Understanding Karl Barth Pt 1

I have a great passion for the work of Karl Barth.  I have spent time studying his dogmatics and I tend to avoid what people write about his work unless they are trying to explain the reason he writes what he does.  Some have said that reading his dogmatics is hard work.  When I first started to read his work, I had enormous difficulty in coming to grips with his style.  However, in time I started to see the big and beautiful picture he was presenting.  The more I read the more of Jesus Christ I started to see.  The more I started to see Jesus Christ, the more I wanted to read.  The more I read, the more I realised that Jesus Christ is the measure of everything he says and everything he writes about God.  In fact, Jesus Christ is the bright and shining centrepiece for all his work.

They key to understanding Karl Barth is to not allow any presuppositions or personal bias to enter into analysing his work.  I entered into reading his work with the view that Karl Barth is right and allowed him to critique my idea of what I believe to be truth.  At the beginning, I felt naked and exposed and very uneasy about allowing myself to do this.  In time, I find that I became clothed with the very Word of God in such a comforting way and on secure ground in a way that I never felt before.  One of the hardest things for any of us to do is to admit that our view of the gospel might be wrong.  The nature of interpreting the Scriptures and trying to understand the meaning behind the text is fraught with difficulties as there are many and various views of how the gospel is understood across the many and varied denominations.  Even within the denominations there can be so many points of view leaving many in such confusion.

I found in my early years as a Christian that the goal posts moved every time I went from one church to another.  I had not yet discovered that the many and varied ideas I was presented with were only loosely tied to the origins of Christianity.  There are some mainstream ideas that have no origin in Christianity at all.  This is why we have to take such great care, if we are going to try to critique the work of Karl Barth, to make sure that we do not allow our own ideas of Christianity to be the judge of what he writes.  There may be the chance that our own version of Christianity may not have any connections with Christianity at all.  Karl Barth is one of the very few theologians who has allowed himself to be a student of Jesus Christ and let Him alone inform him about all the ways and works of God.  Every theological topic across the whole spectrum of the Christian belief has its primary source in Jesus Christ.

I have read many books by significant authors who try to assess the work of Karl Barth only to fall far short of truly reflecting what he writes.  Some make the very grave mistake of believing they have the ability to be a measure of what is right and wrong about Barth’s work.  The main point of Karl Barth is the topic to be discussed at hand must not be allowed to stray from the content and subject for all the ways and works of God and this very subject and content of who God is and what God does must in fact critique our own thought process.  There is only one point of contact between God and humanity and this point of contact is the Person of God revealed to us in the man Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  Here we have first hand knowledge that is available to all and has been given freely by the Spirit.  All knowledge outside of Jesus Christ that attempts to appropriate God is not theology at all, but mythology.

Ever since Jesus started His mission here on earth, there have been attempts by human beings to justify their view-point and bend Jesus to their way of thinking.  The heresies confronted by the early church had to be pushed back so that the truth of God could only be seen in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  The heretics would bundle all their ideas and take them to the church and try to find proof to justify their erroneous ideas and distort the very truth of the good news.  They would search the Scriptures to support their ideas and claimed to have found evidence in them.  Time and time again, the church had to protect and preserve the truth through their councils and creeds.  As time went on, non-christian presuppositions crept into theology where a blend of truth and untruth gradually blended to the degree that these untruths appeared to be the truth.

What Karl Barth has tried to do is to go back in time to a period before these untruths had started to creep in and examine these truths for himself.  The very centre of all the ways and works of God was firmly placed in Jesus Christ.  In particular, we find that there was a unique view of understanding the huge meaning and implications of the Incarnation in the context of the Hebrew framework of thought.   Many are not aware that what is thought to be the truth in theology today are in fact so intermingled with untruths originating in paganism and philosophy that when the untruths are peeled back, the truth as was originally known in the beginning is hardly recognisable.  because of this, many are suspicious of Karl Barth and are not comfortable with what he proposes.  When we are comfortable with our own view of Christianity, we often want to be affirmed in our own doctrine.  If we are so convinced in ourselves that what we have is the truth then we should be so secure in it to not be threatened by any challenges to our views.  If it true then it will hold true.  If there are problems with our doctrine then we should be humble enough to review what we thought was true and change according to the only truth in Jesus Christ.  The only One that has a monopoly on Truth is God Himself and it is to Him we must conform.

