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.

Note on Apologetics II

I’ve been thinking about apologetics and its role in theology for a little while now. It has a long and distinguished history – from the early church onwards. But what exactly is it?

The basic definition is ‘a reasoned defense’ of something. The word ‘apologia’ was more of a legal term in New Testament times, used to denote the defense one would give of oneself at court. In more modern terms, specifically in Christian terms, it basically means giving the reasons for your Christian belief. This typically involves evidence from history, philosophy, science, etc etc. There are lots of different approaches, though, some which eschew the use of evidence.

NT examples of apologetics: most famously, Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill. Early church example: Justin Martyr and his use of the concept of ‘logos’ (which was used in the Gospel of John, but really fleshed out by Justin). Modern examples: William Lane Craig.

So why apologetics? To give a reason, or a reasoned defense, for the hope within. Often, however, (at least this is what I’ve noticed) apologetics means defending, in an almost military fashion, the Christian faith or aspects of it. It’s seen as necessary to establish the rationality (whatever that may mean) of the faith.

Things that come to mind: I don’t really see the Christian faith some something that needs to be defended in this manner. The Gospel is a proclamation – how does one defend a proclamation? Does one need to? Does, for example, the resurrection of Jesus need to be established as ‘rational’? (It should be noted that I do in fact think that the Gospel is rational, but in the classical metaphysical sense of the word – like how David Bentley Hart argues in ‘The Experience of God’). The Gospel is a proclamation of the ruler-ship of Jesus. When a king conquers another king, he doesn’t send out messengers to establish the rationality of his kingship to his new subjects, though his kingship is no doubt ‘rational’.

Now this isn’t to say that the Christian picture of the world doesn’t have things like good argument in its favour – it certainly does. But these arguments can’t function as foundational-istic data upon which one bases their belief in the Christian message. The truth of the Christian message isn’t a matter of the discovery of data by infallible method.

What this does mean, though, is that a lot of pop-apologetics isn’t really doing anything helpful. One thinks of the many books in which the Resurrection is ‘proved’ – things like the trustworthiness of the documents, eyewitness accounts, etc, typically come into play. This does little good. Apologetics which seek to ‘prove’ the ‘rationality’ of various tenets of Christianity (resurrection, ascension, etc) are misguided not because these events aren’t ‘rational’ (in a very deep sense, they are) but because it seeks to establish the rationality of faith based on these events conforming to a certain kind of ‘rationality’ so as to serve reasons to believe – the reason for the hope within. The reason for the hope within the Christian is not the demonstration of the ‘rationality’ of particular events in the narrative of Scripture but the crucified and risen Messiah.


One classical argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument – everything that begins to exist has a cause, blah blah blah. The typical skeptical rebuttal often looks like this: who created God? Typical theistic response: no one. There are ensuing cries of arbitrariness, etc, etc. I’m looking at here not at the argument as a whole but at the idea of whether or not defining God as uncreated is arbitrary.

‘You can’t just say God is uncreated!’

Why not? It’s not just me saying this – this has been a central tenet of the great monotheistic (Christian, Jewish and Islamic) religions since they began. No one is arbitrarily pulling this out of nowhere to sidestep an objection to an argument. Bluntly, my question is this: if something has been claimed by, say, Christianity as one of its central ideas since its birth, can someone be accused of arbitrariness if they use it in an argument? To put it a bit more neatly:

‘Who created God?’

‘No one – according to Christian teaching from the very beginning (and before that, in Hebrew Scriptures and teaching) God is uncreated.’

‘You can’t just define God as uncreated arbitrarily!’

‘But I’m not…this teaching forms a major trajectory in Christian thought. Like it or not, I’m not being arbitrary here.’

So, to repeat, can one be accused of arbitrariness of they take a line like this? Or rather, are they in fact being arbitrary? I don’t think so. If, say, I defined God in such a way that it didn’t accord with any common notion of God, then that would be arbitrary – it would be a departure from the norm. It would seem, then, that failure to define God in accord with Christian teaching/thought would in fact be the arbitrary thing to do here. If I am a Christian, and I don’t hold a notion of God in keeping with the witness and testimony of the Church throughout history, then I am being arbitrary.

While I think this is a valid line of thought, I’m sure it could be tightened up. Criticisms welcome.