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Karl Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology

​Collins Winn, Christian T. and John L. Drury eds. Karl Barth and the Future of Evangelical Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), xxiv + 289 pp. $37.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Darren O. Sumner (July 06, 2016)



Numerous volumes in recent years have sought to place Karl Barth’s thought into dialogue with Evangelical theology. These efforts have met with mixed results, and frequently display only the particular entrenchments of the authors and editors. This collection from Christian Collins Winn and John Drury is better than most in that it neither fawns over Barth nor sets him up as an adversary to the true faith. Instead, the editors set out to examine the contours of Evangelical theology as much as those of Barth’s work, setting forth their conviction (which I think is certainly right) that this dialogue has too often been framed improperly ‒ for example by the question of Barth’s orthodoxy (xiv) and, I would add, a misidentification of modern “liberalism” as an existential threat to the Christian churches. Rethinking the identity of Evangelicalism from its many sources and cross-currents will provide an infinitely better starting point. From here Barth’s thought can be engaged beyond the anxiety-inducing loci of Scripture, election, etc. and instead probed with respect to matters such as piety, conversion, and life in the Spirit.

Three essays comprise Part 1, “Reframing the Conversation.” Donald Dayton’s 1985 essay on “varieties” of Evangelicalism is reprinted as a very useful framing of the conversations to follow. Dayton identifies three periods or movements identified with the term ‘evangelical’: (1) the Protestant Reformation, with its themes of justification by faith alone and the centrality of Scripture; (2) the Great Awakenings and other revival movements in the Anglophone world, which directed their focus to matters of conversion, regeneration, and sanctification; and finally (3) a “mixed coalition” of forces who, since the fundamentalist-modernity controversy and the Second World War, have found common cause in their opposition to modernism, liberalism, and other cultural and theological trends regarded as erosive of Christian orthodoxy. It is Evangelicalism in this final form that appears most common today, and while its proponents might detect an ally in the Barth who criticizes Neo-Protestant liberalism, they are soon shocked by his willingness to depart from the old doctrinal categories. Barth’s project is a sharp criticism of certain trends in theological modernism, yet one that is performed in a deeply modern way. The result is that one who seems to share Evangelicalism’s fundamental commitments “at the last moment moves off in a new direction that is beyond their comprehension” (15).

Eberhard Busch outlines Barth’s opinion of and interaction with German Pietism in chapter 2, and Kimlyn J. Bender continues to explore this relationship in chapter 3. This is a history marked at first by some appreciable hostility toward an unmoored spiritualism which Barth thought amounted to little more than a different sort of anthropological grounding for theology ‒ that a person’s repentance and consciousness of sin give them some right of claim to God’s grace (25). In later decades, though, Barth came to a more nuanced appreciation for themes such as Christ’s work in the individual through the Holy Spirit (even suggesting in 1967 the need for “a new kind of Pietism”). Busch concludes with a number of insightful questions that Barth’s theology poses to the Pietist, turning over fertile ground for future engagement. Bender, in turn, draws upon the writings of Philipp Jakob Spener to illustrate a number of “family resemblances” between Barth and the Pietists, not the least of which is a forceful correlation of the identity of the church to its mission (59).

Five essays in Part 2 aim at “Reconceiving Christian Experience and Practice,” interacting with Barth on topics such as calling, testimony, and gender and masculinity. Terry L. Cross explores Barth’s openness to Pietism’s inner “heart theology” in Church Dogmatics IV/4, building from the foundation of divine initiative to the individual’s participation in God’s work of salvation as something that (contrary to the ways in which Barth’s critical objectivism is often regarded) is not lacking an inward dimension. James Nelson continues along these lines with a discussion of the divine calling to fellowship with Jesus Christ, which summons the believer to conversion and reconversion. John L. Drury’s concise yet provocative entry is a stand-out here, first outlining the place of testimony within the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition before coordinating this to Barth’s doctrine of Christian vocation. Despite Barth’s own critical stance toward the practice of personal testimony, Drury crisply demonstrates how it can be reconstructed in terms of one’s “participation in the risen Christ’s self-attestation” (112). This only reinforces the external objectivity of the event of redemption, which is necessary to the subsequent task of bearing public witness. On the other hand, Barth’s approach offers a needed corrective to Wesleyans who may regard personal testimony as an independent source of revelation.

