Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology, Part 1: Forward and Preface

So far, I have had trouble figuring out things to blog about. I'm noticed that in some of the blogs I read (such as Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed and Richard Beck's Experimental Theology), the bloggers blog their way through books. So, I decided to give it a whirl. For this experiment, I decided to blog through Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences (from now on KBET), edited by Sung Wook Chung, a Korean theologian who teaches at Denver Seminary. Chung compiled essays from a number of reputable evangelical theologians with diverse perspectives, such as Pentecostal scholar Frank Macchia, Dutch Reformed scholar John Bolt, postconservative scholar John Franke, and narrative theologian Gabriel Fackre. Since its release in 2006, I have been interested in reading the book, but due to lack of extra time, I have yet to have a chance.

For those of you unfamiliar with Barth (1886-1968; pronounced "Bart"), he is widely considered to be one of the most important, if not the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Barth was Swiss and studied and taught in both Switzerland and Germany. While originally educated in theological liberalism, Barth reacted against this background while preaching at a church in Safenwil during World War I. Throughout his career, Barth wrote numerous works, such as his The Epistle to the Romans and his multi-volume work Church Dogmatics. Barth was also largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration, which critiqued the Nazis and their influence on the German church, shortly before Barth was kicked out of Germany by the Nazis in 1935.

While Barth reacted against liberalism, his theology has largely been seen as suspect by evangelicals who did not believe he went far enough in his critiques. Evangelicals often question his understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and revelation. Others evangelicals were bothered by Barth's mixed attitude toward pietism, which Donald Bloesch in the forward to KBET calls, "the seedbed of modern evangelicalsm" (xv).

In the forward, Bloesch argues that some contemporary evangelicals have come to appreciate Barth's theology as "a viable alternative to fundamentalism on the right and liberalism on the left" (xv). Despite this interest by some (including the contributors to KBET), various evangelicals, such as Francis Schaeffer, have seen Barth as "an adversary to true faith" (xv). These critiques have come due to his alleged universalism, accusations of "objectivism" (which Bloesch defines as "locating salvation completely outside of human striving and experience"), and his supposed overemphasis upon the person of Christ and neglect of the Holy Spirit (xvi).

Bloesch in particular critiques "Barth's questioning of the sacraments as means of grace" (xvi), something I wholeheartedly agree with. I see this as one of the, if not the most, troubling aspects of Barth's theology.

Bloesch, however, says there are various areas in which he learned from Barth's theology, such as "his emphasis on the gospel before the law, divine revelation over human reason, dogmatics before apologetics and theology over ideology" (xvi). Bloesch also praises Barth for his critique of the anthropocentric theology prevalent in the neo-Protestantism of his day, his ability to balance respect for Scripture with an critical appreciation for historical criticism, and his emphasis upon the mission of the church (xvii).

Chung notes in the preface that scholars not just in Europe and North America, but also in the pacific rim have recently developed a stronger interest in Barth. These thinkers see his theology as "more consistent with the historic evangelical faith than evangelicals have ever thought" (xix). Throughout KBET, various evangelical scholars who share this appreciation for Barth. Chung says the book "aims to be a balanced attempt to appraise Karl Barth's theology from a consensual evangelical perspective" (xx).

As a fan of Barth and an outsider to evangelicalism (but in a tradition that shared much with evangelicalism), I look forward to the preceding chapters. My next post will discuss Gabriel Fackre's chapter, "Revelation."

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