Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I know, most of us are used to seeing pictures of Karl Barth as an old man. I like this picture of him as a younger man.

I raised the issue about Schleiermacher and Barth for a reason. As I see it, the fundamental difference between Schleiermacher and Barth is the issue: who starts the conversation? It is a fundamental question of the Christian and Reformed Faith.

I think it comes back to a question John and I have danced around a couple of times but have not addressed directly: what John calls Special Revelation. Personally I don’t like the term. It suggests that we can see who God is in a general way, (in General Revelation) through looking at the universe or through reason but that we cannot find a salvific way of seeing God without God speaking to us in a special way. And if I understand you correctly, John, you have rejected special revelation.

Karl Barth responded to the question of general revelation, (and to his friend Emil Brunner), in a document appropriately named, Nein! Barth’s point was that humans are unable see who God is or see God at all by looking at creation or other humans or through reasoning. There is no general revelation. Barth’s point was that when humans set out to find God we cannot do so. It is impossible for humans to find God. Instead Barth argued God reaches out and finds us; that God speaks to us in self revelation, that God reveals God’s self to us in the person of Jesus.

One can see the influence of Barth, (actually he was the primary author) in The Barmen Declaration. The Declaration says, in part,

1. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." (John 14:6). "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.... I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved." (John 10:1, 9)

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation.

2. "Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption." (I Cor. 1:30.)

As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords--areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

Yes, Barmen was written in a particular historical situation and to meet a particular threat: Nazism. The German Christians were trying to turn Jesus from a Jewish savior who died on the cross into an Aryan hero. Further the Nazis were making claims on the lives of Germans that were in effect divine claims or what we call totalitarianism. Barmen spoke and said that Jesus is Lord of all of life, not Hitler.

But Barmen, I believe, also makes claims on us today. Whenever the Church is tempted to place some idol in the place of God, the most popular in the USA being consumer capitalism, (which yes, John, is a primary source of destruction of God’s good creation), we must say that Jesus Christ alone is Lord. And whenever some say that God reveals God’s self in other ways than in Jesus, as attested in Scripture, Barmen says the only revelation is Jesus.

Thus one cannot go from creation or thinking or reason to God. One can only, (through the power of the Holy Spirit), receive the revelation of God in the person of Christ through Scripture.

I suggest then that Schleiermacher’s way, and therefore the path of liberal Christianity throughout the 19th and into the early 20th Century, (please note I use the term liberal Christianity here as a technical term to describe a school of thought that, went from Schleiermacher down to Harnack), cannot lead to God. Humans simply do not have the power to see our way or reason our way to God. God must find us.

A quick note to flycandler: the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate was primarily between Old Princeton Scholastics and liberal Christians. Neo-Orthodox thought came to America in the 1930’s as a unifying theology for the Presbyterian Church that lasted until around 1970.

Please note I am not a thoroughgoing Barthian. I am probably closer to Brunner. I think, (and here I try to agree with Paul in Romans chapter 1), that the universe does indeed reveal God, but that humans, because of sin, are unable to see that revelation. I would argue against Barth as well that Scripture really is the Word of God, that it is the revelation of God, but that humans are unable to see or hear that revelation without the power of the Holy Spirit.

Schleiermacher bases his argument for the Christian faith on human feelings. Certainly faith involves human emotions. But is faith primarily a “feeling of absolute dependence?” What happens when we don’t feel the feelings? Faith involves the whole human being. When one does not feel the presence of God the Christian says, “Nevertheless I will trust him.” Even in times of despair and depression, something I know a lot about, the Christian confesses “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Ph 2:11 RSV)

I suggest that what Karl Barth gave back to us many in the mainline churches abandoned in the 1960’s and later. Much of theology today again begins with the human situation, often, (as in Liberation Theologies), with particular human situations, and argues that to find God one must start with the human situation. I believe the opposite is true. God must start with us.

Grace and Peace


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