INTRO BY BRAD: When it comes to the history of modern theology, Evangelicals (particularly in the U.S) have a bad habit of flattening the world into the faithful remnant (i.e. Evangelicals) and the vast hordes of compromisers and secularists against whom they stand. This approach often leads to wholesale dismissal of important figures in modern Christianity whose ideas do not precisely align with evangelical positions. And in the process, we lose the benefit of their wisdom and witness as we seek to live faithfully in our times.
Karl Barth is a perfect example of a modern theologian who has been unnecessarily shunned by Evangelicals. As Wyatt Houtz explains below, Barth is probably one of the most important Christian theologians since Christ, and certainly the most influential of the last 100 years. Given that he was a fierce critic of liberal Christianity and an equally fierce defender of the importance of God’s Word, he seems like a natural ally of Evangelicals. Yet because his beliefs about Scripture and its authority are somewhat different than modern evangelical “inerrantists”, his work is viewed with suspicion (and sometimes outright disdain). This is a major loss for Evangelicals. Barth advocated a Christian faith that is rooted in God’s Word but yet open to modern advances in knowledge, seeing them as complementary when properly understood. As you’ll see below, his thoughts on Genesis and modern science demonstrate the power of his approach, and offer important insights for our times.
Who is the great Karl Barth?
Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed Protestant and arguably the greatest theologian of the last two centuries. He was a prolific author who is most well known for his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, the thirteen volume systematic theology titled Church Dogmatics (CD), and the Barmen Declaration which was instrumental to the German Confessing Church during World War II. Pope Pius XII said Barth was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” The Scottish Protestant theologian, T.F. Torrance who knew Barth and was a translator of the Church Dogmatics described Barth as "the great Church Father of Evangelical Christendom, the one genuine Doctor of the universal Church the modern era has known. . . . Only Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin have performed comparable service" (CD IV/4, preface). John D. Godsey, professor emeritus of Wesley Theological Seminary, renowned Bonhoeffer scholar and protege of Barth said: "In [Barth] a Church Father has walked among us." Love Barth or hate him, his contribution to theology today may not be overstated.
Karl Barth on the cover of Time Magazine (July, 1962). From personal collection of author.
Uncle Karl's evolution letter to his niece Christine
In 1965, Karl Barth's grand-niece Christine wrote a letter to her 'Uncle Karl' after she was confronted by a Creationist teacher that told her that she must reject evolution. Uncle Karl responded that the biblical creation stories and evolution are like apples and oranges. So anytime someone says that evolution must be rejected to affirm the biblical creation stories, remember this letter and pronounce a loud No! Or as Uncle Karl would say in German: Nein!
. . . Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story with a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner—that there can be as little question of harmony between them as of contradiction?
The creation story is a witness to the beginning or becoming of all reality distinct from God in the light of God’s later acts and words relating to his people Israel — naturally in the form of a saga or poem. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the same reality in its inner nexus — naturally in the form of a scientific hypothesis.
The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with that which has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely either from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.
So tell that teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side. . . .
Karl Barth on interpreting the creation stories in Genesis
According to Barth, the creation stories in Genesis are neither mythology nor scientific literature; they are in the genre of ‘saga’, which he defines as "a pre-historical reality of history." Identifying the biblical creation stories as saga means they are based on real events in history, such that something really happened, and thus the terms ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ are not entirely appropriate (or at least confusing, given the way these words are commonly used). However, the proto-history in Genesis 1-11 is dissimilar to modern history and does not communicate verifiable brute facts that may be used to establish the age of the Earth or its geological past or refute established scientific theories such as the evolution of humans or other animals.
Here’s Barth's definition of saga:
I am using saga in the sense of an intuitive and poetic picture of a pre-historical reality of history which is enacted once and for all within the confines of time and space. Legend and anecdote are to be regarded as a degenerate form of saga: legend as the depiction in saga form of a concrete individual personality; and anecdote as the sudden illumination in saga form either of a personality of this kind or of a concretely historical situation. If the concept of myth proves inadequate—as is still to be shown—it is obvious that the only concept to describe the biblical history of creation is that of saga.
