Monday, February 28, 2011

Letter from Barth to Bromiley

There do not seem to be a shortage of controversies and squabbles within the Christian community. One need look no further than the current controversy over Rob Bell's new book to realize the truth of that statement! When debates like this occur, I often find comfort in the controversy and criticism that surrounded Karl Barth's theology. Barth was never short of critics, and some of his most vocal opponents came from the conservative evangelicals within the United States. The details of the relationship between conservative North American evangelicals and Barth are a bit complicated, so I will save you from a long discussion about the matter. But in short, conservative North American evangelicals were concerned with Barth's views of Scripture and his doctrine of election (read: universalism). On June 1, 1961, Barth wrote the following letter to Dr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley who was the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. At the time, Bromiley was also the co-editor of Christianity Today and asked Barth if he would write a response to various questions that were put forth by certain men such as Van Til, Clark, etc. To be clear, I don't think that Barth ever cared that conservative evangelicals like these men disagreed with him. Afterall, Barth did hold rather revolutionary views of the doctrines of Scripture and election. Admittedly, the letter has a very frustrated tone. But in the end, agreement was never the main goal; I think Barth was more concerned about the posture and the lack of charity that he witnessed from them since most know that Barth was never shy of criticizing the work of other theologians! In the end, Barth simply wanted these men to agree, not merely in words, that the truth always transcends us all. Theology is never simply a regurgitation of and allegiance to orthodox belief, but an ever-unfolding task for the community of believers in Jesus Christ:

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed. Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the C.D. where they might at least have found out - not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. - where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions. I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these men have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to C.D. IV, 2 in the words of the eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: "...for there is no true love where one man eats another." These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a "better mind and attitude" as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,
Karl Barth

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today.

Photo credit: Here


Josh said...

The hysteria over this is just what you would expect from a group of paternalistic alarmists eager to cry foul at the first step in the direction of a more hopeful view of humanity and God’s grace. I’m sure such folks will find plenty of spiritual discernment and wisdom in their uncompromising confidence that God has, in response to the utter sinfulness of humanity, freely abandoned most of our brothers and sisters to eternal hopeless ruin in order to enhance his own glory. Perhaps they will even indulge themselves in a small bit of satisfaction in knowing that they have faithfully protected their flock from such a pernicious and fundamentally anti-Christian hope.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Kait. Timely, of course. Will you be attending the Barth conference this summer? Hope so!

Kait Dugan said...

Hey Nathaniel - I would really like to attend this summer, but I am going to wait a bit before registering. It seems like it will be such an incredible dialogue and I couldn't be more thrilled about the ecumenical spirit. If I end up being able to go, it will delightfully be my first KB conference! I can't imagine being in the same room with that many people who appreciate Barth's theology - hopefully I'll see you there!

Kevin Davis said...

I just finished Berkouwer's book on Barth, and it really is marvelous. His criticisms of Barth are thorough and fundamental (e.g. Barth's "ontological impossibility of sin"), but they come from a shared Reformed perspective. Since Berkouwer is sympathetic to Barth and wants to integrate Barth into contemporary Reformed dogmatics, this makes Berkouwer's criticisms the most serious and challenging that I've ever read.

Josh said...

“Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has he not, according to 1 John 2:2, been sacrificed for the whole world? Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty!” Karl Barth, “Barth: God Here and Now,” Routledge, pp. 41-42.

Rhett Smith said...


Thanks for sharing this. Barth is a hero of mine so I was looking for this specific letter and came across your blog. I linked it up on Twitter and FB....appreciate you posting this.

Rhett Smith

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