Posts Tagged ‘Karl Barth’

Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50

Anselm on Theology: Faith seeking understanding

February 17, 2010

I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s book on Anselm, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum (German original 1931 – English translation London: SCM, 1960). There seem to be plenty of points of affinity between Barth and Anselm: the discussion of whether Barth is influenced by Anselm or just portraying him in a Barthian light I’ll leave to those who know better. There’s a lot of direct quotation of Anselm in the book though, so the points of affinity are probably genuine.

One of the things I found most arresting was Anselm’s portrayal of the role of theology. His famous statement credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) is well known, but reverses the order that we’re brought up to assume. Post-Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that we should understand in order to believe. It’s what, amongst other things, Scientific method is based upon. For Christian theology, Anselm argues, this is inappropriate because faith can never be argued to on neutral grounds (Proslogion 1:100, 18) and that “the aim of theology cannot be to lead men to faith” (Barth, p.17). Anselm does not seek to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, but to understand it (Barth, p.14). Faith must come from hearing the “Word of Christ” – Anselm’s term for the message from Christ, which can authentically be conveyed in human words about Christ, and by accepting this message, which is the work of the will, enabled by divine grace. (Thus, Barth points out, it is completely inappropriate for Schleiermacher to have put Anselm’s credo ut intelligam on the title page of his On the Christian Faith (p.26 n.1) – since Schleiermacher in fact took the opposite approach to theology!)

There are fundamental parts of the Christian proclamation – what Anselm calls the Word of Christ -which are mysterious and cannot be established a priori by reason alone. The Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Resurrection would be examples of these. As Tertullian said of them, they are certain precisely because they are impossible (De Carne Christi 5.4: Certum est, quia impossible est), and to be believed because they are absurd (Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est). This is not to say they are irrational, or super-rational – because these are misleading categories – but to highlight that one can only understand these things when one believes in them.

It’s easy to see how this could be lampooned by atheists – held up as examples of Christians sacrificing their intellects or just generally being stupid. If I remember correctly, Dawkins (mis)quotes Tertullian on this point with great glee in The God Delusion. I don’t think Anselm (or Tertullian, or Barth – or any other Christian theologian who takes this line) is committing intellectual suicide, but rather recognising a truth about faith and knowledge that has been obscured by the Enlightenment: What we believe affects what we understand and how we make sense of the world.

Furthermore, since Anselm sees belief in God and assent to the Word of Christ as thinking correctly about reality, we can add that Christians claim to be speaking truth about reality, rather than retreating into subjectivism: If it seems different to you, it must be that you hold a distorted picture of reality because of unbelief. Is this arrogant? One might think so; but it derievs from a position of intellectual humility in the face of God’s revelation. As Barth writes of Anselm’s definition of faith: “Intelligere [understanding], the intelligere for which faith seeks, is compatible with a reverent ‘I do not yet know’ or with an ultimate ignorance concerning the extent of the truth accepted in faith. But it is not compatible with an insolent ‘I know better’ in face of the ‘that…’ of this truth.” (p.27). Theology must position itself so that it claims to seek and to speak truth about God, while recognizing that this truth is given to it in grace and not by right. It should be bold but not arrogant; humble but not equivocal.

What implications does this way of thinking have for evangelism? Does it call into question a common method of apologetics – seeking to argue something along the lines of “If Jesus rose from the dead, his claims to be the Son of God are true. Historical investigation validates the New Testament accounts of Jesus rising from the dead. Therefore his claims are true – and therefore also the gospel, so you should believe it.”? Or indeed things like the Cosmological or Teleological arguments for the existence of God? I think it might. So if we accept this picture of the relationship of faith and understanding, might it not free us in evangelism to say what we know to be true without having to defend it on “neutral” (hostile) territory? Instead of accepting “I understand in order that I might believe” and fighting a losing battle to argue people into the Kingdom, one could recognise the message of “I believe in order that I maight understand” freeing us to challenge this assumption and to present the gospel on its own terms. It’s a challenging thought, and one that brings up (for me at least) worries of becoming unintelligible to those outside the church, subjectivism and the other theological “F Word” (“Fundamentalism” being the number one) of Fideism. What I’m wondering, and invite comments upon, is whether these are justified concerns or manifestations of a lack of trust in the transformative power of the Word of Christ?

Barth on non-Scriptural language

November 17, 2009

To continue from my post on using non-Scriptural language to describe the Trinity, Karl Barth raises the point that to object against using non-scriptural terminology per se would also mean we must object to all preaching of the Bible that went further than a simple reading of it:

Already in the early Church the doctrine of the Trinity was attacked on the ground that it is not biblical, that in the form in which it was formulated by the Church’s theology it cannot be read anywhere in the Bible. This is especially true of the crucial terms “essence” and “person” which theology used. But it is also true of the word “Trinity” itself. Now this objection can be raised against every dogma and against theology in general and as such. It would also have to be raised against proclamation, which does not stop at the mere reading of Scripture but goes on to explain it too. Now explanation means repeating in different words what has been said already…”
(CD 1/1 §8 – p.308; emphasis mine.)

