The theology of Karl Barth was largely shaped while he was struggling with the problem of preaching, that is, the question of gospel communication in his western modern culture—a culture where the secular influence of modernism had been so powerful it changed Christendom into non-Christendom. His theology is wholly devoted and constructed for the missional action of the Church in the world and missionary proclamation of the gospel message to the world, especially to the world beyond modernity.
A. Backgrounds of Barth’s Theology: Non-Christian Christendom
One cannot look at the background of Karl Bath’s theology without noting the influence of modernism on Christian faith in western world. The influence of modernism had been so powerful on western Christianity that he named it “Culture Christianity,” depicted its faith as “the modernist faith,” and described its Christendom as “Non-Christian Christendom. Behind the background of the formation of his theology was the story of his conversion from what he calls “Culture Christianity.” Behind the background of his theological achievement was the story of his struggle with the problem of preaching—especially with the question, “How can we communicate the Christian gospel in the world beyond modernity?”
Karl Barth was born and raised in the tradition of the Swiss Reformation. His father, Fritz Barth was teaching at the Evangelical School of Preachers in Basel when Karl was born May 10, 1886. Three years later Fritz Barth was called to Berne to become professor of church history and New Testament exegesis. It was natural, then, that Barth would develop a strong interest in theological study in his early formative years.
At the age of eighteen Barth began his theological studies at Derne under the direction of his father who passed on a thorough grounding in Reformed theology. Although his father stood for a more orthodox position against developing liberalism, Barth himself came under the powerful influence of liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack in 1906. This influence dominated his thinking for the next ten years.
In 1909 the young Karl Barth completed his theological at Bern and spent two years as an apprentice pastor ( Pasteur suffragant) under Adolf Keller in Geneva. This was the very pulpit from which John Calvin had held sway over Geneva in the sixteenth century. Yet, very few attended worship among the registered church members and he often preached to no more than a dozen people. It was the kind of society Barth called, “non-Christian Christendom.” Barth invites us to reorient our preaching as a missionary proclamation—as an evangelistic address when ministering in this context of nominality (1975:873).
A story of Barth’s pastoral visit to a sick old man in the parish illustrates this nominal situation. When Barth naively asked the old man to which church he belonged, he responded resentfully: “Pastor, I’ve always been an honest man. I’ve never been to church and I’ve never been in trouble with the police” (1995:22-23). Barth was visiting a man whom he knew as a believer as the church records indicated. Yet, this man was obviously not a Christian from what he spoke. What followed was Barth’s recognition that this was not a unique case—this man was representative of vast numbers of people in that society. It was the kind of society Barth called, “non-Christian Christendom.”
Then he moved to Safenwil in north-central Switzerland to become a pastor in the little village in 1911, when he was twenty-five years old. The same nominal tendency was observed in that village, too—low attendance at worship services and general disinterest in church religion. As T. F. Torrance remarks it, it was “a problem created by the fact that Christianity had become so assimilated to the bourgeois culture of modern man that everywhere it appeared as a manifestation of that culture” (Barth 1962a:11). In this situation, the theological education he had received had little relevance to ministry. He found himself as not adequately prepared preacher. As Geoffrey Bromiley remarks that at that time Barth had little message to preach except the Christianized culture so well expressed in Harnack’s What is Christianity?
In this challenging background of his ministry Barth began to reconsider the “culture Christianity” in which he had been brought up and in which he had been trained. Sensing the sterility of his own message and his inability to reach his parishioners, Barth struggled to recover an experience with the God who transcends culture but meets us in our culture. Barth also found non-Christian Christendom as a missional context in a time of epistemological shift when the end of Christendom and its intellectual consensus would require a rethinking of faith and reason. As a preacher, what he sought after was the relevance of the biblical message to his contemporary audience.
