Karl Barth and His Theology with Gary Deddo
In this interview, Dr. Deddo says that theologian Karl Barth pointed to the gospel, and to God as he revealed himself in Scripture.
JMF: You are a scholar of Karl Barth’s writings. What is important about Karl Barth for American Christianity?
GD: The most important thing about Karl Barth is that he points us to the gospel and to the God of the gospel. He has no importance in and of himself. He’s not interested in being a Barthian himself, or having anybody call themselves that. I don’t call myself a Barthian. His importance is that he points us to the gospel and the God of the gospel.
The center of that is … what he saw was so important, especially in his day, and still in our day, is to realize is that when God showed himself in person in Jesus Christ, he was revealing to all humanity the rock-bottom total truth of who he is, that was true to himself in his own being (not just towards us). In his own being, God had figured out a way for human beings to truly know who he is, and that way was through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, and according to Scripture, that’s who he is. You would think it would be simple, but it takes a lot of concentration, discipline and even repentance to recall again, and again, and again, that there is no other God except the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
To be colloquial, in Jesus Christ, you have the whole enchilada – that’s who God is all the way down – there is no other God, there is no God behind God. What you see in Jesus Christ is what you get. Another way to say it is, in Jesus Christ you get the Son of God, we find the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, all God, in the character of God, the attitudes of God, the purposes of God.
Therefore any theology of God has to be founded, centered, directed, disciplined, and oriented to the only place where there is this self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. We can’t go looking around Christ or to other sources as a norm and a status for that. God is who he is, in himself and towards us, who he is in Jesus Christ. Any knowledge of God and any faith in God has to be controlled, ordered, arranged and filled out in terms of Jesus Christ – as he is, God with us. What I find in my own life and in other theologies, it’s much more difficult to stay centered on that center, as we’re somehow tempted to develop knowledge of God on other foundations, with other sources, and they end up competing with what we find out about God in Jesus Christ.
JMF: So this focus that Barth brings is different from other prevailing theologies …
GD: Barth was so grasped by this and saw its importance that he corrected himself and regulated himself and asked himself the question, “Am I speaking of and speaking about the one and the same God in Jesus Christ?” If you’re going to talk about the kind of ubiquity of God, you have to see how that relates to God revealed in Jesus Christ. If you’re going to talk about the eternality of God, if you’re going to talk about the mercy of God, if you’re going to talk about the wrath of God, or the election of God, or the atonement of God, or our future glorification, or our union with Christ – all these things… they all had to line up with the truth and the realities we find it in Jesus Christ.
He was so rigorous in that because he thought that’s the essence of theology. He was rigorous, what I find is that other theologies kind of wobble and waver – sometimes they get that in focus, and sometimes not…
JMF: What are some examples of “other theologies?”
GD: For instance, a theology that starts with the Fall, let’s say. Certain theologies are so concerned about sin – and indeed, it’s the problem of our human existence. But if you make sin and the Fall the defining moment, as if that shaped all of reality, and you then set up all your theologies, it becomes a theology of sin. In this case, let’s say, “Ok, sin is the problem.” If we bring in Jesus Christ after that, and Jesus Christ is defined in terms of the problem – because we’ve got a big problem to solve. What you’re going to say and how your theology will develop will be – Jesus will be understood as a problem-solver, the solver of sin.
JMF: If the focal point of your theological perspective is sin.
GD: The sin problem, and then Jesus comes down into the sin problem and does what he’s going to do in that circle. That’s a very truncated view of the Bible’s view of who Jesus is. It leaves out the fact that we find out, that through the Son of God who then became incarnate, everything was created, for him, through him, and to him. This incarnate one, Jesus, is not just the fixer-upper of the problem. Actually, everything belongs to Jesus Christ – it came into being through the Word of God, incarnate in Jesus, all creation belongs to Christ himself and is for him. It’s destined to be for him – as the Creator. So it’s the Creator God who is redeeming us.
