The Weakness of God

“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering…. Only the suffering God can help… That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as quoted by Moltmann in CG, p. 47)

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How I Caught the Barth Bug

As I mentioned in a previous post (I know, ages ago), I’ve begun a journey into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD). It started innocently enough last fall with an electronic version of the first volume (I.1), which turned into a pre-Christmas petition that the CD set be my present (and it was! best theology nerd Christmas present ever!). At this point I’m just over halfway through the second volume (I.2), and hope to have it completed in the next month or so. Barth is by far the most difficult reading task I’ve ever undertaken. His thought is meaty… and he quotes many original sources in Latin and Greek (yikes!).

I’m intending to do a series of posts exploring Barth’s thought and its initial impact on me. Mostly, this will be simple “take homes” that I’ve found helpful or wrestled with (in hopes that processing this way will help me internalize them). If you, one of my two blog followers, get something out of this, even better. 🙂 We’ll talk about his Christocentric hermeneutic; his take on the idea of “religion” (“the revelation of God is the abolition of religion”… what’s that all about?); and (I hope) much, much more. This hinges, of course, on whether I “get around to it,” and we have every reason to be skeptical, as I rarely follow through on such intentions.

By way of introduction, I wanted to start off by briefly explaining why I started reading Barth. Which means, of course, talking about Bonhoeffer.

A year ago, bothering with Barth would have been the last thing on my mind. I would have recognized the name, and could probably have told you that he was a 20th century Neo-Orthodox theologian (though I’d have been a little rusty as to what that meant). That’s about all the Barth I was exposed to in my Evangelical/Pentecostal Bible College training: A sidebar in a Doctrine textbook, and maybe a partial segment in a Church History course. Barth was not worth the serious attention of a committed evangelical called to preach the Word.

My friend Wyatt had already beaten me to Barth… but I really caught the Barth bug last spring via Eric Metaxas’ biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy), previously reviewed on this blog here. This is an incredible book telling the story of a young German academic and pastor who stood against Hitler (in a variety of ways) during the rise and dominance of the Third Reich in Germany… and whose theology was shaped most profoundly by (drum roll, please!) Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer first encountered Barth through his writings. According to Metaxas,

[Barth’s] groundbreaking 1922 commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, fell like a smart bomb into the ivory tower of scholars like Adolf von Harnack, who could hardly believe their historical-critical fortress pregnable, and who were scandalized by Barth’s approach to the Bible, which came to be called neo-orthodoxy, and which asserted the idea, particularly controversial in German theological circles, that God actually exists, and that all theology and biblical scholarship must be undergirded by this basic assumption, and that’s that. (p. 60)

Metaxas continues:

Theological liberals like Harnack felt it was “unscientific” to speculate on who God was; the theologian must simply study what is here, which is to say the texts and the history of those texts. But the Barthians said no: the God on the other side of the fence had revealed himself through these texts, and the only reason for these texts was to know him. (p. 61)

I’ll comment more on Barth’s understanding of revelation in a future post (or two), as the subject  is one with which Barth is most preoccupied with in CD I.1/2.  Barth’s “Deus Dixit” (God speaks) stood in stark contrast to what Bonhoeffer perceived to be dry liberalism at institutions like Union Seminary in New York.

Barth and Bonhoeffer met multiple times between 1931 and 1933, while Barth was teaching at Bonn and putting the finishing touches on the first volume of Church Dogmatics.  At that time Adolph Hitler was ascending into power, and Barth was among a group of Confessing believers who still believed the national leader could be reasoned with. In 1934 Barth penned most of the Barmen declaration, rejecting the influence of Nazism on German Christianity. Upon its completion (which was, according to Barth, “fortified by strong coffee and one or two Brazilian cigars”), the declaration was mailed personally to Hitler by Karl Barth himself.

It is against this backdrop of crisis for the church that CD born. Far from being a detached philosopher, Barth was rubber-meets-road thinker whose theology was very relevant in a time when the church of God was having to fight for its unique identity.

Metaxis summarizes one of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral take-homes from Barth this way:

Anything good must come from God, so even in a sermon that was poorly written and delivered, God might manifest himself and touch the congregation. Conversely in a sermon wonderfully written and delivered, God might refuse to manifest himself. The “success” of the sermon is utterly dependent on the God who breaks through and “grasps” us, or we cannot be “grasped.” (p 81)

Or as I would put (not so eloquently): “I don’t have to get everything right for God to do His thing.” In all, Barth is mentioned 85 times in this biography, as a theologian, a leader in the Confessing Church movement in Germany (though his involvement was from afar after 1935 when he was forced out of the country for refusing to swear allegiance to the Führer), but most of all as a sort of mentor to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was an outstanding pastor and theologian in his own right).

I found that every mention of Barthian ideas in this book seemed to resonate with me. Barth presents a credible and vibrant theology for ministry that neither retreated to fundamentalism nor capitulated to modernity (as many theological liberals did). I had to get to know this Barth more….