Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Karl Barth (1886-1968)
According to most writers on Barth, his background is significant to the way he formulated his theological thought. He was born in Switzerland and studied in Germany under Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann in Marburg. His experiences as a pastor and during the First World War tended to radicalise his thinking.

When he went Germany he eventually took up a teaching post in Bonn in 1930. There he became a leader of the movement in opposition to Nazi attempts to nationalise the Church and was a chief drafter of the opposition's Barmen Declaration. As a result in 1935 he was forbidden to teach in Germany and returned to Switzerland where he worked for the rest of his life. His massive work, Church Dogmatics, was written between 1936 and 1968 (the final section was left unfinished).

What could be termed his disillusion with human nature lead him to react strongly against what he perceived was a "human centred" theology promoted by those generally labeled "liberal" theologians. In particular he criticised support given to the German authorities and the Kaiser in 1914 by some of the liberal theologians who taught him in the early years.

In common with most of his contemporary Protestant theologians, the central focus for Bath's work was the concept of justification by faith in Jesus the Messiah (as opposed to faith in the Church as well). The  second edition of his Epistle to the Romans (1922) laid out his views for all to see. 

He was later heavily criticised for his assertion that God is wholly different from mankind - so different that mankind cannot initiate a relationship with God. In the eyes of his critics this emphasis on the transcendence of God brought about a disunity of the natural and the divine in which God was viewed as distant to the point of irrelevance. If this was true of God, they said, he might as well be "dead".

Barth asserted that because God is so wholly different, revelation is the only way in which God can, as it were, reach mankind. This self-revelation of God is through Jesus the Word of God, and in turn conveyed through the Bible. Religion is the human means by which God's revelation is given expression - though the particular means are essentially human constructs rather than of the revelation.

His approach led Barth to be termed "neo-orthodox" in the sense that his work can be interpreted as reinforcing traditional teachings at the expense of hard-headed rationality. He consistently refused the allow the New Testament to be opened up to analytical scrutiny merely as history which leads to an understanding of Jesus as a person.

While he accepted fully the methods of historical enquiry, he thought that they were worth something only as a way of interpreting the text as speaking about humanity's deepest and most pressing problems of personal existence. Faith, he said, is always in response to God's initiative. Reason is a human phenomenon. Therefore revelation matters more than the analytical reason employed by history as a discipline, since it is only from revelation that true faith can spring and mature.

Having said this, Barth did not reject the conclusion that history can't as it were be "invaded" by the supernatural. To allow this would, he thought, destroy the almost infinitely intricate and seamless web or nexus of cause and effect. He recognised that history depends for its validity upon an analysis and interpretation of events. 

At the same time, he concluded that revelation did allow final conclusions to be drawn about truth. Those doctrines which could be established as God's revelation were in a real sense absolute, not historically conditioned. 

In this conclusion he appears not to have realised that revelation is intervention in history, in the sense that it introduces new (and absolute) information into the web of cause and effect. Information is in itself part of that web. In other words, the concept of revelation can't be sustained hand-in-hand with that of history. It is not enough to assert, as did Barth, that history provides the subject matter with which we then wrestle and through it come to terms with eternal questions; that through a dialogue with the past we are enabled to confront the present.

Thus Barth yielded somewhat in his earlier strictures against studying the Bible in terms of "what really happened". He acknowledged that the study of the Bible as mere history was valid - but only up to a point, at which the response of faith to revelation takes over. This response is not just to an historical person whose history, as we have discovered, turns out to be as ambiguous and uncertain as that of any ancient. The response of faith is also to the mysterious working out of the Gospel (kerygma) through a lowly and despised person. Barth wrote:

All human activity is a cry for forgiveness, and it is precisely this that is proclaimed by Jesus and that appears concretely in him.

It seems, with hindsight, that Barth is trapped into an underlying contradiction. On one hand we should not turn to uncertain historical research which yields an equally uncertain and ambiguous person of Jesus, about whom we cannot know "what really happened". On the other hand, Barth insists that we do turn to the person of a Jesus of history to discover God's revelation through him - even though we can't truly know a "Jesus of history".

If one were to insist that Barth state one what criteria we are to depend upon when we look to Jesus for God's revelation, we would once again find a difficult and contradictory position. As Van Austin Harvey says, Barth's stand is arbitrary:

... he makes historical assertions on the basis of faith which he then claims no historian has the right to assess ... Barth uses the stories [from the gospels] to argue for the historical nature of the events but concedes that the stories cannot, from a historical standpoint, stand any critical enquiry ... Insofar as the believer wants to be historian, or the historian a believer, he feels he has to surrender the autonomy of critical judgement. Barth, in effect, claims all the advantages of history but will assume none of its risks. [1]

We need to remember, however, that Barth worked in a particular context. While much of his work was truly revolutionary within that context, some aspects were specific to it. So, for example, Barth reworked and developed the important German Reformed Church teaching about predestination. He thought that, because God has pre-decided the issue, humanity cannot be condemned even though God's revelation is rejected by some. The "triumph of grace" prevails even in the face of unbelief.

Because he insisted that theology had to do with God's revelation rather than human "speculation" his interpretation of the Fall was that our reason has been so corrupted that it becomes impossible for us to discover anything about God through our own efforts. In effect, Barth rejected the entire field of natural theology.

More than that, he held that theology and philosophy pursue entirely separate paths. Theology contains within itself its own rationale based upon Jesus Christ as the revealed Word of God. Dogmatics presents revelation in a orderly way and is constantly to be tested by theology in case it goes astray. Philosophy, insofar as it is metaphysical, has no point of contact with theology.

