Creation and Science in the Theology of Karl Barth

Pope Pius XII once hailed Karl Barth as the greatest Christian theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Such title is not without its proper merits. He is considered by many to have caused a paradigm shift in the field of the knowledge of God and revelation. Nonetheless, the comparison with Thomas Aquinas when it comes to a robust theology of creation is not without a bit of irony, since Barth strongly opposed the adherence to natural theology that Aquinas once spearheaded in his own day. Barth professed that theology proper had a greater scope to speak to and from areas where the scientific method had found its limitations.

Consequently, Barth did not see natural sciences and theology of creation as even belonging to the same field of study. Rather, he saw natural sciences as an intrinsically different worldviews. In Barth’s approach, no synthesis of the two could ever be made. Both relied on different epistemologies that carried out considerations in such a way “that it presents its own recognition of its own object with its own basis and consistency, not claiming better but a different type of knowledge which does not exclude the former but is developed in juxtaposition and antithesis to it.”1 For Barth, natural science and theology belonged to non-overlapping magisteria.

Barth’s reservation towards a dialogue between natural science and theology was largely due to his averseness towards the project of modernity within society and academia. Modernity had laid out new intellectual demands for the understanding of theology and history that consequently produced a new school of liberal theologians. Guided by the utopia of rationalism and critical thinking, Darwinian Theory began to be applied to theological studies as a system of thought resulting in new ways of interpreting Scripture, such as in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s historical-critical method and Julius Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Both approaches promoted a “demythologization” of Scripture and a dismissal of Hebrews myths and sagas that were the keys for revelation in Barth’s theology. Since it could not be proved empirically through history, the creation narrative in Genesis 1-3 became nothing but a Hebrew myth for Schleiermacher in the 1700s-1800s, Wellhausen in the 1800s-1900s, and others today. The focus on the hermeneutics of modernity caused Barth to see intrinsic limitations in the natural theology supported by his liberal colleagues.

This does not mean that Karl Barth did not consider theology to be a scientific exploration. Rather, he postulated that “theology and natural science work and argue alongside each other as phenomena which stand strictly parallel to each other.”2 Though parallel, Barth did not see necessary to identify overlaps between the two, dismissing any notion of partial agreement and rejection between the two hermeneutics. Though both encouraged an academic approach, creation for Barth spoke of the revelation of God intrinsically. As a result, his theology became extremely concerned with divine transcendence. In a letter written to a grandniece in 1965, Karl Barth summarized his view, “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.”3

In the face of what he considered a threat to the Christian faith, Karl Barth denounced his formal theological training in the liberal halls of thelogiae and sought a new way of thinking. Searching for an alternative, he assimilated “an approach that sought to rekindle the immediacy of the divine-human encounter through the words of Holy Scripture.”4 He then developed a dialectic approach to theology. In this exercise, he sought to synthesize the differences between revelation and religion, Creator and creation and God and the world. This radical turn against the tide of liberal theological academia earned him the title of neo-orthodox given to him by the opposing left. It was the pursuit of appropriating Scripture whilst maintaining theology as a relevant science, that led Barth to confine his theology in Christ as God’s special revelation. In this endeavor, Barth restored God as the object of theology, all the while maintaining “that theological knowledge had to abide by the strictures of all human knowing in that it must conform to its own proper object.”5

Karl Barth’s return to a dogmatic epistemology and his focus on divine revelation undoubtedly carries implications to his doctrine of creation. As mentioned, the story of creation in Barth’s theology has to do with God’s self-revelation and the actuality of the knowledge of God in the minds of human beings. God is only made knowable because God choses to reveal God’s self. While others dismissed the veracity of Genesis 1, for Barth the creation story proved to be an important “event” because it contained God’s self-revelation that ultimately finds its recreation in Christ. In this way, to speak of creation requires a prior confession of faith in Christ as the Son of God. This therefore makes Genesis 1 less about empirical truth and more about dogmatic revelatory content. In Christ, “God himself has made visible the relation of Creator and creature-its basis, its norm, and its meaning.”6

With Christology in mind, Barth’s main struggle with natural sciences was with the Darwinian attempt to make claims about the ultimate cause and meaning of the universe and human existence. With Christ as its interpretive key for creation, the Imago Dei plays a major role in Barth’s doctrine of creation and theological anthropology where natural and social sciences seem to find its limitations. For Barth, Christ is the fulfillment of creation, a prototype of humanity. Therefore, “what is said in prospect of him (Jesus) can be understood in no way other than in retrospect from him; the whole circumference of the content of Scripture, and thus also the truth and reality of the creation of the world by God, can be understood only from this center.”7

Although Karl Barth was objectively (or subjectively) dogmatic in his epistemological approach, it is important to note that his intention was to avoid the endless debates on the inerrancy of Scripture that were sparked with the application of Darwinian principles to theology proper and Biblicism. At the same time, it was not Barth’s intention to side with the fundamentalist resurgence that was gaining momentum particularly in the United States. Instead, what Barth intended was a return to revelation as the divine epistemology. In doing so, he restricted theology and science as languages of meaning to its respective sides as two rails of the same train track, a position that became assertively contested by his pupil, Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Footnotes

Footnotes

  1. Schwarz, Hans. 2002. Creation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Page 142
  2. Ibid. Page 142
  3. Sherman, Robert. 2005. The Shift to Modernity: Christ and the Doctrine of Creation in the Theologies of Schleiermacher and Barth. New York: T & T Clark International. Page 41
  4. Ibid. Page 42
  5. Dyrness, Willian A., and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. 2008. Global dictionary of theology: a resource for the worldwide church. Downers Grove: IVP Academic. Page 103
  6. Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. 2004. Church Dogmatics Vol 3: The Doctrine of Creation Part 1. London: T&T Clark International. Page 25
  7. Ibid. Page 24
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