This is how we find that Karl Barth’s theology has implications for theology after the end of Christendom. Colin Gunton describes the context of Barth’s theology:
In the first place, the death of Christendom and its intellectual consensus will require a rethinking of the relation of faith and reason. To hold them as parallel sources is no longer possible. To reduce faith to reason along with Hegel is to lose history in a Gnostic and monistic synthesis. To throw faith in the face of reason along with Kierkegaard is certainly an improvement, but as the history of existentialism after Kierkegaard has shown, faith can so easily turn into its opposite or generate a new rationalism. It is in a context of such as this that Barth’s recourse to Anselm at a crucial time in his theological career is to be understood (Gunton 1986:298).
B. Mission Theology of Karl Barth
The Christian community is by nature a missionary community whose evangelistic mandate is to proclaim the Kingdom of God in the world and to the world. As Karl Barth declares in his exposition of Matthew 28:19: "Sending or sending out to the nations to attest the gospel is the very root of the existence and therefore the whole ministry of the community." (Barth 1975:874).
In his theology of the election of the community, Barth convinces us that the Christian community has been chosen out of the world for the very purpose of performing for the world the service which it most needs—for the missionary task of witnessing to Jesus Christ and summoning it to faith in Him (Barth 1957b:196). The Christian community is a body of Christians who are essentially witnesses. The community is comprised of those who hear God’s word of atonement in order to represent it to others. It is a missionary community in that it does not exist only for ‘Christians,’ or for its own sake, but for ‘non-Christians’ as well. Indeed, it exists for the sake of the world reconciled in Christ to God (Barth 1962b:145). In every age and situation the church community stands in definite relation to the world around, that is, non-Christians (Barth 1975:850).
With Barth it is impossible that the Christian community as a missionary community should pass by those who are still outside the Church as the priest and Levites passed by those who had fallen among them. All those outside the Church are waiting for the helping action of the Christian community. Whether they are aware of it or not, their whole being and striving and existence utters the cry of the Macedonia: “Come over…and help us” (Acts 16:9). This is true of every man and woman, since none can evade what God is and has done for him or her in Jesus Christ and what it is appointed that he or she should know in His Word. Therefore: “Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already—not in four months but already—to harvest” (Jn. 4:35). This is why the community has the commission for the missionary task in this world. It has no option but to follow the saying of Jesus to His disciples in Mark 6:37, “Give ye them to eat,” and therefore to give hungry men and women what they need (:778).
The true community of Jesus Christ does not rest in itself. It exists as it actively reaches beyond itself into the world. It acts and works within it. The true Church can never cease wholly or basically from activity in the world. In every respect, even in what seems to be purely inner activity like prayer and the liturgy and the cure of souls and biblical exegesis and theology, its activity is always ad extra (to those who are on the outside). It is always directed extra muros (in an outward direction of its boundary) to those who are not, or not yet, within. It is recognized as the true Church by the fact that it is engaged in this venture of obedience. The world exists in self-orientation; the Church in visible contrast cannot do so (:779-780).
For Barth, each individual is responsible for its actually being a missionary community. Mission is of vital importance if they look with longing eyes beyond the existing boundaries of the Christian world for new people. Every Christian is a missionary in the sense that he is a brother who is in royalty to the brethren whom he already had looks out among those who are not yet brethren. (Barth 1961 b:505).
Observing the nominal segment of “Christian” society as an emerging mission frontier, Barth employs the term “non-Christian Christendom” for what we might call “the context of nominality.” He depicts the universal presence of nominal Christians as following:
Since the dawn of the post-apostolic period, and then more clearly in the
Middle Ages, and in the earlier as well as the later modern period, there has
always been this as it were non-Christendom, and it no doubt exists also even
in the sphere of the so-called younger churches of Asia and Africa (1975:872).
These kinds of men and women are among those who need to hear the gospel preached not just as a theory but also as an evangelistic message relevant to their life-needs. They are Christians only by name—even though they might have heard the gospel—but have no participation in the cause of the community. Those countless nominal Christians are undoubtedly the immediate neighbors of the community as the assembly of committed Christians. In this context, “The concern of evangelization is precisely to sound out the gospel on the shifting frontier between true and merely nominal Christians” urges Barth (:873).
