Karl Barth should remain an important theological voice in 21st century theology for multiple reasons. Generally because he was one of if not the most influential theological voice of the 20th century, and theologians should always build on the good work of those who came before. What I will focus on, however, is how Barth relates and differs with both liberal and fundamentalist Protestants - two groups that together dominate American Christianity, making Barth as relevant as ever.
Liberal theology that allows the Bible to be interpreted through the lens of the culture (or in Barth’s words, the divination of human thinking) was Barth’s upbringing, but he eventually left primarily due to the willingness of the church to cede to the beliefs of the Nazi state.
To this day he frustrates fundamentalists with his views on inerrancy. It might be said that they frustrated him as well - in Table Talk he says “The Fundamentalists says he knows the Bible, but he must have become master over the Bible, which means master over revelation. . . . I consider it just another kind of natural theology: a view of the modern man who wants to control revelation.”
However, any theologian of Barth’s import must certainly be for something, and fortunately Barth chose well, making the person and work of Jesus Christ the center of his theology, the bedrock on which everything sat. At face value this does not sound like a belief that would cause much controversy, but it is that belief that puts Barth at odds with both liberal and fundamentalist Christians. No matter your theological persuasion, there is something in Barth that will challenge you because you question it.
We live in a day where the revelation of Christ is used as a weapon to support ideologies in both liberal and fundamentalist circles. Out-of-context proof-texts are used to defend not only theological but also political and economic ideologies. Contextualizing Scripture to modern social thought in liberalism produces the exact same result as an over-literal reading of the Bible. In both cases, Christians set themselves as “master over revelation” in which case it ceases to become revelation after having been perverted thus.
“The Christian heresies spring from the fact that man does not take seriously the known ground of divine immanence in Jesus Christ, so that from its revelation, instead of apprehending Jesus Christ and the totality of Him, he arbitrarily selects this or that feature and sets it up as a subordinate centre: perhaps the idea of creation, or the sacraments, or the life of the soul, or even the kingdom of God, or the regeneration of man, or the creeds or doctrine.” - Church Dogmatics II/1, 319.Unfortunately, the heresies of which Barth speaks are alive and well today. Many of us would do well to focus on the resurrection instead of pet doctrines we place on the same functional level as the resurrection. The necessity of subordinating oneself to the revelation of Christ will never cease to be relevant, and perhaps never more so than today.
- Mason Thompson