Karl Barth and Apologetics

I’ve been reading CD 2.1 lately, and thinking about how, if at all, Barth’s ideas can be translated into a kind of apologetic. I’ve had this little project of mine going for a bit now – it started with me trying to translate some of T.F. Torrances ideas about fluid axioms into a more systematic metaphysical scheme, which naturally led backwards to Barth.

I should clarify what I mean by ‘apologetics’, first off. I don’t mean simple proofs for God or ‘cumulative case’ evidences a la Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell. By apologetics I mean, roughly, the project of getting theology to be able to talk, as it were, to those outside the faith. What does Christian theology have to say to those who don’t share the Christian faith?

I think this is a fairly important point – if Christianity doesn’t have anything coherent to say to those outside the faith but only to those inside the faith, then it really seems to have lost its edge, so to speak. Paul, in Acts, doesn’t simply invite the Greeks into the circle of his faith but proclaims how, in some sense, his God *is* their unknown God. While not being ‘relevant’ in the modern sense, Paul’s message actually has something to say to those who don’t have his faith.

Karl Barth, however, is basically the middle finger to apologetics – at least of most of his career. He basically defines talk about God (theology, dogmatics, whatever you like to call it) as something that can only be done within the Church, where things like God, Jesus, revelation etc are accepted (as a side note, there might be some relation here between Alston’s ‘epistemic practices’ and Barth’s ideas about where theology can be done). Barth’s ideas are brilliant, and probably some of the most intense theology done this century – but the bulk of it has roughly nothing to say to any other religion, philosophy. culutre, etc, except to say that it’s wrong. It’s a bit of a conversation stopper.

At times, I do feel that Barth basically ends up making his theology something that isn’t applicable in any sense to the world outside the circle of faith – I have a good bit of sympathy for Wright when he says:

“Otherwise–and this is my perceived problem with Karl Barth, or at least with those who have followed through some aspects of his thought–it really does appear to me that the gospel is presented as a closed, charmed circle, where we don’t allow any natural theology, which protects itself against the ravages of negative historical scholarship at the massive cost of shutting itself off against any possibility of genuine inquiry form the outside. There is no way out and no way in. It is all very well to say, ‘Come inside this circles, and you’ll see it all makes sense,’ but that is no real argument to someone who says, ‘From outside I can see that you are living in your own deluded little world.’ And that isn’t simply a matter of apologetics; it applies to politics and similar spheres as well. What good is it if I say to the government, ‘You ought to remit Third World debt,’ or ‘You ought to treat asylum seekers as vulnerable human beings, not as criminals,’ if they can retort, ‘That’s all very well from within your charmed faith-based circle, but we live in the real world and you have nothing to say to us.’ No wonder Paul’s speech of the Areopagus has had bad press in neo-orthodox circles. Paul shouldn’t have tried to build, they have said, on the signals of God in their culture. Isn’t it bound to end up a compromise? But the whole point of Israel’s tradition–of Abraham’s vocation!–was that Israel should be the people through whom God would go out and address the world, in order to rescue the world. When Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world,’ he expressly warned against putting a bucket over that light. He presupposes that the world can and will see the light when it’s shining and will be attracted to it.”

I feel, in a sense, that Barth is cheating himself (it’s also fair to note that Barth’s point in a lot of his work was basically to be as big of a middle finger to apologetics/natural theology as possible). As Kevin Davis noted in this great comment, for Barth (as well as thousands of others in the Christian tradition), God is the deepest reality of our existence. His dogmatics aren’t so much books of theology as explorations of reality in all its depth and richness – which is effectively sealed off from those who don’t profess the Christian faith. Someone who I think is doing almost the same thing in a very different way is David Bentley Hart, and part of my small project is to harmonize the insights of Barth, Torrance, Hart and others. Between Barth and Torrance, Torrance is the easiest because of his familiarity and command of the methods and traditions of the natural sciences and his willingness to engage a bit more directly other metaphysical traditions (see his incredible ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge‘).

So, to bring this rambling to a close: can Barth be more of a conversation partner to out-of-faith people? Can the insights taken from his dogmatic study be in any way relevant to philsophical, metaphysical; or religious questions? I think the answer is yes – the problem will be getting there.

As a small post-script, I think that this book, which I preordered like 3 months ago, will go a long way towards making Barth more of a conversation partner:

‘The problem of faith and reason is as old as Christianity itself. Today’s philosophical, scientific and historical challenges make the epistemic problem inescapable for believers. Can faith justify its claims? Does faith give us confidence in the truth? Is believing with certainty a virtue or a vice? In Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma, Kevin Diller addresses this problem by drawing on two of the most significant responses in recent Christian thought: Karl Barth’s theology of revelation and Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology of Christian belief. This will strike many as unlikely, given the common stereotypes of both thinkers. Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, Diller offers a reading of both as complementary to each other: Barth provides what Plantinga lacks in theological depth, while Plantinga provides what Barth lacks in philosophical clarity. Diller presents a unified Barth/Plantinga proposal for theological epistemology capable of responding without anxiety to the questions that face believers today.’

I can’t wait to get it.

2 thoughts on “Karl Barth and Apologetics

  1. deathtoallpoets September 15, 2014 / 5:43 pm

    I must get that book! I am a reformed epistemologist myself, I like Barth but am not sold on all parts of his ideas, but this sounds like an incredible read.


    • whitefrozen September 15, 2014 / 5:57 pm

      I’ve got a number of sections quoted here, click on the Torrance tag to the right and you’ll find some.


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