Barth invites us to reorient our preaching as a missionary proclamation—as an evangelistic address when ministering in this context of nominality (:873). In addressing our evangelical messages, his suggestion includes delivering our sermon in a way it become relevant to the felt-needs of the audience—to those who are within the Christian community in theory but not in practice. We are, therefore, to proclaim freedom rather than propagating a law, to preach the promise of life rather than threatening with the terrors of hell (:874).
C. Culture as Missional Context in the Theology of Karl Barth
Culture is so much one of the central theme in the theology of Karl Barth that one cannot grasp a full understanding of his theology without first seeing his theological discussions on culture. As this study concentrates on this part of his theology, and because it is he who provided a theological foundation for Christian perspective of culture, we call it Karl Barth’s theology of culture in this study. We pay our fresh attention to his theology of culture because it has implications for gospel communication in the context of modernity/postmodernity.
One might approach to the subject of Karl Barth’s theology of culture by asking the question, “What was the challenge of modernity as described by Karl Barth?” The next stage will be, then, to identify the missiological implications of his his theology of culture with special reference to modernity/postmodernity.
C. 1. Barth’s Critique of Modernism: The Challenge of the Modernist Faith
It is interesting to note that Karl Barth begins his Dogmatics by his critique of modernism which had brought an epistemological shift in western intellectual world. While it is true that modernism had made a remarkable contribution to the advancement of human civilization, it must be pointed out that it had brought the element of humanism into the Western Christian culture. Western Christianity had been so much influenced by the humanistic modernism that Barth calls it “Culture Christianity” from which he sought to be converted to true Christianity.
C. 1. 1. Man in the Eighteenth Century
Karl Barth depicts that the Enlightenment has been understood to mean man’s optimistic effort to master life by means of his understanding (or thoughts). Thus, the ideal of the man of the eighteenth century was to be the champion against prejudices and passions, against vice and hypocrisy, ignorance and superstition, intolerance, partiality and fanaticism. He would honor wisdom and virtue, reason and nature. He would seek his pleasure by finding happiness in the fulfillment of duty (1959:11). Barth explains this in terms of historical context: "Eighteenth-century man was the man who could no longer remain ignorant of the significance of the fact that Copernicus and Galileo were right, that this vast and rich earth of his, the theatre of his deeds was not the center of the universe, but a grain of dust amid countless others in this universe, and who clearly saw the consequences of all this." (37).
What did this really apocalyptic revolution in his picture of the universe mean for man? An unprecedented and boundless humiliation of man? No, said the man of the eighteenth century. Paradoxically, the answer to his or her humiliation was those philosophical systems of rationalism, empiricism and skepticism which made men even more self-confident. The geocentric picture of the universe was replaced as a matter of course by the anthropocentric (37-38).
C. 1. 2. The Challenge of Modernist Faith
T. F. Torrance affirms that Barth attentively studied the way the Christian Church had responded to the challenge of modernity during the last three hundred years. Facing the great achievement of modernity in both sciences and arts, the Church had sought to give intelligent expressions to the Christian faith. The work of Schleiermacher is a typical example of such an effort. Torrance summarizes its impact on Christianity as observed by Barth:
In this development Christianity was set forth as the most sensitive quality of modern civilization, and the religious consciousness it mediated was looked upon as the holy flame in the innermost shrine of culture. Intellectually, the Christian faith was looked upon as a necessary and essential element in the development of the human mind, and its doctrines as rational determinations of social and ethical structure. Hence there grew up the profound assimilation of Christianity to culture and culture to Christianity that poured over from the nineteenth into the twentieth century (Barth 1962:16).
As a result, Christianity lost a grip upon its own essence as theology and become basically anthropocentric, and thereby loosing its message to culture (:16). It appeared to Barth that the theology of the schools of Scheiermacher and Heidegger was only a manifestation of secular human culture. In his second edition of the Commentary on Romans that Barth launched his attack upon the false assimilation of Christianity to culture (:21-22). Torrance, however, emphasizes that the intention of the Romans was by no means an attack on culture as such. On the contrary, its attack was “upon a bogus mystification of culture which required to be human culture” (Barth 1962:22).
