Karl Barth is far too complex a thinker to quickly describe his theology. In an effort to be concise I am going to try and remain tied to his work Evangelical Theology. Of course, even in doing so I will not summarize everything.
Let me begin with a brief introduction to Evangelical Theology. The book is comprised of several lectures that he gave at the end of his academic career in Basel Switzerland. Some of these lectures were delivered also in the United States. As it is one of his later works it might seem to be a short summary of his earlier work. But Barth denies this instead claiming it as a short account “of what, up to now, I have basically sought, learned, and represented from among all the paths and detours in the field of evangelical theology during my five years as a student, twelve years as a preacher, and subsequent forty years as a professor.”
It has been proposed by some, most notably Hans Urs von Balthasar, that Barth left his dialectical theology behind by the time of the writing of Evangelical Theology and replaced it with a neo-Orthodoxy with a focus on analogy. Dialectical theology of course was a radical challenge to liberal theology of the early nineteenth-century, contained perhaps most famously in his Commentary on Romans. In this approach to theology the world stands in absolute contrast to God, emphasizing God’s sovereignty and his unconstrained choice in redemption through Jesus Christ. The neo-Orthodox strain held out more promise for greater continuity between God and creation and limited the jarring effects of ‘crisis’.
Now it is certainly true that many thinkers change over the course of their theological career but it seems to me, following commentators on Barth like George Hunsinger, that Barth remained a dialectical theologian even in his later career, and thus at the time of Evangelical Theology. His notion of dialectics can be felt in his understanding of the Word to which we now turn.
The Place of Theology: Word
After a short commentary section where Barth outlines, in modest form, some of the contours of evangelical thought, he begins the first of four sections on his approach to doing theology. The initial section refers to ‘the place of theology’. Here Barth refers to place not in terms of the physical location, as if one needed to be in the university for example or even the church, but rather to the object of theology itself.
This for Barth begins with a discussion of the Word. This is the starting point of doing any theology. Barth does not accept any sort of prolegomena that would challenge the Word itself; that is, he rejects any philosophical foundation necessary for its understanding (and in doing so reaffirms his commitment to dialectical theology). This does not mean he thinks that theologians do not approach the text with their own pre-understandings, but he certainly does not think that those who do theology, those who interpret and behold the Word, come to the text with a method that they then apply to the Word. Instead, the Word, which is the work of God in the history of Israel and definitively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, challenges the pre-understanding of the theologian.
In Evangelical Theology the fact that for Barth Jesus Christ is the definitive Word of God exemplifies a certain way of doing theology. George Hunsinger speaks of this as Barth’s ‘particularism’. That is to say, he begins with the particular and moves outwards. He begins with Jesus Christ as the object of theology and expands to other areas of thought and practice. This Word is testified to, or better yet, witnessed by different sources. The primary witnesses are the writers of scripture, the prophets and the apostles. They have a privileged place because of their location in time and space to the Word of God; they were the initial witnesses and they demonstrated a single-minded attention to Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, they remain theologians, since they wrote in human words about the one divine Word. This commitment found here in Evangelical Theology and elsewhere is one of the aspects of Barth that make many evangelicals uncomfortable. For Barth Jesus is the Word in a primary sense. The authors of the scriptures are theologians, they are witnesses, and so lack the primacy that many evangelicals would like to ascribe to them.
In addition to these primary witnesses there are also secondary witnesses, who are made up of the community and later readers of scripture, what we might call tradition or the church. According to Barth, to neglect these secondary interpreters is to be naïve. This is not because they have an independent authority apart from the Word, but because they are fellow students of that one and the same Word witnessed by the scriptures, and it would be arrogant to simply dismiss them. Theologians must take both primary and secondary witnesses into account in any theological approach.
This however does not mean that these witnesses act like a guarantee or a secure access to the Word. There is no ultimate foundation, for the Word is free. The only foundation is the Spirit, which blows where it wills. That is, the subject of God or the Word is not something that humans are naturally capable of grasping and so it is always a miracle that humans can encounter God in the scriptures. In a playful image Barth talks about the theologian and his or her project remaining untethered and free, floating in mid-air blown along by the wind of the Spirit. This aspect of his theology places him firmly in his reformed camp. Luther on the other had would have little problem tying the Holy Spirit directly to the written words. Now Luther might say that human sin can separate one from the Spirit that vivifies the word, but for Barth there is a freedom found in God that is not as bound as for Luther.
