Karl Barth and Apologetics

Since posting that quote by Barth from the Römerbrief about apologetics, I have been asked to further comment on Barth's position by e-mail. Since the topic of apologetics is still a relevant one--maybe even more relevant in our pluralistic society--I will post the quotes from Barth that I sent out to those interested in the topic. I have also included the entry on Karl Barth and apologetics that John McDowell wrote for the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics just published last month.

Church Dogmatics 1.2, pp. 332-333:
By trying to resist and conquer other religions, we put ourselves on the same level. They, too, appeal to this or that immanent truth in them. They, too, can triumph in the power of the religious self-consciousness, and sometimes they have been astonishingly successful over wide areas. Christianity can take part in this fight. There is no doubt that it does not lack the necessary equipment, and can give a good account of itself alongside the other religions. But do not forget that if it does this it has renounced its birthright. It has renounced the unique power which it has as the religion of revelation. This power dwells only in weakness. ... [Regarding the apologists of the early church] It was a real temptation, not merely to validate Jesus Christ against or for the sinful men of heathen religion, as the sacred books of the Church, the Old Testament and New Testament, demanded, but at the same time (and very quickly on a fairly broad front) to play off the Christian religion as better than the heathen, to contrast Christian possession ... with heathen poverty. When we read the apologetics of the second and third centuries, can we altogether avoid the painful impression that what we have here ... is, on the whole, a not very happy, a rather self-righteous, and at any rate a not very perspicacious boasting about all those advantages of Christianity over heathen religion which were in themselves incontestable but not ultimately decisive? In these early self-commendations of Christianity a remarkably small part is played by the fact that grace is the truth of Christianity, that the Christian is justified when he is without God, like Abraham, that he is like the publican in the temple, the prodigal son, wretched Lazarus, the guilty thief crucified with Jesus Christ. Instead, we have the -- admittedly successful -- rivalry of one way of salvation, one wisdom and morality with others.
CD 2.1, pp. 8, 93-95: in these passages, Barth defines apologetics
as the false task of describing and defending the faith without the
presupposition of faith in the Word of God -- thus it is a "natural
theology" which has no place in Christian discourse.

CD 2.1, p. 94:
This dilemma betrays the inner contradiction in every form of a 'Christian' natural theology. As a 'Christian' natural theology, it must really represent and affirm the standpoint of faith. Its true objective to which it really wants to lead unbelief is the knowability of the real God through Himself in His revelation. But as a 'natural' theology, its initial aim is to disguise this and therefore to pretend to share in the life-endeavour of natural man. ... Therefore, as a natural theology it speaks and acts improperly. And at this point -- this betrays the contradiction -- it is guilty of definite error, not only in regard to the subject, but now also in regard to man, in regard to the world, in regard to unbelief. And it is an error which not only injures truth but also and directly love. It is a theological error which reveals itself to be such by the fact that it is obviously a pedagogic error as well. The unbelieving man who is the partner in this conversation is not a child playing games, to whom we are in the habit of speaking down in order the more surely to raise him up. If we think we can play with him, we will get our fingers bitten.
Cf. CD 2.2, p.520:
Apologetics in this case would be the attempt to establish and justify the theologico-ethical inquiry within the framework and on the foundation of the presuppositions and methods of non-theological, of wholly human thinking and language.
The God of grace is "lost when the apology succeeds" (2.2, 521).

Karl Barth on Apologetics, by John McDowell:

According to the will of their benefactor, the Gifford lectures were to promote the study of natural theology in Scottish universities. In Aberdeen in 1937-8, however, Barth criticised this theme, and commented instead on the Scots Confession of 1560. Natural theology, the attempt to know God apart from revelation, and that which underpinned many 'apologetic strategies', is a theologically mistaken enterprise. In Jesus Christ we know the trinitarian God as the 'Subject' of our knowing (i.e., it is through God's initiating agency that we know). Since God is not an 'object' in the way other things are, God cannot be known in the same way as other objects. Therefore theological rationality remains relatively (not absolutely) independent of other forms of rationality.

