Michael Bird on Karl Barth

With two critical posts of Michael Bird’s theology I thought it would be nice to offer something that I liked about it. There’s much more to like than dislike! Bird interacts quite a bit with Karl Barth. He astutely offers an excurses of sorts on Barth. He notes that he once learned that at Aberdeen University “there were more people writing doctoral theses on Karl Barth than writing doctoral studies on Jesus and Paul combined.” In part this is due to the presence of John Webster at Aberdeen “who is a recognized expert in Karl Barth.” (191n.193) He rightly observes that “[f]or many evangelicals . . . Barth is the bogeyman” which is due to the influence of some American theologians such as J.G. Machen, Cornelius Van Til, and Carl F. Henry. He then offers four things evangelicals should know about Barth.

1) Barth was not an evangelical. Rather, he was a European Protestant trying to salvage Protestant Christianity from the debacle of liberal theology. He did not affirm inerrancy nor was he a revivalist.

2) Barth is on the good guy list when it comes to the major ecumenical doctrines like the Trinity and the atonement. He was “decidedly orthodox” though he did consider the councils and confessions “as guidelines rather than holy writ.”

3) Barth gives evangelicals “some good tips about how to do theology over against liberalism.” Barth was not sparring against Billy Graham or the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He was battling figures like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albert Ritschl.

4) “Evangelicals and neoorthodox tend to be rather hostile toward each other.” Both have rather skewed visions of each which Bird says are both wrong. The two are better viewed “more like sibling rivals striving to be heirs of the Reformers in the post-Enlightenment age.”

How can evangelicals benefit from Barth?

Barth’s theology is “the most Christocentric ever devised. He has a strong emphasis on God’s transcendence, freedom, love, and ‘otherness.'” He “strove to restore the Trinity to its place of importance in modern Christian thought.” I especially like this in light of many in the Emergent church who don’t see any importance in the Trinity. “His collection of prayers contain moving accounts of his own piety and devotion to God.”

Bird concludes that “Barth’s theology, pro and con, is something that we must engage if we are to understand the state of modern theology.” I completely agree. Bird is spot on regarding the way evangelicals view Barth. I was usually told just to avoid him since he was “neoorthodox.” That was the buzz word and a red flag to avoid. Here Bird offers a more nuanced view which opens the door to Barth for evangelicals. He does says that there “is much to be critical of as well.” Barth’s doctrine of election “implied a universalism and he never regarded Scripture as God’s Word per se as much as it was an instrument for becoming God’s Word.”

Finally, Barth “never took evangelicalism seriously” which was evident when told Carl Henry “that Christianity Today was Christianity Yesterday.” Bird offers some helpful resources to help interested students to get started reading Barth. I found Bird’s discussion enormously helpful and think it will serve evangelicals well in helping them to understand Barth rather than simply vilify him. (Bird’s discussion can be found on pages 191-92.)

Evangelical Theology

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One thought on “Michael Bird on Karl Barth

  1. Thanks for this. I have noticed Bird does not ignore Barth on most major doctrines, which is refreshing. American fundamentalism (modest kindred spirits to those eschewing neoevangelicalism) did more to devalue Barth to the Church’s deficit.

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