Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth

Karl Barth was a twentieth century Swiss theologian.  Because he is often discussed on the religion blogs that I read, I figured that I should solidify my knowledge about him and his theology.  Thus, I checked out The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth.

Barth believed things that many Christians believe: that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of humanity when he suffered and died, and who through his resurrection offered hope to humanity.  Some of what I already knew about Karl Barth’s theology was reinforced or clarified as I read this book: Barth’s belief that humans could not climb their own way to knowing God but depended on God’s revelation, that God’s revelation was through Jesus Christ, that the word of God was God’s illumination of the Scriptures to individuals and communities, that God elected Jesus Christ and that all of humanity is in him (implying universalism, according to some), and that the Old and New Testaments testify to Jesus Christ.  The Old Testament does so restrospectively, while also maintaining its own meaning within its original historical and literary contexts.

What I learned from this book is that there is a lot that I do not know about Karl Barth.  The scholars in this book were addressing a variety of questions, concerns, and controversies about Barth’s thought.  Did Barth truly believe in the Trinity, or was he a modalist who thought that God only manifested himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  Did Barth really believe in the Chalcedonian creed, that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man?  One contributor stated that Barth treated these identities of Christ in functional terms: Jesus as man means that Jesus submitted to God and served his fellow human beings.  Because of the importance of the incarnate Christ in Barth’s theology, some have wondered if Barth held that Jesus always had a human nature, even before Jesus walked the face of the earth.  Conversely, someone in the book expressed the concern that Barth’s belief in the priesthood of Christ emphasized Jesus’ divinity rather than his humanity.

A lot of these discussions were rather abstract to me.  They remind me that there is more for me to learn.  What I especially appreciated, however, were the discussions about the down-to-earth topics.  What were Karl Barth’s politics?  Many are aware that Karl Barth stood up against Hitler and the German Christians, for Barth believed that God’s revelation was through Jesus Christ, not the Volk.  But Barth was criticized for not opposing Communism with the same rigor and for his stance against Western conduct of the Cold War.  Barth was concerned that Christianity was so often associated with the capitalistic exploitation that went on in the West.  In addition, while some have maintained that Barth was rather apolitical, Barth did believe that a governmental system can resemble the Kingdom of God, and he promoted societal concern for the poor.

What was Karl Barth’s stance on feminism?  Many feminists do not like Karl Barth.  Barth emphasized God’s revelation rather than looking to human experience (such as the experience of women) in doing theology.  He defined God in largely androcentric terms.  There was also the issue of his own personal life: he had a rocky marriage, and people speculate about what exactly his relationship was with his secretary, who was close to him, and who endured scandal on account of that.  But one contributor tries to explore how Barth’s thoughts can actually serve, or coincide with, feminist theology.

My favorite topic in the book was Karl Barth’s attitude towards other religions.  Karl Barth was critical of religion, period, for he saw that as humans trying to climb their way to the divine.  Because he so emphasized that God’s revelation was through Jesus Christ, many believe that he simply dismissed other religions as false.  One chapter in the book, however, addressed what Barth thought would happen to those who held to non-Christian religions, as well as Barth’s thoughts on whether there could be truth in other religions.  According to this chapter, Barth believed that non-Christians would eventually be saved by grace: that is their destiny, as part of the humanity that is elected in Christ.  And, while Barth was critical of natural theology—-of attempting to learn about God from nature and reason—-he was open to the possibility that Jesus Christ could somehow communicate to humans through concepts within other religions.

This is an informative book.  I did not absorb all of it, even though I did read it in its entirety.  As one essay said, Barth is not easy to characterize.  One has to read all of his thought before one begins to do so!

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