Karl Barth: On the Beginnings of the Western Dialectic

This is not a plug for Karl Barth.  He has severe problems in both private morality and theology.   I would caution those who criticize him, though, not to become overly triumphalistic.  Barth’s strength was simply that he saw the dialectical tension within Western culture and Western theology more clearly than do others. (His error was likely that he tried to answer it.) “Liberalism” did not suddenly just appear on the scene.

Barth writes,

The collapse of chuch dogmatics in modern times under the devastating inrush of natural theology would not have been possible had the way not been already paved for it in the age of orthodoxy (and even to some extent in medieval Scholasticism and among the fathers),because the necessary connexion of all theological statements with Jn. 1.14 did not receive the obvious attention required at this point, if the construction of sub-centres alien to its content was to be avoided…One cannot subsequently speak christologically, if Christology has not already been presupposed at the outset, and in its stead other presuppositions have already claimed one’s attention.

Barth, Church Dogmatics, I. 2. 123.

Barth makes several suggestions (he reiterates and expounds them in the following pages) that are worth exploring:

  1. Natural theology (or for our purposes, Western theology, Scholasticism) will ultimately claim all.  In other words, the starting point and method of one’s theology will determine all of one’s theology.
  2. Christ should be the starting point of one’s theology.  This is not mere pious gush.  The New Testament witness says that all things are focused around Christ (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:17ff).
  3. If one does not presuppose Christ at the outset, then ultimately whatever else one might say about Christ later will not matter much.
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