What May Karl Barth Make of Evangelicals?

D. A. Carson fired fiery arrows at Karl Barth in his interview at The Gospel Coalition (TGC) this week: What Should Evangelicals Make of Karl Barth? Carson is a pinnacle contemporary Evangelical scholar in the Reformed tradition, so I was excited to see him talking about Karl Barth. I was saddened that the title of this interview at TGC was phrased what Evangelicals 'should' believe. Is it a tendency at TGC to claim sole hegemony on orthodoxy? The last person to publish a title containing 'What Christians Should Believe' ('he who shall not be named') ended in tragic controversy. (I wish to place blame on TGC, but Carson is a founding council member of TGC, so I do not know who is at fault here.) To make the first impression worse, the initial question to Carson also betrays an assumed suspicion of Barth: "Quite frankly I find Barth bewildering. On one hand his works seem to be littered with theological question marks, so I am cautious." How may any appreciator of Barth show enthusiasm to such a loaded question? Anyone who does not allow for 'theological question marks' is out of bounds? Isn't all of theology concerned with 'theological question marks'? Who besides the Pope is without theological question marks? As I said, a loaded question for a received audience.

It is true that not all Carson said about Barth was bad, and amongst the backhanded compliments were some better than expected compliments in this interview. (I may be suspicious of Don Carson's comments because I once met Carson almost a decade ago, and when I handed him a copy of his Exegetical Fallacies book to sign, Carson responded condescendingly with raised eyebrows, "Are you sure you are able to understand this?") This interview was not such a sour experience as when I met Carson in person because Carson says in TGC post that despite Barth is both "idolized" by some and "demonized" by others, in his own opinion:  "Karl Barth really was the premier theologian of the twentieth century in terms of volume of writings, profundity of analysis and so on. . . . And so it is sad if knowledgeable pastors don’t make use of Barth, but it is even more sad if they make a wrong use of Barth. Barth has the capacity to say contradictory things without embarrassment." These are not unqualified praises of Barth, yet they are praises, despite the death by a thousand qualifications. I've encountered both of these extremophiles who hate and love Barth and was pleased to hear that Carson identified himself in the camp of those who appreciative of Barth. Sadly, Carson has lots of studying to do before he may one day become a true Barthian!

Carson is familiar with Barth, and I enjoyed his recital of the time Barth admitted to contradictions in his own writings to an inquisitor. Humility is a Christian trait, and Barth frequently said that "God will laugh at my Dogmatics". Why is there such a fear of contradictions? 'To err is human', as they say. So, It's no surprise that Carson's first objection to Barth is Barth's ground breaking doctrine of scripture. Carson says, "It leaves him [Barth] saying things that are sometimes not very well integrated, even when they are wonderfully evocative. And nowhere is this truer than in his treatment of the doctrine of Scripture." Running this quote through babelfish, reveals Carson is adverse to uncertainty in the interpretation of scripture, and he doesn't like that Barth allows for a capacity for error in scripture.

Scripture is written in human words by human witnesses, but Carson advocates a docetic form of inspiration that is unilaterally divine and does not allow for any human uncertainty such that Carson encroaches on a dictation form of inspiration and exemplified in Carson's following comment: "It is easy to imagine that he is essentially an evangelical in the history and tradition of the whole mainstream of the church. But he really isn’t. . . . he wants to integrate both how God gave the Scripture, as Scripture, and how that Scripture is received by human beings, . . . and refuses to separate them."

Carson then seeks to justify himself by appealing to Calvin's doctrine of scripture. Carson says, "By contrast Calvin . . . insists that the Scripture is true . . .  even if nobody accepts it. Whereas . . . in Barth’s thinking that he is uncomfortable talking about the truthfulness and reliability and Spirit inspiration of Scripture simply as Scripture without integrating it." The grave error here is that Calvin allowed for the Scriptures to have a capacity for errors (as Barth also does), that Carson does not allow! Many Calvin scholars agree, such as Wilhelm Niesel, Francois Wendel and many others. So Calvin is not so clearly and certainly on the side of those docetic interpreters of scripture!

Carson then defines orthodoxy according to allegiance to the modern American notion of inerrancy: "The Scripture becomes the Word of God when it is received. . . . Barth does say explicitly that there are concrete errors in Scripture. . . . he [Barth] is really different from the mainstream of the Church of Jesus Christ across the ages in affirming the truthfulness, reliability and inerrancy of Scripture." Is salvation really defined as "In faith alone and adherence to modern American definitions of Inerrancy according to so and so conservative Evangelical"? Are those Christians who do exist in this hegemony outside the scope of salvation?

After these critical comments by Carson, the article includes an anti-Barth book plug. Carson's comments on Barth exceeded my expections, yet still fell short of what I had hoped that a world-class evangelical scholar, such as Carson would say about Barth. I appreciate that Carson is engaging Barth and I hope to see more articles on The Gospel Coalition regarding Karl Barth in the future.

Lastly, it may not be overstated that Carson said many laudable things about Barth that should be repeated, such as "There are many parts of Karl Barth’s writings that are luminescent. They are wonderfully evocative when he speaks of the glory and the greatness and the majesty of God and when he speaks of the importance of Christ." Carson also says, "Barth says many things that shows him affirming the truthfulness of Scripture, the reliability of Scripture, the authority of Scripture and if you take those things at face value, without reference to anything else that he says, then it is easy to imagine that he is essentially an evangelical in the history and tradition of the whole mainstream of the church." I wish these were unqualified praises of Barth, but over all, I believe that Carson is being an example evangelical by learning from others who do not fit in our tidy theological camps and I wish many evangelicals would follow this example by reading and learning from those we disagree. In the end, Carson is talking about Karl Barth with praise, and I give him a thumbs up (with room for improvement.)

For another excellent response to this TGC article, I commend DET's response: Karl Barth, Scripture, D. A. Carson, and the Gospel Coalition

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  1. Not being evangelical myself I have never thought about whether Barth was one, or how evangelicals should view his works. I just know that reading Barth on Romans had a tremendous impact on me and opened my eyes to a whole new (to me) way of reading Paul. I am tremendously grateful for his commentary on Romans and, although I wouldn’t stop there, I think everyone seriously interested in Romans should read it.

    • Although, Abigail, Barth thought of himself as evangelical; not tho in terms that we think of that in North America.

      • Barth thought of himself as “evangelisch”, which should better be translated as “protestant” and not “evangelical”, regarding the modern Northamerican context. 😉

        P.S. in German the term “evangelikal” also exists, which is the proper translation of the english “evangelical”. To further complicate things Germans also use the term “protestantisch”, which mostly is used as a generic term for all christians who are not catholic or eastern orthodox, like people in the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist etc. and sometimes even Pentecostal traditions.

        To sum it up:
        evangelisch = protestant
        evangelikal = evangelical
        protestantisch = non-chatholic/orthodox (standing in line of the reformation)


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