Barth's resistance to any form of natural theology led him into conflict with Emil Brunner, a friend and colleague. Brunner taught that there are points in nature and in humanity for divine revelation to work. That is, he allowed for ongoing debate between human reason and revelation. Barth wrote a curt reply entitled simply Nein! in which he reiterated  that any such points of contact must themselves derive from divine revelation the be valid. 

It's perhaps worth noting at this point that the controversy erupted at a point when Barth presumably did not want it thought that Adolf Hitler might in any way be perceived as an object worthy of imitation, as a mediator of God's revelation. A theme running through his work is how to prevent God-talk becoming a human creation, the output of a particular culture in the form of an ideology based upon human creation rather than God's revelation.

This background led to Barth's strong emphasis on the theology of the Word of God, which operated in three ways: [1] through the person of Jesus as the Word; [2] in Scripture; and [3] in proclamation of the Gospel.

God's revelation of self was a revelation of the Trinity which Barth thought of as God revealing himself "through himself". So what is revealed in our dimension of time/space is truly a revelation of an eternal reality. The Fatherhood of God is perfectly revealed through the person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the means by which we recognise God's revelation, the vehicle God gives us (because we are incapable of ourselves recognising God's revelation) to interpret and give meaning to what God reveals of himself.

The validity of revelation, thought Barth, is destroyed as soon as human conclusions are put in place of the Word of God. When this happens, the Church inevitably reflects merely a prevailing social and cultural outlook, rather than the revealed nature of God. Salvation comes from God alone. As he wrote: "This secret identification of ourselves with God carries with it an isolation from him."

Throughout Barth's theology, Jesus remains in the foreground. He writes: "... from its beginning to its end, the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ". Thus all revelation necessarily contains an implicit or explicit reference to Jesus. Revelation cannot be deduced from our experience or from history or from any fact, for it is "... based on Jesus Christ himself as witnessed in Holy Scripture". 

Thus Jesus is the Word of God and God's revelation is through him. Barth insists, however, that this revelation is essentially Trinitarian. The presupposition of Jesus is God the Father "... and the work of the Holy Spirit [is] its consequence." He continues that "to a certain extent" the work of the Father 

... is the source, the third article, the work of the Holy Spirit, the goal of our path. But the second article, the work of the Son, is the Way upon which we find ourselves in faith. From that vantage we may review the entire fullness of the acts of God.

In the light of the above, one might wonder what Barth made of miracles and the resurrection of Jesus from death. In his 1924 book The Resurrection of the Dead Barth argued that the Resurrection, because of the nature of revelation as God's sole, powerful initiative, was not centrally important. He later modified this stance, coming to regard the empty tomb as an "indispensable sign" of God's activity in history.

In the face of revelation which, remember, sinful people passively receive as a gift, Barth interprets sin primarily as rebellious pride. In this sense, sin is a claim to enlightened freedom, the would-be autonomous, self-contained person "... who wants to be Lord himself". Only when we are convinced of our sinfulness can we recognise God's free gift of forgiveness through his revelation.

This sin draws upon itself God's judgment. But, through Jesus, God takes this judgment upon himself thus neutralising the way sin poisons us.

Looking back at Barth, one can only acknowledge the power of his convictions and the persuasive force with which he convinced many of his contemporaries and through them a great number of  non- theologians of his views. At the same time, his overall stance has proved fatally flawed.

How is one to know what is truly revelation? Barth permits biblical criticism - but, in the final analysis, only insofar as it allows us to become clearer about revelation. The question of the validity of his dogmatics doesn't arise for Barth. This is because he isn't setting out to prove anything by force of evidence and argument, but merely to witness to the revelation. Arguments external to the biblical witness are simply irrelevant. All such conclusions are essentially projections of human wishes.

Barth admits that revelation is relative to human beings. That is, we are the target of God's revelation of himself through Jesus Christ. Man's reasoned search for the nature of "being" or reality is, in Christianity, replaced by analogia fidei - that is, faith is God-given and this gift allows us to understand God. Barth fails to grasp and therefore to deal with the problem of analogy. How is it possible for humans to understand God except in their own terms? But once one allows this, then reason, the means of understanding, must also be allowed.

His teaching about revelation and faith brought him considerable criticism for what appears to be a circular argument. His claim to rest upon divine revelation is one which by its nature can't be tested except by reference to itself. Barth's thought is a form of fideism, a theology which, because of its form, is impervious to criticism from outside its own frame of reference.

In other words, Barth escapes a charge of irrationality by being non-rational. Once he has established that he is proclaiming a revelation, all he need do is build upon his own perception of that revelation. His entire dogmatics, because it sets out to exclude the entire body of human knowledge and all human thought and reason except what is contained within the dogmatics, cannot be challenged except on grounds he refuses to acknowledge as valid.

Barth insulates himself perfectly against any external argument by using reason to forward an argument which itself does not permit the full application of reason in refutation. Perhaps, in a time of great flux and uncertain social change, that is why his system was adopted by so many and lasted so long.

The Church universally proclaims that the ultimate truth of its faith lies in an historical person - Jesus Christ. Barth doesn't disagree with this. But history by definition requires rigorous, searching application of human reason in many disciplines. This extends Christian thought inevitably far beyond the tight limits of biblical criticism which Barth allows for the sake of clarifying God's revelation through Jesus. If Barth is correct then the Church is a sham. If the Church's proclamation of an historical person is valid, then the entire rational edifice of human knowledge is relevant to it, apologetics are inevitable, and dialogue with philosophy and science necessary.

In the final analysis it's not intellectually honest to make the distinction he does between faith and reason. A consequence has been that in the last 30 years or so Christians have turned back from Barth's dead-end to try to isolate more of the historical Jesus, in an awareness that history is important. What "really happened" does matter.
[1] The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967

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