Comments on Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack, and the Neo-Barthian View of Scripture

Article by   December 2008
A frequent topic of conversation in theological circles recently has been the general revival of interest in Karl Barth's theology, and particularly the revisionist "Neo-Barthian" interpretations proposed by Bruce L. McCormack, currently the Weyerhauser Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and others.  Considerable attention in all this has been focused on Barth's view of Scripture.  The rhetoric of some of those associated with this newer line of interpretation often seems to suggest that no one has really read Barth properly until now, and that earlier evangelical and Reformed critics of Barth (e.g., Francis Schaeffer, Carl Henry, and Cornelius Van Til) were invincibly ignorant.  

An intriguing and stimulating theologian and reader of the Christian tradition, McCormack is one of the more creative (and assertive) thinkers on the current scene.  I should add that I personally have learned a good deal from his writings over the years.  Moreover, his work has garnered a fair amount of positive press, even from some putative "evangelicals."  This brief and informal internet essay attempts to shed light on some of the issues involved.   

McCormack on Barth--Bruce McCormack argues for what he calls a "consistently dialectical" and "critically realistic" Barth; i.e., that there were only two main periods in Barth's theological development, in contrast to the influential view of Hans Urs von Balthasar that there were three distinct theological periods in Barth's work (his early liberalism, his Kierkegaardian dialectical phase, and his "analogical" period inaugurated by his 1931 book on Anselm).  To make a long and somewhat complicated story short, the Barth that emerges from McCormack's interpretive mill is a sort of left-wing, infallibilist evangelical (McCormack uses the term "dynamic infallibilism").  He goes on to argue that both the "neo-orthodox" and "evangelical" readings of Barth (which largely agree that Barth views Scripture as but a "witness to revelation" and that Scripture only "becomes" God's Word in an event of encounter) are mistaken.  McCormack contends that Barth's view of Scripture is to be understood in terms of his "theological ontology" and that there is an analogy between his theology proper (doctrine of God) and his bibliology (doctrine of Scripture).  Taking his point of departure Barth's dictum that "God's being is in becoming," McCormack points to passages where Barth refers to Scripture as in some sense "Word of God" prior to its reception by us, and he argues that if the matter is understood in its properly dialectical sense, Scripture becomes God's Word because it already is God's Word.  In this way, McCormack argues, we can do justice to both inspiration and illumination.  McCormack has developed this argument at some length in his "The Being of Holy Scripture Is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism," in Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, and Hermeneutics, ed. V. Bacote et al (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 55-75.  See also his Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
 
McCormack identifies himself as an "evangelical," though his theological program seems to be largely geared toward the development of themes in the work of Barth.  Not surprisingly, he has affinities for universalism (see Bruce L. McCormack, "That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism," unpublished paper presented at the 2007 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, in which he reportedly suggests that universalism is a biblically defensible option; for a PTS student report of the conference, see (http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2007/06/2007-karl-barth-conference-recap.html).
 
His view of the Trinity is regarded by some as problematic as well.  For example, McCormack has persistently been accused of collapsing the ontological and economic trinities and threatening the doctrine of divine immutability by subordinating God's "being" as Trinity to God's "becoming" in the decree of election to be God for us (see the criticisms leveled by McCormack's PTS colleague George Hunsinger, "Election and Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth," Modern Theology 24:2 [April 2008]: 179-198; and Paul Molnar, "Can the Electing God Be without Us?  Some Implications of Bruce McCormack's Understanding of Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election for the Doctrine of the Trinity," Neue Zeitschrift fűr Systematische Theologie und Relgionsphilosophie 49:2 [2007]: 199-222).  

The Interpretive Challenge of Barth--When confronting Barth and his massive body of work, we must realize that he is an elusive and complex thinker; thus it is not surprising that different appraisals of his view of Scripture have emerged.  On the one hand, Barth does at points affirm that the Bible is "God's Word" even apart from our appropriation of it (see, e.g., Church Dogmatics I/1:107-110, 120; I/2:475).  These are the sorts of passages McCormack exploits.  But, on the other hand, Scripture is human and fallible (even with respect to "its religious or theological content"), and, moreover, we can never "possess" or profit from its content unless it "becomes" God's Word to us by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Church Dogmatics, I/2:502-514).  Regarding the fallibility of Scripture and the use of this errant Scripture in theology, Barth provocatively writes:

There are obvious overlappings and contradictions--e.g., between the Law and the prophets, between John and the Synoptists, between Paul and James.  But nowhere are we given a single rule by which  to make a common order, perhaps an order of precedence, but at any rate a synthesis, of what is in itself such a varied whole.  Nowhere do we find a rule which enables us to grasp it in such a way that we can make organic parts of the distinctions and evade the contradictions as such.  We are led now one way, now another--each of the biblical writers obviously speaking only quod potuit homo--and in both ways, and whoever is the author, we are always confronted with the question of faith. . . . For within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error even in respect of religion and theology.  In view of the actual constitution of the Old and New Testaments this is something that we cannot possibly deny if we are not to take away their humanity, if we are not to be guilty of Docetism. (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510)

Here the "dialectical" character of Barth's thinking is evident.  For this reason, Barth can be quoted in ways that are both affirming and destructive of the Bible's authority.
 