The second section of Evangelical Theology narrates the existence of the theologian. For Barth this includes all Christians, and so both professional and amateur theologians. This is what one might call the ‘existential’ element of the theological enterprise, though Barth is hesitant to designate it as such. He begins by stating that in all sciences we humans are captivated by initial wonderment. In natural sciences this may be an amazement over the complexity of a system or a cell. What excites this wonderment in the science of theology is Jesus Christ who beckons us to wonder about him and about ourselves. This wonder when it takes hold elevates us to the level of ‘concern’. We become no longer concerned with ourselves as independent creatures, but as a subject involved with the object. This concern moves then to a certain commitment, which becomes a commitment to a certain method: one that emphasizes God’s unity and the priority of the object of the Word over against humans (another example of Barth’s dialectical credentials). It is also one that emphasizes Gods Yes and No, but with a priority given to God’s Yes.
It is in the discussion of theological existence where Barth’s understanding of hermeneutics becomes clear, at least regarding the initial stage that leads to faith. As one can see, the initial wonderment belongs to the study of all science, and he cites the Socratic thought along that same line. At this beginning point the reader comes to the text or the object of theology with a pre-understanding, and in the process we marvel at it. This wonderment and engagement with the object moves us allowing us to follow the contours of the text and seek understanding according to the method presented by the object. This new position towards the object results in faith, which is the proper way to react or respond to the object of theology for Barth.
The Threat to Theology
The third section of Evangelical Theology is about the threat to the theologian. The encounter with the Word is not simply a matter of reading and thinking but encounters us in our everyday lives. Barth begins with a discussion of solitude, which is the lonely way of the theologian both in the face of the academy and the church. This solitude influences and impacts our ability to encounter the Word, or be encountered by it. This solitude is joined with doubt and the problems that coincide with it. To be sure, doubt is an important aspect of being critical and this component of doubt is not a problem or a threat to theology. But the doubt of the object, of the subject, especially in the face of the world, is dangerous to the existence of the theologian.
In the last chapter of this section Barth lists a threat that is even more dangerous than either solitude or doubt. This is the temptation that arises from the object itself. Barth says that a theologian can write a work of good theology, which is as far as humanly possible appropriate to the object of study, but still fall under attack. God will withdraw from the work. This is a bewildering and terrifying encounter. It threatens the very being of the theologian (Martin Luther holds a similar position using the concept of tentatio). As an aspect of God’s No, all theology must pass through it. It is evident through this that the Word is no dead object, but an active and living one. Ultimately, one must bear and endure what comes one’s way in this encounter. This can be accomplished finally only through hope.
The final section in Barth’s book develops the work that the theologian must do. The first element given is prayer, which is key for Barth for no theology can survive without prayer as a foundation of its method. In fact theology at its very heart is nothing but prayer says Barth. However, this prayer is also aided by study, and this requires us to be faithful readers of the text. Barth argues that proper reading of the text means reading it for its subject matter, and not trying to get behind the text to reconstruct a world behind it. The subject matter does not allow this approach. Rather, the subject matter calls for faith, and we bring to it either faith or unbelief.
Theological work also involves all the disciplines of theology including, exegesis, historical theology, dogmatics and practical theology. These disciplines have service as their appointed goal. This service results in concrete action such as taking care of the widow and orphan, but it is also to be a service of the word. The service of the word is especially important in preaching. Barth carefully describes the relationship between human words and God’s Word. He rejects any sort of transubstantiation of God’s word and human words. Instead, God is utterly free, keeping himself from bondage to human words. But God does indeed use humans word and in the Spirit makes himself known through them.
Finally, this type of service results for Barth in love. This love of course has an element of eros, but earthly love is not what is unique to the life of engagement with the Word. Eros is that love which is common to all sciences, an eager interest in the subject and a desire to be one with the subject. In the course of study of theology there must also be an element of agape. How this occurs is complicated, for the theologian remains both saint and sinner, but if we are engaged with the object who’s very being is agape love then it would be impossible for its effects to not be felt.
For further reading check out Barth’s book Evangelical Theology.