Dr. Michael Allen on the Theology and Importance of Karl Barth

Five years ago today I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Michael Allen (who is now the Academic Dean and John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary) on Karl Barth. Dr. Allen studied Barth in great depth while getting his doctorate, and contributed Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader as a helpful guide for students of theology.

The original interview was published on the Logos Academic Blog, where you can read the full article.

Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics is massive—how long did it take you to read all the volumes?

One of the highlights of my doctoral studies at Wheaton College was a year-long project during my second academic year, where I spent an hour every day reading through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Before then, I had read a handful of part-volumes as well as a number of shorter books and essays. That year-long immersion, though, was invaluable for gaining familiarity with the wider shape of Barth’s theology. The previous year I had done a similar study project working my way through Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae piece by piece. I found both extended reading plans to be remarkably fruitful in thinking through catholic and Reformed theology in the medieval and modern periods.

Your book offers an approachable introduction to a theologian who has an intimidating amount of published material. How did you decide which excerpts to include and focus on?

To engage Barth for themselves, I think readers need to be both introduced to the material and be familiar with certain formal approaches. So this book provides some excerpts from key sections (on the Word of God, on election, on humanity in Christ, etc.). I thought excerpts needed to be long enough that the reader could step inside Barth’s argument for a bit. I also wanted to make sure that the reader would encounter every layer of Barth’s text: his thesis statements for his larger “paragraphs,” his main text, and then at least some of his small print excursus. I had the benefit of two classes (one of my own, another led by a good friend at another seminary) to test run the material and see which excerpts were necessary or unnecessary, too short or too long, and so forth.

What was the socio-political importance of Barth in his day?

“His day” is a broad term, and his socio-political importance varied in different times as movements and pressing concerns shifted. Central to all his political reflection from the time of the First Great War, however, was his insistence that we honor the first commandment as an axiom of theology and, thus, that we distinguish God’s kingdom from our own human projects. So you could say that Barth offered a lengthy diatribe against political idolatry throughout his career. At various points this would lead to critiquing a number of things: Nazism, communism, capitalism, and others. He was not a political philosopher offering his own substitute for these projects and ideologies; he was a steward of God’s Word seeking to ward off Christian confusion of any such project with that of God’s eternal and inviolable kingdom.

How did the tumultuous era in which Barth wrote shape his theology?

A number of things could be mentioned here. I’ll mention something a bit deeper that shapes Barth’s development and writing. In the nineteenth century, the political establishment forced a union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches. By the time Barth was being trained and then serving as a local pastor, there had been no distinctly Reformed confessional identity for the better part of a century. Barth’s first academic post was a calling to serve as Honorary Professor of Reformed Doctrine in Göttingen. He recounts how he did not even possess the Reformed confessional writings, much less had he read them, at the time of that invitation. His early years as a professor, then, were a period of re-immersion in a tradition that is both Catholic and distinctly Reformed.

I say this is an important contextual factor because it affects Barth’s reception both by more liberal and more conservative readers (to generalize). His more conservative detractors would do well to note that he was not downgrading a conservative theological situation. He was attempting to rearticulate Catholic and Reformed orthodoxy in a new setting after it had been all but forgotten for a century. And his more liberal or mainline fans would do well to note that tradition was not his great target: he was attempting a grand project of ressourcement. It would be very ironic if Barth was used as an excuse to try to liberalize basic evangelical conviction (as is especially the case especially with some of his younger readers).

What is the “dialectical theology” movement, and does it continue still today?

This movement had legs in the 1920s, when a number of theologians (ranging from Bultmann and Barth to Bonhoeffer and Brunner) shared something of a common protest to the dominant impulses of German religious culture, which very much served to rubber stamp the political projects of the nation-state (most notably the war campaign in the 1910s by Kaiser Willhelm). The movement emphasized the transcendence of God and his distinction from all earthly kings. But it was never a movement that really involved much material agreement theologically (and this became apparent to Barth within the decade). In some ways the movement continued (in various forms and under other names) amidst the protest of the Nazis in the 1930s, with many of the “dialectical theologians” being leading lights of the Confessing Church movement that did valiantly protest the Nazi threat. However, the movement dissipated after the Second World War, and its earlier adherents were shown to have massive material differences (e.g. Barth and Bultmann could not be further apart).

