This overview of Barth’s visit to America is by Dr. H. Daniel Friherg, teacher of theology in the Lutheran Theological College of Makumira, Tanganyika, who is currently on furlough.
Professor Barth’s lectures in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and in Princeton Theological Seminary undoubtedly staged the best-attended week-long courses in theology ever given on this continent. Professor Barth announced that he had never lectured to so many people in his life. About 2,000 people crowded into Chicago’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at every session, while Princeton University Chapel was filled to its 2,200 capacity.
The lectures were of an hour’s length—almost with Swiss stop-watch accuracy—but evening discussions continued longer. Many of the audience sat through almost three hours of what was for some of them, including myself, a very tight accommodation, in order to catch every word of two hours of theological speech. Barth’s hold on the crowd, particularly on some occasions, was terrific, almost mesmeric.
It was said in one introduction that we now had Barth “with us in the flesh”—a venerable flesh, with a look and a comportment at once grandfatherly and magisterial. Jaroslav Pelikan, Professor of Historical Theology, referred to Barth as a Church Father now veritably present. Accentuating his interestingness of person is his manner of speech. Barth speaks English perfectly, but very slowly and very deliberately. His delivery, with its strongly German accent, deliberative pace, and uncommonly sensitive management of voice inflection—particularly a circumflection of tone at the critical point which gave his speech a certain ingenuousness that pulled the hearer into acquiescence—was extraordinarily effective and had an almost oracular character. And good as Barth is at extended address, he is even better at the free play of dialogue.
Content of the Addresses
The title of the series was “An Introduction to Evangelical Theology.” True to his post-Römerbrief history Barth struck hard from the opening minutes for the autonomy of evangelical theology. Whereas all other theologies start out from man, evangelical theology is unique as a science dealing with the response of faith to the speaking of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Having its origin thus solely in the action of God, evangelical theology must recognize no other rule than that of the Word. Since it consists exclusively of study of the response of faith that is given and evoked by the Word it derives its procedures exclusively from the character of that Word and consequently has no reason for squaring itself with the many systems that start out with man. It is to stand totally aloof to them; its justification and commendation are from God and not from man.
God’s Word is the course of his saving action. This was initiated in the form of a covenant with Israel. But Israel turned out to be an intractable contender, and God’s covenant with him was saved from failure by being accomplished in Jesus Christ. One of Barth’s great qualities is his capacity for reaching out across the whole complex totality of presentations and picking out the factors that stand in complementary relation to one another and then illuminating the character of each without obliterating or extenuating the relation of mutual complementation. This quality gives comprehension and balance to what he says, and he exhibited it beautifully in his insistence that God’s dealings with the Jews cannot be understood apart from fulfillment in the new contender who was all obedience and perfect obedience; nor can God’s delivering work in Christ be understood apart from the work of which it is the culmination. This saving work is for all men, and because of it, God, who apart from the fulfillment in Christ would have to deal with man in terrible judgment, now comes to him as father, brother, and friend. [See editorial, “Concessions to Universalism Blunt Evangelistic Urgency,” p. 22—ED.]
Of this saving work the Community of Believers—a term Barth commends to us in preference to “Church” (as emphasizing a fellowship of responders in faith rather than a system of doctrine apart from the believers)—is to bear continual witness before all men by word and by every appropriate kind of stance and deed, including the compassionate care of the needy. But this witness needs incessant correction in order that it may be a true testimony to God’s Work and Word. For God’s Word which is that saving work completed in Christ cannot nowadays be known immediately but only by means of the prophets and apostles, to whom it was spoken directly. Their witness, both the oral and the written, to God’s saving work which they encountered in the very performance of that work by God—in Israel and in Christ—attested itself to their contemporaries as authentic and authoritative, and being so received by them was in this character commended to succeeding generations. One of Barth’s many luminous statements was that the Community in a sense made its first confession of faith by adopting these original witnesses as authentic and true testimonies. Their voice, he asserted, is crystal-clear, simple, and unambiguous. Theology’s task thus becomes the squaring of our, secondary, witness with these primary and authoritative witnesses. For not only is there the obligation to witness, there is also the craving to know and understand the witness (Credo ut intelligam), and there is an obligation of fulfilling this craving. It should be fulfilled in the instance of the whole Community of believers and in that sense all Christians are obligated to be theologians. But on the other hand there are those placed in special positions to carry on such inquiry, and on these the obligation rests more heavily. Woe to the highly placed churchman who excuses himself from theology in order to administer the Community.
