Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part one

[This is the first of a two-part post—the second part, posted 1/13/11 is here.]

It seems that everywhere I turn in my theological life, I see Karl Barth. I’m not quite old enough to remember when the great Swiss Protestant theologian died (December 10, 1968, the same day as Thomas Merton). That is, I was alive and sentient in 1968, but as a 14-year old I just didn’t have any contact at all with theology.

Since I discovered theology in the mid-1970s, though, Barth has loomed large. And in the past 35 years his presence seems only to have grown. In recent years, especially, I have friends and acquaintances, even relatives, by the dozen it seems, who are enamored with the thinker many would argue was the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century. I guess if Barth truly were the greatest, it would not  be surprising that many would be enamored with his theology!

I can’t say I ever drank deeply from the wells of Barth. However, unlike some of my other theological friends, I have not reacted negatively to what I have read of his or learned about his thought either. In fact, I have for the past 35 years wanted to read more Barth and learn more about his thought because he has always seemed interesting—at times due to who was critiquing him, at times due to who was praising him. But I haven’t quite taken the plunge and really sat down with Barth.

Just recently, for several reasons, I am realizing that if I am going to try to come to terms with Karl Barth’s theology I had better get going. Probably the strongest catalyst for this realization has been my awareness of the attraction many Mennonite thinkers have for Barth. So, that leads to wanting to try to answer the question I ask in the title of this post: “Is Karl Barth good for Mennonites?”

I can’t answer this question yet, obviously. I ask it, though, with some sense of doubt about Barth. I suspect that the answer to my question will be negative. But quite a bit of what I know about Barth’s theology seems attractive to me. I do have respect for some of these Mennonite “Barthians.” And I am committed not to draw conclusions without being as well informed as possible. Therefore, I intend to approach my investigation into Barth’s theology with an open mind. Maybe (hopefully, even; I have no reason not to want Barth to be good for Mennonites) I’ll end up answering my question with a “yes.”

So, for some months I have thought about finding ways to address my question, thinking even of trying to organize a theology conference, and hoping that some day I would find a chunk of time to read Barth. I don’t really enjoy organizing conferences, so I’m not anticipating such an event actually happening. But I was prodded to take the leap into reading Barth when I discovered the people at Reading Through Church Dogmatics who have made a commitment to read through the entire fourteen volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics over a two-year period beginning January 3, 2011. They will read fifteen pages a day (except Sunday) and are starting out with a lively blog on what they are discovering.

I decided what the heck, this might be the catalyst I need and the idea of reading fifteen pages a day does not seem onerous. The key, of course, is doing it every day. And I already am a bit behind. But I am going to try. I dusted off my copy of Church Dogmatics, Volume I, Part 1, that I inherited from my office neighbor Ray Gingerich (not a fan of Barth!) when he retired. I started reading and hope to blog a bit myself as I go along. I’ve already found myself (pleasantly!) surprised by some of Barth’s thoughts. More about that when I find time to blog about the reading and my responses and questions.

My first encounter with Barth came in the mid-1970s. I went off to college in 1972 as a newly converted Christian, shaped decisively by the fundamentalist Baptist church I had joined—with a strong dose of Jesus-will-rapture-us-any-second prophecy belief and a great fearfulness of the liberal college crowd that would try to steal away my faith. By the summer of 1975, now attending the University of Oregon, my natural desire truly to understand had begun to prepare me to move out from under the fundamentalist umbrella. But it would take some mediating influences to get me moving.

I began attending a quite evangelical house church in Eugene, Oregon. It seemed theologically safe, but it did have as members numerous young people who were willing to be a bit adventurous in their intellectual pursuits. Well, if you could call Francis Schaeffer, the American living in Switzerland who was gaining fame as “the evangelist to intellectuals,” adventurous. Today, I see that Schaeffer himself still functioned within the fundamentalist circle of faith, but he was at least willing to affirm the necessity of young people asking honest questions. The key was that Schaeffer was Reformed, not Baptist, and so (actually, rather arrogantly) believed in the intellectual viability of his evangelical faith. He had the impact for many of opening the door to intellectual endeavor as an expression of one’s faith (not, as I had been implicitly taught in my old church, intellectual endeavor as a direct threat to one’s faith).

So, Schaeffer helped me a great deal and was a key influence in delivering me from the intellectual fearfulness of my fundamentalism. Interestingly, though, one of Schaeffer’s theological bugbears was Karl Barth. I never truly understood why Schaeffer was so hostile toward Barth’s theology since as soon as I learned more about the 20th century theological scene, I realized that Karl Barth was seen as being quite conservative (and like Schaeffer was Reformed and profoundly influenced by John Calvin). However, clearly one factor was that Barth accepted the use of biblical criticism. Schaeffer was a hopeless inerrantist who played a key role in the politicizing of the “Battle for the Bible.”

