A Barthian Public Theology
The first article in this series argued that religious reasons ought to be included in discussions surrounding issues of public policy. Barth’s rejection of natural theology makes it clear that, while natural premises might be shared by nearly all, they are ill-equipped to communicate religious ideas. With Stout’s second option, to translate theological reasons into reasons based on shared or natural premises, rejected as an unworkable compromise for the religious interlocutor, we will now turn to Stout’s third option, to give religious reasons while engaging in criticism of the opponent’s views. For the Christian, this is the only possible dialogical action that can avoid the dishonest compromise of attempting to communicate knowledge of God through natural premises. This post will argue from Barth’s view of the church community in relation to the civil community in order to identify the role of the church as in line with Stout’s third option.
Barth’s Structure of the Christian and Civil Communities
While it may seem the case that Barth’s rejection of natural theology demonstrates a disjointed view of society, much of his work argues for the existence of two communities that are united around a single center. For Barth, the Christian community and the civil community exist as concentric circles with Christ at their center. While it may seem that the Christian community exists in opposition to the civil community, Barth views them as united, and he even goes as far as to ascribe a sense of unity between all persons in them. Harasta is quick to note that while these two circles exist with Christ as their shared center, it is vital that the circles are not confused with each other or their shared center.1
In this structure, the largest circle makes up the civil community, which contains all members of a society. In Barth’s view, this community ought not make any appeal to “the Word or Spirit of God in the running of its affairs.”2 At first glance, appears that Barth agrees with Rorty’s prescription for democratic dialogue. Both, in fact, see the function of the church as distinct from the function of the civil community. However, while Rorty’s prescribed secularization extends to the conversation of all public policy issues, Barth’s prescription centers around the function of the civil community in enacting those public policies within legal systems.3 In Barth’s model, the individual Christian, who is a member of both the civil community and the Christian community, is free to advocate for policy with religious reasons while the state enacts policies based on the will of those people without reference to any one religious system or creed because the members of the civil community do not share the church’s awareness of their shared center in Christ.4
In contrast to the civil community, the Christian community is limited to those to whom Jesus Christ has been revealed, therefore, the task of this community differs in that it works with the revelation of Jesus Christ. In light of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and the centrality of Christ to his work, it follows that the voice of the church ought to be centered on the revelation of Christ as well. Many will question the effectiveness of such an approach if the church is to take up Stout’s third option and give religious reasons based on the revelation of Christ; this is a valid consideration for a Christian community speaking into a civil community that seems more and more distant from its center in Christ. Bettis voices this concern by asking, “In regaining its voice, did theology lose its audience? Did Barth’s radical theology leave the church talking to itself rather than taking its message to the world?”5 This section argues that despite the validity of these questions, the role of the church is to proclaim Christ through prophetic witness to the Word of God. Such a role concerns itself more with faithfulness in mission than it does persuading or acquiescing to accepted premises.
The Role of the Christian Community as Prophetic Proclamation
Unlike the civil community, the Christian community has the explicit task of proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This stems from a recognition of Christ as central to their community as well as the awareness of revelation. Barth points out that the content of this proclamation will reflect the revealed center of the community to which the church is intended to point. He argues that while there may be natural premises that can point to God or Jesus, the explicit task of the church in proclaiming the Kingdom of God is to proclaim the Word of God that is Jesus Christ.6 Barth considers the proper content of church proclamation, or theology, to be a science, insofar is it has an object of study and path of study that it is accountable for. With this in mind, the theology as a science ought to function independently of any other science. Barth argues, “It does not have to justify itself before them, least of all by submitting to the demands of a concept of science which accidentally or not claims general validity.”7 Barth sees the separation between theology and other disciplines as so important for the proclamation of the church that he goes as far as to prescribe that “it will refrain from attempted self-vindication as its theme demands, and thus shows its responsibility and relevance by simply fulfilling itself as thinking on this basis, and therefore by simply existing as the witness of faith against unbelief.”8
With the content of this proclamation in mind, it is necessary to consider its prescribed form. Barth argues that while proclamation does function as a voice from the church into the civil community, it is not necessarily for that community. The function of church proclamation is more one of faithfulness in which God is the intended recipient of the message. This is not to say that church proclamation only occurs in the form of prayer to God, but that proclamation is given to the civil community for God’s sake.9 This indirect delivery of church proclamation to God stems from the church’s commission to serve the Word of God, therefore making proclamation to the civil community an essential component of service to the Word.10 Proclamation that fulfills this commission will not be based on response to those outside of the church and it will necessarily contain the revelation of Christ.11 Talk from the church outside the bounds of this commission is not excluded, however, it does not fulfill the function of proclamation to which the church is called.