In our evaluation of the congruence between present witness to God’s Word and that Word as witnessed to by the primary testimony we are helped by the formulations of past generations of believers. But since these formulations are not primary witnesses, their understanding itself of the Word must be critically evaluated, though in optimam partem et in bonam fidem. And the primary witnesses themselves, that is, the Scriptures, though the Word is completely unambiguous, must be studied with all the help of the linguistic, historical, and other relevant disciplines.
In the concluding lecture, entitled “Spirit,” Professor Barth conceded that all the leading statements of the preceding lectures, even while they were all consistent with one another, must nevertheless to an outsider appear as a concatenation hanging in mid-air. But of this complete lack of external support he made a capital virtue. For when evangelical theology observes the categorical prohibition against seeking any external authentication—when she does not vainly hope that the impossible will become possible, as Barth would put it—she is in a position to give forth witness continuously to God’s word and then the proper and utterly adequate authentication is abundantly produced by that very ongoing action of testimony, and great gladness is thrown in to boot. Barth denominates evangelical theology the “happy” theology, and he wore an air of ease and grace and gladness that declared itself to be of a high origin. Continuing with his theme of “Spirit,” Barth then very imaginatively turned the alleged liability of suspension in mid-air into the great asset of unmitigated freedom to be blown upon from every quarter by the fresh and moving air that is the Spirit of God. In the course of the next twenty minutes or so he presented a remarkable compendium of biblical teaching on the Holy Ghost, alluding to perhaps a score of Bible passages and illuminating by each some character or ministry or gift of that Spirit. Barth’s gift for sensing the nerve of discreet passages and for their grandly and even artistically structured synthesis is quite extraordinary. The closing note of the lectures was a warning to theology against presuming to manage the Spirit and an admonition to cry earnestly and incessantly, Veni, Creator Spiritus, and to submit daily to His cleansing and renewing ministry.
Assessing Barth’s Theology
That final lecture on “Spirit” was delivered in the context of a University Convocation, and after the sublime music of Barth’s favorite composer, Mozart, sounded forth from the high choir loft in the nave, the degree of Doctor of Divinity Honoris Causa was conferred by President George W. Beadle of the University upon “Karl Barth, Professor Emeritus of Dogmatics, University of Basel, Switzerland. Profound scholar, churchly dogmatician, fearless fighter against totalitarianism, whose work inaugurated a new epoch in Christian theology.” Alas! The honored Doctor had not converted everyone to his system. One graduate student of divinity told me he thought President Beadle’s misreading (immediately corrected) of “dogmatist” for “dogmatician” hit the nail on the head.
The whole series was given with remarkable adherence to traditional themes and terminology together with a considerable simplicity of speech. Starting each time with a staccato and high-pitched “Ladies and Gentlemen”—just that (there was no opening funny story or even an allusion to the introduction)—Barth covered in his own way a terrific scope of theology.
I should remark on his use of “Evangelical” in the title of the lectures. He claimed that the theology he expounds is evangelical in two senses, that of the original Gospel as well as that which came anew to the fore in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It has been customary in many of the churches that welcomed the insights and emphases of the great Reformation of the Church to mean by evangelical that which emphasizes salvation by faith apart from works. In Barth’s use of the term in the present series of lectures the distinction is not from legalistic theologies possessing nevertheless some biblical orientation but from humanistic theologies. For him in the present context the Gospel is not that which stands in contradistinction to the Law but that which including the latter denotes the whole of God’s saving act; so that Gospel is simply equivalent to the Word. Evangelical theology here means theology of the Word.
Questions from Theologians
The panel discussions created special interest. Six “young theologians” of widely divergent views had been assembled as interrogators. They were Prof. Edward John Carnell, Fuller Theological Seminary; Prof. Bernard Cooke, S. J., Marquette University; Prof. Hans Frei, Yale University; Prof. Schubert Ogden, Southern Methodist University; Prof. Jakob Petuchowski, Hebrew Union College; William Stringfellow, Lawyer, New York City. The method followed was the reading of a question (previously shown to Dr. Barth), Barth’s speaking in answer to the question, and the questioner’s commenting on the answer.
