Barth on the Homosexual Debate: Who Cares?

Jason Micheli —  May 31, 2013 — 5 Comments

imagesIf you’re a theology nerd like me, trolling Christian blogs into the wee hours, you notice how many Christians are obsessed over the homosexuality issue. Perhaps rightly so.

Either way, the arguments tend to run one of two ways.

One line of argument is suggest that the progressive perspective runs counter to what Christians have believed over two millennia.

Another line of argument harvests writing from Paul and Acts to hold that current cultural shifts are the ongoing work of God.

Karl Barth might respond to both these arguments by asking: “Who cares?”

In concluding he prolegomena (§1.7.2-3) of his Church Dogmatics, Barth takes a last stab at keeping theology thoroughly biblical in a way that contrast with both Catholic and Modernist theology.

While Barth is aware of how theology is a deeply contextualized endeavor, he’s equally sensitive to how this fact is subject to losing the plot in one of two ways.

In one way, there is the (Catholic, Fundamentalist) danger of turning theology into a repetition of the past. Good theology becomes merely repeating what Thomas Aquinas said, say. Our understanding of what scripture is shackled to what John Calvin believed scripture said. Historical Christianity becomes tantamount to what the church today- and always- should believe and preach.

In another, equally fraught way, theology is always done within a particular culture, which can lead to us simply listening to culture as our defining standard.

This is the mistake of liberal modernism, of unreflectively assuming that what is happening in the world or in culture is equivalent to what God is doing in the world. Eventually, the danger is real that we end up with something that is no longer recognizably Christian.

The work of theology, as Barth understands it, is never simply or uncritically to affirm either what the Church once said and believed or what the world presently says and believes.

Because Christianity is always embodied by sinful people in particular locations, the faith of the past and the present must always be open to correction and criticism.

The Christianity of the past can never become what scripture is, our canon. Rather scripture must always bring the Christianity of the past and the present into critical, revealing light.

I think this is the refreshing both/and manner of Barth’s theology: a recognition that we must never be content with the faith as its been passed down to us because the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places.

As you may know from this blog, I spent the Memorial Day weekend at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. That place is just one example of how the Christianity of the past got ample wrong and should not be accepted or rotely repeated without examining it in light of the converting, living Word.

We’re done with chapter 1 of the Dogmatics…on to chapter 2 and Barth’s treatment of ‘revelation.’

Jason Micheli

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5 responses to Barth on the Homosexual Debate: Who Cares?

  1. How do we answer the question: If the Bible is “corrective,” but the Bible itself is contradictory, and silent on some topics, what do we really mean when we say that? On most really interesting subjects, we can quote scripture to arrive at completely different answers.

    In other words, it seems more complicating than clarifying, much of the time.

  2. Jason, you are very thought provoking. It makes me think in new ways, so my thoughts are a bit jumbled. Nonetheless, I’ll try to be coherent.

    The arguments and the question itself are not very important. They do expose different priorities and beliefs, which I think are important to understand. Is the liberal interpretation a result of seeing gay people as oppressed and need of help? Can we draw parallels between the Lakota and LBGT? The conservative position appears to be focused on protecting against heresy. To concede on their understanding on homosexuality would be the same as denying the faith. On conservative blogs I see posts comparing conservatives of the martyrs of the past unwilling to yield on truth even in the face of persecution and death.

    Gay Christians are hurt in what some think is an academic exercise. Unbelievers get the idea church is about legalism.

    The fact that we are dividing over this question reminds me of 1 Cor 6:1-8 where Paul yells at the Corinthians for suing one another.

  3. Tracy,

    What do you mean by “interesting”? Can you give me some examples?

  4. For me, the Bible is always full of the same truth, but ever changing in application. Our world and the people in it is always growing and changing. What we read and prayerfully consider at one point in our life, might take on an entirely different meaning at another point. That is both the beauty and complexity of my favorite book. Every time we read a verse, it is as if it is for the first time and God is teaching us something new that we can apply to that day as we have not before. I love your perspective on the living aspect of the Bible, even though I am far less articulate than you are.

  5. I like that you’re framing Barth’s perspective as a sensible middle ground that can critically evaluate both the past and the present. I would personally reconsider this statement though:

    “the Bible, as the living word of God will always correct where we have screwed up and carry us to fresh expressions in new times and places”

    Can’t tradition and today’s culture be as alive as the BIble? Can’t they correct us and carry us to fresh expressions too?

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