Saturdays with Karl {Karl Barth, that is…}

It’s official. Karl Barth and I need to get to know each other.

Over a year ago I recall telling my dad that I needed to get my hands on Karl Barth’s Dogmatics and just start reading. His raised eyebrow and “hmmm…” told me all I needed to know. He thought I was/am/would soon become crazy.

For those of you who travel on the outside edges of theological circles, Karl Barth (pronounced ‘Bart,’ like Bart Simpson), is one of the heavyweight thinkers of the twentieth century. (You can read more about him here.) The closer you get to the epicenter of theological discourse, the more important it is to understand his contribution. In seminary, his name is frequently dropped in lectures.

Over the years I have read snippets of his work and had others summarize it for me, but I’m always uncomfortable with a third party telling me what someone else says and thinks. I want to hear it for myself…in its entirety.  So I’ve committed to reading through Barth’s entire 13-volume Church Dogmatics. Hopefully I’ll finish before they bury me.

Have you read Barth? Agree? Disagree? Do you consider him friend? Or foe? If you’re looking for a new challenge, you’re welcome to join me. I always love books that require me to read slowly, think deeply and carefully, and are enriched by conversation with others who are doing the same. You can find the first installment here if you are interested.

I plan to share some favorite, challenging, maybe even disagreeable portions here on Saturdays. Let’s begin:

Theology as a science, in distinction from the ‘theology’ of the simple testimony of faith and life and the ‘theology’ of the service of God, is a measure taken by the Church in relation to the vulnerability and responsibility of its utterance. It would be meaningless without justifying grace, which here too can alone make good what man as such invariably does badly. But it can be meaningful as an act of obedience to grace, i.e. of the obedience in which here too many may believe that he is doing well even though he does not see it.

Theology saw this quite early, “While in the teaching even of teachers the Holy Spirit is the giver, human participation must not cease, and yet neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who gives the growth” (Augustine, De doct. Christ. IV, 16).

The Church produces theology in this special and peculiar sense by subjecting itself to self-examination. It puts to itself the question of truth, i.e., it measures its action, its talk about God, against its being the Church. Thus from it there is in the Church talk about God. Theology follows the talk of the Church to the extent that in its question as to the correctness of its utterance it does not measure it by an alien standard but by its own source and object. (Hallelujah!) Theology guides the talk of the Church to the extent that it concretely reminds it that in all circumstances it is fallible human work which in the matter of relevance or irrelevance lies in the balance, and must be obedience to grace if it is to be well done. Theology accompanies the utterance of the Church to the extent that it is itself no more than human “talk about God,” so that with this talk it stands under judgment that begins at the house of God and lives by the promises given to the Church. ~Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. I.1. 004.

I’ve spent the last few weeks doubting and second-guessing my decision to go to seminary. There are a lot of days I say, “Why bother?” Up until today, I was hard pressed for an answer, but that quote just gave me what I needed. The self-examination of the Church is important to its life and its relevance to lives. Truth needs to be wrestled with or it so easily can cease to be ‘truth’ at all. The utterance of the Church is “vulnerable” and requires a deep sense of responsibility. Seminary is my way of taking seriously my responsibility in the fellowship of the Church’s self-examination of its witness; it’s the way I believe I can offer my participation to build up the Church as God continues to grow something beautiful out of each our humble attempts to water and plant in the soil of His grace and love.

More so, as Barth points out, my contribution…your contribution…is meaningless without God’s grace. Maybe we make too much about our contribution–worrying if its meaningful, or valued, or better than someone else’s, or second guessing if we’re making the right contribution. God knows how He’s using each of us. Can we live in the beautiful tension of being obedient even when we don’t understand how God intends to use that obedience?

Hmm…that’s pretty humbling and I’ve only read to page 9.

I noticed today my Reading page was sorely outdated. That’s been rectified and I’ve listed some books I’ve been reading over the summer. You might hop over to that page if you’re in the market for some new reading material.

4 thoughts on “Saturdays with Karl {Karl Barth, that is…}

  1. It’s great that you’re tackling Barth! I hope it turns out to be a good experience for you.

    There are lots of resources to help get started with Barth on the internet. Here is an index to some discussions of the first half of CD 1.1, if you’re interested. There are also two good guides out there for getting started with Barth: here’s one and here’s the other. Finally, you might want to check out something called the Karl Barth Blog Conference.


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