Barth: honesty, not accessibility

by Richard on June 16, 2010

Ben Myers quotes Karl Barth. It bears repeating here, I think. It’s from his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans

Those who urge us to shake off theology itself and to think – and more particularly to speak and write – only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment [halte ich für eine durchaus hysterische und unbesonnene Ansicht]. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first themselves seek a better understanding of their topic? … I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must expect nothing but theology. If, in spite of this warning, it should stray into the hands of non-theologians – some of whom I know will understand it better than many theologians – I will count it a great joy. For I am altogether persuaded that its content concerns everyone, since the question it raises is everyone’s question. I could not make the book any easier than the subject itself allows…. If I am not mistaken …, we theologians serve the “laity” best when we refuse to have them especially in mind, and when we simply follow our own course, as every honest labourer must do.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }


John Meunier 06.16.10 at 7:24 pm

Thank goodness God the Father or Jesus did not take that attitude, though.

“Look, you mortals cannot possibly fathom what I am or what I have to say to you, so I’m not even going to try to speak in terms that make sense to you.”

I think there is a difference between understanding something and communicating about it to someone else. They are two different challenges and require two different skills sets.


Richard 06.16.10 at 7:40 pm

I thinks it’s arguable that that’s precisely the attitude of God the Father (in speaking decisively in Jesus of Nazareth) and Jesus (”Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand”)


John Meunier 06.16.10 at 8:43 pm

The incarnation was God saying, “Here is the best way I can communicate with you the truth about me.” Jesus was not a defiant embrace of turgid complexity in the name of intellectual rigor and “honesty.” The incarnation is much more like poetry than a theological treatise.

Jesus recognized that teaching mere creatures about the kingdom of God was extremely difficult. Instead of writing a shelf-snapping compendium of theological works he took a child and sat her in the midst of the disciples.

Blaming God for being incomprehensible and difficult to read is not fair to God.

On the other hand, what do I know?


Kim 06.16.10 at 10:05 pm

And the Epistle to the Romans (Paul’s I mean)?

William Sloane Coffin: “Think thoughts that are as clear as possible but no clearer; say things as simply as possible, but no simpler.”


Richard 06.16.10 at 10:40 pm

I think we might be talking at cross-purposes John. You’re surely not suggesting that Barth is all “turgid complexity”. Or that there aren’t complex things in theology, just as there are in physics, geography or any other subject you might think of? And whatever we might say about the teaching of Jesus, I’m not convinced that “accessible” is a word I’d use.


tortoise 06.16.10 at 11:05 pm

I recall Adrian Plass saying/writing something along the lines of a parable being a story that captures the listener’s imagination whilst the truth sneaks in undetected through a back window.

That’s not, of course, suggesting that the real message is ‘incomprehensible’ - but then, it’s also quite far from the idea that parables are meant to provide an easy-to-understand explanation of the truth.


John Meunier 06.17.10 at 12:30 am

Richard, I may be mis-reading Barth’s meaning. I will confess that I’ve never made it all the way through The Epistle to the Romans, though. I guess I’m one of those for whom he was not writing.


dh 06.21.10 at 5:53 pm

Romans as poetry, incomprehensible and difficult to read? hogwash

Thank God that much of the Bible is specific truth and gives standards on how to live for God as well as the conversation like a Father to His child. (for Kim “Lion of Judah and Lamb of God all in one)

Do we know 100% everything from the Bible? no but Scripture does say we can know “everything for life and Godliness.” However, there is way more from Scripture that we can know for sure than the opposite. Saying Scripture is more poetry than 100% specific truth denys the reality of what Scripture really is. Are there times when Scripture is poetry? yes but there are other times it is not and to propigate one to the other innappropriately can lead to false understanding of Scripture and a promotion or view that is in all actuality a fallacious understanding of Scripture.

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