Barth the Evangelical & Justice.

“That they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is , of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention.  Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelshwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God.  Then and in this way the light has shone out.
This was surely overlooked in H. Bar’s work, Weniger Predigt!, 1930, in which it is recommended that to-day we should not make preaching so much as service in moral and social reform our mode of proclamation.
If the social work of the Church as such were to try to be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that.  Genuine Christian love must always start back at the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.  (CD I.3.I)
    At first glance in the citation above, Barth sounds very much like tevangelical denouncements of social justice today, as if he is devaluing its importance for God’s work in the world.  I’m not entirely sure what to think about Barth’s position, and I have a long way to go.  On the one hand, it seems to divorce human efforts to relieve suffering from God’s initiative in the world, as if all justice is simply human efforts, futile, and biding time until the end.  At least here, justice is not a vehicle for divine revelation.

     On the other hand, it redeems social justice from being a calculated advertisement; just the kind of stuff we see today in Christian media and church campaigns.  It also insulates the proclamation of God from being evaluated by the efficacy of our attempts to be just.  It seems to me like this could have profound political implications too, forbidding social organization from identifying with the Word of God, -no form of governing can lay claim to divine fiat.
     The discussion really hinges on Barth’s understanding of Word of God not as words about God, but rather the human words God inhabits with his Word.  Clearly, given the Barmen Declaration, Barth was a proponent of social engagement.  It is probably more correct to see the passage above as a rejection of liberal theology and a equating of God’s Word with only social justice.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if it’s overstated and possible that social justice as human activity can be seized and used by God as proclamation in his freedom without equating all attempts at justice with proclamation.
So what do you think?  Am I on the right track, understanding Barth accurately or have a missed a broader context?  Barth is that he is so gamey in his writing, I might find in a couple of chapters that he meant the exact opposite.  At least it’s a joy to finally quote Barth from my own copy of Church Dogmatics! 


  1. Erin,

    I would have to ruminate on this quote for a bit, honestly. My anti-barthianism and pro-social justice lens is keeping me from seeing anything positive about this quote, and many barthians in the U.S. do dismiss liberation theologians. So I can see a pattern here.

  2. It's funny because I became a christian in a social justice setting, but stayed a Christian because of Barth, however a whole lot of people I know don't like him, though they dig Bonhoeffer. I didn't know that some Barthian types dismissed liberation theologians, either. -'course I don't get out much...

    Ironically, Barth was a socialist, "the Red pastor of Safenwill," but WWII crushed his faith in (european) liberalism because it led all his religious mentors to back German nationalism. A good early Barth quote:

    "And now to my socialist friends who are present: I have said that Jesus wanted what you want, that he wanted to help those who are least, that he wanted to establish the kingdom of God upon this earth, that he wanted to abolish self seeking property, that he wanted to make persons into comrades. Your concerns are in line with the concerns of Jesus"

    I think part of the difficulty is one of his European cultural location and National Socialism (Nazi) party which limited Gods work to a purely human horizon. So he wants to make sure people don't think their actions are divine and God is God, but we hear him saying that our action (justice) is largely irrelevant. And he liked to piss people off.

    Anyways, Barth & justice for me are a little like mom & dad fighting.


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