Karl Barth And Contemporary Theology Of History -- By: John Warwick Montgomery
BETS 6:2 (Spring 1963) p. 39
Karl Barth And Contemporary Theology Of History
“When Karl Barth decided to become a systematic theologian, Protestant historical scholarship lost a man who was potentially the greatest historian of doctrine since Adolf von Harnack.” With these words Jaroslav Pelikan, Roland Bainton’s successor as Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale, introduces the 1959 American edition of Barth’s Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl.1 Barth’s relevance to historical scholarship as well as to dogmatics is conceded by all who have even a nodding acquaintance with his writings. In the present essay an effort will be made to delineate the relationship (or lack of relationship) between theology and history in Barth’s thought, and to offer a critique which will sensitize readers to the danger zones in the Barthian approach to theology of history. No apologies will be made for the negatively critical tone of the paper: Barth is still very much alive, so Horace’s dictum, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, does not apply; and. in my judgment at least, based upon attendance at the University of Chicago Barth Lectures in April, 1962, there is entirely too much uncritical laudation of Barth — laudation which is as much an embarrassment to him as to others. I have always believed, and still do believe, that out of the rabies theologorum truth will come if proper methodology is employed.
Christian theology has a twofold connection with history, as we see from the magnificent proclamation with which the Epistle to the Hebrews opens:
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.
On the one hand, God works in general human history, for He “upholds all things by the word of His power”; on the other, He has become part of man’s story in a special way through prophetic revelation and through the atoning sacrifice of Himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Christian theology of history must always speak both of total history and of Heilsgeschichte. We shall begin with an analysis of Barth’s approach to these two fundamental problem-areas, and on this basis we shall proceed to examine the implications of his position for evangelical theology in our day.
Barth and Total History
Pelikan, in his abo...
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