Thus we now have a standard put before us by God Himself where this standard is God Himself.  God owns this standard and as Himself in Jesus Christ we have God communicating all His ways and works to humanity.  Nothing else stands in the way of Jesus Christ and human beings.  Once we have this as the starting point, no further discussion needs to be entered into.  There is no need for a review or reconsideration as Jesus Christ is the very core of God’s being revealing Himself to us.  In other words, if God is saying in Person, “this is who I am,” who are we to say otherwise?  Who else can beg to differ?  What can contain more certainty than the very Being of God disclosing Himself to us in such an explicit way?  What Jesus says is therefore not arbitrary and we no choice but to agree with all that He says.

What this means for humanity is we can appropriate knowledge about God directly from God Himself, first hand.  However, we have to be acutely aware that our thinking is fallible.  Even though we appropriate the infallible truth as presented by God Himself, it is still processed within our own fallible minds where there may be limits in our ability to fully understand and fully see in the same way that God sees and understands.  The creature’s mind is not like the mind of the Creator and we still only see through a glass darkly.  Therefore, there is no one and no body of people who can claim to have the infallible truth in themselves and make any claim to have the infallible teachings.  This belongs to only One Human Being, Jesus Christ.  It is His teaching that holds true and is the truth and this is the unshakable truth of God.

In pursuing the truth we must pay full attention to the fact that all credibility is given to the Revealer of the truth, Jesus Christ, who is the only credible expression of who God is in Himself.  In gathering ourselves together, we must all agree it is to Jesus Christ that we owe our existence as His church and it is to Him we owe everything in Him giving to us the very revelation of God who has addressed Himself to humanity.  If there is an ounce of doubt in taking into consideration who Jesus Christ is, then the whole task of trying to uncover the truth of God loses its way and the gospel becomes corrupt and meaningless.  We take heed to what Jesus Christ has said as God speaking directly to us and we are obedient to Him.

It is not for human beings to decide the criteria for who does and who does not understand all the ways and works of God.  This alone is in hands of God Himself and God has already decided who holds all the criteria.  It does not depend on one’s level of ordination, the robes we wear, the authority we have, the degrees, the doctorates and the professorships we may have obtained.  If what is being testified does not line up with the very cornerstone of the church itself, the very one who contains in Himself the complete and perfect criteria, Jesus Christ, then it all counts for nothing.  This task can be undertaken by anybody who has a loving compassion for the central theme of Christianity, Jesus Christ.  In addition, we must owe all due respect and a healthy fear of the Lord as we undertake this activity of the gracious God in His initiative to encounter humanity and make Him His covenant partner.

Above all, the task of theology is a prayerful task.  It is through prayer that we can come to understand the things of God and it is by the pure grace of God that He has enabled us to see Him as He really is.  All that the Father has is given to the Son.  The Spirit takes from the Son and makes it known to us by including us in their fellowship. There is a true and genuine being-to-being relationship where our minds are engaged with the things of God.  However, it is not exhaustive and so what we are given to know about God is at God’s discretion.  It does not mean that we have all the answers to all the questions that may arise in our theological endeavour.  As great as the event of the Incarnation is and as much as this says about who God is in Himself and how much He is for us, there remains much mystery about God that can only lead to worship and adoration on our part.

Nevertheless, we can join Karl Barth as fellow students of the Word Himself and learn from the One who has testified that no one knows the Father except the Son and no one knows the Son except the Father and whoever the Son chooses to reveal.  It is here we will find peace and rest.  We know if we take on the yoke of the Lord there will but a light burden giving us room to learn from Him in all gentleness and humbleness of heart (Matt. 11:25-30).