I did learn only recently about the one direct personal encounter that Schaeffer had with Barth. The American evangelist was curious about his new Swiss neighbor who was gaining renown as an advocate for Christian orthodoxy within the modernistic realm of European theology. To say the least, when Schaeffer actually talked with Barth, he was not impressed. And the feeling was mutual! Schaeffer’s biographer (in a generally laudatory treatment of his subject) indicates that it is highly likely that Schaeffer did not actually read Barth’s writings but based his condemnation of Barth on hearsay and probably on his negative personal interaction. In any case, Schaeffer warned the readers of his popular books that Barth, though operating with the self-designation as a Christian theologian, actually operated below “the line of despair.” Schaeffer insisted that Barth’s “solution” to the spiritual needs of modern humanity were worse than unhelpful because they could fool people into thinking they were actually moving toward God when in fact they were not.

At first, of course, I accepted Schaeffer’s judgment that Barth was a sub-Christian theologian, just another among the all-too large list of modernist theological wolves preying on unsuspecting sincere believers. However, my own affirmation of Schaeffer’s project could not withstand the scrutiny I gave his book and film, “How Should We Then Live?”, when I co-taught it to a group of college students in the Spring of 1977. When I set Schaeffer aside, I also set aside his negative judgment of Barth.

About this same time, I began to get more positive impressions of Barth. In the summer of 1976, I discovered the writing of John Howard Yoder, who remains my most important theological mentor. I soon learned that Yoder had actually studied with Barth, receiving his doctorate from Barth’s University of Basel (though Barth was not Yoder’s supervisor). Yoder wrote a complementary, though also critical, book on Barth—Karl Barth and the Problem of War.

I learned more about Barth’s extraordinary witness against the Nazis that led to losing his teaching job and his deportation from Germany in the 1930s. Sojourners magazine, which I devoured fervently in those days, had a special issue commemorating Barth’s and Thomas Merton’s witness on the anniversary of their deaths. I bought Barth’s book of sermons, Deliverance to the Captives, and then discovered in the library old copies of a couple of other collections of his sermons. My wife Kathleen and I read the sermons out loud to each other with enjoyment and took to calling Barth, “Father Karl.” I read several other of Barth’s smaller book and then his Letters: 1961-1968, which I found fascinating. I deeply appreciated Barth’s unwillingness to buy into the Cold War mentality of too many of his Western colleagues.

Now, I can’t really remember why at that point I didn’t go further into Barth’s thought. I suspect one factor might have been trying to read his commentary of Romans and finding it very off-putting. I didn’t know enough about the precise historical context for that book and so wasn’t able to appreciate the role it played in shaking up European theology at the time. However, accurately or not, I judged that this “commentary” had precious little to offer in the present for those who wish to understand Romans. I found it interesting that several commentaries I read when I studied Romans at seminary mentioned Barth’s book prominently in their introduction as evidence of the power of Paul’s letter—but then in the commentary itself drew nothing from what Barth had had to say.

When I went on to doctoral work, I focused on ethics, not theology. That may have also had quite a bit to do with my loss of interest in Barth. I do remember, though, at the time reading with appreciation a new book by one of the profs at my school, Bernard Ramm, that posed Barth’s theology as the ideal resource for evangelicals who wanted to develop theology appropriate for engagement in the contemporary world.

After quite a few years where my interest in Barth lay dormant, more recently I keep bumping into Barthians in my Mennonite circles. These range from a couple of my brightest undergraduate students (one especially, Dan Umble, when on to seminary right after college and stayed in touch—effusing about how much he was learning by reading Barth and that he thought I would like Barth a lot too), to colleagues here at Eastern Mennonite University (in the recent Mennonite Quarterly Review devoted to Stanley Hauerwas, two EMU colleagues, Peter Dula and Mark Thiessen Nation, wrote back to back articles each drawing heavily on Barth), and beyond.

This past October, I took a trip to the Midwest. In Elkhart, IN, Kathleen and I had coffee with a bright young Mennonite grad student, Andy Alexis-Baker, one of the leading lights in the great Christian Anarchist website Jesus Radicals. Andy’s big into Barth and has a powerful and strongly pro-Barth article coming out soon in the prestigious Scottish Journal of Theology. I received a big surprise the next day in Bluffton, OH. My old friend and a terrific writer on Anabaptism, Gerald Mast, told me he would be giving the C. Henry Smith Peace Lectures, Spring 2011, on, of all things, Karl Barth (again, as a friend not opponent). Another younger friend and leading Mennonite theological voice, Alain Epp Weaver, also has been quite a Barth advocate.

Why would I even question whether Barth is good for Mennonites? I am running past my allotted time (and space!) for this entry, so I think I will wait to delve more into this question next week. Just for now, I will mention the concern I raised in a discussion with theologian Craig Carter about the relationship between Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder (read it here). The big contrast I see is that Barth’s ethics are highly abstract in comparison to Yoder’s. Related to this is my sense that Barth’s theology tends toward the big problem I see with most theology in the mainstream—an emphasis on theology focusing on theology as its main content, not actual life (an essay I wrote on this theme, though not mentioning Barth, is here).

In both these concerns—ethics as too abstract and theology as too concerned with other theology—I suspect that Barth works more within the mainstream and hence misses core biblical emphases. This suspicion actually is the main thing, now that I have gotten this far in my reflections, that drives my desire actually to read the Church Dogmatics for myself.