To Professor Ogden’s inquiry as to the criterion by which Professor Barth would exercise the ecclecticism he professes in regard to critical materials in the study of Scripture, the latter replied that it was a matter of choosing world views—of which none must be absolutized—and not of specific materials, and that the criterion was consonance with an exaltation of Christ as the light and truth and way.
One of Barth’s vigorously declared principles is that theology can derive nothing substantive from philosophy; that the latter teaches the forms of correct thought and speech but offers nothing of content to theology except examples of traps to be avoided. Professor Frei after noting that Dr. Barth had in a book entitled Fides Quaerens Intellectum declared that Anselm had furnished in the Ontological Argument of the Proslogion a kind of proof—“an analogical circumscription of God’s name”—by “faith’s rational exploration of itself as divinely given,” asked if St. Thomas Aquinas’ five ways of the Cosmological Proof might not offer a similar circumscription of God’s name by a reflecting explication of God’s self-revelation. Professor Barth answered that he did not know exactly St. Thomas’ own intention in setting up these five ways, but that as for himself he saw a virtue in them similar to the one he had asserted to be in Anselm’s argument. Professor Frei now drew in his line and I thought Dr. Barth was on his hook by having conceded something inconsistent with his general principle of the incapacity of philosophy to render any substantive service to theology. But Barth shook a magisterial finger and cried: “Take care!”
In his first question Father Cooke asked Barth if the fact of man’s encounter with God did not imply that man was capax Dei, possessing a potentiality to know or experience God. Dr. Barth replied that de jure man had, by creation, such capacity, but that de facto it was lost, in the Fall. Herein man resembled an individual who, though born with legs, has had them broken. The restoration or the healing unto use again was itself a gift of God. Nor is faith that of the Holy Ghost believing in man and for man but truly of man believing through the Spirit. And as to whether natural knowledge of God and the knowledge which is in response to God’s speaking cannot somehow be brought together, Barth made a categorical denial; the God we know by any human power is never identical with the God of the Patriarchs who addresses us.
Professor Carnell asked Barth how he would reconcile the statement of the Kirchliche Dogmatik that there are mistakes, even theological, in the Scriptures, with his strong insistence on squaring our secondary witness with them as primary. (Since I cannot believe that the Spirit of Truth would inspire the writing of what, taking into account the linguistic resources available to the writer, must be regarded as false, I was sorry to hear Dr. Barth reassert the presence of mistakes, even theological, in the Scriptures.) Barth spoke of tensions and contradictions, and even allowed the term “errors,” and ascribed them to the limitations of the humanity of Scripture.
Carnell also asked Barth whether the latter subscribes to universalism. In reply Barth asked whether there is genuine freedom in sinning, since freedom is a gift conferred only by the Son. I take it Dr. Barth took this line of argument in order that by it an eternal hell might seem too heavy a penalty for that in the commission of which one had no real freedom. But if this is the case Dr. Barth might well be asked if any punishment, even the lightest, is just. He claimed neither implication of an eternal hell nor exclusion of its possibility by his argument; he denied that God was either required to save all men or limited from ultimately saving all men. But he asked whether one who had experienced what Barth as a Calvinist called the irresistible grace of God could believe that grace to be resistible by others. (It seems to me that the issue of universalism is closed by the Bible’s plain teaching that there is an everlasting hell and that Judas, for instance, has gone into perdition. And as to limiting God, surely it is not a matter of any creature’s holding Him back but of His abiding by His own Word.)