God, who Jesus is, is much larger than the fixer-upper of the sin problem. He is the one by whom everything came into being, he is the one who has the future in mind for this creation, now fallen. It’s one and the same God. When Jesus completes his work on earth, he doesn’t just disappear off the scene because he’s got the job done, he doesn’t have anything more to do with it. He is the one for whom everything was destined – in him. In the Bible, Jesus has finished the atoning work, but his ministry as the Son of God continues.
JMF: This theology with sin as its focus is where a lot of people are. When they think about the Bible and God, the whole Christianity, religious thing – their focus is sin. They don’t start with who is Jesus, they start with how do we deal with sin, and solve this sin problem. What is another theology that…?
GD: Another theology would be that God is essentially interested in moral order. This pretty much comes out with “what went wrong,” if you start with that view – God is interested in moral order, and sometimes we’ll think the holiness is restricted to moral order.
JMF: So, a holiness focus.
GD: Right. If you start with that… Often that’s locked in to the Fall, because the Fall is disobedience. As if God was merely interested in moral obedience, and not something more – (it’s not less than that – but something more than that). So then Jesus just gets us back on track so we can obey a moral order and do the stuff that God wants us to do.
JMF: Again, he’s a fixer of a problem.
GD: Right, of a moral order.
JMF: So he’s not at the heart and foundation of the theology. [GD: Right.] He’s a factor…
GD: Right. An instrument, we say theologically, and once you’re done with the instrument and you’ve fixed whatever you’re fixing, once you used the screwdriver to drive in the screw, then once the screw’s in place, you don’t need the instrument anymore. You dismiss it and say, he’s done. But that isn’t the God of the Bible. That’s not the Lord Jesus Christ of the Bible. But if you only think God is interested in moral order, you’ll think of God as most interested in a legal relationship with us rather than… an alternative would be a filial, personal relationship.
So you have a God that’s primarily first law. Then if you started to think about grace, even the grace of Jesus Christ, then if law is the larger category, it’s all set up, then often what God is interested to do is justice, and justice in this framework is often understood as having two sides. The justice of God is understood in this sense as being equally satisfied by two things. The justice of God in this frame is understood as rewarding the good – so God is just because he rewards the good, and the other thing that makes God perfectly just is punishing the evil. And that’s it. [He is equally satisfied by either outcome.] God is essentially the God who rewards the good and punishes evil. And on that basis, that’s why we call God just or right or holy.
JMF: So if that’s the focus of your theology, you read Scriptures with that in mind, you order your life with that in mind, that’s the kind of preaching you gravitate to – that’s the kind of books you read, you’re focused on this vanquishing of the enemies of God. Of course, you see yourself as on the good side of that. Wouldn’t that make you the type of person who is judgmental of your neighbor who does not behave as well as you wish he would and so on?
GD: And judgmental about yourself.
JMF: There’s a lot of self-condemnation and self-doubt, frustration and anxiety about your relationship with God, but also that’s what a lot of Christians are criticized for… Surveys show people don’t want to live next to evangelical Christians because they’re judgmental.
GD: It certainly can lead to that, because judgment and being judgmental go together. A legal God, and then as Christians we may be tempted to want primarily legal relationships with others. It’s like a contract, which makes it conditional: if you do “X” then I’ll do “Y,” and we’ll agree to that. But if you don’t do “X,” then I won’t have to do “Y.” A legal relationship with God is contractual.
We have lots of contracts around us. That’s how we operate in society. But the question is: We may act legally, by contract with others, but is that the kind of relationship that God wanted with us from all eternity, before creation? Is that the kind of relationship God wants with us after the Fall, and after his redemption, where there is a contractual, legal relationship with God – if you do good, then I’d reward you.
