Why I Love Karl Barth
I regularly get asked why I am infatuated with Karl Barth. The man is notorious for rejecting the inerrency of Scripture and paedobaptism. Leaving the largely unanswerable question about universalism aside, these are reason enough for most conservative Reformed individuals to toss him into the "do not read" pile. So let me attempt a couple answers.
The main one is that chronologically, the man was oriented towards conservative orthodoxy. For instance, he started as a rationalist inspired, socialist driven country preacher. Barth himself recognized over time that what he was peddling had little power and force behind it. It lacked the power of God's word and he knew it. A slow movement begin where Barth developed his first big dichotomous theme — the word of God against the word of man. This brought him into great disagreement with the German liberalism that dominated his day and age. His heavily edited second edition of The Epistle to the Romans "dropped the bombshell" on German liberalism. His aggressive critiques of secularized historical criticism left him a man alone striving for Orthodoxy on the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and the infalliable authority of the Scripture. He was labeled "neo-orthodox" because he stood for historical Christianity. At the time it was a pejorative term used by liberals. Today, it is mostly used as a pejorative by conservatives. The irony is not lost on me.
The incredibly big second reason is his confessional adherence. This is not to say that Barth did not take issue with the confessions. Frankly, since we know that confessions are not infallible I am shocked more people don't respectfully air their grievances with the Reformed confessions. But that is neither here nor there. I know of very few Reformed authors who have been more shaped and guided by the confessions than Barth. This might be shocking at first but as Barth made his way back towards orthodox theology he did so on the back of the creeds and confessions. Despite vocalized concerns on the purpose of dogma in the church, Barth supported all of the "catholic creeds." He vigorously defended them. Similarly, one does not need to read much of his work to hear him quoting, almost obnoxiously, the works of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed Confessions. He was steeped in them. The man was historically minded about the history of the church at a time when everyone else was pursuing purely existential theology. While this is less true of his Church Dogmatics, it is a staple of his classroom lectures which are often less read.
Third would be his exegetical work. Barth took the Scriptures seriously. Though I have multiple places of general disagreement with his hermeneutical style, the man was an exegete first and foremost. It is what caused his reputation to soar and attracted many students to study under him (who eventually were less conservative than he). Many of his smaller, unread "books" are collections of lectures through a particular passage of Scripture. He has works on Luke 1, John 1, Philippians, Romans 5, and 1 Corinthians 15. With a few collections of sermons also in print, a reader can get a good feel for Barth's concern for understanding and applying the Scriptures. Which gets to the point of his inerrancy. He certainly would have never affirmed the inerrency of Scripture. It just did not fit with his doctrine of revelation. Explained briefly, Barth believed in Divine inerrant communication. His understanding of revelation would not permit him to assert an inerrant medium. Only Jesus Christ could be an inerrant medium because He was, in fact, Divine. So while Barth can say many affirming and exalting things about Scripture, He could not in good conscience put it on the level of Jesus Christ.
Despite this, Barth is not recorded as ever pointing to a text and saying it was in error (other than minor scribal stuff that he got from Calvin). Instead, he believed that God spoke infallibly through the Scriptures which were a genuine witness to Jesus Christ. Some of these passages Barth would read in unique dialectical ways as to avoid contradictions. But the point stands that Barth was not a raging modern liberal throwing out examples of errors on each and every page. He respected the testimony of Scripture to the degree that he gave it the benefit of the doubt over against historical criticism. Certainly not a marker of modern conservatism, Barth during his day was a jaw-droppingly "fundamentalist." Many modern Reformed thinkers have uncritically accepted Van Til's inaccurate accusations about Barth's orthodoxy. This is sad since it has been readily proven that Van Til misread Barth rather grotesquely. Nonetheless Van Til's treatment was not unique, because of Barth's commitment to orthodox theology and the authority of the Scripture the liberal community began to ignore him. This ultimately led to his increased interaction with Rome. They were more conservative and convinced about the authority of Scripture.
These defenses aside, His position on paedobaptism is a major flaw. He learned his final position from his son Markus Barth (whom our son Judah *Markus* is named). It is an error in his thinking. Barth's position was ultimately the "logical" conclusion of his own thought. At least that is what Barth thought.
At the risk of an absurd simplification, I believe the error occurred because Barth was too evangelical. I know of very few individuals who held to a more poignant paradigm of relationship/engagement with Jesus Christ on the individual level in order to experience salvation. This was rightly linked to his doctrine of revelation and faith. Understanding God as He is required knowing God as He is for us in Jesus Christ. Though baptism still remained a God-act for Barth, there was an essential element of response that Barth believed was found in a profession of faith. Barth's level of evangelicalism also makes him more attractive to baptistic thinkers.
I will close with some personal musing. The more I study Karl Barth and John Calvin as they addressed the Scripture, the more connections I see. I can understand people saying Barth was not Reformed due to his stance on baptism. But I feel compelled to say Barth was Calvinistic in the sense that he stood on Calvin's shoulders and moved forward.
Barth's undertaking of the hidden God is deeply rooted in Calvin's own thought. The major difference being Barth's link to Jesus Christ as the revealed God. In Jesus Christ, Barth saw an answer to every question about God concerning election and predestination. His complete doctrine of election is provocative. It takes more seriously the incarnation of the eternal Son more than any other Reformed author period. However, there are still major disagreements among readers of Barth on if his theology pulled him away from the Chalcedonian confession. I side with those that believe Barth remained orthodox. But the questions remain because of Barth's language. Funny enough, the same thing is said of Calvin by most Lutherans. It's all in the family.
I love Barth because he could do nothing but point to Jesus Christ. This theology encouraged the rightful gasping at the glory of God. There are many times when I can barely lift up my eyes to read the Scriptures. The pharisaical burdens of theology wear me down. Barth always reminds me that theology is supposed to be church talk about the glorified God as He is and not talk about some distant God as we think Him to be. True theology brings God near because God has brought us near in Jesus Christ. Barth taught me that.