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Karl Barth Interpreted by Pierre Courthial

Karl Barth Interpreted by Pierre Courthial

                                          Introduction by Bassam Michael Madany                   

My formal theological education took place at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1950-1953) and at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1957-1958)

In the Providence of God, I was mentored by Dr. Pierre Ch. MARCEL, a minister of the Reformed Churches of France. Dr. MARCEL edited the Quarterly La Revue Reformée, that published articles by French scholars of the Reformed tradition. Dr. Marcel sent me several of his works, Le Baptême: Sacrement de l’Alliance de Grace; L’Actualité de la Prédication; A L’Ecole du Dieu; as well as some of his private papers.

Dr. Pierre COURTHIAL, a colleague of Dr. MARCEL, was a frequent contributor to La Revue Reformée. He devoted a series of articles on “Karl Barth and the Reformed Confessions of Faith.”

The following is a summary of the series, I have translated from the French text.

What is the theological importance of Karl Barth?

I think that Karl Barth did have a considerable theological importance, especially during the 1930’s. However, for many this temporary importance was a fad that rested on a misunderstanding that Barth had actually led a powerful revival of the Reformed Faith.

Nowadays it has become clear, as some Reformed theologians had quickly discerned (Such as Berkouwer and Schilder, in the Netherlands; Van Til in the United States), that Barth’s theology, far from being Reformed, was an obstacle to it. In France, and in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, many who had rediscovered the Reformed Faith, (due to the teaching and the radiant personality of August LECERF), were led astray by Barth’s theology, during their quest for the renewal of the authentic Reformed Faith. Alas!                                              


How should we compare Barth with the old liberalism and with recent theologies?

During the 1930s, Barth was considered as the matador who would yield the deathblow to the old liberalism. What an illusion!  Barth’s thought manifested a type of a new liberalism.    

What are the differences between Calvin and Barth?

I would rather deal with the differences between the Reformers (and the Confessions of Faith of the Reformation) and Karl Barth. The differences are considerable with respect to most of the fundamental theological points: Creation and Providence; Christology; Sin, Grace, Election; the Place and Importance of the Law of God, etc.

Does Barth’s theology represent the Reformed heritage?                                                                           

Definitely not. After a quarter of a century during which Barth, while not yet Reformed, seemed to be getting closer to the Reformed Faith (as it appeared in the February 1935 Preface to a new edition of Heinrich Heppe’s “Reformierte Dogmatik,”) he began to depart further from the Reformed Faith, with the approach of the Second World War.

Was that due to the different epistemologies?

Here I must take some time to develop my response. According to our Confessions of Faith which follow the Holy Scriptures, God makes Himself known to us in two ways: first by His works of Creation and in the Government of all things, and in us as bearers of His image; secondly in Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Word of God, and in the Bible, the written Word of God. None of these diverse forms of revelation “function” without the other ones. The Revelation of God is unique and trinitarian, therefore in itself, one and multiple.

From the standpoint of God, the Holy Scriptures, as one of these forms of Revelation, hold a preeminent and specific role for us. First, they enable us to know the One Who saves us, and how He saves us. He controls all the aspects of our existence, both personal and social. In them, we find not only the Gospel of Grace, but the Law, to guide us and grant the capacity to receive the Good News. It is the Holy Spirit who works with and through the Scriptures, enabling us to live the New Life. The Holy Scriptures have a divine authority, over the Holy Church and over all men (in the diverse aspects of their personal, conjugal, family, civic, scientific, philosophical, artistic, and cultural lives.)

According to the normative teaching of the Bible, of the Reformers, and the Confessions of Faith of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Holy Scriptures are the written Word of God. On the other hand, according to Karl Barth, there is no such thing as a direct Word of God, and since the Holy Scriptures are also human, they remain “vulnerable,” and contain “contradictions,” even in their religious and theological affirmations. For Barth, the Bible is not the Word of God until it becomes such in an existential encounter. It is at this point that we find the “activism” or the “actualism” of Barth. He opposed any idea of a direct revelation of God in history, in the name of God’s liberty. For Barth, God cannot be known except by God Himself; and God does not have the liberty to be known directly by faith, in the Christ of Scriptures.

