When I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary 40 years ago, the purpose of theological education was to help prepare a person for ministry, for service in the church or in other institutions. There was also a major emphasis upon introducing students to great historical theologians and contemporary theologians for the stated purpose of helping to encourage the development of one's own theology.
When I arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, Karl Barth was someone who was read, and who was revered. For me, however, I didn't initially feel the draw or the allure to him. Maybe, it was the times, being the mid to late 1970s post-Watergate era, increasing problems and concerns about war and peace and justice, including at the time corporate support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa.
I remember being with Michael Roffina, my friend from Southern California, sitting and having dinner with Professor Johann Christiaan Beker and his wife Terri at their cozy white Cape Cod-style faculty house on Alexander Street. We would be sitting at a beautifully decorated table with white table cloth and candles, drinking Kirshwasser and listening to Professor Beker, who was a Pauline Scholar, talk about in his Dutch accent "apocalyptic theology. "
Somehow, our discussions were always about Rudolf Bultmann and demythologizing and deconstruction of the Biblical Texts. I remember Professor Beker would always kid Roffina about being from California and would refer to the Golden State as being the location of the "new Corinthians. "
My other hero at the time was Dr. George Stroup. He was and continues to be a brilliant, lively guy. He was passionate in his desire to communicate to his students about the beauty of narrative theology, how it was important to understand the historical, social and cultural context of a Biblical story and then find where your life intersected with that story. George was a huge influence on my theological education and so it was my good fortune to see him again recently 38 years later.
I attended recently a Barth Symposium at Austin Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. As I was checking into my room, I ran into George out in the hallway. "You haven't changed a bit," he said, "You don't have any gray hair." George, I replied, "Believe me it's there. You only see it when I get my hair cut." It was remarkable and enjoyable to experience this easy banter between the two of us after all of these years. We literally took up the conversation again from where we left it.
George gave this amazing lecture on "The Bible As Witness" -- he talked about the development of the Westminster Confession (1646) and its emphasis on verbal inspiration of God's word; the Barmen Confession (1934) with its strong prophetic response against Nazism; and the Confessions of (1967) which responded to issues of war and peace and racism. Both of the later documents were heavily influenced by Karl Barth's theological thought.
George emphasized that the Bible is not a revelation itself; the revelation is Jesus Christ, the Resurrected Christ. The Bible then becomes the living documents imbued by the Holy Spirit that documents to the revelation that is Jesus Christ. This is vastly different from the idea of "verbal inspiration" of scripture characterized by Rembrandt's painting (1661) of St. Matthew and the Angel, where the angel is literally whispering into the Gospel writer's ear. This notion reduces the writer of the Gospel and us to become mere "flutes" of God and thus our humanity is greatly diminished.
Dr. Stroup highlighted the limitations of Barth, that it is problematic and really not accurate to say that the Jesus of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament. It's also interesting to note that Paul and the early Christians, regarding the description of the Risen Jesus, used the Jewish word "resurrection." It was their way to describe this reality. Thus, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism is intricate and complex.
Barth was able to be prophetic in his dissent regarding the evil of Hitler and the Third Reich, but he proved unable to move beyond patriarchal arrogance.
Another speaker at this symposium, Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and noted feminist theologian noted that Karl Barth's socialism, the political force of his language was so strong that it convicted a right-wing political enemy.
Concerning his legacy for us today, Dr. Jones noted that 64 people have the wealth of two-thirds of the world's population, 80 percent of people will live off of the state, the current American welfare state, one to two years before their death. Thirty percent of people will experience extravagant earnings (i.e. due to inheritance etc. ) (Jones 2015).
Dr. Jones outlined 10 points that would serve well to reform the current economic market that would be in tune with the legacy of Karl Barth.
- Imposing an income cap, i.e. ten million dollars
- Guaranteed income of 50,000 dollars per person
- Limits on inheritance to twenty million dollars
- Fund state banks that can make mortgages and fund education
- Secure the wall back between banking and finance.
- People and corporations should pay for what they take for resources ( i.e. water, air, land )
- Create a works project, similar to the Works Project Administration ( WPA)of the Roosevelt Administration, that would recreate infrastructure
- Create a system that would support teachers and public service
- Enact fair process immigration
- Establish universal health care.
These 10 recommendation and other ideas would go far to contribute to a more just and equitable world envisioned in the theology of Karl Barth.
Is Barth on the mark? Is he worthwhile to know and to study and to operationalize in theological thinking and in political action? I would say yes.
Like everyone, Barth is limited to his historical and cultural and political context, but like all great theologians, he has the capacity to speak to universal ideals, morals and beliefs.
It is alleged that Karl Barth was once asked to sum up what was the meaning of the Bible. He responded "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. "
Perhaps, in our modern time, we can expand this to say that the truth of the religious texts in both the Old Testament (Hebrew) Canon and the New Testament give great spiritual insight and can be in continued conversation with Islam, Buddhism and other religious traditions to highlight the particularity of different faith traditions but also to lift up similarities and commonalities.
In this way, our continuing developing theology can be on the mark.