Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part two

[This is the second of a two-part post—the first part, posted 1/9/11 is here.]

In raising the question, “is Karl Barth good for Mennonites?”, I am trying to be a little playful. I have several friends, as I have mentioned, who are clearly fine Mennonites and also quite favorably inclined towards Karl Barth’s theology. So, in a genuine sense, this question has been answered in the affirmative already.

And there is also a genuine sense in which I am one of the last people who has any business saying who or what is “good for Mennonites.” I retain several important affiliations with Mennonite institutions (church member, ordained minister, college professor), but I have never been in a position to serve as any kind of gate-keeper or boundary definer. I am sure I am further from playing any such role all the time.

However, I do have a serious intent in raising the question. Perhaps if I switch to the less institutionally or ethnically linked term “Anabaptist” I can better get at my interests in writing about Karl Barth. Part of my question is what kind of theology should present-day Anabaptists be trying to articulate (on this question, I have actually written a couple of books and posted several essays [here and here] at my Peace Theology website). And the question after that is how positive a contribution would paying close attention to Karl Barth’s theology make to said articulation.

As I mentioned in my first post, I ask this question about Barth and our theology with genuine sincerity. I have numerous reasons (touched on in that post) for being favorably inclined toward Barth as a theologian and as a human being. But I also have some questions. And so I intend to read the entire Church Dogmatics over the next two years and grapple with my questions about Barth’s thought.

As I get started on this project, let me briefly speak to at least several of the questions I have.

(1) The first question is about theology in general more than about Barth per se. How do we best think of the modifier “Anabaptist” when we think of Anabaptist theology? [Another kind of question is how “Anabaptist” Mennonite theology should be—I’ll leave that one for another time.] Just for the sake of moving on in this post, I will simply state my opinion without defending it (see some of the above mentioned writings for more support for this opinion).

I think Anabaptist theology should be theology that places the gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and teaching especially, at the center of all theological reflection. This story, as interpreted and applied by Anabaptists, points clearly toward pacifism as a way of life and anchor for faith convictions. It also points toward a social-political stance that will likely get its adherent into some kind of trouble or at least create tensions in relation to one’s wider society (e.g., peace vs. warfare, compassion vs. retribution, mutual aid vs. an economics of consumption).

Because of its valuing of the Jesus story, Anabaptist theology will give central place to the Bible in its theology—and read the Bible in light of Jesus and all post-biblical theological construction in light of Jesus. Consequently, the Old Testament and Paul’s writings are read in light of the message of Jesus and seen as in a genuine sense subordinate to that message at points of tension. Post-biblical theological constructions (e.g., creeds, confessions, traditions) are likewise read in light of the message of Jesus and seen as in a genuine sense subordinate to that message at points of tension.

As a consequence of these moves, Anabaptist theology will be practical much more than speculative, concrete much more than abstract, engaged and ethical much more than dogmatic and doctrine-oriented.

All this then leads to the big question: How does Anabaptist theology then relate to other types of Christian theology? Anabaptist theology need not a priori exclude other streams of theological thought. The fact that Karl Barth was not Anabaptist but rather a member in good standing in the state church (Reformed) of Switzerland does not by definition place him outside the pale of legitimate theology for Anabaptists. It is altogether possible that an Anabaptist could learn a lot from Barth.

Nonetheless, Anabaptist theology is not Reformed theology. Most obviously, Reformed theology is not pacifist. Reformed theology does not approach theology in relation to the story of Jesus in the same way as Anabaptists do. I think these things are simply descriptively true. So, Anabaptists—to the extent they agree that Anabaptist theology is distinctive—should be approaching Barth (or any other non-Anabaptist theologian) with sensitivities about the differences even as they recognize that they have much to learn from these other traditions.

This is to say, just as Anabaptists seek to read the rest of the Bible in light of the story of Jesus and just as Anabaptists seek to read post-biblical creeds and confessions in light of the story of Jesus, so Anabaptists should be committed to seeking to read Karl Barth (or any other non-Anabaptist theologian) in light of the story of Jesus. Of course, Anabaptists should read other Anabaptist theologians and Anabaptist-related confessions of faith in light of the story of Jesus as well.

I am suggesting, with regard to this question about the modifier “Anabaptist,” that Anabaptist theology should be done with a constant and rigorous self-awareness of the story of Jesus at all times, in relation to all theological themes, and with regard to all practical applications of theological reflection.

(2) A question that follows closely then is the question about relationship in theological reflection between ethics and discipleship on the one hand and more formal doctrinal formulations (“dogmatics”) on the other hand. Barth is generally recognized to be a theologian in the canon of recognized “important” theologians (i.e., those studied in graduate schools) who does care about ethics. He famously referred to doing theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. At the same time, the thousands of pages the make up his Church Dogmatics are mostly concerned with ideas and doctrines and church practices (such as preaching and the sacraments), not direct reflection on social ethics.

