On Karl Barth and Refusing to Read Barthians: The Patristics, Contemporary Theology And Privilege

English: 100th day of birth of Karl Barth (188...

English: 100th day of birth of Karl Barth (1886—1968) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, I want to admit this: Optimistic Chad is right. This is a very exclusive conversation between Christians who are familiar with theology and the academy. Secondly, I was not going to get into all of this mess, but some nosy New Testament scholar concern trolled us Theology Folks, so I think I wanted to oblige the favor. Before I get to my argument, I wanted to address Joel Olsteen Watts’ FALSE analogy between James Cone and Karl Barth. Is there an Ivy League seminary that spends thousands, perhaps millions of dollars for conferences and a special academic center for James Cone? Comparatively speaking, are people more proud to say they have finished a chapter of Barth’s Church Dogmatics or any one of Cone’s works? If you ask yourself these questions, answer them honestly. Karl Barth is more respected and seen as a defining theologian for contemporary theologians because of first of all, his location. German and French are the primary theological languages USian PhD students and scholars must study outside of English. It is an exclusive practice, and I have already addressed this before. Barth just happens to be German, therefore American Christian writers prefer to translate his German texts. LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. EUROCENTRISM! But I digress.

Joel continues his rambling non-sense:

“To refuse to read a text because of the assumptions and forces around it is Academic Fundamentalism. To limit your experience because of some contrived feelings is fundamentalism. How dare you be challenged!

To refuse to read Barth for the reasons listed in the article is sorta like John Piper refusing to read Rob Bell.

There… no you take a seat Rodney.”

Really Joel? Anyone who disagrees with Joel is a fundamentalist, this is what it all boils down to. Is Karl Barth the only theologian that presents a challenge to more progressive minded folks? What if radical “minority” and women theologians are more challenged by Jonathan Edwards, and find him more useful? Edwards offered an equally intellectual challenge in his day to his peers (by historical accounts, his interpretation and method in theology were out of the norm, thus, it was called New England Theology movement). There is NO SUCH THING AS A MUST READ for a Christian theologian outside of Scripture and Clement of Alexandria (whoops!). The “Church” has chosen one canon, and anything outside of that is the free choice of Christians who wish to embody any of the rich Christian traditions, from Reformed to Eastern Orthodoxy to evangelicalism.


While I would highly recommend, Amanda Mac’s gracious, critical post on the Barthian Industry, and point you to David Congdon’s post (which I disagree with), I want to offer my perspective as a person who loves Patristic theology why Barthianism is bad for Christianity, and bad for, MURICA!

The major reason why I have a problem with contemporary theology being centered around Karl Barth (and to a limited extent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer when it comes to ethics) is that they are lifted up as a paradigm shift simply because of their historical context: WORLD WAR II. I am not doubting the significance and impact WW2 had on “the greatest generation”; what I am questioning is the idea that international war, military culture, and empire building (the causes of World Wars 1 and 2, and the Third Reich) are THE defining institutions that contemporary Christianity must respond to. In fact, in a lot of ways, World War 1 was a lot of firsts in world history, including its barbaric non-resolution. What I am saying is that contemporary Christian theology remains in a rather REACTIONARY posture, primarily defined by saints from the past. What made one of Bonhoeffer’s students, Jurgen Moltmann, revolutionary, was that he tried to break away from this backwards moving form of doing theology, and move us forward by presenting to us God as the One Who Goes Before Us. Moltmann could not have done this, however, without the aid of being in dialogue with the Church Fathers and Mothers.

No doubt Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolph Bultmann and the rest of the German male members of the Confessing Church are some of the best intellectuals Christianity had to offer in the mid-20th Century. However, Barthianism is a 20th century theology of KRISIS, a critique against 19th century German liberalism and optimism. The 19th and 20th century centuries do have a rogues gallery of Christians who liked to stir up trouble, and many are admirable in spite of their flaws, but these are not the defining stories of Christianity. Christians are not defined by the world (imperialism and the history of racism and violence); we are defined first and foremost by the Word, Christ Jesus, at the Resurrection where God instituted the New Creation. One could say God “re-booted” human history so that no human being can claim to be on “the right side of history” because history is YHWH’s to begin with. God owns history like God owns time, and creation, and all that is.

Because of the testimony of Christ’s raising from the dead, just like Jesus’ body, God will consume all of history. This means all human bodies matter. This means all of our histories (and cultures) matter. Making Karl Barth and the Confessing Church movement during the Third Reich severely limits our options when it comes to comparing theology and doctrine. We run into this problem when we see liberals and conservatives pointing their fingers at the other, suggesting that they are the new generation of National Socialists. Every talking point breaks down to the Ad Hitlerum fallacy, and no genuine dialogue can take place because our analogies are limited to the time of World War II. This is why Patristic theology is essential because Patrologists keep contemporary theologians accountable, and show the Academy and the Church that Christ’s work does not begin and end with our situation. The Triune God is faithful, and will always make sure that God has two witnesses, The Church and Tradition (the academy).

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0 thoughts on “On Karl Barth and Refusing to Read Barthians: The Patristics, Contemporary Theology And Privilege

  1. Brian LePort

    Very good point about the Barth-Cone comparison. Cone is not given the same respect and admiration in the academy as Barth. The analogy doesn’t work. In Evangelical circles to read Barth is deemed a progressive and open minded. To read Cone is perceived as weird and distasteful. No way my old profs would feel the same joy if I told them I was reading Cone as Barth.

  2. Brian LePort

    I should say the mainstream academy. I am sure there are places in the academy where Cone is admired more, but you’re right, I don’t foresee PTS having an annual Cone conference.

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