Karl Barth: The Wickedness of “Morally Average”

Theologian Karl Barth [1886-1968] was a bright Swiss chap with much to say. The oldest son of a Reformed pastor, Barth was soaked in the Reformed faith throughout his life and with the writings of Calvin and Luther. It was Barth’s approach to theology—his firm belief that God’s Word alone, and not human reason, as the basis for theology—that propelled him into conflict with theological liberals.

In 1919, a time when theological liberalism was thriving, Barth published a commentary on Romans emphasizing the transcendence of God, the radical differences between God and man. The book landed on the contemporary theological liberalists like a bombshell (to use an appropriate, but overworked, war image). Barth found himself to be a spokesman for conservative theology which I assume helped launch what became a prolific writing career that includes one series of books [Church Dogmatics] that sprawls to a length of 6 million words!

But Barth was also neo-orthodox in his theology, which means a lot of what flew off the tip of his pen includes wild and un-Reformed views on a host of subjects too lengthy for this blog post. And because you’ve already paused from reading to investigate which Barth books are carried by Amazon, let me sound a caution. Anyone interested in reading Barth should (1) understand Barth’s theological mistakes before attempting to sift for his theological and exegetical gold (which there are). And (2) ask your local church pastor to see if he is familiar with Barth and what he would specifically recommend for reading (if anything). If you try and read Barth without (1) background discernment and (2) wise direction, you will become easily confused and wander down some theologically treacherous paths.

Let me be clear: I don’t recommend reading Barth. The proverbial baby has dissolved into the bathwater. And there are less expensive and more useful men like Edwards and and Bavinck to invest your time and attention into. But what I am seeking to convey today is a specific glimpse into Barth’s Christological interpretation of theology, which is taken a bit far at times but interwoven into occasionally insightful, fresh, and helpful points (much like his writing in general).

The Morally Perfect Man vs. the Morally Average Man

One section in Church Dogmatics I have found beneficial is titled “The Sloth and Misery of Man” (vol. IV.2, pp. 378-498). In this section on defining the sinfulness of man, Barth reminds us that Christ is the incarnate Word, which makes Him the incarnate Law. The point being that Christ’s coming to earth was significant not merely for him to live and die for the salvation of man (which is primary) but also significant as the enfleshed God as the perfect contrast to sinful man.

Let me say it another way. We may, like the Pharisee, compare our moral goodness to other humans and decide we are above the average man (Luke 18:9-14). But this would be a false gauge because the One perfect Man has come. Because of Christ’s glorious perfections, his incarnate arrival on earth brings perfect man alongside non-perfect man as a living comparison. This fact reinterprets our concept of “the morally average man” to really be (in God’s divine perspective) a wicked sinner opposed to Christ.

Among a world of creatures bent on comparing ourselves and the worst sinners, Christ’s incarnation makes the “average man” a depraved sinner and really creates a world (in comparison to Himself) where “there are no outstanding villains, no titans of iniquity,” but all are somewhere about average (p. 390). Unlike the Pharisee, we can no longer compare our morality to other sinners to seek comfort in above-average morality. Like the tax collector, we can only compare ourselves to God and we are broken. Christ is the new moral standard. The perfect One has come and lived among us and we have seen his glory. Therefore all of us—slightly above or slightly below average morality—are all horridly wicked.

This uncovers, or so it seems to me, the heart of Barth’s argument in “The Sloth and Misery of Man”.

Which brings me to a small excerpt I wanted to share with you today. Read this quote in light of the theological liberalism he faced and that lives on today where the stress rests heavily upon moral conformity to the life of Christ as the center of Christianity. I suppose one illustration could be the widespread fascination of the WWJD theme that appears to have been pursued (at least by some) as license to shift the center of Christianity as following the moral example of Christ as opposed to focusing on the finished work of Christ.

Should we live hard for Christ-like holiness? Yes! But may we first realize what Christ’s actions say to our own moral failure.

