Karl Barth: Reformed Catholic?

From time to time, including recently, the interwebs are aflutter with questions like these:

How might we situate the life and work of Karl Barth vis-a-vis the historic schisms in Western Christianity between Protestants and Roman Catholics?
As a minister in the Swiss Reformed Church, he was vigorously engaged for 40 years or so in various ecumenical contexts: What do we make of that? Barth maintained spirited, intense and yet respectfl conversations with Roman Catholic interlocutors like von Balthasar and Przywara from the late 1920s onward: What does all this mean? Do we read him best as a thinker for the ages -- a Reformed Aquinas, let's say? Or is it better to see him as a champion for historic Protestant principles -- a Calvin redivivus, perhaps?

Moreover, in our own day, is the Protestant cause, or even Western Christianity as a whole, in danger of tanking, amid the rampant secularism and consumer capitalism of a decadent late modern society (cue disaster movie soundtrack)? And if so, is there a persistent tendency to construe Barth as some sort of "savior" figure (lowercase s, one hopes) for Protestantism or even, in some perverse way, for Roman Catholic Christianity?

Without attempting to answer any of these questions here, I offer the following remarks without comment and without prejudice. My source is Karl Barth, Final Testimonies, ed. Eberhard Busch, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).

* * *

During the last months of his life in 1968, Barth prepared a short radio piece about a Swiss broadcast he listened to each Sunday morning while convalescing from severe illness. The program featured one sermon from an Evangelical Reformed preacher and one from a Roman Catholic homilist, interspersed with music of varying quality. What he heard, it seems, pleasantly surprised him and helped to allay his anxieties about the ostensibly sorry state of preaching in both communions. He writes:

Serious work has stood behind all these sermons, although naturally with varying degrees of success. Among the Reformed some have been marked by prophetic power while among the Roman Catholic a series of fast sermons was characterized by mystical depth in the good sense (p. 43).

Apart from the occasional mediocre or off-putting offering that prompted him to switch his set off, Barth finds most of the sermons, from both communions on the whole thoughtful, edifying and engaged with scripture. His general impression was that preaching in the late 1960s was by and large improving -- perhaps especially in the wake of Vatican II and an energized ecumenical movement. He also concludes, from the sermons he audited, that the impact of "demythogizing and existentializing" New Testament scholarship was on the wane in the churches, which he counted a gain. (Again, I'm just the messenger here, folks.)

Most importantly, Barth writes:

What I have heard has been ecumenical preaching even when the term has not been used. I mean that there has not been any confessional debate, obviously not because of some tacit or express radio agreement, but because neither side has seemed to feel any need for it (p. 44).

Historically divisive issues like Mariology, Petrine primacy and the efficacy of works, he finds, are fading more into the background in the Roman Catholic sermons, while the Reformed have backed off from the trenchant "Here I Stand" broadsides ("Hiersteheichlichpredigten", I believe, would be the technical term) of earlier times. The sermons, from both sides, exude less of the spirit of dissent and more focused attention on proclamation of the Gospel.

I wonder what Barth would say today about these matters? What do y'all think, gentle readers? Is Barth prophetic here or more naive and overly irenic? Might we glean any hope from this piece?

In other words, why can't we all just get along -- IRD* funding notwithstanding?

*The Institute for Religion and Democracy. Good heavens, people, just type it into your web browser. Why should I have to explain everything?



I enjoyed this post Scott, even more than I usually enjoy your posts. I think Barth is right that there is less a "spirit of dissent" between the two traditions. But I also think that many of Barth's more optimistic reflections on this topic reflect the Vatican II world - a world which no longer exists in quite the same way. For instance, there are ways of describing JP2 and our most recent Benedict as reactionary (although I'm not interested in making that claim or defending it), and if teaching the history of Christianity these past years has taught me anything is that something like this is to be expected after an important council.

In any case, Barth is certainly right that what is needed on both sides is an increased focus on the proclamation of the Gospel.
Thanks! Those are good points. I think a lot of us, myself included, had a little more optimism about Protestant-Catholic ecumenical relations before the Note on "Sister Churches" from the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000. I tend to read Barth, even early on (say, in the infamous discussion of Catholicism as "heresy" in CD I/1) as taking a broader eschatological view on questions of church unity -- that is to say, I think even the more polemical of his writings on the matter are enfolded in a christocentric hope for the church as a whole.

As for the question of preaching, I find these late remarks interesting and remarkable, especially given how opinionated and trenchant he could be on the matter (e.g., in the Homiletics lectures).

Perhaps, having been really sick, Barth wanted to have a sympathetic RC priest around in case he had a sudden change of mind on his deathbed? ;)
Wyatt said…
This is a great post Scott! I've always been fascinated by Barth's fascination with Catholics, especially Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Hans Kung. Barth's interest in Vatican II and audience with the pope is an interesting subject. I'd enjoy reading more posts on this topic, if you get inspired.
Thank you very much, Wyatt!

I shall try to oblige, within my the scope of my limitations. Such a big topic, no?

Sadly -- true story -- I had a copy of Kung's *Justification* that I fear took an inadvertent plunge into one of those mysterious yellow boxes marked "Charity" during one of our moves. So now it molders away in some obscure Goodwill store 50 cent pile! And yet, life goes on, and grace is new each morning. Who knows, maybe providence will supply me with another copy, when the time is right.
Unknown said…
Ah, interesting. So now CBD is selling Küng titles now. Thanks for the tip.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1