Karl Barth’s Kids Must’ve Been Smarter Than My Own

Jason Micheli —  June 20, 2013 — 1 Comment

karl-barth-with-iPodThe question is not ‘is there a God?’ but ‘who is God?’

So says Karl Barth in 1.1 §8.1-8.2 of the CD.

I’ve been negligent in my posting of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Life got in the way, but the great thing about Barth is that he’s always there.

Having begun laying out his understanding of revelation, Barth tackles the doctrine of the Trinity.

Favorite line in this section:

Any child knows that [the church’s doctrine of the Trinity] uses some of the philosophoumena of declining pagan antiquity.

I asked my boys, 7 and 10, and they report that in fact they do not know that much about declining pagan antiquity.

Apparently Barth’s children were a bit more advanced than my own.

Maybe this sentence is a bit more subtle in German. Actually the whole chapter here is about as dense and elusive as that line about philosophoumena. Perhaps there’s no other way around it because Barth’s attempting to do away with abstract categories of God’s identity and philosophical speculations about the necessity of God’s existence.

You can reason your way to God a la Anselm or Spinoza, Barth is saying, but the God at the end of that chain of reasoning will not be the God revealed to us in scripture.

The philosophers’ unmoved mover is not the One who set his people free from slavery in Egypt. As with his opening chapters on revelation, Barth insists that everything we say about God’s identity must begin in the particular story of the Bible.

It’s this insistence on particularity that leads to Barth’s rejection of liberalism’s reduction of Christianity to universal truths about general human experience.

Where I can see readers rightly pushing back on Barth is on his claim that the Trinity is central any understanding of God’s identity.

While Barth wants to make sure that the “who God is of whom we speak” is “the God who has revealed God’s self in this particular story,” the move away from the scripture narrative itself to the later reflection on it by the church undermines Barth’s point I think.

You don’t need to be preacher very long to know that A) the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t self-evident in the pages of scripture and B) it’s surely not self-evident to most lay people.

Barth cites scripture of the Trinity revealed in scripture (Peter’s confession, the baptismal formula in Matthew 28) but none of them are offered by the texts as what we’d recognize as the Trinity. The greatest difficulty is that Barth is in danger of imposing the Christian doctrine of the Trinity upon the Hebrew Bible.

Barth seems to forget that the Trinity isn’t a self-evident concept of God rather Trinity is the only way to speak of the God revealed to us in scripture for scripture speaks of Father, Son and Spirit.

Trinity then was the Church’s way of remembering that the revelation given to us in the New Testament was consistent with the revelation given to us in the Old. Trinity is less about philosophy and more a stopgap against Marcionism, the heresy which found the God of the OT to be different from the  God of the New.

I left this chapter feeling as though Barth fell into the very trap his liberal opponents get ensnared. Just as liberals freight their preconceptions into the scripture text, making it say things other than what it intended to speak, Barth’s affinity for the particularity of the Triune God leads him to run roughshod over the scripture text.

Jason Micheli

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One response to Karl Barth’s Kids Must’ve Been Smarter Than My Own

  1. The Trinity is not a solution to Marcionism but is certainly a development from it, and is the very thing that PRESERVES a bit of Marcionism in modern Christianity. Marcion had two gods, the God of the Law, and the Better God. The Trinity has two warring Persons and one Neutral Person: the Wrathful Father (thought of as the Person who presides over the Law) and the Merciful Son (thought of as the one presiding over the Better covenant), and the Holy Ghost who is somewhat of an afterthought who simply throws his weight behind the winner of the war. This becomes very obvious whenever someone asks “Why is Jesus’ death on the cross the only way sins can be forgiven in Christianity?” and you try to answer the question: your answers ultimately leads to “The Father is very wrathful and would rather damn himself to hell than forgive even the tiniest sin, but the Merciful Son came an pacified him.”

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