Soli Deo Gloria: For the Glory of God Alone
Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2010 9:03 pm
By R.B. TOLAR
Special to The Messenger
Swiss theologian Karl Barth has been called the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th Century. The nature of that influence, however, has been fiercely debated, both during his lifetime and since his death in 1968.
Born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1886, he attended seminary in Tubingen, Germany, the center of liberal Protestant thought and teaching in 19th century Europe. Upon graduation in 1911, he returned to Switzerland where he served as pastor in the village of Safenwil for 10 years.
Oddly enough, it was during this period that Barth claims to have begun to study the Bible seriously and in depth for the first time in his life.
As a result of serious reflection upon scripture, he rejected the humanistic teachings of his liberal professors, much of which had been influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher and the German Higher Critics who questioned the validity of the Bible as the inspired Word of God.
European religious thought in the 19th century was dominated by the writings of Schleiermacher, who formulated his thinking in reaction to Enlightenment rationalist rejection of scripture.
Heavily influenced by the literature of the Romantic period, Schleiermacher espoused a “theology of feeling” wherein one’s emotional life took precedence in one’s experience of God.
Barth rebelled against these ideas and against the social gospel of the day which led the vast majority of pastors and professors in Germany to espouse Kaiser Wilhelm’s prosecution of the First World War. This rebellion, fueled by his expanding knowledge of scripture, led him to Reformed theology and the Doctrines of Grace.
Barth’s commentary “The Epistle to the Romans” appeared in 1919 and established him (at the age of 33) as a theologian of note in Europe. His attempted rehabilitation of Reformed doctrine through a more positive re-evaluation of its tenets led opponents on either end of the theological spectrum to label his views “neo-orthodoxy.”
Looking at the Calvinist doctrines of election and reprobation, he argued that to speak of God as having chosen some (and passed others by) from all eternity makes something other than Christ (e.g. God’s choosing) the center and focus of salvation.
In similar fashion, Barth contended that to place undue stress upon the Bible as being God’s revealed Word (and thus inerrant) downplayed the overriding importance of Christ as The Word, as set forth in the first chapter of John’s gospel.
In his earnest desire to re-establish the Reformed doctrine of Christ that Higher Criticism had set aside, Barth gave short shrift to Reformed teaching on covenantal theology in his thinking and writing.
Scripture teaches that God the Son covenanted with God the Father to place himself as atoning sacrifice in man’s stead, with God the Holy Spirit to draw men to the salvation freely offered by God’s grace (see Psalm 110 in particular, as well as John 6:25-70 and others) .
Barth instead presented the man Jesus as the ultimate elect and the ultimate reprobate (apparently representing all men), and thus opened himself to charges of presenting a soft brand of universalism. He never answered or denied these accusations.
Karl Barth was a prolific writer, and “Church Dogmatics,” his lifelong work-in-progress which remained unfinished at his death, is still used in many seminaries.
While his style lacks conciseness, Barth may still be read with profit … if he is read with caution and with the Bible close at hand.
Editor’s note: R.B. Tolar, saved by God’s grace alone is grateful for the opportunity to participate in this writing ministry (www.graceunioncity.com).
Published in The Messenger 7.29.10