JMF: It’s the kind of thinking and approach to the Bible that a person has, when the child doesn’t measure up, they cut them out of the will, or they cut them out of their relationship, and they’ll never see them again because they did something …
GD: Yes. On purpose or as a society, we often create contracts and live by them, and we think that’s a good thing – that’s justice. Often in personal relationships, they can reduce to the legal, where we contractually relate to each other [JMF: unwritten contracts], so we see the tragedy when a marriage (which is not supposed to be, in a Christian frame anyway, merely legal contract, but give promises to one another that are unconditional) is turned into a legal tit for tat: “if you, then I…. If not you… then not I.” That represents the collapse of the marriage, the dissolution of a marriage – it is a distortion of a marriage.
But pre-nuptial agreements and things like this, our society is pushing everything into a contractual relationship. Even the personal and some would call it, filial – which means a notion of sonship, or family, we’re losing that dimension of our ability to relate to one another, and entering more and more in having more areas of our lives being contractually run.
JMF: Self-sacrificial love doesn’t really have a place…
GD: No, that wouldn’t be… It’s all conditional, that if you fulfill this condition, then I will do something. But if you don’t, I’m not going to follow through on anything…
JMF: But that’s how we think of God… If we think God is saying to us, “If you change your behavior, say the sinner’s prayer, then, I will act to save you.” But up until you do that, I won’t….
GD: Right. Often, as Athanasius said, we think out of a center in ourselves – but that is not theology – it is mythology. And furthermore, it’s idolatry, because we’re thinking God is like us. Whereas, no, God is not like us. God is not a creature. We have to stop thinking out of a center in ourselves and making ourselves and our experience the norm and standard for understanding God.
That’s what God in Christ came to do – he is the great iconoclast, to break our false understandings of thinking about God as if he’s something like us, but somewhat better. That is idolatry to do that. God came to say, No, I’m here to interpret myself as I really am… because I am God and not man. Even the wrath of God is not like human wrath. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God, James tells us – nor does it work the righteousness of man. God’s wrath works differently than ours. We can’t think of God’s love, God’s wrath, even God’s existence as just something like ours.
God was trying to get through to us, and Jesus Christ is saying, Here is who I really am. I am not just somewhat like you, just a little bit better. I’m totally different. I’m God and not man. The grace of God, and the love of God, is of a different kind.
Now, back to the law … What is God’s original purpose? Just to reward the good and punish the evil? Is that all God’s justice can accomplish? So God would say, “Well, you know what, I’ve rewarded the good and I’ve punished the evil. I’m happy! That was my purpose. That’s all I want to do. I’m just, I’m holy, I’ve rewarded the good, I’ve punished the evil, I’m perfectly happy.” Is that really the notion of the justice, the righteousness, and even the holiness of God in Scripture?
Or is the justice of God and the righteousness of God really that God is the one who makes things right, who returns things to their right, and even perfects things to their full rightness. God’s justice is a restorative justice, a corrective justice – making things right, so that the only thing that satisfies God’s justice is that things are being made right.
If you bring creation as the first, and the purposes of God first, and don’t make sin and the law the central, controlling thing, you have to ask yourselves the question, “Why did God create me in the first place?” Just to reward the good and punish the evil? Is that what God had in mind? Or that God has in mind, I want to love creation into perfection so the love that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit have been enjoying for all eternity, might be extended to creation and loved into perfection. And that is what makes God just – because he puts things right.
When it’s broken, what does he do? He is the God who puts things right – so the only thing that satisfies the righteousness of God and the justice of God is to bring about righteousness and justice. If that’s the purpose, then sin is resisting God’s good purposes, and Christ is bringing about those original created purposes to make things right – in the New Testament, to bring about a new heavens and a new earth. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The justice of God is not, cannot, be restricted to rewarding good and punishing evil – as saying, I’m equally satisfied. That maybe all that we can do as human beings. But we cannot project our limitations of justice or righteousness or any other thing on God.
Is God incapable of doing nothing more but rewarding the good and punishing the evil? Or can he reconcile, transform and perfect his creation? Can he do that? Is that the heart of God? Is that what God is doing in Jesus Christ – to bring things to his perfection – to put and make things right in the end? That’s a very different view of the justice and righteousness of God, which is not legal, because in the end, righteousness is right relationship where there is the perfect exchange of love – a fullness of life and fruitfulness in loving communion.