In his earliest volume of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth depicts the position of Modernistic dogmatics is that “the Church and faith are to be understood as links in a greater nexus of being.” It follows then that dogmatics is to be understood as links as in a greater nexus of scientific problem, from the general structural laws of which its own specific conditions of knowledge are to be deduced and its own specific conditions of knowledge known. Since this nexus of problem is that of ontology, and since Descartes this necessarily means the problem of a comprehensively explicated self-understanding of human existence, it resulted in becoming “the pre-understanding of an existence in the Church or in faith, and therefore the pre-understanding and criterion of theological knowledge” (1936, 1980:36).
Barth discusses the logical consequence of the dogmatic prolegomena based on this conception. This dogmatic prolegomena considers the being of the Church of faith and human existence as believing existence as ontic factors, and therefore the ontology or anthropology. They then present the concrete historical reminder that this particular ontic factor is in fact present as an event and is thus the object of ontic science. Its impact on Christian faith and theology is that they finally establishes “the rules suggested by this ontological-ontic foundation for this science, and therefore for the criticism and correction of Christian utterance” (1936, 1980:37). Barth comments that the statements of such prolegomena have “statements borrowed from metaphysics, anthropology (Schleiermacher’s ethics), religious philosophy and religious history, and in part of purely methodological discussions.” When facing this challenge of modernism, one must ask “the question whether there really is a nexus of being superior to the being of the Church and consequently a nexus of scientific problems superior to dogmatics” (:37-38).
Barth presents both positive and negative criteria by which we can test the acceptability of Modernist faith. He states:
We regard this Modernist faith as also Christian to the extent that the being of the Church implies in fact a determination of human reality. But we cannot regard it as Christian to the extent that it interprets the possibility of this reality as a human possibility, to the extent that it fails to recognize that this determination of human reality derives and is to be considered only from outside all human possibilities, i.e., from the acting God Himself, to the extent that it seeks to interpret its history, not in terms of itself, but in terms of a general capacity or of the general historicity of human existence (1936, 1980:38-39).
Barth observes the impact of modernism on modern theology, especially in shaping liberalism. For the Enlightenment and for the modernism the method of theology consists in taking the Church and its faith as part of the wider essential contexts of civilization in general (Clark 1963:18-19). “Dogmatics” then becomes a “part of a larger scientific problem-context, from the general structural laws of which we are to read off its special epistemological conditions and to recognize its special scientific claims.” This means “a comprehensively explicated self-interpretation of man’s existence” (Barth 1936, 1980:39).
In his evaluative studies in Barth’s theology of culture, Robert J. Palma argues that the strength of his endeavor is, first of all, his departure from a Kantian epistemology (1983:73-74). Immanuel Kant’s impact upon all theology after his time is incalculable as his work resulted in completing the breach opened by the late medieval philosophers between faith and reason (Gunton 1986:290). Colin Gunton depicts the background of Barth’s theological reflection against the background of the intellectual history in Europe in the nineteenth century:
In the first place, the death of Christendom and its intellectual consensus will require a rethinking of faith and reason. To hold them as two parallel sources is no longer possible. To reduce faith to reason along with Hegel is to lose history in a Gnostic and monistic synthesis. To throw faith in the face of reason along with Kierkegaard is certainly an improvement, but, as the history of existentialism after Kierkegaard has shown, faith can so easily turn into its opposite or generate a new rationalism (1986:297-298).
C. 2. Karl Barth’s Theology of Culture
It is noteworthy that in the early years of his theology in 1920’s Karl Barth indicated that we will need a theological reflection of culture instead of being conformed to the non-Christian concept of culture. He stresses, “the Church is determined always itself to speak the first, the proper, the essential word to culture” (Barth 1962a:338).
With Barth, no human understanding of culture is complete without its theological reflection. The human beings are more than a social being. They have the nature of dual existence. Men and women “exist as soul and body, spirit and nature, subject and object, inwardly and outwardly” (:338). It is when one knows God that one can recognizes oneself as this synthesis, this dual existence, namely a being in wholeness. Barth explains the dialectical dimension of this dual existence: “As one found by God’s Word, he knows that spirit must mould nature, that nature must fulfill and actualize spirit. The subject must become object, and the object become subject. The inward must appear in the outward, the outward find its true nature in the inward” (:339).
