At the heart of European Protestant theology’s revolutionary developments in the 20th Century was the rediscovery of the transcendence of God that challenged and replaced the identification of historical processes and progressivism (liberal theology) with the ways of God. This theology challenged that mood of theology and philosophy and culture by proclaiming God over against historical processes.
This theology is often called neo-orthodoxy, dialectical theology, kerygmatic theolory (my preference) or crisis theology. Reality is found in what is known from revelation in Scripture about God in Christ, not by discerning the ways of God in the plane of modern history. Instead of accommodation and anthropocentrism we find confrontation and revelation and gospel and Word and christocentrism. But there is clearly a reaction against fundamentalism in kerygmatic theology as well. This is traced in Roger Olson, The Journey of Modern Theology, in his important 5th chapter.
Big ideas are at work in comprehending kerygmatic theology:
The First World War began in 1914 and ended in 1918; it sounded he death knell of the nineteenth-century European intellectual ethos in eluding classical liberal theology.
The Second World War began in 1939 and ended in 1945 and included the Holocaust; it brought the same cultural crisis to the United States. The twentieth century has been called the genocidal century…. Disillusionment set in. The time was ripe for a new revolution in theology (295).
At the heart of the revolution in theology was Karl Barth, and Olson puts the facts into a neat set of lines, lines that need to be comprehended:
According to Karl Barth, the turning point was the day in 1914 he picked ip a newspaper and read a statement by German intellectuals supporting Kaiser Wilhelm’s war policy. Among the names were most of his theological enters, including Harnack, who wrote the kaisers speech declaring war against France, Russia and Great Britain. Barth, a budding young pastor and theologian, was so dismayed that he began to reconsider the liberal Protestant theology of his education. Something was wrong, he concluded, with a theology that allowed its adherents to support such an evil and meaningless war. For that and other reasons, like many other European theologians, he began searching for a new theological paradigm. Eventually he found it in the dialectical philosophy and theology of Kierkegaard, the “melancholy Dane.” Kierkegaard’s governing motif was the wholly otherness of God. Liberal theology had identified humanity too closely with God (295-296).
Olson contends that these theologians did not call themselves “neo-orthodox.” They did not in fact all agree except to challenge liberal theology and they did so often enough through some kind of interaction/embrace with Kierkegaard. Thus:
God’s transcendence, wholly otherness, and human sinfulness mean that all our human thoughts about God ultimately end in confession of mystery and acceptance of paradox as sign of mystery (297).
For neo-orthodoxy it is that, in spite of God’s wholly otherness and human finitude and fallenness, God’s mercy and grace have been shown in Jesus Christ for salvation. The gospel also is that salvation is by God’s grace through faith alone. But the other side of the gospel is that there is nothing human beings can do to bring God or his grace under human control, to domesticate and tame them. Humans are sinners through and through and without hope apart from God s Word and faith (299).
Olson is right, so I think, to keep his finger here on existentialism at work in kerygmatic theology, but it, too, is in need of some clarification:
For Kierkegaard and Christian existentialists, authentic existence comes only through being in relation to God as an individual. For secular existentialists, authentic existence comes only through self-determination, by creating one’s own life meaning in the face of possible meaninglessness of reality. That takes courage to face and overcome despair. For the Christian existentialist, despair is the fruit of sin and its only cure is grace which is given to each individual through his or her own faith (300).
This emphasis on Bible, however, is not simplistic:
Another way of saying the same is that for kerygmatic theologians, the gospel stands even over against the Bible although the Bible is its medium. But the Bible is not always already the Word of God; it becomes the Word of God in the moment when God uses it to call people into encounter with himself through repentance and faith. Without that encounter, the Bible is just a book (301).
The major players here include Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, and then Gogarten, Thurneysen, R. Niebuhr and Thomas Torrance, but the post today will focus on Barth, and Olson develops these themes in Barth:
1. Barth becomes the world’s foremost theologian without a doctoral degree.
2. Barth becomes anti-Nazi and more ecumenical.
3. Barth develops a theological method based on God’s Word and faith alone.
4. Barth explains the relation of the Bible to God’s Word:
For Barth, the only source of Christian theology is God’s Word. This Word, however, exists in three forms or modes. The primary form is Jesus Christ and the entire history of God’s acts leading up to and surrounding his life, death and resurrection. This is revelation proper, the gospel itself. The second form is Scripture, the privileged witness to divine revelation. Finally, the church’s proclamation of the gospel forms the third mode. The latter two forms are God’s Word only in an instrumental sense, for they become God’s Word when God uses them to reveal Jesus Christ. Tin The Bible, consequently, is not statically God’s Word; God’s Word alwavs has the character of event. In a sense, God’s Word is God himself repeating his being in action. The Bible becomes Gods Word: “The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that He speaks through it” (310-311).
5. Barth places Christ at the center and recovers the doctrine of the Trinity.
6. Barth defines God as “the one who loves in freedom.”
7. Barth envisions a universal election in Jesus Christ. Was Barth a unversalist?
In his written responses to this question Barth refused to give an unequivocal answer: “I do not teach it, but I also do not not teach it.” Nevertheless, we can guess what the answer must be. As Hans Urs von Balthasar pointed out, “It is clear from Barth’s presentation of the doctrine of election that universal salvation is not only possible but inevitable. The only definitive reality is grace, and any condemnatory judgment has to be merely provisional” (317).
8. Barth argues with Brunner about natural theology.
9. Barth sparks controversy and leaves a legacy of lively debate.