Karl Barth for critiquing 20th Century Evangelical American theology today

Karl Barth’s critique of 19th Century Theology as a guide for critiquing Evangelical American theology today

I brought up earlier the idea that two essays by Barth and Bonhoeffer could guide Evangelical Americans in a self critique of our history today and I didn’t expect any comments on it, but to my surprise there was some interest! So I’m going to start by going point by point through Karl Barth’s “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century” (The Humanity of God, pgs. 11-33, 1960, John Knox Press) with possible lessons for Protestant American Evangelicals in the Twentieth Century.

1. Karl Barth writes that “Honor they father and they mother” is the binding commandment by which we “respect and sustain the ties that bind the present to the past, in spite of deep breaches. . .”

Do Evangelical Americans have such a thorough going respect and tie to our own previous generations?

2. Barth points to the political outworking of his teachers’ theology as proof of their theological bankruptcy:

“August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. . . For me at least, 19th-century theology no longer held any future.” (pg. 14)

I think that it is to our shame that Evangelical Americans see no connection between theology and its political outworking. One really has no practical social bearing on the other. Of course we deny this. When it comes to the one issue of Abortion, Evangelicals proudly claim proof of their social theological triumph. I look at the 2004 reelection of the Bush Administration (largely the of the work of the Evangelical Right) as a marker of proof that Twentieth Century Evangelical American theology is bankrupt. This line of thinking seems to be completely counter to the Evangelical ability to separate its theology from its politics. (More to say on this later with Bonhoeffer’s essay.)

3. “Above all, theology was measured against the impressive achievements and personalities of the so-called classical era of German culture, philosophic and poetic. . . . what did theology have to say to this century?” (pg. 15) Barth credits this as “an act of intellectual and, in the last analysis, of spiritual steadfastness that they were not afraid to face this modern man.” (pg. 16) Interwoven with the critique is an appreciation. These men were not lowering their gaze from their time, were speaking directly to it, which is important.

I think we can say, confidently, that Evangelical Americans take pride in that fact that they are the first to follow their age’s trends, and are getting better at this all the time. They were among the first to use radio, then television, magazines, newspapers, and the internet. They were fashionable and tailored their evangelistic message to the pressing questions that the “average Joe” was asking about life. I’ve seen philosophy textbooks for high school level that published selections from Billy Graham on what gives life meaning next to those of naturalist philosophers.

4. Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth century went overboard in fixing its eyes on the world. Barth says “confrontation with the contemporary age was its decisive and primary concern. (pg. 19)

Now this could be easily misunderstood, so Barth makes it clear he doesn’t mean that escaping the world would have been better.

a. With so much coming into the church from the culture and so much energy spent to engage it, little time was left for understanding themselves.

b. “ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment. These threatened and undermined theology and the church.”

c. Errors enjoyed birthright and authority. No fundamental agreement on the primacy of the positive tasks of thology in and for the church over the secondary tasks of relating to various philosophies of the time.

i. Barth says that respectable dogmatics could instead be good apologetics.

ii. Man might take theologians more seriously if theologians had not taken him so seriously. The best never overcame this limitation. This was the key problem.

I think we have obvious examples everywhere of how the now-mainstream American faith, Evangelicalism, is repeating history as Barth describes it. I’m not just talking about Conservative Evangelicals either. The one thing all of us Evangelicals (whether we like the name or not) seem to have in common is the amount of energy we spend engaging our culture—whether loathing or loving it. Evangelicalism stays on top by its rigorous engagement in mainstream American life. Successful pastors stay up on the business world, the world of psychology, the world of religion, music, art, and of course pop culture. Maybe they do it with nothing but magazine subscriptions, but all in all the need to engage forms the major impulse, with preaching and theology being the easier parts because, of course, God don’t change.

Have Evangelicals not been forming their own epistemology? What is, for instance, the work of Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, and Greg Bahnsen if not thorough-going modernist epistemologies in their own right? Schaeffer and Van Til spent their lives fighting the Enlightenment with some sort of Counter-Enlightenment. They used modernist means to engage the Modernist age. They were convinced that their own propositional apologetic worldview was “the” Christian one.

5. They sought Universal Recognition on their evangelistic impulse. (pg. 21)

a. they proved the possibility of faith by the world’s standards

b. in particular they followed the “innate and essential capacity” to “sense and taste the infinite” or the “religious a priori”

It gets tricky here, because of course Evangelicals claim that their evangelistic impulse is of course the Scriptural one, and that they, unlike the Nineteenth century European theologians have not neglected the Word of God in their evangelism. But what is the “sinner’s prayer” if not an attempt to fit rational man into a thirty second (or less) “life altering” taste of the infinite? While we cannot say that God can’t use the sinners prayer, we can say that the Christian Life, the gospel, and even the missional directive of Scripture can’t be contained in it as Twentieth Century Evangelicals supposed.

