Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My Fist-Fight with Karl Barth

I generally follow Karl Barth on theological matters, but as I reread Helmet Gollwitzer's selections from Church Dogmatics, I find myself arguing with him on the subject of general revelation (which he calls "natural theology"). I'm not sure I'm exactly breaking from him yet--but I'm struggling.

Not only does Barth disbelieve in general revelation (as distinguished from the specific revelation of God we get through the life of Christ as attested to in the Bible), he views it as just another "Tower of Babel," a work by which man futilely attempts to commune with God:
Natural theology is the doctrine of a union of man with God existing outside God's revelation in Jesus Christ. It works out the knowledge of God that is possible and real on the basis of this independent union with God . . . But this means that in actual fact God becomes unknowable to him and he makes himself equal to God. (Church Dogmatics II.1)
All this fits in, of course, with Calvin's doctrine of total depravity--really extended in Barth's case to absolute depravity. If man is absolutely fallen, he cannot in the final analysis trust in his logic, his emotion, or his will. The only thing worth trusting is God's revelation, that is, the Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ.

But I've grown a little dissatisfied with Barth on this issue. Maybe that's a product of my reading Plato and admiring certain parts of him, or maybe its my attraction to the broader vision of mythology offered by Chesterton, Lewis, and Milton, but I am no longer content with Barth's pessimism toward anthropology, and I think this dissatisfaction stems from the sticky wicket of total depravity.

The doctrine is sometimes confused with absolute depravity (which again, I think Barth holds to)--in other words, all men are depraved, but each man is not completely depraved. But there's a different, as this passage from the Canons of Dordt, that famous argument against Arminianism, suggests:
The result of the fall is total depravity or corruption. By this is meant that every part of man is rendered corrupt . . . There was no part of his nature that was not affected by sin. (III, IV, Article 4)
The Canons make it clear, mind you, that this definition does not mean that man is entirely helpless; he still has "glimmers of truth." So the magnanimous view of world religions offered by Chesterton and Lewis is pretty much compatible with traditional Calvinism. But Barth extends Calvin's principle. In The Word of God and the Word of Man, he says that these glimmers of truth make man try to reach God; that is, they give him an inborn religious impulse like the one St. Augustine describes in the first paragraph of the Confessions. However, Barth cautions that this religious impulse is inextricably twinned by humanity's complete inability to follow it properly, to learn truths about God's nature. (This pair of doctrines, incidentally, was the "unsupportable" argument of the massive and excised John Updike chapter of my thesis.) Thus, mankind is impotent to save itself, and all its attempts to do so are bound to fail; only God's Word, Christ, revealed through the Bible, has the power to save or to reveal. Barth out-Calvins Calvin, or at least takes him to his logical conclusion.

Using my first post on Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" as a representative of the more charitable view that other religions prefigure Christianity, let's see if Barth is really saying something so different. He says that man has a religious impulse So far, so good. All societies have their theologies, even if those theologies are secular, like the National Socialism of 1930s Germany or the god-free ethics of most of modern-day Europe. In Milton's poem, the Greek pantheon exists to prefigure Christ's birth, but they mysteriously fall silent and die away once the Word actually becomes Flesh. That sounds like an expression of Barth's second principle, that religious impulses lead only to failure. The religious structure created by the Greeks falls to pieces in the face of God's true revelation, just as Barth says all Towers of Babel are doomed to do.

And yet I do not think Barth is really saying the same thing as Milton (and Lewis, and Chesterton)--I think the idea that the Greek pantheon got even part of the essence of God right would stick in his craw. After all, for Barth, manmade religious structures are not putts that are a few inches off; they swing straight into the water hazard. The magnanimous system depends on general revelation; Barth denies any revelation other than Christ. I wonder if Frederick Buechner, that student of both Barth and Lewis, finds some way to bridge that gap. I need to comb through his catalogue.

It's Karl Barth week here at Ladder on Wheels. Later this week, I'll post about exactly why Barth so distrusts general revelation and why he may well be right; then I'll defend him against the common Evangelical critique that he hates the Bible.


Tim Rhodes said...

Back in college I wrote a paper on special/general revelation, and I really disagreed with him on gen. rev. as well. I was surprised too--because I usually like Barth a lot.

Michial said...

In addition to the reasons I cite in my latest post, I think Barth's rejection of natural theology has a lot to do with the theological environment into which he was writing. Much of neo-orthodoxy--like much of evangelicalism--is a reaction against 19th-century theological liberalism, which went overboard in terms of general revelation. It makes a certain amount of sense that Barth would perhaps go too far in the other direction in that context.