One of the main theologians we were told interact with at the theological college that I went to was Karl Barth. For those that don’t know who Karl Barth is he was a German theologian who many think was the most influential theologian in the 20th century. He was a man who was trying to escape the trappings of theological liberalism of the 19th century. At the centre of his theology was a christocentricism that meant Christ was the starting, middle and end of all theological talk. Of late he is lauded by Evangelicals because of his disdain towards theological liberalism but I think we need to think hard before we put him on the side of the angels.
Before we get into why Barth is dangerous I have to admit that I have only read about 1000 pages of his Church Dogmatics. Because of this, I have been told that I have not read enough to have an informed opinion on Barth. Therefore I am no specialist on Barth but I can see there are huge issues with his theology. That being said because of space I will outline two aspects of his theology where, in my opinion, he is significantly amiss.
The first issue I see is his Doctrine of Scripture. Here are some quotes taken from Church Dogmatics Book 1, 2.
“But the vulnerability of the bible, i.e. its capacity for error, also extends to its religious or theological content.”
“To the bold postulate, that if their (writers of the bible) word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they still have spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word.”
Barth is clear, the Bible is in some sense the word of God but it contains errors and these errors could be historical in nature and could even extend to the theological realm. Therefore, how are we to know what the Bible writers got right and wrong about history and God? Barth is in error here because, as Evangelicals, we believe that when God speaks through his word he speaks the truth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). A denial of inerrancy or a claim that the bible is mistaken is first and foremost an attack on the ability of God to speak the truth clearly and secondly it is an attack on the Bible.
The second issue I see in Barth is his view on the atonement. To be clear, even though he caricatures penal substitutionary atonement at some points in book two of his dogmatics I think he actually subscribes to it. For example:
“The Son of God fulfilled righteous judgement on us men by himself taking our place as man and in our place undergoing the judgement under which he had passed.” (Church Dogmatics2,1)
It is a great thing that he subscribes to penal substitutionary atonement. But I think he considers the atonement to be efficient for all people whether they have belief or not. In layman’s terms, Barth seems to say at some points that through the cross all people are forgiven of their sin not just those who believe. For example:
“This human action and suffering has to be represented and understood as the action and, therefore, the passion of God himself, which in its historical singularity not only has a great general significance for the men of all times and places, but by which their situation has been objectively and decisively changed, whether they are aware of it or not.” (Church Dogmatics book 4, 1)
Coupled with his view on predestination where he holds that “predestination consists positively of election but does not include reprobation (ie. punishment) ” (Church Dogmatics book 2, 2) We can see that there are strains of universalism in his view of the atonement. That is the atonement makes everyone right with God regardless of their belief in Jesus or lack thereof. This negates what the Bible says about hell and judgement. Now to be fair, Barth, because he wants to emphasize the freedom of God, does hold out that people will be judged and sent to hell. But how do his view on the atonement fit with the freedom of God? This is unclear.
If you are finding Barth confusing it is because he is! It is interesting to read what different people say about him because sometimes it can seem like I am reading critiques of two different theologians. This is where I see Barth’s influence being its most dangerous. Because it seems that those who are very into Barth take on his way of communicating. It is this push and pull, this yes and yet no, way of communicating that runs through all his theology and his disciples theology that makes both him and his disciples unclear and ultimately irrelevant for the person in the pew.
When I was at college I was told by some of my lecturers that Barth was “Evangelical” and that he “got the New testament right” and that he was “one of a number of guys who we should base our theology on”. Coming out of college I have seen many of my brothers and sisters influenced significantly by Barth and because of the problems outlined above, and many others, I think the influence of neo- orthodoxy on some of the current crop of young Sydney ministers is a threat to the gospel in Sydney.