I am leading a seminar this semester on Karl Barth, and we are reading the first part volume of Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV.1). Reading Barth can be a disorienting experience at first, so I put together a little “primer” for my students. I thought back to what I found helpful when first encountering Barth, and I remembered Busch’s introduction The Great Passion. This is a fantastic read on many levels, but it was his manner of describing Barth’s theology in terms of characteristics or hallmarks that served me well at the beginning. Much like Hunsinger’s approach in How to Read Karl Barth (although the formats differ), Busch gives the reader a sense for how Barth’s theology operates, its flavor and feeling, and how one might orient themselves within it.
So I went back over several years of reading journals and cobbled together a series of my own “hallmarks” of Barth’s theology, many of which I am sure you will find said differently in other introductions:
- Theology points always toward God and not humanity, an idea, or program (I can’t help but think of Grünewald’s painting, “Crucifixion” (right) which hung next to Barth’s desk).
- Theology, in light of the greatness of God, is best characterized as human “sighing” and “stammering” —regardless of its sophistication, expansiveness, or insight: “Now we have only a dim perception of him, the living God. There can be no talk of knowing him, of ‘having’ him. What awkward sighing and stammering there is, when we try to say something about him” (Insights, 17; Barth describes prayer the same, CD III.4, 89).
- Theology is carried out before God; God stands before the theologian and makes possible the theologian’s work.
- Theology enters into God’s self-mediation to us; it is not humanity’s attempt to mediate God to us; theology is, then, a response not an initiative.
- Theology’s task is the same as preaching’ task: it stands in the service of God’s ongoing work to sanctify (judging and comforting) the church.
- Theology is living and active; because its object is terrifyingly alive, theology takes on the active, ever-on-its-toes flavor of painting a bird in flight. It can never be locked down into a “system.”
- Theology gives its attention to Scripture, and in doing so confronts an entirely new world; the Bible should narrate our understanding of the world, rather than the world narrating our understanding of the Bible.
- Theology encounters a God who is wholly other; this is not the God of 19th century theological liberalism that Barth famously described as “Speaking of God by speaking of man in a really loud voice.”
- Theology’s primary location is the church, hence Barth’s major theological work is titled, “Church Dogmatics.” It is in the Church to whom God continues to speak through Scripture.
- Theology is worship in the field of thought—an act of prayer by sanctified reason.
- Theology operates primarily in the mode of “describing” rather than “proving” or “defining.”
- Theology and ethics are intimately linked, hence the descriptive task of theology should never be far from the ethical consequences for God’s people.
I am sure that our Barth readers could suggest more hallmarks, so what would they be?