Jesus says, “I do not call you slaves any longer.” Paul tells us not to fall back into the spirit of slavery, to do that. We are created to be the children of God – the children. That’s his glory – to bring many sons to glory, in Hebrews 2. That’s God’s purpose, because that’s God’s heart. Because God in himself is Father and Son in that holy love in the Holy Spirit. He loves us with the same love with which he has loved his own Son, and he wants us to be a part of that. The biblical picture is that God does not have legal purposes for us, but filial purposes – loving purposes, and even the Fall and sin does not stop God from pursuing that end. He’s done that in Jesus Christ, that we might share in Jesus’ own sonship with the Father. That’s a very different… that’s what makes God righteous and holy. The filial purposes fulfilled in Christ, that we might participate in.
JMF: Barth’s focus on this, in drawing theology back to a focus on Christ as “all in all” for all the creation, is a reflection – you mentioned Athanasius, back from the 300s – it’s a reflection of the earliest theology of the church from the beginning, not some innovation that is called neo-orthodox. There’s some history with Barth, with views of God coming out of World War I and so on. But we have accusations against Barth a lot, saying that he is too liberal – he makes it too easy to be loved by God. Or he minimizes Scripture. What about the accusations?
GD: Barth was not attempting to create any kind of theological tradition, nor be enslaved to anyone. He wanted to be faithful to the God revealed in Jesus Christ according to Scripture. And he was willing to receive help from anyone throughout the whole history of the Christian church who would help him faithfully think and formulate theologically on that. He would use anybody he found helpful. In the general Reformed tradition, he found certain strands helpful in this way, and he went back to Luther and Calvin – but he also went back, because Luther and Calvin themselves did, to the early church. The early church – Athanasius, Irenaeus, Hilary and others – they pointed back to the Scriptures and the writings of the apostles.
Barth was attempting to do nothing but build on that foundation. Along the way, he discovered his entire own training as a student had to be thrown away, which was in the liberal tradition. Barth’s theology was a reaction and repudiation of liberalism – because he found that they did not build on that foundation.
So Barth had to re-train himself. After he had finished his training and he went to be a preacher and a pastor, he said, I had nothing to preach. So what I was forced to do is to go back to the whole new world of the Bible. That’s his words, quote. When he did, he discovered a different God and a different Christian life, and even a different Christian ethic. He found the key to this all was Jesus Christ, because Jesus showed us who God really was. Barth discovered that many in his own church, many theologies had other norms and standards and sources of knowledge of God independent and apart from the true revelation of God himself in Jesus Christ. They had several sources that were intentional…
JMF: What sort of sources?
GD: A lot of it was human experience – human experience or human ideals and notions. For instance, the idea of the one absolute God – this idea of the absolute Spirit of God, they view this as the highest thing. Then they started trying to fit the biblical revelation into that and conforming it and shaping it, slicing off certain things.
They were into ideals, like the ideal of resurrection as a general idea. The resurrection isn’t an idea, it is an occurrence – what happened, Jesus Christ bodily raised from the dead. It’s not an idea or a general idea: “Everything has resurrection life about it.” “No,” Barth said.
Similarly, they had the idea that human beings are imbued with the Spirit of God. We’re all filled with the Spirit of God, and that shows itself up in our culture, and in our architecture and in our technology. This is building up to Nazi Germany. Barth saw that human beings were taking themselves, magnifying them, calling them god and then squeezing the Bible and its revelation into that. And that led to Nazi Germany.
When he saw that development both in World War I and World War II, he saw that his whole theological education had been built on a false foundation, and he had to start over, and this is what led to his writings and even re-writings – things from earlier times, to reconfigure this. As he looked back to the history of Christian theology, he saw he had to sort through certain things.
Certain things were going off-track, other things were more on-track, so he had to sort through this track that said, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” and to stay strictly onto that. The view of Scripture around him was very low, because Scripture was crammed into human categories and human names and labels, and the norms became human experience. He said, Scripture doesn’t allow us to do that. But even Scripture itself, he saw, was not tightly connected to their theology.
