Tag Archives: Barth

Engaging with Barth: Faith as Trust

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Barth begins his exposition of the Apostles’ Creed by unpacking what he understands by the phrase “I believe”. He’ll do this over the course of three chapters (which I think were probably 1.5 lectures originally) by exploring the nature of faith from 3 different perspectives:

  1. Faith as trust
  2. Faith as knowledge
  3. Faith as confession

And so in this second chapter of Dogmatics in Outline, Barth begins with faith as trust. Here’s Barth’s leading idea:

Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to his promise and guidance.

There’s a lot packed into this statement, but perhaps the most eye-catching part is the description of faith as the gift of a meeting. Barth says “In Christian faith we are concerned quite decisively with a meeting”. The Bible is clear that faith is a gift (Ephesians 2), but what is this idea of a meeting?

For Barth, this encapsulates his concern that faith cannot be understood apart from what it is faith in: “‘I believe in’ – so the Confession says; and everything depends on this ‘in’.” He points out with approval that apart from this opening phrase, the Creed itself is silent on any human response, focusing instead on God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In doing so, Barth says, it “speaks at its best, deepest and completest about what happens to us men, about what we may be, do and experience.” It seems fair to say that Barth would not be a fan of the focus on subjective experience found in many churches today:

Nor was it a good time when Christians grew eloquent over their action, over the uplift and emotion of the experience of this thing, which took place in man, and when they became speechless as to what we may believe.

So by beginning with “I” but moving swiftly on to the object of faith, Barth believes the Creed is emphasising the objective side to the God-man relationship. But that doesn’t mean he is sidelining a relational Christianity in favour of something academic and dry. On the contrary, because the meeting is with the persons of the Trinity, it is highly relational: “what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe.”

For Barth, this meeting is one in which God makes us free to trust in his gracious word. On our part we simply make use of the gift in which God has given me Himself. In a beautiful phrase, Barth describes faith as a kind of joyful breathing. I think the idea of being made free to trust describes well the biblical pictures – think of Blind Bartimeus being made able to see.

I found Barth’s overall stress on the objective and relational largely very helpful. However, what is really the doctrine of regeneration does at times feel slightly crow-barred into this phrase ‘I believe’, and the actual human response of holding to God’s word is in danger of being forced out. It was only as I was composing that that I realised I’d initially mis-read Barth’s definition of faith to be saying that “faith is a gift which is a meeting”. I wonder if it could be clarified by saying “faith is the gift that comes when God encounters men in such a way that they become free to…”

Having completed this essential groundwork of God’s grace, in the second half of the chapter Barth proceeds to elaborate on the nature of trust, and we see how the focus on the gracious meeting with God in the first half of the chapter leads naturally on to trust in God. This section is brilliantly pastoral, and rather than analyse it I’ll give a flavour of it with some of my favourite quotes:

‘I believe’ means ‘I trust’. No more must I dream of trusting in myself, I no longer require to justify myself, to excuse myself, to attempt to save and preserve myself.

Faith delivers us from trust in such gods, and therefore also from the fear of them, from the disillusionments which they inevitably prepare for us again and again. We are given freedom to trust in Him who deserves our trust: freedom by holding on to Him who in distinction from all other authorities is and will remain faithful.

We ourselves will never be true to ourselves. Our human path is, as such, a path from one disloyalty to another; and it is the same with the ways of the gods of this world. They do not keep what they promise. So with them there is never any real peace and clarity. In God alone there is faithfulness, and faith is the trust that we may hold on to Him, to his promise and to his guidance.

Barth develops the idea of guidance to include in this area of faith as trust a discussion of the law. For Barth obedience to the law flows directly out of the meeting with God that comes through the gospel: “The Creed is always at the same time the gospel, God’s glad tidings to man, the message of Immanuel, God with us, to us; and as such it is necessarily also the law… To hold to God thus always means that we receive everything wholly from God and so are wholly active for him.”