Rabbi Petuchowski’s questions had the pathos of coming from one reading the Scriptures while still wearing the veil of which St. Paul speaks in Romans. He confessed to finding a grandeur in Barth’s work which sets him off from so many other Christian writers, one stemming from his immense Christological emphasis. This sense of a towering culmination in Christ of God’s covenant with the Jews he could himself understand, he said, as a consequence of Barth’s presuppositions, but he was concerned to know how Barth would seek to communicate with the Jews, to whom the Incarnation of the Word is impossible. Barth denied that recognition of the fulfillment of the Judaic covenant in Christ was the result of any special presuppositions: all he asked was that the Jews join him in reading the prophetic account of the end of God’s dealings with the Jews and the evangelists’ account of what God accomplished in Christ. This encounter of the rabbideliberate and friendly even while clinging to and serving the shadow—and the Christian dogmatician—sincerely welcoming a genuine dialogue while declaring the Substance—was a moving sight.
Mr. Stringfellow complained that our political organization favored only innocuous activity on the part of religious institutions—or else sanctification of such national vices as self-aggrandizement. He requested Dr. Barth to give American pastors as specific political guidance as he had given German pastors during the Hitler regime. The distinguished visitor declined to make any such pronunciamento. But he made it audible all over the great building that he was “whispering” his consensus with his interlocutor.
Perhaps Dr. Barth’s finest deliverance of the whole week came in the form of a homily in reply to Mr. Stringfellow’s request to have the biblical “principalities and powers” defined, their relation to death described, and the method of their conquest indicated. He started out quietly and somewhat casually by naming some such powers: any ruling ideology, sport, tradition, fashion (men’s and women’s), religion in all its forms, the unconscious within us, also reason. And, “Don’t forget sex.” This was certainly a list charged with relevance!
But being the comprehensive theologian that he is Dr. Barth immediately referred all these “human possibilities” to creation and asserted that as parts of that creation they were all good in themselves. However, as a fallen creature man is now set in array against himself and against his neighbor; and as for the aforesaid powers, he now finds them all drawn up against him. Moreover as enslaved to them he must now serve these emperors, these führers of all kinds.
Dr. Barth then warmed up to the theme, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Jesus is king. With him as Lord man is set free from the dominion of all these powers. Christ died, and in his death man dies to all these pseudo-lords. Christ rose, and in his rising man rises as God’s new creation and as a beginning of the new heaven and new earth that will be fully revealed at the last parousia of our Lord. Is the question then one of practical and effective freedom? To look to Christ as having come and as coming again constitutes our freedom! For looking to him our spirits are made potent and mighty to contend with these ghosts.
After the moderator’s expression of thanks Dr. Barth delivered a brief valedictory. He declined an invitation from the Divinity School students to meet with them the next forenoon in order to visit Chicago’s jail, for on his return to Switzerland he must report to the inmates of Basel’s prison what he would find. (This announcement revealing Barth’s interest in prisoners touched my soul in an intimate way: my father was a faithful visitor of prisoners in China.) [See news section—page 26—for Barth’s remarks on prison conditions.—ED.]
He then announced what he would do on the delightfully imaginative supposition that he was an American Christian theologian. He would work out a theology of freedom. The freedom he envisaged was for humanity in the sense of liberty to be real persons, real human beings. The desideratum is not liberty but freedom, and the freedom that is freedom indeed is given only by the Son.
Some Disquieting Factors
I was given to understand that Professor Barth had asserted his faith in the Virgin Birth before a group of scholars in Chicago but that he had also described this expression as a sign and that he had in this connection deplored the absence from the English language of the distinction which is made in German between that which is historisch and that which is geschichtlich. This distinction, as is well known, has been made by other theologians with regard to the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection. (It seems to me that resort to any distinction of this kind is a specious way of saying both “Yes” and “No” to the happenedness of events that the primary witnesses and their contemporaries understood as having taken place in the ordinary sense and so intended that they should be understood. Whatever unplummeted mysteries the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ may signify, it seems to me that any reservations about their having taken place in the sense in which items pass out of the unrealized future into the realized past and are so ticked off by the most unsophisticated reporter in the Chicago Daily News or the Basler Nachrichten are a sign that the maker of these reservations is out of step with Scripture and the original believers. After all, the intentions of virginity, of birth, of death, and of a grave emptied of its corpse but in no way by men, are such that the remotest community of mankind can well make them out either singly or in combination even if at a loss to understand the cause.)
I was also given to understand that in the same group Professor Barth had made known that his quarrel with Bultmann is not over demythologizing but rather over the existentialist use which Bultmann makes of his alleged findings.
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