While the church maintains the center of its proclamation in Christ,12 it is vital that it never subjects that proclamation to any authority outside of the Word of God.13 Barth argues that the content of proclamation cannot be measured against the standard of any prevailing social group, movement, or standard. In Rorty’s context, the threat to church proclamation14 is its subjection to Western pragmatism. Consider that Rorty’s motive for excluding church proclamation from conversation is that it doesn’t meet his standard of progressing the conversation toward concrete policy achievements. If the Christian, in such a situation as Rorty describes, were to quiet proclamation for the purpose of advancing conversation, it would be doing little more than betraying the commission given by Christ to the church, only to lay the content of proclamation at the feet of an idol named Progress.
The temptation of transforming church proclamation into a more palatable or even relatable form, from the perspective of the civil community, has and likely will always exist. At its core, this temptation is one of fear. Perhaps the fear of social rejection, irrelevance, or for many a fear of violence will tempt the church to subvert its mission to another cause. Yet, it is essential that the church remember the source of its commission. If the church fears God in an appropriate way, then it will proclaim the revelation of Christ as it has been commissioned.15 This will not remove external pressures to transform the proclamation of the church, but will instead transform the way in which the church engages those outside pressures. By correctly orienting fear toward God, the words of the Psalmist can truly begin to resonate and free the church from the fear of man: “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me.”16
Those who fear for the relevance of the Gospel in light of the outside attacks of unbelief will likely argue for natural theology, apologetics, and polemics as necessary components if the Gospel is to move forward. However, this seems to mistake the source of power that maintains the gospel. Barth argues,
Theology is genuinely and effectively apologetic and polemical to the extent that its proper work, which cannot be done except at the heart of the conflict between faith and unbelief is recognized, empowered and blessed by God as the witness of faith, but not to the extent that it adopts particular forms in which it finally becomes only too clear to the opposing partner that it is either deceiving him when it proposes to deal with him on the ground of common presuppositions, or that it is not quite sure of its own cause in so doing. Either way, there can be no shattering of the axiom of reason along these lines, but only as theology goes its own way sincerely and with no pretence. Apologetics and polemics can only be an event and not a programme.17
Those who would succumb to Rorty’s compromise out of a fear of relevance or a perceived need to carry the weight of the Gospel misidentify the source of theology’s apologetic and polemic strength. Barth goes on to quote Martin Luther’s Sermon vom Glauben und guten Warken, “For this reason we must note that if we do not uphold the Gospel with its own strength, but rather with our own resources, all will be lost, so that no matter how well we defend it, it will crumble to pieces. Let us have no anxiety that the Gospel needs our help. It is sufficiently strong of itself, and may be committed to God alone, whose it is…”18 Perhaps the only greater tragedy than being bullied into misrepresenting religious beliefs with natural premises would be to collapse to such an approach in an anxious petition for relevance.
1 Eva Harasta, “Karl Barth, a Public Theologian? The One Word and Theological ‘Bilinguality,’” International Journal of Public Theology 3 (2009), 198. [Footnote applies to whole paragraph] 2 Karl Barth, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community,” in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 266.
3 In the sentence prior to prescribing that no appeal “be made to the Word or Spirit of God,” Barth limits the conversation down to legal systems, stating “Its members share no common awareness of their relationship to God, and such an awareness cannot be an element in the legal system established by the civil community.” Ibid.
5 Joseph Dabney Bettis,“Theology in the Public Debate: Barth’s Rejection of Natural Theology and the Hermeneutical Problem,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, 22:4 (1969), 387.
6 Barth, “The Christian Community,” 181-2.
7 Karl Barth, The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics, vol. 1 of Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Study ed., ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 6.
8 Ibid., 29.
9 Ibid., 46-7.
10 Ibid., 49.
11 Ibid., 52.
12 Ibid., 55.
13 Ibid., 69.
14 At this point, it is should be clear that the use of religious reasons, for the Christian, as truly religious Christian reasons will center on the Word of God and speak his Lordship into the civil community.
15 Barth, The Word of God, 73. [footnote applies to entire paragraph] 16 Psalm 118:6 ESV.
17 Barth, The Word of God, 30.
18 Ibid., 31.
Image courtesy of Bernd Thaller.