McCormack on Barth on Prolegomena

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s case against Prolegomena

Secularism as an argument for the necessity of apologetics was encountered by Barth in 1932 in virtually the same form in which it was expressed by Gilkey, Ogden, et al. Barth wrote, ‘At this point the customary procedure, followed with new zeal in modern work, is to indicate the change in general cultural awareness and the general world-picture which has taken place in the last 300 years and called theology as such in question … This altered situation, we are told, is what makes dogmatic prolegomena necessary today.’ The argument made little impression on him. ‘There is no theological foundation for the assumed difference between our own and earlier times. Has there ever been an age in which theology has not basically confronted a radical negation of the revelation believed in the Church? . . . the struggle between the unbelieving reason of man and the revelation believed in the Church has always been with fundamentally the same seriousness the problem of Christian utterance in general and of dogmatics in particular. Hence we need not regard the tragedy of modern godlessness as anything out of the ordinary…’ (CD., 1/1, pp. 26-8) If secularism was not new in the 60s, neither did it have the strength commonly imagined. In his recent contribution to the Christian Century’s ‘Change of Mind’ series, Langdon Gilkey professes to see in the present context, the ‘re-evaluation of the secular’ and the ‘reappearance of the religious’. (Gilkey, ‘Theology for a Time of Troubles’. Christian Century (April 29, 1981), p. 475.) What this suggests is that the social upheaval of the 60s was not as radical as was thought. Seen up close, the 60s indeed seemed revolutionary. Taking a longer view, from a perspective fifteen years later, the historical continuities are more striking than the discontinuities. That President Reagan could find a chord of response in the voting electorate with descriptions of America as a ‘chosen nation’ and a ‘city set on a hill’ is just one indication of the close ties our day has with the nineteenth century. Many others could be adduced. What this means is that systematic theologians ought to exercise a great deal of caution before concluding that a ‘new’ situation has given us grounds for a thorough reconception of the entire task of theology. Systematicians would be well-advised to take a longer view of the historical situation.

from “Divine Revelation and Human Imagination: Must we Choose Between the Two?” Scottish Journal of Theology 37.4 (1984), 454 n.62.

Karl Barth’s prayer for theologians

Karl Barth’s prayer for theologians

Lead us not into temptation — into the temptation of an objectivistic consideration of God’s secondary and primary objectivity; a disinterested non-obedient consideration which holds back in a place which it thinks secure. Lead us not into the temptation of the false opinion that Thou art an object like other objects which we can undertake to know or not just as we wish, which we are free to know in this way, or even in that. Lead us not into the temptation of wanting to know Thee in Thy objectivity as if we were spectators, as if we could know, speak and hear about Thee in the slightest degree without at once taking part, without at once making that correspondence actual, without at once beginning with obedience.

from Church Dogmatics 2/1, § 25, sect. 1

John Webster on Barth on self-knowledge

John Webster on Barth on self-knowledge

The earlier parts of CD III/2 devote much space to securing one conviction which is basic to Barth’s anthropology and ethics: the conviction that because human persons cannot be defined remoto gratia, apart from the covenant of grace which is the creature’s end, attempts to reach self-definition through self-reflection yield only delusion. “The self-contradiction resulting from our contradiction of God is serious. It really prevents us from understanding ourselves. We are not clear nor transparent to ourselves, nor can we see ourselves from any higher standpoint. We are totally and not just partially incapable of occupying any independent vantage point from the height of which we might penetrate and judge ourselves.” The point here is not simply that Barth, like Calvin, has a profound sense of the ruinous effects of sin on human self-knowledge. It is also that in laying out a procedure for constructing anthropological doctrine, Barth declines to set theological language about humanity in a wider context of human self-reflection.

from Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation, (Cambridge, 1995), 66.