The traditional interpretations of Barth on both the "right" and the "left" more or less correspond to what McCormack dismisses as the "neo-orthodox" reading of Barth (that the Bible is not revelation or Word of God per se, but that it may become God's Word in an event of encounter; for a survey of both, see John D. Morrison, "Barth, Barthians, and Evangelicals: Reassessing the Question of the Relation of Holy Scripture and the Word of God," Trinity Journal 25NS [2004]: 187-213).  While it may well be that this "neo-orthodox" version of Barth is not sufficiently nuanced as to certain details, I would argue that in broad outlines it has grasped rather well the practical implications of Barth's view.  Because of Barth's insistence on the fallibility of Scripture and his focus on Scripture as "act" rather than text, we only apprehend Scripture as it "becomes" God's Word to us.  Thus the problem of subjectivity looms, and appeals to Scripture as text are rendered problematic and even suspect.  

Other questions can be raised about McCormack's reading of Barth's view of Scripture as well.  For example, his revisionist reading implies that even Barth's closest friends and co-workers (e.g., Otto Weber, T. F. Torrance) badly misunderstood him on this point.  Barth had ample opportunity to correct them, but he apparently never did so.  Also, this reading fails to explain Barth's hostility to the evangelical doctrine of scripture--recall his cavalier dismissal of evangelical Christians with their affirmation of an inerrant Scriptural revelation as "blessed possessors."
 
Finally, much hinges on highly technical questions such as the nature of Barth's "actualism" and the precise character of God's (and Scripture's) "being in becoming."  Contra McCormack, I think one can plausibly argue that for Barth the "being" of Scripture is, in a real sense, subordinated to its "becoming" (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1:110, writes: "The Bible, then, becomes God's Word in this event, and in the statement that the Bible is God's Word the little word 'is' refers to its being in this becoming.  It does not become God's Word to us because we accord it faith but in the fact that it becomes revelation to us.").  One can even argue that there is a sort of right-wing Hegelianism at work in the broader structure of Barth's thinking about God and Scripture, although it would take a lengthy paper to flesh that out that assertion.  

Implications for the Church--We currently see a revival of interest in Karl Barth, as well as some shifts in scholarly views of Barth (from what may be called "neo-orthodoxy" to "neo-Barthianism").  Those old enough to remember will recall that the influence of Barth waned dramatically after (and even before) his death in 1968, as many of his former devotees moved headlong in the direction of theological liberalism.  Reasons for this are not difficult to discern.  His dialectical views on history and Scripture were largely exercises in equivocation that left no firm place for Christians to stand.  

To the surprise of many, Barth is now once again "front burner" in the theological world.  Some of this interest is due to the work of theologians such as Bruce McCormack at Princeton Theological Seminary, which has been aptly termed a "Barthian hothouse."  But the current culture also seems to be primed for such a revival.  With the cultural shift from modernity to post-modernity, many have sought a nonfoundationalist "third way" that avoids what are thought to be the rationalist pitfalls of evangelicalism and liberalism (for an accessible treatment of this trend in Barth interpretation, see William Stacy Johnson, "Barth and Beyond," Christian Century [May 2, 2001]: 16-20).  The Neo-Barthian reading has played a significant role here, despite the fact that McCormack himself has been critical of attempts to enlist Barth in the cause of Postmodernity.  But the temptation to enroll Barth in the cause of contemporary theological programs remains strong, especially on the more conservative end of the mainline theological spectrum.  Such people, however, are likely to find themselves betrayed in the end.  For example, McCormack's PTS colleague Stacy Johnson warns against attempts to co-opt Barth by more conservative elements in the PCUSA, rightly noting that Barth's theology can as easily be taken in other directions.

To reckon with Barth, then, is to encounter one whose theology later inspired liberation theologians in Latin America and antiapartheid theologians in South Africa--a theologian who felt  that what you pray for, you must also work for.  To invoke the mantle of Barth for the cause of a narrow doctrinal confessionalism, in other words, simply defies the record of history, as is happening today when ultraconservative activists appeal to Barth and the Confessing Church movement against such things as the full inclusion of people who are homosexual or against any sort of new thinking in theology.  Not only is the birthright of the [German] Confessing Church movement more ambiguous than they suppose, but Barth himself is more complex and his pronouncements more determined by his social situation than some would care to admit. (Johnson, "Barth and Beyond," 16)

When all is said and done, it is not at all clear to me that the "neo-Barthian" Barth provides a better foundation for the church's witness than did the old "neo-orthodox" Barth.  Moreover, the historic influence of Barth--with his problematic view of Scripture, implicit universalism, and low ecclesiology--on churches in Europe, Scotland, and America suggests that the current renaissance of interest in Barth is unlikely to empower the mission of Reformed churches today.  

I am also struck by the parallel to Friedrich Schleiermacher--a comment that will probably surprise those who hold to the conventional view of Barth as an implacable opponent of the "father of liberal theology."   In the mid-nineteenth-century context Schleiermacher was trumpeted as a bridge from the barren rationalism of Kant to orthodoxy.  The church historian Philip Schaff, for example, argued in this fashion (see his Germany: Its Universities, Theology, and Religion [Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857], 320).  But bridges can be crossed in both directions, and while initially the preponderance of traffic over die Schleiermacherbrücke was toward more conservative forms of theology, the long-term story has been quite the opposite.  I sense that the same is and will continue to be true of Barth.


A self-described "paleo-orthodox ecclesial Calvinist," Dr. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, SC.  He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Vanderbilt University.   He is the author of Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).  He also served as an Assistant Editor of the New Geneva Study Bible/Reformation Study Bible and as Moderator of the 2005 General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  In his spare time he writes the ARP Adult Quarterly Sunday School curriculum for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.  

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