Now, over to Barth:

“Between us men it is not the case that the one encounters God in the other. It may well be that we mutually attest God, and therefore the fact that we are compared with Him and shamed by Him. It may well be that we can and must lead one another to shame before Him. But none of us is confronted with God Himself, or shamed by Him, in the existence of another man. This takes place only, but genuinely, in the existence of the true man in Jesus, the Son of God. It is in relation to Him—and we all stand in relation to Him—that there is the comparison with a man which is also our comparison with the holy God. And in this comparison with His of our actions and achievements, our possibilities and actualizations, the true expression of that which is within us, and the inwardness of that which we express, our whole whence and whither, the root and crown of our existence, we are genuinely shamed.

We are shamed because our own human essence meets us in Him in a form in which it completely surpasses and transcends the form which we give it. In Him we are not encountered by an angel, or a being which is superior and alien to our own nature, so that it is easy to excuse ourselves if we fail to measure up to it. We are confronted by a man like ourselves, with whom we are quite comparable. But we are confronted by a man in the clear exaltation of our nature to its truth, in the fulfillment of its determination, in the correspondence to the election and creation of man. We are confronted by the man who is with and for God as God is with Him, at peace with God and therefore with His fellows and Himself. But this means that we are all asked by Him who and what we ought to be as His brothers.

What about human life as we live it? What about our thinking and willing and speaking and acting? What about our heart and actions? What about the use we make of our existence, of the time which is given us, of our own distinctive opportunity both as a whole and in detail? What about our coming and going? What about our motives and restraints, our plans and attainments? What about the ordering of our relationship to God and our neighbors and ourselves? And finally and comprehensively, what about our life-act as God’s good creatures within the cosmos of God’s good creation? If we had the freedom to orientate and measure ourselves by other men, or by an abstraction that we regard as God, or by a law invented and established by ourselves, it might well be possible to acquit ourselves creditably, or not too discreditably, in face of these questions.

But we do not have this freedom. We can only imagine that we have it.

The measure by which we are measured is the true man in whom the true God meets us concretely in a living encounter. Compared with Him we stand there in all our corruption. The failure of all that we have and do is revealed. The lost state of our humanity is exposed. Our holiness, however great or small, drops away. Our brilliance is extinguished, our boasting reduced to futility, our pride deprived of its object. The untruth in which we are men is disclosed. The need in which God has accepted us in His Son, and which consists in the untruth of our humanity, is incontestable. This is our actual shaming, whether we see it or not, whether we are ashamed of ourselves or not. We stand there as those who are shamed in this way, in this shame, because and as the man Jesus is among us.”

-Karl Barth,
Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (T&T Clark, 1958 ) vol. IV.2, p. 386-387.

This sobering insight has helped refocus my interpretation of the life of Christ. When I see His compassion for the lost, I am reminded of the hardness of my own heart at all of the lost souls I ignore. When I see the healing love of Christ given to the sick, I see my own neglect of the sick. In His genuine love for others I see my selfish pride. In His reverence, I see my flippancy. In His contentment with a stone pillow, I see my irritability when stabbed in cheek by the feather in mine.

If we see this side of Christ’s perfections in the Gospel stories we will be protected from the error of making an emulation of Christ’s moral example the center of Christianity.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As we read and study the person and activity of Christ presented in the Gospel accounts, we should be reminded that Christ’s perfect life, perfect love, perfect obedience is not merely a model for us, but the Law in living flesh. Christ is the gold standard placed beside our dunghill.

Seeing the works and life of Christ from this angle …

(1) … gives us a fresh appreciation for our personal sinfulness.
Before we jump to the conclusion that a story in the Gospels is intended for moral emulation, let’s first stop and interrogate off the contrast: “What does this reveal about me and my sinful heart?”

(2) … fills our hearts with thankfulness for what Christ has accomplished as our atoning sacrifice on the cross of Christ! What better way to go from the healing love of Christ extended to bleeding woman to my need for the Savior’s blood?

(3) … grants us eyes to discern theological liberalism (an enduring struggle for the church). Christ’s moral example first condemns us before it beckons emulation.

(4) … reminds us that our kind, morally average neighbors desperately need the gospel. I’ve always found it difficult to share the gospel with nice people who seem morally average, and easier to share the gospel with those I know have dark sin issues.

I could add some more lines—and Barth could add some more books—on the topic. But it’s good place to stop, reflect on the amazing morality on display in the life of Christ, and be reminded of amazing grace—how sweet the sound!—that saved a morally-average sloth like me!