I’ll close by just flagging up one issue. In his discussion of the “in spite of everything” part of his definition of faith, Barth says this: “We never believe ‘on account of’, never ‘because of’; we awake to faith in spite of everything.”

There’s some truth here, but I think we’d want to say that Jesus did provide many proofs of his identity (Acts 1:3) – so while God does awaken us to faith as he opens blind eyes, it’s not quite true to say that it’s “in spite of everything.”

I found this to be a powerful and persuasive chapter. I particularly liked Barth’s language about God giving us the freedom to trust him and I think there’s a lot to learn from it.

Next time we’ll look at Barth’s discussion of faith as knowledge.

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Engaging with Barth: Dogmatics in Outline

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If you’re anything like me, Karl Barth is the kind of theologian who you’ve heard lots about, but haven’t actually read. Often called the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, he sounds like he’s an interesting and provocative read. But his main work, Church Dogmatics, is a massive multivolume tome. Not only is it expensive (at least for an edition where the non-English phrases are translated), but you also risk missing the forest for the trees.

So when I first came across a slim volume of his called “Dogmatics in Outline”, I was intrigued. It’s Barth’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, delivered in the semi-ruins of Bonn University in 1946:

the hour seven a.m., always after we had sung a psalm or hymn to cheer us up. About eight o’clock the rebuilding in the quadrangle began to advertise itself in the rattle of an engine for breaking up the ruins.

Barth lectured with basically a post-it sized set of notes (“the primitive conditions I met with in Germany made it absolutely necessary for me to dispense with a manuscript”). According to Barth himself this has the effect of making his writing more accessible: “this looser form [might] serve to explain things which I had elsewhere expressed more strictly and compactly but, for that very reason perhaps, less noticeably and accessibly for all.”

So, for that reason, and because his ideas are rooted in an exposition of a classic text, the Apostles’ Creed, I thought this would be a sensible place to start reading Barth.

Each of the chapters in the book begins with a proposition expressed in a sentence or two which Barth then unpacks. My plan is to blog about each of these chapters, giving Barth’s proposition and then highlighting and discussing what seem to be the main features.

The first chapter is called the Task, and it’s Barth’s view of what he himself is doing in Dogmatics in Outline, so I’ll end this introductory post with an overview of this chapter.

Dogmatics is the science in which the Church, in accordance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its Confessions

In this opening chapter, Barth discusses his view of ‘dogmatics’. We might be surprised today at the use of the word science to describe the work of theology, but by that Barth means “an attempt at comprehension and exposition, at investigation and instruction, which is related to a definite object and sphere of activity.”

So Barth is not invoking the scientific method in a strict sense, but he is wanting to allude to both the rigour and provisional nature of human scientific investigation. He doesn’t see Christian dogmatics as something fallen from Heaven in a pristine state, but as the ongoing task of critically examining what the Church proclaims. In other words, he says the task of the science of dogmatics is to answer the question: “what as Christians do we really have to say?” I appreciated this emphasis on refining the Church’s proclamation – it means that the goal of dogmatics is inherently practical, missional and churchly. It ought to help keep us from descending into “meaningless talk”.

A related point that Barth stresses is that dogmatics is meant to be done by the Church. This might seem like an obvious point, but it serves to nicely begin to locate Barth for us. His background and early career was in the liberal university theology of early 20th Century German. Barth came to a place where he rejected that theology as empty and rethought nearly everything. Clearly in this opening chapter we can see how Scripture, proclamation and the Church are vital for him, but the fact that he has to stress these points shows just how different his context is to many of ours today: he is an ex-liberal (and who knows still how liberal) talking I imagine to liberals and ex-liberals. In his preface, Barth describes how he discovered in the rubbish of the University a bust of the ‘Father of liberal theology’ Friedrich Schleiermacher, which was “restored to honour again”. So when we read Barth we need to be aware that he may not be reacting to our debates, and that he has been coming from quite a different place.

Next time we’ll get into the Apostles’ Creed itself: Barth will begin to define faith, as he unpacks the first words of the Creed – “I believe…”