His main question was, “What’s the connection between the written word and the living word?” Scholars of his day were reading the Bible, studying the Bible, but they were doing that as if the Bible itself were disconnected from the living word – from the living Lordship of Christ. The object of Scripture, the object of study, was Scripture itself, so in essence, studying Scripture meant in the end you came to know Scripture, but you did not know God – because God… there had been a distance, a disconnection between the living Word and the written word.
Barth was attempting to tell us that you cannot deal with Scripture apart from its real connection with the living Word. That connection meant, that to hear the word of God as the Word of God – to let the Bible be what it is. We couldn’t have a deistic view of the Bible, to hear the word of God meant God himself by the Holy Spirit would speak again, in and through Scripture.
JMF: It’s God revealing himself in Scripture, not Scripture being kind of another god…
GD: Right. Scripture would not be what it is, and wouldn’t serve its purpose, unless God, actively, daily, and moment by moment, by the Holy Spirit, spoke in and through that Scripture. If God were mute, if he decided not to say anything anymore – and we just had the Bible, but God himself was mute – Barth would say, in a practical sense, then God is dead. He says, no – God is the living God, that’s what the Bible says. God is the word, he is speaking. God is the one who communicates.
God hasn’t decided, “I’ll put it all in a book and never say anything more,” because the human heart would not hear the Bible without the working of the Holy Spirit. Barth had a high view of the Holy Spirit, not apart from Scripture, but he recognizes that the Bible as a book would not be what it is, and would not serve in the way it could (mainly enable us to know God), unless God was doing something while we’re reading the Bible.
JMF: And conversely, his point was that God was doing something when we’re reading the Bible. It’s actually a much higher view of the Bible…
GD: It’s a higher view of Scripture, because the Bible is what it is because there’s a living, continuing, actual connection between the real God and our reading Scripture. When we’re reading the Bible, it’s not like the only thing that’s happening is we’re reading. God himself, personally, by the Holy Spirit, is speaking. His Spirit knows the deep things in God, speaks in the depths of our own spirit, Paul tells us. How? In and through Scripture! Barth wants to know what Paul said, he’s listening to what Paul says, because he wants to hear what God is saying – not apart from the Bible, but in and through the Bible – because God is the living God, God is the articulate God, God is the Word, and he’s not mute. God never became silent.
Part of this means when you study Scripture, when you listen to the preaching of the word, then you study it and listen to it by faith in the living God. As you are reading you would say, “God, you need to speak to my heart – you, yourself. I need to hear a word from you.” As I’m reading the Bible, as I’m studying it, “Lord God, be gracious unto me, a sinner, that I might really hear you and what you are saying in and through this, your word, here and now.”
Otherwise, what we end up depending on is the words on the page, or our method. As if my sincerity plus my methods could enable me to hear the word of God – notice the grace of God is not even needed.
Studying the Bible is an act of radical trust in the living God – “Lord, get through to me, and get rid of all my false ideas and unworthy ideas of who you are and what you are – let me hear you again in and through this word, because if you don’t speak into my very heart and being, I cannot hear you, because I am a sinner. Get through to me.”
All of our obedience, including studying Scripture, reading Scripture, listening to the Scripture preached, is done by faith in the living God as if this God was present and real and active today. Barth saw that when the German church separated Scripture from the living God, they manipulated that Bible to serve the needs and desires and even the ideals of Nazi Germany. They became lords over the Bible and used their methods to move it around to fit their needs and ideals.
Barth saw that the only way we have is to bring back in the sovereignty of God, which is the active living grace of God in our lives to overcome our resistance, and respond to the grace of God that we might really hear his word again. Barth’s view of Scripture is: Scripture is connected to the living word, and that’s what makes the Bible the Bible. If you separate them, the Bible becomes nothing – we become lords over it. I don’t think that’s a low view of Scripture. It’s a high view of God and his word.