14 thoughts on “Karl Barth: The Wickedness of “Morally Average”

  1. The problem with Barth is not his “un-Reformed” views but his unBiblical views. His problems were not just “theological mistakes” but theological heresy. Don’t waste your time with Barth.

  2. Tony, thanks. During college (59-64) I read some of Barth, and more of Kierkegaard, not really understanding Barth, and have never returned.

    But I found the statement you quoted moving, especially the words:

    “In Him we are not encountered by an angel, or a being which is superior and alien to our own nature, so that it is easy to excuse ourselves if we fail to measure up to it. We are confronted by a man like ourselves, with whom we are quite comparable…”

    That made me pause and think that some of my concepts about our Lord are off-base. That I do have a tendency to excuse myself because He is “superior to angels” (Heb. 1). I shouldn’t be expected to use Him as a comparison.

    But on the same page of Scripture, we have “but we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels…[made] perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2). And Heb 4:15, “…tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”.

    I need to “meditate both day and night” on Him…

    Blessings from our Lord be upon you and yours.

    Boyd

  3. Thanks, Boyd. I would caution you from using the word “heresy” for someone you don’t understand. I think we better understand someone before we call them out.

    It’s amazing to me, after reflecting on this section from Barth for a few months now, how capable it is of protecting the church from theological liberalism. Barth makes a strong point here.

    Blessings, and thanks for reading.

    Tony

  4. I’ve been away from church this week and will return late Friday. After the weekend, I will glad to respond.

  5. Let me say first that I appreciate your website and your comments on books. Your series on the Blank Bible motivated me to try something similar.

    I do not spend my limited time reading Barth, Brunner, and similar theologians. If I taught theology in a seminary, then, yes, of course I would read their writings. But as a pastor who preaches & teaches 4x a week, I have more important things to do. And even if I had the time, I would not bother with theologians of their persuasion. The Bible itself has more than enough depth to keep me occupied, and there are better Bible-believing theologians who are more valuable than Barth and who deserve reading. Sometimes I wonder, if Barth didn’t have some Reformed blood in him, would some even be interested in him?

    I have Barth’s commentary on Romans and have used it occasionally during my preaching series on Romans. Dr. Stewart Custer summarizes Barth’s Commentary on Romans as “Speculative philosophy starting from Romans . . .” On p.171, Barth denies that an historical Adam existed (“Adam has no existence on the plane of history . . .”). That denial is heresy.

    In Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Part 1, pp. 125,126,127,136 he states typical neo-orthodox theology concerning the inspiration of the Bible. He is very clear that only when the Bible speaks to us personally does the Bible become God’s Word to us. On p.126 he says that the Bible “claims no authority whatsoever for itself.” On p.136, he says that, in order for the Bible “to become the Word of God for us”, the Bible must be “proclaimed in the Church.” Although in some ways Barth was a conservative neo-orthodox, he was still neo-orthodox, even though he did not like the term. Therefore, to read Barth is to read someone who cannot be trusted since the basis for his belief system is erroneous. This does not mean that everything he said was wrong; it means that the effort spent on trying to sort through Barth’s writings for anything worth remembering is time that can be better spent reading more trustworthy theologians.

    Have I read all of Barth’s books? No. Nor do I need to. How much of a theologian do you have to read in order to form an opinion? Be careful of your answer. How many of us have read everything Edwards, Sibbes, Hodge, Warfield, Calvin, Wesley, and Luther have written? How many have read every sermon Spurgeon preached? Yet, we have formed opinions about them. How? Based on the limited amount we have read and what others, whom we respect, have told us. Sometimes you don’t have to read much of a theologian in order to develop an opinion. When I read Edwards, Hodge, Wesley and the others, I see their orthodoxy and their love for Christ. With Barth, Brunner, and others, I see nice-sounding words about someone named Jesus Christ, but they attempt to separate Christ from the Bible. That cannot be done, and the eventual result is heresy. Additionally, the influence of Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians helped destroy Biblical innerrancy at Fuller Seminary. The proof is in the fruit.

    Additionally, I would never classify Barth in the same league with Calvin or Luther. They believed the Bible; Barth did not, although he used words which made him appear to believe the Bible (hence: neo-orthodox). In order to be serious about theology and the mind, how much of Barth would I have to read? I’ve read enough to know I don’t want to waste my time with him. How does that somehow make me not serious about theology and the mind? As a person, I can admire Barth’s resistance to Nazi Germany. As a theologian, Barth is over-rated.

