My first introduction to the name ‘Karl Barth’ was in the writings of Francis Schaeffer. A student of Cornelius Van Til, Schaeffer inherited his mentor’s dislike of Barth’s theology. Schaeffer disregarded Barth entirely, primarily because Barth didn’t hold to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Schaeffer also conflated somewhat the ideas of Barth and those of later and very different theologians such as Paul Tillich. For this reason I had for many years misconceived Barth as a liberal and completely heterodox theologian – similar to those liberals of the 19th century who Barth was in fact reacting against, or similar to men like Tillich.
More recently I have actually begun to read a little Barth and to read a little about him too. I am aware of his somewhat less than traditional view of scripture — he maintained that scripture was not in itself revelation, but rather a record of God’s revelation that points to the real revelation, that is Christ. I am also aware of some problematic aspects of his theology — his view of the trinity comes dangerously close to modalism and, much more devastatingly (in my view), Barth comes very close to universalism in soteriology (although he appears to have avoided the question of universalism as best he could). His theology is not without its problems. Still, I have found some aspects of his thought helpful and interesting. Furthermore, it would appear that, historically speaking, he was instrumental in dragging theology out of the liberal mire it had sunk so deeply into by the beginning of the 20th century.
I have been greatly influenced by the writings of Francis Schaeffer and I still think they are important for today. Schaeffer has had a huge impact on evangelicalism (particularly in the U.S.). However, Schaeffer would label Barth as woefully unorthodox and even dangerous.
Here is an excerpt from Homiletics, by Karl Barth:
‘There is an unconditional “whence.” God has revealed himself , the Word became flesh. God has assumed human nature. Humanity has become God’s in Christ. In Christ God has made fallen humanity his own. Faced with the fall, God did not step angrily aside. Instead he has personally united himself with the race. Lost Humanity has been called home.
This means that God has revealed himself. The last word of this incarnation was spoken in Christ’s death. In Christ our guilt and punishment was lifted from us and taken away. In Christ we were reconciled to God — eph’ hapax, once and for all. Believing means seeing this is so, that God has reconciled himself to us in Christ.’
This passage provided the impetus for this post. When I read this passage I started to think about what does, or should, constitute orthodoxy in Christian belief. Here is Barth proclaiming the historicity of Jesus, the historicity of Jesus’ death, the fact that Jesus and God are one and the redemptive, salvivic and reconciliatory nature of Jesus life and death. Surely these are some of the ideas that constitute a proper orthodoxy? Two important aspects missing from the above passage (although both are implicit, I think) is the idea of the resurrection and the trinity. Barth certainly held belief in the resurrection, even though it is not mentioned here, and the idea of the trinity is at least partially implicit in equating Christ with God. It seems to be that a true definition of orthodoxy in belief would be a belief that embraces these ideas at its core. Surely issues of inerrancy, etc. are second-tier issues and their importance pales against the importance of declaring Jesus as Lord, declaring Jesus as the Son of God, declaring the historicity of Jesus’ death and resurrection, declaring the redemptive nature of his life, death and resurrection and declaring the work of the Holy Spirit in His people today.
So, here is a question for myself and for anybody who reads this blog: what should constitute orthodoxy? Leaving ideas of creeds, traditions and ‘orthodoxy’ in the historical or traditional sense, etc. Should Barth be declared heterodox because he doesn’t hold scripture to be inerrant? Should he be declared heterodox if it were to be shown he was a universalist (I’m not sure it as all that easy to establish whether he truly was or not)? I have often seen statements along the lines of “Mr. X doesn’t believe doctrine Y and so may not even be saved!” What sort of doctrines can we substitute for Y in that sentence? I have often seen people say it about the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ — if you do not believe in the doctrine of sola fide can you be saved? If you do not believe in the doctrine of sola fide can you be orthodox? How about the other solas of the reformation? We surely need Solus Christus and Soli Deo gloria, but what of the other three? I’m not saying these ideas are not important but I am asking what constitutes the core of Christian belief? What should we deem to be orthodoxy? What beliefs must one hold to in order to be called a Christian?
Comments would be appreciated.