succeeds in these goals remains to be seen, but he has certainly written a text that makes it easier for new readers of Barth to engage directly with his work.

The book is divided into two parts: Getting to Know Karl Barth with five chapters, and Exploring the Church Dogmatics with four more chapters. In the first chapter entitled ‘Why Karl Barth?’ Guretzki gives two reasons in addition, of course, to his reputation and stature which requires anyone who wants to be theologically informed to come to grips with his theology (8). First, says the author, Barth is thoroughly Christ-centred, and second, he is thoroughly biblical (9). As such he is also ‘spiritually valuable’ (14). Guretzki is convinced that Barth’s theology ‘will persist not because he got it all right…but because it so consistently recenters our search for God in God’s own search for us in the person of Jesus Christ whom we follow in life and in death’ (41).

After a brief second chapter which provides a thumbnail sketch of Barth’s life and career, the third chapter addresses a list of seventeen very practical ‘frequently asked questions’ about Barth’s life, theology and work arising from many years of teaching students. The fourth and fifth chapters are the longest in the book, comprising almost 100 pages. Chapter four is an excellent, well-nuanced and judicious ‘Glossary of Concepts and People’ explaining twenty-four entries, which new readers of Barth will find very helpful. Many of the entries are focussed on methodological moves made by Barth (e.g. analogy, correspondence, dialectic, Historie and Geschichte, etc.), although some also explain material concerns. Of the many terms which could have been included, Guretzki has chosen those that he judges are used by Barth in a distinctive way (47). The final chapter of Part One suggests ten readings that novices might engage from Barth’s career prior to his work on the Church Dogmatics. In fact Guretzki laments that ‘so many are unfamiliar with the riches of Barth’s earlier works, many of which are often, in my opinion, far more interesting to read’ (93f.). I imagine that Guretzki has in mind the explosive rhetoric and fertile creativity that marks Barth’s formative theological work. In any case it is refreshing to see new readers being encouraged to ‘explore’ these early works. The chapter concludes with a brief ‘detour’ which accentuates the volume of Barth’s exegetical work outside the Church Dogmatics, and what one might expect from this biblical work.

The four chapters of Part Two serve as an orientation for new readers to the Church Dogmatics. Chapter six is a primer explaining the structures and features of Barth’s magnum opus, while chapter seven is called a ‘User’s Guide’ to the work. Here Guretzki argues that ‘the CD is read aright when used as a theological tool, not necessarily as an artifact to be viewed in and of itself’ (159). Guretzki introduces the reader to the Index, discusses preaching and the Church Dogmatics, and gives tips for starting and leading a Barth Reading Group, or writing a research paper on some aspect of Barth’s theology. The eighth chapter provides a very brief overview of the content of each part volume of the Dogmatics, together with a suggested reading plan for each part volume which is particularly helpful. The reading plan is divided into three categories for those who want to ‘sample’ Barth’s work, ‘study’ Barth’s work, or undertake a more ‘scholarly’ engagement with it. Those who follow the plan as a ‘sampler’ will end up reading about 10% of the Dogmatics, those who ‘study’ about 20%, and those engaging as ‘scholars’ about 33% of the whole work. The final chapter provides some suggested resources for further engagements with Barth scholarship and aids.

This is a very useful book for students and readers new to Barth’s theology. In my estimation Guretzki has succeeded in his task of preparing a guidebook which alerts the newcomer concerning the adventure to be had, things to look for, and pitfalls to avoid. I especially appreciated some of the excellent advice he gave along the way, such as the warning against relying too heavily on a single passage or volume when interpreting some aspect of Barth’s theology. He rightly notes that many errors of interpretation have been made in Barth studies because readers have read only part of what Barth has said on a particular topic, and not weighed what he has said on the same topic in other places (71). And he is clear that reading a guidebook about something is utterly different from experiencing the real thing. Guretzki has not written a book that will make reading Barth himself unnecessary, but a book that will help them read Barth for themselves, and equip them to understand his work more carefully as they do so, whether or not they finally agree with his proposals.

Galli, Karl Barth for Evangelicals (Review)

Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals 
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Pp. xvi + 176. 
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6939-5

Mark Galli entitles his recent book on Karl Barth an ‘introductory biography for evangelicals.’ As a biography it is a faithful though simplified rendering of the broader and deeper story found in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976), upon which it draws heavily. With respect to his intended audience, Galli is writing specifically for evangelical Christians, not as a Barth specialist, but as an appreciative student and fellow-traveller.

Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has written his book to reintroduce Karl Barth to evangelicals for two reasons. First, initial evangelical introductions to Barth’s theology ‘got him wrong’ (6) with the result that a deep distrust developed among (especially North American) evangelicals so that even today his work is often ignored or dismissed by them (2). Nonetheless, the reception of Barth among evangelical theologians is now changing and it is only a matter of time, Galli suggests, before Barthian theology, ‘however chastened and revised, will make its way down into the pulpit and pews of evangelical churches’ (9). Second, and as a corollary to this, Galli believes that Barth’s insights have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism as they consider afresh what it means to proclaim the gospel and to ‘bear the cost of discipleship in these trying times’ (12).

After the introduction and first chapter provide the rationale for the book, Galli devotes nine chapters to a brief recounting of Barth’s remarkable life from his youth to his retirement years, highlighting his ‘conversion’ from nineteenth-century Liberal theology, his Romans commentaries, his participation in the church’s struggle against Nazism, his political activity in a post-war divided Europe, and his ongoing work on the Church Dogmatics. He considers Barth’s attitude toward Russian communism (‘in retrospect Barth does seem naive on this issue’ (103)), and his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (‘it was clearly a case of emotional adultery’ (68)).[1] These chapters are supplemented by a further chapter on Barth as ‘preacher and pastor’ which also considers him as a family man, a person of prayer, and the struggles of his old age (‘he suffered from what we would today call depression’ (133)). This is a useful and very accessible biography for those new to Barth.

After the initial chapters of biography Galli has two chapters devoted to Church Dogmatics though in reality they address not the substance or structure of the work itself, but two theological issues of immediate concern to evangelicals: the question of Barth’s concept of the Word of God, especially as it relates to Scripture, and the question of universal reconciliation. In both cases Galli endeavours to provide a ‘larger understanding’ of Barth’s thought with regard to the issue, and with respect to Scripture concludes that ‘given this larger understanding, I don’t know that traditional evangelical theology has much to argue with’ (112). ‘Barth reminds us that Scripture is not something we preserve and manipulate, let alone protect, but the means by which the Word encounters us, preserves us, and, if you will, “manipulates” us—that is, shapes us into the beings we were created to be’ (115-116). Galli remains unsure as to whether Barth’s theology leads inexorably to universal reconciliation, and suggests that ‘insofar as Barth’s doctrines of election and justification move in the direction of universalism, of course, evangelicals rightly reject his views’ (121). Nevertheless he applauds Barth’s ‘fresh approach’ to long-standing theological conundrums, and ‘speaking personally, Barth has helped me talk about the gospel as unquestionable good news…[he] helps me as a teacher and preacher to proclaim good news that is really good news…with no ifs, ands, or buts. No quid pro quo. No qualifications’ (125-126).

In his final chapter ‘“Liberal” Evangelicalism,’ Galli returns to his rationale for writing the book only this time to argue that ‘today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a liberal and an evangelical’ (141). In a rhetorical flourish he even suggests that ‘Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism’ (144). Galli is clear that contemporary evangelicalism is not the equivalent of nineteenth-century liberalism, but is concerned at the extent it has assimilated much of its ethos, especially its emphasis on religious experience and Ritschlian moralism. For Galli, Karl Barth’s thorough-going battle against liberalism together with his clarion call to hear afresh the Word of God in Jesus Christ, will serve as a salutary summons to evangelicals. At stake, suggests Galli, is the very identity and mission of the church (145). The book concludes with an annotated bibliography useful for those new to Barth, and an index.

Galli notes that Barth ‘wrote his theology…as an attempt to think about Jesus Christ in the context of the challenges and problems of the day. He wanted to model a way of doing theology—grounded in the Bible—more than to champion a particular theology’ (137). If Galli succeeds in his attempt to reintroduce Barth to a new generation of evangelical Christians, students and pastors he will have rendered the movement a great service. While it is quite certain that evangelicals will continue to dispute with Barth over a range of issues, substantial engagement with his theology will assist them as they in their own way also think about Jesus Christ amidst the challenges and problems of the day. One hopes that this little book gains a wide readership amongst its intended audience.

[1] It is worth noting that Galli only became aware of the extent of the relationship and Barth’s justification of it, shortly after the publication of his book. See his comment and reflection at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (15)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:134-138, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism (#2).

