Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Ambivalence in Barth's theology?

In this (final) semester, I wrote an essay exploring whether was Karl Barth's theology a 'political theology'? This question may seem obvious to many, yet what follows is a teaser to its ambivalence:
In the late 1950s a German Methodist bishop, visiting a class at Garrett Theological Seminary, was asked what had been Karl Barth's major contributions to the European churches. The bishop's first answer surprised no one: Barth had helped the European churches to rediscover the Bible. But his second answer — that Barth had done more than anyone else to recall the European churches to their social and political responsibility — amazed the class...

The students immediately challenged the bishop by trotting out all the familiar American stereotypes of Barth. His theology was so "eschatological" that it had no relevance to worldly matters like politics. He so emphasized the ultimate sinfulness of all men before God that he was unable to do justice to the relative differences between men or political systems. For Barth, salvation consisted only of being forgiven by God; it gave no power to live a new life, and thus man could have no hope for improvement in either individual or social affairs. The bishop listened in growing astonishment. In the end he shook his head in bafflement. "You cannot be talking about Karl Barth," he said.
(William Hordern, 'Barth as Political Thinker,' in Christian Century, 26 March 1969.)

That's the ambivalent impression of Barth's contemporaries on him when he was still alive. So, what do you think? Was Barth a political theologian?

1 comment:

Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

LOL. Interesting topic indeed.

Karl Barth's political theology is not ambivalent, just that it is "cheem". Jesse Couenhovenhas has written a great essay "Karl Barth's Political Theology Compared with Luther and Calvin"(JRE Vol 30 No 2, 2002). This essay attempts to understand the significance of Barth's redefinition of the "law/gospel" rubric for political theology. The essay also exposited Barth's thought at length, and compared it with Luther and Calvin. Luther emphasizes the distance between gospel and the law, distinguishing between serving God in the secular regiment, and serving Christ in the spiritual regiment. He thereby challenges the improper relation of state and church. Calvin holds that preaching the law to the state includes preaching the gospel; thus, the church has a positive vision against which it can evaluate the state's service to God in Christ. This leads, however, to the danger of a 'clerical guardianship' of the state. Barth finds a positive connection between the two governments in the fact that both communities are based in Christ, in whom the gospel is their law. This grounds his view of the state as predecessor to the heavenly kingdom, as well as a prophetic mission of the church to the state. This does not lead to a new Christendom, however, first, because Barth hopes not for a kingdom wrought by human hands, but for the Theocracy of God, and second, because Barth sees the fallen reality of both church and state, the state pagan and violent, and the church a poor witness. Barth makes a strong case for supporting theological critique of the state, while avoiding Constantinianism, he is unable to solve the problem of how to connect the gospel and the law in the civil community.

In summary, Barth's political theology is basically cheemnology unlimited. Read at own risk to mental health! :)