    Thanks again for your website. I rarely post comments to anyone’s blog. If someone would like to communicate further, I will be glad to do so in a limited way through email. gatorone@localnet.com

  6. Thanks for choosing to post on this blog, Wally. I appreciate (actually agree with) most everything you wrote. Barth is in general a waste of time and money and actually off significantly on many of the fundamentals (all points made in the original post).

    The only question I would raise is your introduction of “forming an opinion” of a specific writer. Personally I think this is where specifically helpful sections of a writer like Barth are lost forever because general opinions have a way of either lifting the man as an obelisk beyond the reach of criticism or becomes the dirt on the coffin that forever hides a man’s specific value. Personally, and for those reading this blog, I want to grow in my discernment on the specifics. I want to know where C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Calvin, Augustine, Van Til, Frame, etc are strong and where they are weak. I want to capture and learn from their strengths and pass over and neglect their weaknesses (a practice modeled by Calvin in citing medieval mystic monks in the Institutes).

    I certainly agree that, comparatively speaking, Barth is nowhere within rank of Calvin, Bavinck, and other (genuinely) Reformed writers, but that doesn’t mean Barth is wholly wrong or useless. I don’t want to build a shrine (as I’m sure you don’t either), but I hesitate throwing dirt down the hole, too. That’s where I’m at Wally.

    Blessings,

    Tony

  7. Tony, I just now read your response to my comment on August 13. It was the comment by the first commenter, not mine, that used the word “heresy”. Sorry for the confusion.

    Boyd

  8. Thanks so much for this post. This passage, like so many others in Barth’s body of work, is genuinely powerful. It seems to me that his weakness, one hard to relate to as American evangelicals, was his acceptance of a typical European higher critical view of Scripture. Yes, it would have been great had he ever critically examined and changed those views…but he didn’t. What he did do was to write a theology that nearly always took Scripture at face value IN SPITE of those higher critical misconceptions. The true theological liberals on both sides of the Atlantic often accused him derisively of being a “bilicist”. An accusation he bore well even as he noted their more substantial failures.

    It is also true that American “fundamentalists” of that time were unrelenting in their attacks on him. Anything short of belief in the absolute inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture by Barth was reason enough to question even his straightforward and orthodox statements concerning foundational doctrines. I can tell you he was always puzzled by this response. These two kinds of Christians simply could not (or would not)understand each other.

    He has been dead for 40 years. I think it’s time to appreciate Barth for the theological distance he came. From sitting at the feet of the likes of Adolph von Harnack to accepting and defending the bodily resurrection of our Lord.

    I take heart in the truth that Karl Barth no longer sees through a glass darkly, as those of us reading this do. Certainly we will all get quite an education when we die!

    Dave

  9. Wally – You are going to Barth with your set of categories and forcing him to answer your questions. That’s not fair, especially when you don’t want to take the time to listen to him. Barth is not the kind of theologian you can approve of or dismiss by “quoting verses” from his corpus. You have to get the ideas. If you get to that part, you get that he is very much worth your time. His Romans is a poor book on which to judge him as it is his first work and lacks the depth of his later books. Try reading Evangelical Theology. I think you will be surprised and encouraged!

  10. Brother Tony – You are writing a Christian guide to reading literature. It seems a bad sign that you are recommending people NOT read the books of a major thinker. Is your agenda really “how to read” or “what to read and what to not read?” Christians need to learn how to read critically, by which I mean with the mind engaged, in dialog, accepting the good and setting aside the bad, being appreciative of what others have said even when it is not correct. You can’t protect people from ideas, specially in this day and age. Rather, we have to teach them to think. Barth himself can show us the way forward, who has been describe as a thinker “generous with both resonance and critique.” When Barth critiqued a position he knew it inside out, and he also learned from its good points and affirmed them. Evangelicals today just want to be told what is right and what is wrong, if it’s absolute truth or heresy, whether the author is a hero or a heretic. I think we have to do better than that. So, instead of saying “don’t read Barth” why not say, “here’s a good book by Barth.” Obviously most non-theologians aren’t going to get much out of Church Dogmatics anyway.

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