In chapter 7 Stina Busman Jost sketches the Evangelical masculinity movement, suggesting as an antidote Barth’s theological interest in the biblical figure of Joseph. Though Barth never gave Joseph extended attention, he did suggest avenues for Catholic thinkers to balance the Church’s teaching on Mary with a “Josephology” which stresses Joseph’s care for the Christ child as care for the church. There are some interesting propositions here for ecclesiology, though the author never quite comes back around to close the circle (or to shut the door) on the masculinity movement. The Josephean principles that would seem most relevant here ‒ those of humility, faithfulness, and obedience ‒ are mentioned but left unexplored.

Finally, in chapter 8 Christian T. Collins Winn and Peter Goodwin Heltzel take the invocation “Thy kingdom come” as key to Barth’s “prophetic ecclesiology,” showing Evangelical communities the importance of prophetic action in the world (for example, in matters of racial justice). In short, the Lord’s Prayer not only reminds the church that God is establishing God’s reign in the world but also that the church herself has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the light of the reality of that kingdom ‒ not awaiting another world in which God reigns, nor seeking to conform this world to a divine order by human works, but “seeking to embody a fundamentally new and better social order” (135) and unveil that which Christ has accomplished for the world.

Part 3’s six essays are collected under the heading “Renewing Christian Doctrine,” including matters of method, election, Scripture, mission, sacrament, and eschatology. Joel D. Lawrence puts prayer at the center of Barth’s theological method, as one must hear the Word of God in order to be able then to proclaim it ‒ even going so far as to suggest (in what seems to me a bit of a conflation) that “theology can only be understood as prayer” (152), since it is (I would say, vitally includes) the practice of listening faithfully to God. And Chris Boesel ably demonstrates how Barth’s doctrine of election cuts against both conservative Evangelical tendencies (i.e. Reformed orthodoxy and fundamentalist biblicism) and also the movement’s Arminian-Pietist strands, “and in each case precisely by resonating with the other at classic points of their mutual disagreement” (166). This makes for a fascinating bit of analysis that far surpasses most Evangelical treatments of Barth’s revision of this central doctrine (the author’s overly decisionist reading of Barth notwithstanding, e.g. 181-82). Boesel makes a significant contribution by showing how certain objections to Barth (for example, his Christocentrism and his universalizing tendencies) are shared by both sides but for very different reasons.

In chapter 11 Frank D. Macchia summarizes Barth’s understanding of Scripture and its relationship to revelation, unraveling the tired canards that opponents have rehearsed now for more than a generation. Kyle A. Roberts surveys the recent history of missiology in the course of his discussion of Barth’s ecclesiology, arguing that this requires that the church be both missional (outward moving and embedded) and eschatological (forward looking and refusing the temptation to identify itself and its efforts with the Kingdom of God). Kurt Anders Richardson summarizes the ubiquity of Barth’s sacramentalism (though, somewhat curiously for this volume, does not engage in any overt dialogue with Evangelical views on sacramental mystery or practices). Finally, Peter Althouse concludes the collection with eschatology, Pentecost, and Spirit baptism, suggesting avenues of engagement between Barth and Pentecostalism.

Rather than outlining a Barth-inspired program for the future of Evangelical theology, this volume thus collects a pastiche of interests ‒ diverse and disparate areas in which Barth’s theology could have much to contribute, should these engagements be worked out at greater length and with greater rigor. As a result, though several of the essays are underdeveloped (particularly in Part 2) the book excels in opening up venues for future conversation. Collins Winn and Drury challenge Evangelical thinkers not only to wrestle with Barth in new ways, but also to return to the question of what has shaped their own traditions most decisively. More must be said here, for it is an indispensable insight that in order for Evangelicalism to appreciate Barth properly it must first better know itself.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.