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On Reformation, Karl Barth, and Manly Theologizing

31 October 2009

reformationhammerHappy Reformation Day, for those of you delivered from the concurrent secularized-Catholic holiday.

Perhaps the greatest modern reformer was Karl Barth (d. 1968), whose protest against natural theology and insistence upon Christ-centered Christianity was, in its own way, a prolonged hammering of theses against church doors.  I find it interesting the way that one commentator describes Barth’s work:

To some, his writing appears to be an attempt to create a world of theological reality by sheer power of language, convincing by overwhelming rather than demonstrating.  To others, it seems an act of wilful defiance of modernity – doing at inordinate length what the Enlightenment had disallowed: talking of God with fluency and delight.  To others, again, the cumulative power of Barth’s writing can seem an exercise in unbridled – male – forcefulness, its repetitious and boundless energy wearing down the reader into submission  (John Webster, Barth [London: Continuum, 2000], 52).

Indeed, Barth’s Church Dogmatics are “overwhelming,” “inordinate,” “unbridled” and “repetitious” even as they are “fluent” and filled with delight.  I think there is something to the claim that Barth’s manful energies were more often than not expressed quantitatively. 

This avalanche method is nothing new, considering the frustrations of the pope with the 16th century reformers.  With the advent of the printing press, it was impossible to burn books and pamphlets fast enough to keep them at bay.  Even John Calvin, himself unwanting for words, griped that the Lutheran theologians were simply writing too much.  Which leads us back to Barth, whose demanding style feels much like a submission hold.  Moreover, like the more radical Zwingli, in him there is something unrelentingly iconoclastic, a systematic breaking of rival avenues and false gods. 

Yet I wonder if there is also something simple in the midst of Barth’s style, the economy of concepts and the summons to purity in Church Dogmatics, that also has something forceful, even masculine, about it.  Barth writes about Martin Luther’s program, which, marked by a certain theological restraint that he describes as “manly, healthy, and simple” (Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 102-3).  Luther restrains himself from excessive complexity.  He restrains himself from the violence of pan-iconoclasm.  Like a real man, his extrovertive force is matched by an internal gravity.  The same could be said of Barth.  Not that this sense of restraint hardly makes his writings any less dominant and terrifying.  There is much to be lauded – and feared – in this reformational manliness.

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