More on all this next week….

8 thoughts on “Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part one

  1. Interesting. Whatever you do, do not interpret Barth through the lens of Craig Carter. As you know, he has went off the deep end on pretty much everything.

    You will have issues with III/4 when it comes to war as all of us pacifists do. But Barth is so much better on this stuff than others. I really like that in that same volume he comes as near to vegetarianism as I have seen any theologian of his caliber ever take. In fact, he argues so strongly for vegetarianism, I would be surprised if he were not vegetarian (living and thinking sometimes conflict though).

    If you won’t have a heavy dose of Latin and Greek, you might try the newly published volumes that translate that stuff. Even for those of us who can read it, it gets old sometimes having to slog through it. Barth was unsympathetic to complaints even in his own day about the languages and the length though, saying that “those who don’t work, don’t eat.”

  2. Thanks, Andy. I think, though, as a creedalist Yoderian Barthian you would affirm most of what Carter said (pre-“deep end”) about the relationship between Barth and Yoder! Maybe you’re heading for the same “deep end”? (joke alert)

    One of the big questions for me is precisely related to the “issues with III/4 when it comes to war.” I haven’t read that yet (though I’ve read Yoder’s Barth and war book). How much common ground can there be between a pacifist and a non-pacifist on core theological convictions? Thinking about this question is one of the main reasons I want to read Barth—precisely because he is, admittedly, “so much better on this stuff than others.”

  3. Thanks, Ted; I’m looking forward to tracking your resumed walk with Barth. I’ll be wading more deeply into Yoder and Hauerwas with MTN this spring, and I’ve had Yoder’s little book on Barth/War on my shelf collecting dust to this point. So perhaps I’ll absorb Barth through my Anabaptist teachers first and then one fine day take the plunge.

    Your suspicion that Bart is too abstract is one that I would likely share. A more narrative, biblical, and concrete approach is certainly one that I take (and admire about folks like McClendon).

  4. Hi Ted,

    You certainly come with a lot of preconceptions and suspicions.

    A question: have you read the section in I/1 yet where Barth talks about the importance of heresy for evangelical faith? I think it is just fabulous actually. He claims that faith stands in conflict with itself first and foremost, not with unbelief. Heresy is what is of first importance therefore (32). Heresy is Christian, at least formally, because it relates to Jesus, the church, baptism, Scripture, creeds, etc. early and medieval Christians wee primarily concerned with heresy, not conflict with Jews and pagans. There is a struggle, strife and conflict, this is how Barth describes it. Heresy is so different that we have to ask whether it is not really a form of unbelief (33), this is what makes the conflict so serious. But the mere fact of conversation means they have something in common (33). That fact means the church has to treat heresy as belief and not unbelief, as the possibility of faith. It is a conflict within the church.

    Roman Catholicism and Protestant Modernism are the two heresies Barth opposes to “evangelical faith” (34), and asks whether they be regarded as heathens and publicans? The question is not settled, Barth claims. Regardless, these heresies force evangelical faith to come to terms with itself. Later he will say that the base problem with catholicism is that it looks around at the world and from their makes analogy to God, thus making God in the image of the world. Protestant modernism, as he calls it in I/1, does similar things. They do not start with the Bible or church practices, they start with something else. (This is the analogia entis issue).

    He expounds on this idea again and again in CD. He takes other Christians very, very seriously.

    Is your problem with the very idea that there might be such a things as heresy? Would you deny that there is such a thing? What about Barth’s explication of what heresy is (faith, but distorted, and important for clarification) bothers you?

    1. I appreciate your thoughts Andy, and I hope you keep them coming.

      Of course I have “a lot of preconceptions and suspicions.” Don’t we all? How could we be human otherwise? I think the question is whether those “preconceptions” serve our learning or hinder it.

      What I’m especially interested in is how you respond to my spelling out my Anabaptist framework. What is problematic (if anything) with those particular preconceptions? Aren’t they the kinds of convictions that Barth should be tested against?

      I appreciate your comments about Barth and heresy. I have read the section in I.1 of which you write but haven’t really processed it yet. I hope to do that soon (like this coming week) when I get to blog on what I have read.

      To me, one of the big issues is that I think there is a big difference between “heresy” and “error” (and I think any anarchist should be especially aware of this difference). I need to figure better what Barth himself precisely means by “heresy.”

      I myself cannot think of “heresy” without thinking of central (human) authority that takes it upon itself to define and enforce institutional boundary lines—work that cannot help but be coercive and tends to make human theological constructs (with political ramifications) into tools for domination.

      “Error,” on the other hand, is about an argument or conversation in which one witnesses (without arms) to the truth as one has received it.

      There are definitely such things as “error”—we do have revealed truths and then we have convictions and actions that contradict those truths. So I am far from a relativist.

      However, as a pacifist (and at least quasi-anarchist) I would say that the use of coercion which seems inherent in the naming and enforcing of “heresy” is itself an error.

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