My seminar on Karl Barth is reading through his Church Dogmatics, II/1, and two passages meant something to me that I wanted to share with you.

1. “We must treat unbelief seriously.  Only one thing can be treated more seriously than unbelief; and that is faith itself—or rather, the real God in whom faith believes.  …When faith takes itself seriously, who has place or freedom for this apparent assimilation, for this game with unbelief?  Who is it who really has to stoop down at this point?  Not one man to another, a believer to an unbeliever, as all natural theology fatally but inevitably supposes.  He who stoops down to the level of us all, both believers and unbelievers, is the real God alone, in His grace and mercy” (95).

Sometimes I am told that emergent leaders, despite their unorthodox theology, should be applauded because they are able to reach people who would never read folks like me.  I concede that may be so, but what are these leaders reaching them with?  Karl Barth, emergent’s favorite (though I suspect mostly unread) theologian, reminds us that the necessary stooping is from God to us rather than from us to each other.  We don’t need to excise the offensive parts of the gospel to “reach” others, for the longest leap has already occurred when God reached down to us.

2. “But this openness in itself and as such is still not that readiness.  Taken simply as it stands, and therefore as it is described as the openness of man, it may equally well be accompanied by man’s complete closedness against the readiness of God.  Indeed, we must say straight out that simply as such, simply as the openness of man, it is in fact always accompanied by this complete closedness” (130).

Barth reminds us that even our openness to God, “in itself and as such,” is a form of closedness.  Professed humility can be an excuse to arrogantly disregard the clear teaching of Scripture on salvation and sexuality as merely one possible interpretation.  Repentance can be another avenue for pride—look how sorry I am, surely God is pleased with me.  We must remember that, as Barth says, we always play the “needy man” before God.  Let us begin every prayer, sermon, and good deed with the awareness that the only thing we bring to the table is our closed rejection of God and his will.  Any openness and obedience is his doing, not ours.






14 responses to “Barthisms”

  1. Tertullian2009

    Good words. Powerful words. So much of the CD could be dropped straight into a sermon with very little tweaking. These reminders about the seriousness of belief and the necessity of God making the first move are great examples of the sermon-esque quality of Barth’s writings. Of course, he is preaching to me just as much as Brian or Pete or anyone else.

    Thanks for the faith check.

  2. John Lemke

    “We don’t need to excise the offensive parts of the gospel to ‘reach’ others, for the longest leap has already occurred when God reached down to us.”

    I may need to quote that someday. I probably won’t attribute it to you ‘cuz I’m a little lazy. But that’s a good line. It’s also what I love about Barth. Still grateful for that seminar.

    And thanks for bailing out of golf yesterday. We were partnered together. I had to enjoy the cold, wet, windy weather all by myself. Shame on you!

  3. Jonathan Shelley

    What strikes me is that even though Barth is often labeled a fideist, his faith is deliberate, nuanced, and grounded. He doesn’t take a blind leap with Kierkegaard, but bases his faith in the assurance that God has revealed himself and that God’s revelation is trustworthy. Indeed, God’s revelation is the only foundation for knowing God, speaking of him, and approaching him – the words of Scripture have been ordained by God for us to use and we dare not deviate from them. I’ve never quite understood how Postmodern Innovators can appeal to Barth to defend their relativistic theologies of doubt. This relativism, in itself and as such, seems to be the very definition of “man speaking loudly about himself.”

  4. “He who stoops down to the level of us all, both believers and unbelievers, is the real God alone, in His grace and mercy” (95).

    Amen to this. In the words of Paul as well as John, “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    And from Micah:
    He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you?
    To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

    This should suffice to answer your question, “What are these [emergent] leaders reaching them with.” Thanks for asking.

  5. Adam F.

    Hey Randy,

    I’m confused, so maybe I misunderstand you:

    I’m not sure if you’re framing your “righteous action” response contra “rigtheous belief,” but if you are, I think that’s a false dichotomy. I don’t think we should forget that the verse you quote (Micah 6:8) is in the midst of a prophetic book about properly knowing and worshiping Yahweh.

    This implied command, to know Yahweh and therefore to worship Him appropriately, is even in 6:8. There’s a reminder of just Who it is we’re dealing with in the phrase “What does the LORD require of you…?”

    So besides (1) acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly, God requires (2) that we know Him.

    Do I misunderstand you? Thanks.

  6. Adam & Company,

    There is no false dichotomy here. I never mention righteous action nor righteous belief. For Israel, action and belief are never separated. They move together in such a way that they wouldn’t have conceived of belief and action as different things. They are like inhaling and exhaling of the lungs. They move together.

