Karl Barth’s angelic voice is yet to be heard by those who may love him most. Meeting Karl Barth has been both overcoming estrangement and meeting a stranger as Paul Tillich might put it. For many, Karl Barth has been sadly and wrongly condemned by the guardians of orthodoxy, especially by great theologians in my Reformed church tradition in a way that is comparable to the initial condemnation of Thomas Aquinas. I first encountered Barth through the criticisms of Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer, and didn’t overcome that initial estrangement until I read Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Only then were those famous criticisms disarmed when I found both sides talking past each other. George Harinck described this family feud well (particularly Van Til vs. Barth) as, “How can an elephant understand a whale and vice versa?” Once my guards to Barth were down, I voraciously read the Church Dogmatics in amazement, because as Michael Horton said, Barth has opened amazing vistas. Karl Barth must remain to be heard so that he may come to be heard the first time!
Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Word of God and his theological method caused a Copernican revolution in my understanding of God, the Scriptures, the Church, and especially in Jesus Christ being “before all things and how all things consistent in him” (Col 1:17 / cf. Eph 1:4). Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture reveals that although the Scriptures are fully the words of human beings, nevertheless, miraculously, these very human words have become the words of God! God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself. Deus Dixit! In this doctrine, Barth breathes new life into the understanding of the Threefold Word of God, that provides a higher view of Scripture and a better solution than the polarized sides in the Battle for the Bible that in the past has caused us to either fall off the left side of the horse with a Bible containing only human words, or off the right side of the horse with a Bible of only divine dictation like golden plates from heaven. The Scriptures not only are human words, they have become the words of God, and even more so they have become a witness to the incarnation of the crucified God, Jesus Christ.
Barth’s theological method is an impressive example for us to imitate, and it is best represented in the small print sections. In the Church Dogmatics, I’ve rediscovered John Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli as our church fathers. Barth has the amazing ability to say new things using the very words of these great reformers, and also through quotations from the legacy of 16th and 17th century reformers who followed them. Barth has provided new answers to old questions, and has brought new life to the old answers as well, in the same way as a “master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Mt 13:52). Barth is able to trace through the history of dogma productively by traversing the family tree of the church, and brings in voiced of long past and far away that the Church desperately needs to hear again, here and now: from the long ago forgotten genius of the 17th century theologians like Cocceius, Polanus, and Quenstedt to the distant and unknown voices across the sea like Brunner, Pannenberg, Moltmann, and Bultmann. Barth’s example has liberated me from my lonely study room that is 2,000 years and 7,000 miles from Golgotha, and he has revealed that I have not been left an orphan with a bible, but have a great family legacy of teachers that have gone before me, that we have not heard. So in hearing Barth’s voice, I have heard all of their voices again, for the first time.
For those who read Barth, not only will the Word of God be renewed, but our understanding of God, Creation, Reconciliation and Redemption will be seen with new eyes.
- Wyatt Houtz