But human knows—in the act of encounter with God—that one certainly does not at any point live in wholeness. When, set before God, one faces the rift that goes through his or her whole existence, viz. one is confronted with the problem of synthesis. And it is in this situation of human being’s existence that Barth finds his theological perspective of culture. For he states, “Whatever deserves the name culture has in some fashion originated from this rift and this problem. Culture implies lack and consciousness of lack. It means seeking through men and failing to find the unity of God” (:339). With Barth, Culture is the task set through the Word of God for achieving the destined condition of man in unity of soul and body. It is on the basis of this thesis that Barth develops his theme ‘Church and Culture’ to specify the question of the meaning of the cultural task for every man. He accentuates his methodological presupposition that it is not a world-view that provides the proper basis for treating the theme. The only congruous basis is in hearing the Word of God (:340).
C. 2. 1. Culture as Promise
From his point of view of creation, Barth defines culture as “the promise originally given to man of what he is to become” (:341). This definition has anthropological, ecclesiological, and soteriological implications.
The Word of God as a word of grace, a word of reconciliation is directed to the fallen Adam, to lost men. The Church of Christ is a Church of sinners. The Church therefore has no knowledge of the original relationship between God and man except as broken relationship. But the Church knows that such broken bonds can persist, not in themselves but by virtue of the new unbroken tie of reconciliation. First, the Church does not forget that man, lost and damned, but rescued by grace, is God’s creature. Second, the Church does not forget that the kingdom of the Word, the kingdom of Christ, did not have its beginning with the incarnation. The Church does not forget that the divine Logos while he is wholly man in Jesus of Nazareth nonetheless fills heaven and earth (:341-342).
To this truth of creation belong not only the claim that God originally asserted over men, but also the promise that is originally given to men. Despite the reality of law and man’s limits, there persists a promise of divine friendship. God’s affirmation of man as his creature and his image still stands. God’s affirmation of man’s life in communion with Himself is not denied. Sin has not so wholly destroyed God’s image in man. He is still a human being (homo), although a human sinner (homo peccator). As such, God speaks to him in Jesus Christ. On this ground Barth declares that humanity is promise (:342-343). He states: “The term culture connotes exactly that promise to man: fulfillment, unity, wholeness within his sphere as creature, as man, exactly as God in his sphere is fullness, wholeness, Lord over nature and spirit, Creator of heaven and earth” (:343).
Hence, “Culture can be a witness to the promise which was given man in the beginning” (:343). Indeed, it is a possibility in Christ. For reconciliation in Christ is the restoration of the lost promise (:343). This is what connects culture with the Church. The Church cannot detach itself as unconcerned with the problem and the task that confronts men as men. Sure, the Church knows man only as a sinner, yet the Church always hopes for man, sees him and his activity in the relation made possible in Christ, in the relation to the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. The Church knows the promise of which man can in Christ have his part (:343-344).
Thus, While Barth repudiates any idea of sanctifying cultural achievement, such as Schleiermacher accomplished with his idealism, he emphasizes to avoid the other extreme, namely a blindness to the possibility that culture can be filler with the promise. He sets forth it: “The Church will not see the coming of the kingdom of God in any human cultural achievement, but it will be alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce that the kingdom approaches” (:344).
C. 2. 2. Culture as Law.
From the point of view of reconciliation, the kingdom of grace, culture is the law in reference to which the sinner, sanctified by God, has to practice his faith and obedience. The Word of God is the word of the reconciliation of sinners to God.
With Barth, culture is the promise and the law. Culture is the promise given to human being from the standpoint of creation. The same culture is the law under which he or she stands. What God demands from man is called humanity. The content of law is always simply human culture. Therefore sanctification, election for God, doing the will of God, is always in content being human (:346).