That does not mean that Barth drew a contrast between God and world, faith and reason, in a manner simply describable as 'irrationalist'. His theological account of rationality called into question the legitimacy of any (1) general view of rationality that does not take seriously the sinful perspectives of our knowing, (2) account of knowing that imagines God as an 'object' perceivable through human striving.

Instead of natural theology Barth proposed that "the best apologetics is a good dogmatics", and maintained that revelation defends itself [Table Talk, ed. J. D. Godsey (Edinburgh and London, 1963), 62]. Through the agency of the trinitarian God we have come to know God, in a life-involving faith; explaining this faith to others involves describing who Christians believe in, and presumably providing testimony to the possibility of this knowing; so that others may be encouraged to 'see things the way I [or better, 'we', since knowing is social] do'.

The manner of Barth's 'faith seeking understanding' (learned largely from Anselm) suggests further that this involves ways of detailed and thoughtful critiquing others, while humbly acknowledging one's own fragility, and constantly testing one's own beliefs. But that Barth is not promoting any simple 'internal coherence' perspective on the truth of Christian belief, is most readily detectable in his theological love of Mozart; his eclectic practice of learning and appreciating insights gained from the likes of Heidegger and Sartre, among others; his later reflections on creation's "little lights" [Church Dogmatics, IV.3.1, §69.2]; and his earlier claim that

"God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so" [Church Dogmatics, I.1, 60].


Shane said…
I would have to reread the Römerbrief to make this argument more strongly, but I wonder if Barth's dismissal of apologetics is tied to Kant.

What I mean is this: Thomas believes that apologetic arguments (= arguments from natural reason which prove the existence and basic attributes of God) are possible because he thinks he has five successful apologetic arguments.

Kant rejects these proofs because they seem to exceed the boundaries of finite human knowledge (which he limits to experience). Kant does not think that there can be successful deductive proofs about any things-in-themselves, including God, the soul, immortality, the eternity of the world, etc. Kant criticizes Thomas's five ways in the Critique of Pure Reason for not being verifiable in experience. (I think this is right, but take it with a grain of salt because I don't have a copy of the text in front of me.)

Barth seems to be following Kant: natural knowledge of God is impossible, since it exceeds the capabilities of human knowing. Barth thinks that revelation can break Kant's general scheme, but the ordinary model for human knowledge is as Kant described it.

But what if Kant is wrong? What it is possible to have demonstrations about objects-in-themselves? Moreover, what if reformulated versions of Thomas's proofs actually do succeed. (Success here could be defined in a lot of different ways, but it is not the same as 'proving christianity', contra evangelical apologetics) Then it would seem that Barth is partially mistaken about his rejection of the concept of natural knowledge of God.

The early Barth is definitely Kantian in his philosophical framework, but Barth is by no means bound to Kant for this material dogmatics. No more than the medieval Scholastics were Kantian for thinking that God in-and-for-Godself is inaccessible to human reason and comprehension were Kantian. Barth accepts the radical separation between God and humanity as something that the biblical witnesses testify to repeatedly. But then also accepts the radical nearness of God in Jesus Christ which the biblical witnesses also testity to in the narrative of the gospel.

Kant is definitely in the background, but Kant is not necessary. He simply offers a helpful linguistic-philosophical framework within which to work. The later Barth moves away from such frameworks entirely. Here I wish to invoke Bruce McCormack's masterly study of these transitions and movements in Barth's theology, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. He addresses the Kantian element in Barth's theology, as well as the moves that Barth makes in the course of theological development in relation to philosophy--whether Kantian, existentialist, natural, etc.
Andy Kaylor said…
I still don't like it.

But maybe I just have a caricatured idea of what Barth is saying. Does his idea of revelation include any actual meeting of God in the world, or is it strictly proclamation?

I'm left with the impression that he is saying we should stick to repeating what we have heard (the announcement of the gospel) while neglecting (or even denying) the fact that God is "in the room" (so to speak).

Am I misunderstanding his perspective completely?