The Reformers (and the Confessions of Faith of the Reformation) are in complete agreement with the Fathers of the Christian Church (and the Ecumenical Creeds) on this point, namely in establishing the true Faith on the objective historical Revelation (as centered in the Virgin birth, life, death on the cross, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ) as based on the interpretation of this history by Christ, speaking by His Spirit, in the Holy Scriptures. It is only by the recognition of the supreme and final authority of the written Word of God, that we can establish a solid epistemology, considering the Biblical motif of Creation-Fall-Redemption.

What do you think of Karl Barth’s “Christo-centrism” that has been considered as his point of departure?

Now, had Barth only developed a Biblical “Christo-centrism,” we would have nothing to object about. The universe is Christocentric, the Bible is Christocentric, in fact Christ is the center of all things. However, Barth has developed what has been justly called a type of Christomonism. According to him, God’s revelation is found uniquely in the person and work of Jesus Christ, during the first thirty years of the First Century. Barth posits a distinction between the term “history” (as Historie in German) and “History” (as Geschichte in German.)

It is precisely Barth’s Christomonism that leads him to reject God’s general revelation in His works, and in the persons that God has created and sovereignly governs, and the revelation of the Holy Scriptures. According to Barth, the Bible is a witness, but a fallible witness, to the revelation. 

Since Christ is the only Savior (and according to Barth, the Savior of all men, just as they are all rejected in Adam, and equally all are saved in Jesus Christ, whether they are believers or non-believers,) Barth wants also Christ to be the only and exclusive Revelation of God.

In your opinion, does Barth replace the objective Biblical Revelation, with a subjective faith?

It is rather curious and symptomatic that Barth published the German edition of his Dogmatics as Kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics) as if by this audacious title, he would forestall the accusation of subjectivism. In fact, if Barth’s Dogmatics expose a brilliant thought (as Origen’s thought was in the third century), it carries an undeniable speculative character. The old Liberalism opposed the Spirit against the text of Scripture. The new Liberalism opposes “the movement or march of Scripture” to the text of Scripture. We face this question: once the Scripture is detached from its text, from which “spirit” are we to receive this movement?  

Starting with Barth’s open breach with the historic doctrine of Scripture, several non-Reformed theologies would ensue. Already during his lifetime there were as many diverse theologies as there were Barthians; with Barth himself being the least “non-Reformed” of them all!

Despite its systematic character, did Barth’s theology lead to the development of Pluralism?

For me, it is undeniable, and it is exactly what I have been saying. Up to the rise of Liberalism, both “old” and “new,” the Holy Scripture had been received by the Churches as the very Word of God.  Its authority was unquestioned and sovereign. But as soon as the Bible was regarded merely as a human and fallible “testimony,” the Bible was no longer the Word of God. There would be no escape from the pluralism of canons within the canon, and diverse types of hierarchizations in the Biblical message. There can no longer be a common Confession of Faith, but pluralist declarations of faith, where any person would have the choice to adhere to this or that declaration, if one does not adhere to the letter of its formulations!

The Ecumenical Councils of the early Church and the synods of the churches of the Reformation were able to formulate confessions of faith, because they were willing to submit to the clear and precise authority of the Scripture as the word of God.

Karl Barth and the New Liberalism join Schleiermacher and the Old Liberalism. The doctrine of Pluralism requires the rejection of all Church doctrines, and of every real Church Confession of Faith.

There remains an urgent need for the proclamation of the Christian (and Biblical) faith by the confessing Reformed Churches of the future, in harmony with the confessions of the Early Church, and of the Churches of the Reformation.

[1] La Revue réformée, 147 (1986 : 4), 134-138.

[2] Cf. le témoignage d’Albert-Marie Schmidt in Etudes sur Calvin et le calvinisme (Paris : Fischbacher, 1935), 210.

[3] In La théologie protestante au dix-neuvième siècle (Genève : Labor, 1969), 234.


Posted on 10 May 2019