So, how significant is this focus in Barth’s theology? We can recognize that for many theologians (broadly defined), the term “theology” itself by definition means reflection on post-biblical doctrines, the creeds of official church bodies, and the religious practices that happen only in the institutional church. But shouldn’t an Anabaptist reject such a narrow definition of theology? Doesn’t the biblical tradition—from Moses down to Paul, and most paradigmatically including Jesus—present theology as self-awareness about God’s message for all of life in concrete, social, political reality?

We have good reason to be highly suspicious of theology that marginalizes ethics and focuses on abstract doctrines. Such theology has coexisted with horrific social injustices for hundreds of years. How powerfully does such suspicion weaken the value Anabaptists might be able to gain from Barth’s theology? How fundamental to his theological program are Barth’s (well-known and admirable) ethical commitments (e.g., his antipathy toward war-supporting nationalism, his utter rejection of Nazism, his critical stance toward both sides of the Cold War)? While we should admire Barth’s politics, how intrinsically connected are those politics and his theology?

There seems little argument that Barth’s Dogmatics mines to an awe-inspiring depth the Christian tradition’s “formal doctrinal formulations.” The big question for the Anabaptist, it seems to me, is whether this mining is mainly an end in itself or does it actually serve faithful living?

(3) The next question also follows closely from the first two. What about the relationship between “dogmatics” and the Bible? Where and how does the biblical story enter into doctrinal formulation? Do we need to construct some kind of intellectual framework before we engage the Bible to provide our tools for proper application of biblical materials to our doctrines? Or, rather, do we actually find all we need in the stories themselves?

For Anabaptists, a commitment to Jesus has epistemological significance—we know what we know because we from the beginning seek to follow Jesus’ way. That is, for Anabaptists, engagement in the biblical story of God’s healing work in a broken world provides the starting point for theological reflection.

For the canonical theologians, generally the biblical story of this healing work in conflict with historical injustices is not the starting point (though, for an exception, see the Catholic theologian Hans Küng’s famous book, On Being a Christian). Barth is justly famous as a remarkably exegetically engaged dogmatician. But what is the formal role of the biblical story for his method? He begins Church Dogmatics with a highly detailed treatment of revelation and “the Word of God.” But how much of this is “talking about the Bible,” developing a doctrine of Scripture, and how much of it is based on direct engagement not only with isolated verses but with the overall message of the Bible? And what difference does this make in his theology?

(4) The issue of pacifism stands at the center of Anabaptist theology. How much does it matter that Barth was not a pacifist—and in fact (to his credit he does directly engage the issue) explicitly rejects pacifism? For Anabaptist theology, the commitment to pacifism shapes all other commitments. Can a non-pacifist have an adequate understanding of Jesus? And behind the understanding of Jesus, of the character of God? Not to mention of human nature and possibilities? Or of sin? It seems that on each of these issue (and seemingly just about every other imaginable theological issue) a pacifist commitment will affect how one understands it.

Certainly, the non-pacifist theologian should not be put in a box by the pacifist. We should look at the discussion of each issue on its own merits. But doesn’t the Anabaptist at least owe a fairly high level of critical sensitivity to any discussion of the meaning of Jesus that is not linked with a conviction that Jesus’ life and teaching are pacifist and normative (this is the argument of John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus in a nutshell)?

(5) Barth called his magnum opus Church Dogmatics. This title itself challenges the reader to pay careful attention to what Barth means by “Church.” Certainly historically—and I would argue still today—ecclesiology has been a crucial dividing line between Anabaptist theology and other theologies (not to mention in many contexts literally a life and death issue). How compatible is Barth’s understand of the church with an Anabaptist understanding of the church?

I have to begin with a suspicion of Barth’s ecclesiology, of his comfortable use of the term “heresy,” of his commitment to his Reformed tradition of state churches, of the centrality he places on official structures and teachings in defining what “Church” is. Barth famously expressed criticisms and pushes the boundary lines (at the very end, he argues for believers baptism). But still, he operates throughout his long career in a very different ecclesiological context than Anabaptists.

Given how central “Church” is for Barth’s entire project, shouldn’t Anabaptists be asking some very critical questions of that entire project given how different our understanding of “church” is?

I have only mentioned some of the questions I have. I think reading Barth will be very good for me, and if I can make progress on resolving these questions I will be delighted. I think the most interesting and important of the questions for me has to do with the nature of theology and the relationship between theology and social ethics at their core.

6 thoughts on “Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part two

  1. Hi Ted

    As far as his ecclesiology is concerned, by 1947 Barth could be easily described as a credo-baptist with a non-established congregational view of church order. This from a lecture to the WCC. See his book, ‘God Here and Now’. He also saw Bonhoeffer’s ‘Discipleship’ as a definitive statement of Christian discipleship, one he wanted to include verbatim in the relevant parts of CD 4.

  2. Barth wrote so much over so many years that we read what we want. The Reformed position is that the Church exists where Scripture is rightly interpreted and the sacraments are rightly administered. Most of Dogmatics follows this pattern. However, at the opening of the WCC in 1948, Barth defined the Church as “The living body of the living Lord Jesus Christ.” The latter fits our view of the Church as a gathered community led by the Holy Spirit. Anabaptists affirm transubstantiation in the believer.

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