Karl Barth as a Spiritual Mentor

I am reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s substantive book The Theology of Karl Barth for the first time.

But, I’m not reading the book primarily to learn what he says, though this book is part of one of my exams that I am taking next summer.  I’m reading Balthasar devotionally.  I know that seems a bit ridiculous.  Can anyone really read this kind of stuff as an act of devotion?

Well, I decided that I would try it for this nine months which I have committed to chaplaincy right in the middle of my candidacy preparation.  So, my “daily bread” right now consists of Augustine’s Confessions, William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, and von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth.  Of course the Bible is in there, too. As I read I am asking that God would speak to me through them.  I believe He can.

Here is what I learned today: Balthasar explains that Barth was trying to find a way in between what he saw as failures of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Liberal Protestantism had taken up the method of dialoguing with all available interlocutors and working diligently to incorporate a variety of sources in a quest for truth.  Barth thought that his theological mentors had erred by trying to validate their work before secular sources which were unwilling to be only contributors to the dialogue. 

Catholicism, however, basically included the content which Barth thought most important, the centrality of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.  But the Catholics largely arrived at their doctrine through an over dependence on natural theology.  He had a problem with their method.

I am often amazed by the ways in which I am formed by the people I read, even when I think I may be disagreeing substantially with what they say.  Though I think Barth’s dependence upon the analogy of faith is basically good epistemology, I am not so opposed to the natural theology of the Catholicism he is arguing with.  One thing about Catholicism does bother me, however. The confidence with which Roman Catholicism speaks because of this dependence on a reliable notion of natural theology and an undue regard for the Magisterium of the church is problematic. 

Like Barth, I think the Church as a whole would do well to give Roman Catholic thought its proper due.  Catholicism rightly defends the centrality of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Word.  But they simply do not have a strong enough notion of the noetic effect of sin to suspect the doctrines of the church for my tastes.  I really do want to be always reforming.

So I don’t exactly agree with the problem that Barth had with Roman Catholicism.  But I do pattern myself similarly.  I like much of the content of Catholic doctrine, if we could simply reevaluate the ecclesiology. I don’t take that as a simple rejection of course.  I am still a pentecostal with a strongly congregational ecclesiology.  I am grateful for these differences of opinion, which Roman Catholicism has been more and less comfortable with at different times since the schism of the Reformation. 

But the reason I write this post is not so I muse endlessly on the relation of Barth to Catholicism.  It is because I was able to be formed today.  I had a revelation of sorts.  I can now name my problems with Catholicism and my appreciation of it.  And, when I name it, it doesn’t sound like all that significant of a difference.  Of course, my Catholic friends probably disagree.  But my ability to name these differences enables me to better engage my ongoing dialogue with Catholic friends and colleagues.  That is no small effect.  I want to be able to name our differences well, not to dissolve them but as a matter of discipleship.  Jesus told the disciples that people would recognize them by how they loved one another.  May I be regarded as a disciple.

May God continue to speak to me through these theological texts, they are not only academic considerations but also the mediation of the Rhema word of God.

Peace be with you.


  1. says

    Thanks, Jeremiah, for this insightful post. As a cradle Catholic (and former Seminarian) who now worships as a Pentecostal (by conviction if not represented by current church affiliation), I have though long and hard about my relation with "Mother Church."When we originally left the Catholic church, it was not so much for reasons of theological conviction, as culture. We had long entertained the idea of leaving to become members at a small charismatic church where we had been worshiping on Sunday evenings for several years. It was a workable pattern for us – Sunday morning we would pour out everything we had in ministry at the Catholic church, and Sunday night re-energize and connect with God at a charismatic service – but felt constrained by the Holy Spirit from making the switch official.It was when we were expecting our first child that we felt the release. I'm glad because I didn't want to be continually explaining to my children why people of faith were drinking, smoking, and holding the occasional church outing at the Gambling boat!Since, my theological differences with the church have grown. I've never been comfortable with the church's Marian theology – even when I was a Seminarian. I have not decided where I stand on the Ecclesiastical structure. I thought I did, but of all people, John Bevere got me thinking more deeply about spiritual authority and the leadership structure of the church.Anyway, I really enjoyed this post, and your whole attitude and approach to the subject of discipleship. I also got a lot out of your last post on Emergent Thinking. It very much describes my own thinking, so now I have a label for it.Blessings, Rob

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