I find my own spiritual heritage in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s. This movement had some of the worst examples of excesses in regarding faith by worldly standards. The ecstatic spiritual experience that many knew at conversion became a philosophical guiding light, an epistemology if you will, for Truth itself. (Preachers would say, “Jesus will give you a greater high than any acid you could experience. Drop a little Matthew, Mark, Luke and John instead.” ) I’ve heard countless numbers of testimonies claiming that the Jesus experience felt at conversion is the one Truth by which all other truths pale in comparison. If taken seriously, this makes personal physical experience more important than faith. If the experience can be duplicated in worship services, faith will surely follow. Now, of course I’m not trying to debunk a fifteen year old’s experience in 1969. I’m just saying that when enough churches use this experience one way, it becomes its own thing.

6. The Two Important Questions (p. 22)

a. “Were men prepared to take such lessons from the theologians?”

b. “Could the Christian message and the Christian faith be a subject for debate while the validity of a general world view was presupposed?”

These questions get right to the heart of the issue at hand here. Is our theological work for the world really making God more relevant to men? Is it giving the Church more authority to speak? By adopting the modernist (or some sort of post-modern) worldview and forming our own epistemologies really doing the work of God? For Barth the answer was no. So where does this leave us? Well, Barth points us toward theologies for the Church, dogmatics that themselves contain a reasonable apologetic. How can Evangelicals move from being the other conservative side of the liberal modernist coin? I don’t have any easy answers, but I think it starts with some healthy rigorous questioning.

If you find this useful and want, I’ll unpack Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Protestantism without Reformation” in the same way.

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Filed under Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, theology

11 responses to “Karl Barth for critiquing 20th Century Evangelical American theology today

  1. wtm1

    “How can Evangelicals move from being the other conservative side of the liberal modernist coin?”

    You have hit the nail on the head with this question. I don’t have any answers to it either, but I suspect that it will have something to do with a good, solid, positive theology and spirituality. Here’s to hoping that someone figures this out soon!


  2. Solid criticisms that I agree with wholeheartedly.

  3. Nice post, Chris. (Trackback Faith & Theology.)

  4. kim fabricius

    Excellently conceived and executed. And I like the way you catch – and apply – both the generosity and the severity of Bath’s crtitique. Many thanks.

  5. kim fabricius

    “Bath’s” – Ooops! :)

  6. Well said. (I was directed to your blog via Faith and Theology) Hope things are going well at the ole’ JPUSA. I’ve had several friends spend time there over the years, and I’ve been to C-stone fest many times over the years… good times! Peace to you.

  7. Regarding point 3) I think there is a key difference:

    The 19th century was characterized by following all the latest trends on theology (i.e. dumping orthodoxy) while retaining the outward forms of Christianity (liturgy, symbols, etc.). More recently, the challenge is to stand firm on orthodox Christian theology and morality, but being innovative on the outward forms and especially adapting them to different cultures. I think this is more in line with what Jesus teaches us.

    There is another group which wants to be innovative on the morality but conservative on the theology and insists that they aren’t liberal modernists. Shame on them.

  8. Geoff,

    It’s a small world. We’re doing well here at JPUSA. Getting ready for Cstone ’07. Next time you’re in Chicago drop by. That’s an open invite to all. Let me know you’re coming and I’ll try to show you around again or for the first time. BTW, to set the record straight we’re not made up of a bunch of aging hippies or armchair theologians. There’s maybe only a handful of either.


  9. I recently got this comment and accidentally deleted it. In all fairness I’m posting for Thomas his comments.

    I find it hard to comprehend Carl Bart, when he was an anti-semite. Bart refused to help the Jewish people from Nazi persecution, due to their not being baptised. Deitrich Bonhoeffer helped them (Jewish People) firstly, because they are human. I’m sorry I cannot accept Bart’s critisism of any country or society, when he refused to help marginalised victims of persecution.

    Thomas Clowe S.D.B.
    Salesian of Don Bosco. Republic of Ireland Eire

  10. Now for my answer to Thomas,

    I really don’t understand how you see Barth this way. Is there someone else named Carl Bart that you’re confusing Karl Barth with? I’m talking about the Swiss theologian. Karl Barth was no anti-semite in any sense. He left Germany because he refused to take the Aryan oath as it was without adding to it. He made himself a regular thorn in the side of the Swiss in his outspokenness against the Nazi regime. I suggest you read a bit more about Barth and get back with me.



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