    Here is my question for those who doubt our sincerity. Why can you not take our word as our word?

    When I quote Micah 6:8, I know fully well what I am quoting. It isn’t like the biblical text isn’t familiar. Before choosing this verse last night, I spent an hour reading thru the N.T. prior to settling on the Micah verse.

    I know a bit about the text: A year in Christian pre-school, thirteen years in Calvinist Christian day school, five years at a Christian college followed by three years of Calvin Seminary. My Christian heritage can be traced back to the 1700’s. So, please don’t doubt that I am sincere when I quote Micah 6:8. My grandparents and parents devoted their lives to the ways of Jesus Christ second to none.

    If you want to doubt my faith, then you take issue with Jesus command that it is up to only the Father to judge such things. In such case, I am not the one who has issue with the biblical text.

    Adam, yes, you do misunderstand me. You don’t give me the benefit of trusting that I have any idea of what I am saying. I have plenty of idea of what I am saying as well as quoting from the biblical text. As a brother in Christ, it would be helpful if you could take me for what I say.

  7. Adam F.


    I’m sorry if I came off like I was doubting your faith, because I’m not.

    I’m not sure whether or not I was doubting your knowlege (I’ll have to think about that), but I was trying to respond to what I saw (and didn’t see) in your post itself.

    And I misunderstood your post. I was responding to your framing of the verse with this: “This should suffice to answer your question, ‘What are these [emergent] leaders reaching them with.’”

    Looks like this is an object lesson in how difficult clear communication can be on the internet. Thanks for clarifying,

  8. Adam… much appreciate your gracious response.

  9. Tyler

    The emergents think they like Barth’s doctrine of revelation, but his doctrine of revelation is hostile to their project (I’m specifically thinking about your friend Rollins).

    Consider these:

    “It may be asserted very definitely that no matter whether a theology claims to be liberal or orthodox, it is not a theology of revelation in so far as it rests openly or secretly upon this reversal, in so far as it asks first what is possible in God’s freedom, in order afterwards to investigate God’s real freedom” (CD I.2, 4)

    “…to the will of God to reveal Himself corresponds His power to do so, and as there is no contradiction against His will, so also there is no real hindrance against His power. And when we say this, we are saying that the claim made upon us by His revelation does not demand anything impossible, and therefore that it is not an impotent and ineffectual claim. If God commands, it is so . . . God Himself, with His will to reveal Himself and therefore His claim upon us, takes our place, and therefore that, with His power to reveal Himself, He does not ignore or eliminate but fills up the void of our impotence to view and conceive Him. Our inability to perform by our action what is demanded of us is not at all His inability to cause what is demanded to happen by our action. What we of ourselves cannot do, He can do through us . . . . When we are obedient, according to our capacity and even our incapacity, we have the promise that God Himself will acknowledge our obedience in spite of our capacity or even incapacity, and this means that He will confer upon our viewing, conceiving and speaking His own veracity. The obedience to the grace of God win which man acknowledges that he is entirely wrong, thus acknowledging that God alone is entirely right, is the obedience which has this promise.” (CD II.1, 212-213)

  10. Adam F.

    Tyler, I especially like this part:

    “He does not ignore or eliminate but fills up the void of our impotence to view and conceive Him . . . What we of ourselves cannot do, He can do through us.”

    In this context is Barth talking about the inspiration of the Scriptures, or a communal interpretation of the Scripture, or an individual’s interpretation of Scripture? All of the above?

  11. mikewittmer


    Did you type these quotes during class? 🙂


    I wanted to be there for you, but I assumed that you would never drive from Lansing to golf in a storm and 40 mph winds, so I ditched you before you could ditch me. What has to happen before they will cancel? How about we sign up together next year? Obviously, I need the accountability. On the bright side, I’m not sick today.

  12. Tyler


    Barth’s comments are made in the context of man’s knowledge of God, both its possibility and validity (even though he’s talking at that point about the reality of God . . . he repeats himself a lot).

    The vast majority of II.1 is absolutely brilliant.

    Professor Wittmer:

    Not in any of your classes, at least!

    I’m almost finished with my MDiv at SBTS, and the only Barth I’ve been assigned during my 3.5 years was II.1, by Bruce Ware. But I think he’s got some fire in him somewhere and I didn’t ever dare tease it out of him by checking blogs during class!

    Sadly, I just waste time in strange ways.

  13. John Lemke

    I don’t know when THEY will cancel. I won’t cancel until there’s a hurricane 🙂

    Next year it is…

  14. Yooper

    The Boston Globe – Rob Bell on faith, suffering, and Christians…

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