Can you outline a few reasons why Barth is a controversial figure?

karlbarthpipeHe tried to offer a theology that honored Christian orthodoxy within a situation of modern decline or fragmentation. In so doing he did not please anybody (or so it seems sometimes). Of course he was most threatening to the liberals, whom he consistently critiqued for turning theology into anthropology and thus failing to be truly Christ-centered. And he incurred the wrath of many more conservative theologians and churches from the way he sought to revive orthodox theology in a confessionless situation. His views on the Bible and on election remain the biggest issues that divide such critics from him.

What is Barth’s revised supralapsarianism?

Barth’s interest in this debate is markedly different from how it was engaged a couple centuries before. He’s not alone in this—in fact, you can find similar reassessment of an old scholastic debate in the Reformed Dogmatics of Herman Bavinck, another crucial text of the early twentieth century. Barth’s focus at its heart was simply to insist that God really is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Epistemologically, that means he really has interpreted the Father to us (Jn. 1:18); ontologically, that means we must say God has always been the kind of God who would become incarnate in the person of the Son (even before the incarnation the Son was the logos incarnandus, or the “to-be-incarnate Word”). Incarnation and Christological determination go all the way down—in no way do they represent a last-minute divine decision. Barth took the teaching that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” with utmost rigor and seriousness (Heb. 13:8). That motivates his revised supralapsarianism.

You’ve written extensively both on Barth and on the topic of justification. Does Barth’s treatment of the topic influence the conversation today?

It hasn’t had much direct impact on recent debates. There has been some indirect impact in that Hans Küng, the Roman Catholic dissenting theologian, argued decades ago that the doctrine of justification in Karl Barth is compatible with that of the Roman Catholic Church. For some, this was a sign of ecumenical promise and, perhaps, it helped grease the way for the later “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. Of course, most people would raise questions regarding whether or not Küng is the most accurate barometer of what is the theology of Rome. Beyond such indirect assessment, however, Barth’s theology has not had major impact on recent debates. That is unfortunate, from my vantage point, because Barth offers a remarkable account of the classic Protestant theology of justification by faith alone in the middle of his greatest work: the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics.

Reformed readers will strongly agree, and strongly disagree, with various pieces of Barth’s work. What advice do you have for discerning reading when it comes to such material?

I think students from all confessional traditions (and those from none as well) should learn to read receptively from those with whom they agree and those with whom they disagree. I have a number of major disagreements with Barth: with many of his critics, I share serious doubts about the viability of his doctrine of Scripture as well as the contours of his doctrine of election. I don’t think engagement with him should mean capitulation to him or full-bore agreement with him. But that’s true of any good theologian. We are called to a conversation wherein we want to receive their testimony in light of the authoritative witness of the prophets and apostles and the tested and true guidance of the church’s confessions. I would love to see a more open-minded response from traditionalists in their reception of Barth—not that they would disagree less with certain facets of his thought, but that they’d still engage him in an attempt to learn from him. I’m certainly no Barthian, and on most every major area where he critiques his tradition, I side fundamentally with the tradition. That said, I and the tradition will be far worse off if we don’t listen and think through his arguments.

What is the importance of studying Barth? Why, with so much modern scholarship and theological material available to us, does he still have a voice?

Barth remains the most significant twentieth century theologian—period. Thus, he’s important to study if for no other reason than trying to understand the fate of Christian theology in the modern era. But Christian theologians will have deeper reasons to study him. He’s one through whom you can gain introduction to a standing conversation about God’s Word. It’s a conversation that includes Basil and Augustine, Bonaventure and Anselm, Thomas and Luther, Calvin and Turretin, and of course Schleiermacher and others. It’s a conversation that involves, even more importantly, broad and deep conversations about biblical texts and an attempt to consistently follow their lead. It’s a conversation that any theologian wishing to grow in their knowledge and wisdom would do well to pay attention to.

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Thank you to the Logos Academic Blog for permission to repost this interview. If you are a student of Scripture, this is a blog worth following. Of particular interest is the series, “What makes a good biblical scholar or theologian?

Jonathan Watson