Tuesday, 23 October 2007
Here be dragons
One of the interesting features in the continuing development of Joe Tkach's WCG is an emerging infatuation with the theology of Karl Barth. Barth is required reading for a course on Pastoral Theology taught by Russell Duke via ACCM, and the Swiss Reformed theologian seems to be much gushed-about at present by those attempting to gain profile in the Tkach ministry.
Barth was arguably an extremist among Protestants in that he denied that anything could be known about God outside revelation. If you imagine you can find a sense of God in a fantastic sunset or in holding a newborn child, Barth would slap you silly while shrieking NEIN! None other than Martin Luther King expressed reservations about this approach, though in more considered terms:
...Barth proclaims the utter separation of the high God and the world. The two are totally unlike and exclusive. At no point does God touch the external world with its corrupted nature and evil matter. No part of the world is, therefore, a manifestation or revelation of the infinite, majestic Deity. Barth's God is "above us, above space and time..."
King very sensibly takes issue with Barth.
A signal proof that God reveals himself in nature is seen in Psalms 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, etc." The New Testament writers are even more explicit at this point. According to Paul, man through reason, may have sufficient knowledge of God to render him "inexcusable." This passage, found in the Epistle to the Romans, is practically ignored by Barth. He says: "We know that God is the one whom we do not know and this not-knowing is the problem and origin of our knowing..." (source)
Barth also gave birth to that bizarre idea that Christianity is not a religion. Long before Greg Albrecht turned it into a money making ministry, this giant of Reformed (Calvinist) scholarship had decided to ignore the accepted meaning of religion as something non-sectarian and positive - the sense it's used in James 1 (pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction...) and redefine it. After Barth every world-hating air-headed preacher and his brother would blather something about religion being human idolatry while their particular form of Christianity was something quite different. How convenient.
All our attempts to reach God are defined as religion [by Karl Barth], and against religion stands God's act of revelation. Here began the fight against the use of the word "religion" in theology. (Paul Tillich)
Barth is frequently lauded as the greatest theologian of the last century. A dissenting view might be that he is simply the most over-rated. Certainly he gained great credibility in his opposition to the vile compliance of the German churches to the Nazi regime, but so did many others, some of whom, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid with their lives. Barth's opposition was not based on human rights however, but on the rigidities of his theology. Human concerns took a back seat to systematic theology. Paul Tillich notes that it was only when the National Socialists posed a threat to the churches that Barth spoke up. Earlier attacks on Jews and minorities were ignored - a fault that certainly wasn't his alone.
Much of Barth's popularity probably lies in his rejection of liberal theological trends, which caused conservative Protestants of the time not a few ulcers, but beware the cure that is worse than the disease. These days Barth is perhaps seen as the way ahead for WCG to embrace a better quality of evangelicism. Maybe, but maybe not. The internal logic of this kind of dogma is built with little reference to wider concerns of the world at large; after all, the Barthian God is not revealed anywhere except in Christian truth (however that is defined - the great man was not a biblical literalist). Barth may well be a dead end, or even worse, down this road there may well "be dragons."