The Philosophy Underlying Barth’s Theology -- By: William T. Riviere

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 091:362 (Apr 1934)
Article: The Philosophy Underlying Barth’s Theology
Author: William T. Riviere

The Philosophy Underlying Barth’s Theology1

William T. Riviere

During and after the World War, a young Reformed pastor in Switzerland, who had been trained in Herrmann’s variation of the theology of Ritschl and Schleiermacher, rethought his theology and began to proclaim a new message about God. Into a thought-world

of man’s culture that had failed, Karl Barth, prophetlike, thrust a John-the-Baptist finger pointed up to God. Our towers of Babel do not reach to heaven, he cried. God comes down to us: hear the word of God. This positive preaching of a transcendent God and of a word from on high is gaining a remarkable hearing in the world today. As Dr. Machen said five years ago, it addresses itself to every man.

Barth’s books are not very easy to read, and they are still harder to understand. It is not merely that he writes in the German language; his translators take care of that difficulty with considerable success. But his whole intellectual background is so different from ours that, even with such sympathetic expositors as McConnachie, Rolston, and Lowrie at hand, an American finds it hard to grasp Barth’s thought. As President W. L. Lingle wrote of Barth and his less difficult disciple Emil Brunner, “Even when they have been translated into English, they do not speak my language.” To me Barth is both suggestive and irritating. One of his books I have read straight through four times, with profit each time. To a conservative Calvinist Barth’s thought-forms are newer than his doctrine or his emphasis; but he is good reading. Much of his doctrine is new to the up-to-dateness of changing theological fashion, but quite familiar to those who read the standard American Presbyterians of a half-century ago.

This paper is an effort to sketch some outlines of Barth’s teaching in relation to his metaphysics. There are two great influences to be discussed: first, the milieu of university speculative philosophy and theology against which he finally reacted; and second, Kierkegaard’s system which not only contributes to Barth’s thinking but also shapes a good deal of the verbal clothing of his thought. The formal study of philosophy receives more attention in Europe than over here. Barth’s books abound in references to philosophers whose names appear, if at all, only in the footnotes to our college textbooks. There is a great deal of vain philosophy floating about in the world, and long has been. But there are

also earnest efforts to think the results of various branches of knowledge together into some kind of unity; every thoughtful man has so...

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