C. 2. 3. The Connection of the Church with Culture.
Barth indicates that there are three lines that connect the Church with culture. The first line that connects the Church with culture is that the Church has the task to confront human beings as human beings. The Church knows man only as a sinner: but the Church always hopes for man, sees him and his activity in the relation made possible in Christ, in the relation to the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. The Church knows the promise of which man can in Christ have his part (343-344).
The second line is that through it the Church affirms the law which is given in the Word. The Church understands sooner and better because it proclaims, not an attainable goal, but the real goal, because it is content to demand obedience, but only obedience in faith (:347). And, the third line is that the Church confronts society with an eschatological anticipation. Not with an understanding of cultural achievement, but with the highest possibly evaluation of the goal for which it sees all cultural activity striving (:349).
While the three lines have to do with the cultural mandate of the Church as the transforming agent, one notes Barth’s other observation that the problem of culture is also a problem of the Church itself. The Church in its visible reality is a human organization, and institution, a community of the faith and obedience of sinful men. That means it is a community of human and sinful willing and acting. He, therefore, states that the Church as a community of human and sinful willing and acting, must judge and must determine the direction not only for society but for itself.
D. Karl Barth’s Hermeneutical Approach for Missional Church
Karl Barth ‘s hermeneutical approach has implications for the missionary proclamation of the gospel message in our world beyond modernity. He opened a new way of theology by rejecting the whole concept of theology as a human construction or projection. Indeed, his hermeneutics is characterized by theologizing in mission and preaching in the context of postmodernity.
Refusing to find a basis for faith’s authenticity in a so-called religious a priori, he grounded it in the self-revelation of the object. He insisted on restructuring of biblical study in which again the correct hermeneutical procedure is to listen to what scripture itself has to tell us. God must disclose Himself if he is to be known. But God is not an empirical object. Only by a special self-disclosure, then, does a true knowledge of God arise. Christianity means revelation. Christian theology is a theology of the Word of God as the self-revelation of the Triune God. Without this, there can be no Christian faith, knowledge, life, or mission (Bromiley 1986:336). In fact, this is what distinguishes him from other neo-Orthodox theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann, Emil Brunner, and Paul Tillich who employed the scientific critique of modernism for their Bible interpretation.
Fundamental to the whole reality of this self-revelation is the fact that God gives himself his “secondary objectivity.” Primarily objective to himself, God also makes himself objective to us in the word-event of his history with us which reaches its climax in the incarnation of the Son, finds its normative attestation in the inspired prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments, and comes to each new generation, by the ministry of the Spirit in the controlled proclamation of the Church (:337).
In Barth's hermeneutical approach contextual interpretation is no less important than biblical interpretation because the church community cannot achieve its declaration and explication in a vacuum. The church community does not itself live in a vacuum. In every age and situation it stands in definite relations to the world around, i.e., non-Christians. And it is only when the community genuinely turns to the men of the world around that it can achieve its missionary declaration and evangelical explanation. Now the community is called not just to stay in learning about Christian faith. It also has the hermeneutic task to learn about the people of the world around and their non-Christian worldview. Barth implies the need of contextual interpretation when he states that the church community must know them, not merely to know the best way to communicate the Gospel to them, but “to cause to be heard as applying to them the Gospel which they do not know and which is indeed continually new even to the community itself as it declares and explains itself" (Barth 1962c:850-851).
The significance of contextual interpretation lies in that the gospel should be preached in the way the audience know the message is relevant to their life issue even when they hear it for the first time. One’s preparation for missionary proclamation of the gospel message—evangelical address or missionary preaching—does not end in Bible exposition. It also involves a hermeneutic task to learn about the people of the world around and their non-Christian worldview. It involves in entering into the situation of the audience.
For Barth a preacher has to tell to the people here present that God's mercy awaits for them as truly today as the beginning of the time (1963b:52). To express his idea of the historical relevance of the biblical message, Barth quotes Paul Tillich's phrase "awareness of the present moment." For relating biblical message to our own time, Barth throws the question, "What demands does the contemporary situation make on the preacher and his congregation?" Together they share a historical experience; the words of the preacher must be relevant to immediate preoccupation of his hearers. A preacher is not a hermit dwelling apart from his congregation (1963b:54).