The strength of the supralapsarian position is that the divine decree of election stands at the head of all God’s works, in contrast to the infralapsarian doctrine in which the decree of election is subsumed as it were under the doctrine of providence, following the decree of creation and fall. This view has the effect of placing salvation behind or beneath creation, distinguishing two distinct orders in the divine work. Nevertheless, the infralapsarian position has two advantages. First, the harshness of the supralapsarian position is mitigated somewhat since God elects those who are already and actually fallen; God has not brought humanity into the world in order to fall and so to be damned. Second, this helps avoid the supralapsarian difficulty of making God responsible for the fall and for evil.

The Supralapsarians so exalted the sovereignty of God above everything else that they did not sufficiently appreciate the danger of trying to solve the problem of evil and to rationalise the irrational by making it a constituent element in the divine world-order and therefore a necessity, a part of nature (138).

Nevertheless, each side is also deficient in some way. As already hinted, the supralapsarian view presents a particularly harsh view of the electing God—“the Supralapsarian God threatens to take on the appearance of a demon” (140). Their error was not their desire to “know” more than could be known, but in seeking to know in the wrong place (135). Barth also finds another problem: by making self-glorification the centre and measure of all things, supralapsarianism could and did prepare for a corresponding movement in which human concerns became the centre and measure of all things (137). The direct link between the divine sovereignty and the individual exacerbated this tendency. There is, no doubt, some degree of irony here, that the emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God should issue instead in an emphasis on the absolute centrality of the human. Barth sees this development occurring early in Reformed theology: “What vistas open up and what extremes meet at this point! Is it an accident that A. Heidanus, and even so pronounced a disciple of Coccejus as his son-in-law F. Burmann, were at one and the same time Supralapsarians—and also Cartesians?” (137).

But the weakness of infralapsarianism is even more concerning. First, although their arguments against supralapsarianism “sound well enough, … they are not the arguments of faith” (135). Their objections are “logico-empirical,” applying to God standards taken from the order of human reason (135-136).

But the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ and of the Church is not played out within the framework of a prior and already preceding history of nature and the universe. That is not the picture of the world and history as it is given us in the Bible. According to the Bible, the framework and basis of all temporal occurrence is the history of the covenant between God and man. … It is within this framework that the whole history of nature and the universe plays its specific role, and not the reverse, although logically and empirically the course of things ought to have been the reverse. At this point the Supralapsarians had the courage to draw from the biblical picture of the universe and history the logical deduction in respect of the eternal divine decree. The Infralapsarians did maintain the sequence of the biblical picture in respect of the realisation of salvation, but they shrank from the deduction. In respect of the eternal divine decree they maintained a supposedly more rational order, isolating the two dispensations and subordinating the order of predestination to that of providence. … It was inevitable, then, that the Infralapsarian construction could at least help towards the later cleavage between natural and revealed theology. It is that which (within the framework of the common presuppositions) makes it appear the less happy of the two (136).

This long citation reveals a crucial element of Barth’s hermeneutics and theological method. Although scripture begins with the story of creation and fall and then moves onto the story of redemption commencing with the account of Abraham and the covenant established with him, Barth insists that in fact, the proper understanding of the divine work is the reverse: the covenant of God with humanity precedes the creation as that covenant established in the person of Jesus Christ in the eternal divine self-determination in the decision of election. By prioritising creation and fall above redemption the Infralapsarians did manage, as already noted, to remove from God the responsibility of sin and evil. Nevertheless a danger lurked here as well:

According to the Supralapsarian opinion man was nothing more than the elect or reprobate in whose whole existence there was only the one prospect of the fulfilment of a course already mapped out either one way or the other. But the Infralapsarians knew of another secret of God side by side with the decree of predestination. Theoretically at least, then, they knew of another secret of man apart from the fact that he is either elect or reprobate. For them man was also (and indeed primarily) the creature of God, and as such responsible to God. This view involved a softening in the understanding of God which is both dangerous and doubtful (137).

Thus in his exposition of this theological dispute, Barth finds something to commend on both sides, as well as something to critique. The Supralapsarians rightly emphasise the divine sovereignty and grace but open the possibility of making God responsible for sin and evil, and indeed the whole order of creation being a monstrous economy intending the fall and damnation of multitudes. The Infralapsarians rightly retreat from this position by interposing the decrees of creation and fall in advance of the decree of election though this has the disadvantage of separating the orders of creation and redemption. Interestingly, Barth finds that both sides opened a theoretical possibility which later became actual, of an anthropocentric turn in theology in which humanity became the centre and concern of theology.