Barth on Christian Ethics: “You have been told, O man, what is good”

August 24, 2009

“I admire the ethics of Christianity, and try to live by the moral teaching of Jesus, but I don’t believe he was the Son of God.” A common enough position, perhaps even still the default one for the English middle classes, but according to Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, such a position doesn’t even make sense. Christian ethics are not detachable from the gospel, and from the history of God’s relation to humanity in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Barth’s position on Christian ethics (from a theologian not known for his brevity!) is his 1946 essay Christliche Ethik, republished and translated in God Here and Now (Abingdon, Oxon / New York: Routledge, 2003). First of all, Barth says that Christian ethics derive from God, not a human philosophy or world-view:

Christian ethics is the attempt to repeat what has been said to man, to repeat in human words and with human concepts the divine commandment. Christian ethics rests upon the attentiveness and openness of man for God’s commandment, for God’s own answer to the question about the good… Christian ethics begins, therefore, not with what might be called reflection. It begins with hearing.”

Such a position, Barth admits, does make Christian ethics confusing to non-Christians,

“It must always be the case, therefore, that Christian ethics takes its point of departure from what must be a puzzle to him who is not yet or perhaps no longer prepared to listen to God. Such a one must always be baffled by the question of whence Christian ethics derives its concepts, how it uses them, and how the same concepts have such a different meaning and effect here from their meaning and effect elsewhere.”

but Christians should not try and “evade” grounding their ethics in the gospel, and in God’s revelation. In seeking to evade this, they make their ethics sub-Christian, and they themselves become no longer willing to listen to God. If this is true, then the final grounding for Christian ethics will not be accepted by non-Christians. The answer to the question about if and why divorce is wrong must ultimately be “God forbids it” (c.f. Matthew 5:31-32) and not that it damages families and societal fabric. But is this all that can be said on Christian ethics? Has Barth set up a position vulnerable to that A-Level philosophy standby, the Euthyphro dilemma? Although Barth doesn’t explicitly interact with this objection, I think he circumvents it by his situating of Christian ethics with reference to God’s action in history – i.e., the gospel:

“Christian ethics is connected with a history between God and man which has taken place, still takes place, and will take place in the future… To say it with the simplest words possible: God became, was, and is a man. And it happened that God as this man was not a success, but had to suffer and died as a condemned criminal on the gallows [i.e. the cross]. And it happened, further, that this man who was God was raised from the dead. But thereby it happened that every man in him and all men by Him were exalted to the glory of God. I anticipate. The conclusion of this history consists in this: that it will happen, it will be revealed for all and to all [i.e. finally and publicly], that our guilt and need is taken away by the person of this man, and that we are called in the person of this man to the glory of God.”

I can’t agree with the “all men by him” in a salvific sense, but, that aside, this is the history to which Christian ethics must relate. Ethics is, as Barth says, “the fruit that grows upon this tree” and cannot be understood if this history is omitted or mis-interpreted. It is from this vantage point that we can begin to define what “good” and “evil” are – and we find that they are not at all abstract, free-standing notions as Plato (and indeed, the Enlightenment!) thought they were.

“Good, in the Christian sense, is that conduct and action of man’s which corresponds to the conduct and action of God in this history. That human work is good, therefore, in which man accepts- and not only accepts but affirms- that God humbled Himself for him in order that man might live and rejoice. That activity of man is good, in the Christian sense, in which man acknowledges that he stands in need of this divine mercy; yet that he is not only in need of it, but also shares in it … That human conduct and act of man’s is good, therefore, which corresponds to the grace of God.
What then is evil, in the Christian sense of the word? Evil is that conduct and act of man’s in which he contradicts the content and the action of God’s history, in which he hurries or sneaks past the suffering and the joy of Jesus Christ. That deed of man’s is evil in which man, openly or in secret, because of anxiety or pride, is unthankful.”

It seems odd to define good and evil in Christian ethics without reference to love, but that is not really the case here. Ultimately defining the good as doing what is “loving” is unclear – what or who are we to love? All sorts of evil acts can be presented as loving by shifting the goalposts of who they are loving towards. The Scriptures specify the “what” and the “who” of love. We are to love God and our neighbour, according to the Bible; but… we know this by grace and are able to do it only by grace. Finally, thankfulness for grace produces love – knowing the gospel of salvation by grace leads us to perform the good. It is, incidentally, exactly the logic of Titus 1:2-4:

 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour…

The gospel is the truth that leads to godliness. Paul, too, relates this to the “greatest drama ever played” of God’s plans for the world – giving good biblical warrant for Barth to proceed as he does.

Barth’s way of setting up Christian ethics seems to have a number of attractions. It seems to be biblical; it avoids the vagueness of unqualified reference to “love” and at the same time does not make God vulnerable to a caricature of an arbitrary dictator – God’s character revealed in the gospel, his plans for his creation revealed in the gospel, and his grace to us revealed in the gospel all underpin the idea of listening to, repeating, and obeying God’s commandment. The Bible is not a law-book, but rather tells us the gospel which produces the fruit of Christian ethics in the lives it transforms.

What, then, of the fact that Barth makes Christian ethics unintelligible to those outside the Church? How now will the Church persuade those outside to behave morally? The answer is – she can’t; at least, not so far as those outside remain outside. If the gospel is the tree on which Christian ethics grows as fruit, we cannot expect to find it growing on different trees. Instead of urging non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians, perhaps it would be better to urge them to become Christians – for only then, if Barth is correct here, can they understand, affirm and practise Christian ethics.