Karl Barth (1886-1968)

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December 10 marked the anniversary of the death of one of the more controversial theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth. His approach to theology was unlike any other in that, while he provided a system for theology, he did not utilize systemics in his theology.

Karl Barth was schooled in the liberal ideologies that characterized theological thinking in the early twentieth century, particularly in Europe and especially Germany. He had a “revelation” akin to that of Martin Luther’s Romans 1:17 experience in which Luther realized the errors being taught by the church. Barth saw in the world, especially post WWI, the inconsistencies of liberalism with the message God shows in the Bible. This led to his book The Epistle to the Romans. He considered his first edition inadequate and rewrote it shortly after its publication. The sixth edition has become a marker in conservative theology.

While Barth is often decried by the liberals as being conservative in approach, the conservatives have embarrassingly ignored Barth, especially when his thinking challenges them to think. Often labeled “neo-orthodox”, he more correctly should be viewed as challenging “neo-protestantism” – which ironically is cloaked in “neo-evangelicism” today. Barth makes the serious theologian put aside any preconceived notions and enter into dialogue that starts with God, His Word, and His Will. It is exactly that challenge that makes Karl Barth controversial.

During the 1930’s the government in Germany developed legislation that dictated how churches were to conduct themselves. Barth and others saw this as a threat and came together to oppose these dictates. The Barmen Declaration was the end product of their efforts, Barth being principle in its formation. The application of the statements made are eerily apropos to today’s so-called church system. Read the principle statements below, with my thoughts on each following, and see a glimpse of Karl Barth.

1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me” John 14.6.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever does not enter the sheepfold through the door, but climbs in somewhere else, that one is a thief and a robber. I am the Door; anyone who enters through me will be saved. John 10:1, 9

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine that the church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures, and truths as God’s revelation.

Today’s church will turn to progressive revelation, magisteriums, charismatic leaders, or public opinion to chart its course. This statement shines a spotlight on the inconsistencies our churches exhibit today in the twenty-first century.

2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God” I Cor. 1.30

As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, and with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures. We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

Barth, being steeped in Reformation theology, saw that to claim the title “Christian” means to be under His sovereignty in all areas of life. It is based on grace from God and not anything having to do with our own doing.

3. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together” Eph.4.15-16

The Christian church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.

We reject the false doctrine that the church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

The church is community. It has no one person to represent it other than Jesus Christ. As such, we must act together to proclaim the message of the church – the gospel of Christ who lived, died, and is resurrected, coming again. To turn from this necessity is wrong. It was wrong in Barth’s day and it is still wrong today, though it is the common practice.

4.”You know that the rulers of the Gentiles exercise authority over them and those in high position lord it over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” Matt. 20:25-26

The various offices in the church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.

We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders further vested with ruling authority.

The church today worships its leaders. The “word of faith” movement is noted for this. The Southern Baptists are also noted for this. The Roman Catholic church also should be highlighted. When the basis for ministry hinges on the office held, the books written, the school led, or the vote of cardinals, or speaking ex-cathedra then the church is not the church anymore. It is a club.

That is not God’s way. Jesus rules the Church. Man is allowed to participate.

5. “Fear God, honor the King!” 1 Peter 2:17

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the state, in this still unredeemed world in which also the church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Kingdom (Reich), God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the state should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfill the vocation of the church as well.

We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the state and thus become itself an organ of the state.

This is the true definition of what could be called “separation of church and state”. Let the state perform its function and let the church perform its function. Sadly, the church usually abdicates its function to the state with the result being “the welfare state”. When the church actually starts performing its God-ordained roles and purposes then perhaps the state will stop seeing the need to censor the church.

6.”See, I am with you always, to the end of the age” Matt. 28:20

“God’s Word is not fettered” 2 Tim. 2:9

The church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver to all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God. We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans. The Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgement of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessional Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning church and state. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.

Verbum Dei manet in aeternum.

Self-chosen desires, purposes, and plans – these words written over seventy years ago describe the truth about the church today in the twenty-first century. I stand in solidarity with this Declaration, as Barth has written here. It is time for the church to step up and start being The Church.

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