The Babylonian creation stories such as the Enûma Eliš are also saga, according to Barth, and share a 'critical connection' with Genesis such that Genesis had a kind of dependence on them, even if it is uncertain whether this was a direct or indirect relationship. The Babylonian creation stories pre-date Genesis, but Genesis shares the same ancient Near East (ANE) cosmology. This means that Genesis was born from the ANE and that it accommodates its creation stories to the cultural vocabulary of the time. However, we no longer share the cosmology of the ANE, so in order to understand Genesis we must translate or 'demythologize' it, which means we may not use Genesis to scientifically critique modern cosmology or the natural sciences. (Karl Barth's perspective of Genesis has remarkable similarities to recent non-concordist interpreters of Genesis, such as John Walton, author of The Lost World of Genesis One.)
What we read in Gen 1 and 2 are genuine histories of creation. If there is a connexion with the Babylonian myth or its older sources, it is a critical connexion. Everything is so different that the only choice is either to see in the Jewish rendering a complete caricature of the Babylonian, or in the Babylonian a complete caricature of the Jewish, according to the standpoint adopted.
Barth says that the Word of God shares the same genre of saga as the Babylonian epics, but these epics do not reveal the Word of God like the Bible. The Word of God is not revealed in the Iliad or any other great work of literature from the ANE or of modern times.
Barth on the Historical Adam: We are all Adam
One of the most controversial questions among Evangelicals, as it relates to science and the Bible, is whether there was a historical Adam. Barth's view of the historical Adam may be summarized by the following points:
- There are two biblical passages that explicitly refer to Adam: Genesis 2-3 and Romans 5:12-21 (1 Corinthians 15:22,24 may also be considered.) These passages contain elements of the Saga literary genre that makes scientific paleontology impossible to derive from them, or for polygenism to be excluded, or for specific information about a historical-Adam to be derived from these biblical texts.
- Adam has a twofold interpretation: an individual man and a general title for all individuals, such that one meaning always includes the other.
- Adam is more than a metonymy that refers to humanity in general, he is a first among equals, meaning that he is the first man to rebel in a rebellion that all people have joined.
- The fallen state of Adam (man) is not a poison that was passed on to Adam's children or a sexually transmitted disease, but a rebellion that Adam initiated, that all who were around and part of Adam, regardless of physical descent had joined in upon.
- This fallen state is the consequence of no single historical act: it is the unavoidable presupposition of all human history. Adam’s rebellion is one act, but all people participate in that act. The ‘Fall’ is the condemnation unto death, pronounced upon all men by God for this act in all human history, such that “by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners” (cf. Romans 5:18-19)
- There never was a golden age. There is no point in looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner.
- Adam is like the rainbow in relation to Jesus who is like the sun. Adam is only a reflection of Jesus. The rainbow has no existence independent of the Sun. The rainbow cannot stand against the sun. It does not balance it, and the same is true of all people in Adam and the one person of Jesus.
- Barth and Calvin teach that the corruption of all mankind in the person of Adam alone did not proceed from physical descent from Adam, but from the appointment of God.
- No one has to be Adam. We are so freely and of our own responsibility. Although the guilt of Adam is like ours, it is just as little our excuse as our guilt is his.
Here is Karl Barth in his own words on the Historical Adam:
The Bible gives to this history and to all men in this sense the general title of Adam. Adam is mentioned relatively seldom both in the Old Testament and the New. There are only two passages which treat of him explicitly: Gen 2-3 and Rom 5:12-21 (to which we might add 1 Cor 15:22,45). The meaning of Adam is simply man, and as the bearer of this name which denotes the being and essence of all other men, Adam appears in the Genesis story as the man who owes his existence directly to the creative will and Word and act of God without any human intervention, the man who is to that extent the first man. . . . It is the name of Adam the transgressor which God gives to world-history as a whole. The name of Adam sums up this history as the history of the mankind which God has given up, given up to its pride on account of its pride. . . . It is continually like it. With innumerable variations it constantly repeats it. It constantly re-enacts the little scene in the garden of Eden. There never was a golden age. There is no point in looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner.
Karl Barth firmly believed in the threefold witness of the Word of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, as witnessed by the Holy Scriptures and in the preaching of the church. Barth also firmly believed that the scientific consensus on evolution is within the parameters and limits of the Word of God. For Barth, the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but does contain the unique revelation of God that is not revealed in any other book or source. So scientists are free to use the scientific method and follow its conclusions and at the same time fully believe without compromise in Jesus Christ. So now is as good a time as ever to listen to the advice of our 'Uncle Karl' on how to answer these hard questions on science and the Bible.