Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart”) was, without question, one of the most interesting theologians of the 20th century. Certainly he wrote more than many of the rest combined. Originally trained in German liberal theology and higher criticism, he eventually reacted and made a sharp break back towards orthodox Christianity, reasserting the transcendent reality of God over and against the liberals who saw everything as being about human experience and personal “faith.” He didn’t come all the way back to what we modern evangelicals believe (e.g. he never came back to question the results of higher criticism much, resulting in a unique but nonetheless problematic doctrine of Scripture), but he made several excellent contributions even so.
For Barth, Jesus held a powerful place at the center of all theology. Nothing could be taken for granted if it was not robustly controlled and shaped by the reality of Jesus Himself, which led him to significantly revise certain doctrines he inherited from the Reformers he drew from if he did not see them as Christocentric enough, the most notable example being predestination/election. This tendency also led him to reject the idea of natural theology, that we can learn anything useful about God from the study of anything other than His personal, direct revelation (e.g. creation) unless that revelation was first accepted.
Anyway, I think Barth was at his best in two places in particular: his understanding of the relationship between God and man, and his commitment to restrict all revelation first to and through Jesus. Alas, today I only have time to focus on the first of these. I’ll give a bit of explanation and then let Barth speak for himself.
Unlike the liberal theologians he turned against, Barth was committed to the belief that there was a real God outside of and above us, fully free and sovereign, not dependent upon the world. His opponents did not think this way. For them, there might be a real god, or perhaps “god” is just a way of talking about the human experience of faith. If there was a real god, he certainly wasn’t the utterly free, distinct, holy being Barth (and Scripture!) spoke of. Barth strongly opposed this conception and insisted that, in essence, God is God. Yet he also combined this belief with the firm insistence that, using that absolute creative freedom, God had chosen to be love, and to create and enter into covenant relationship with mankind for Himself. In Barth’s view, God is God, yet He has freely chosen not to be God in any other way except as the loving God of man, and has created man to be nothing other than God’s own. God commits and binds Himself to man for all eternity, swearing off any option to be God by Himself alone, our of sheer grace and sheer freedom. Yet, despite His condescension to forever be man’s God, He remains the free sovereign, worthy of all glory and superior to us in every way.
Here are some quotes from his book The Faith of the Church to illustrate my point:
The New Testament knows three kinds of glorification: a glorification of God by man (this Jesus Christ accomplishes), a glorification of man by God, and a glorification of God by God Himself. But the New Testament does not know of any glorification of man by man himself. Man may glorify only God and not himself, whereas God glorifies Himself and glorifies man…Man’s glory is like making a big noise, like trying to show off himself greater than he is. God does not need to make any fuss about his glory: God is glorious. He simply needs to show Himself as He is, He simply needs to reveal Himself. That is what He does in man, His creature, in whom He wants to be reflected.
We must stress—even if it seems “dangerous”—that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of His will) than that which comes about in man’s existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise, God’s beatitude coincides with man’s happiness. Man’s happiness is to make God’s beatitude appear in his life, and God’s beatitude consists in giving Himself to man in the form of human happiness. In this relationship between God’s glory and man’s glory, God’s beatitude and man’s happiness, we must note that God always has precedence: our glory is founded upon His glory; our happiness is founded upon His. God remains ever independent, master and sovereign. Man is only a servant. God gives, man receives…God then is essentially love and grace…God does not exist without this will to encounter us, to make us live and participate in Him. That is His steadfastness.
And finally, a glimpse of the other point I was saying Barth is good about, combined with this one:
Apart from the relation between God and man such as exists in Jesus Christ, all that we said would be equivocal and dangerous and even false. What was said about the relations between divine and beatitude and human happiness, between the glory of God and the glory of man is then an abstract truth: it is the explanation of the basic theses of Christian theology. What we say concerning the relationship of God and man, we say it in Jesus Christ. It is first in Christ that there is a coincidence of divine glory and human glory. It is in him that the encounter between divine beatitude and human happiness takes place. There is no humanity “in relation to God” that was not first realized and prefigured in “Jesus Christ”…In order to fulfill the true humanism, then we must believe in Jesus Christ. There is no humanism without the Gospel.