Barth: Anthropocentric?

A few weeks back, a Barth post of mine led to a good discussion in the comments.  This post is a sort of answer to that using Gustaf Wingren (20th C. Lutheran theologian) and Cornelius Van Til (20th C. Reformed theologian) to speak about one weakness found in Barth’s theology.  Basically, both Wingren and Van Til noted a glaring irony: Barth’s loud voice speaking of God was quite anthropocentric after all.

Wingren, for example, accused Barth of substituting revelation in place of justification and forgiveness.  Wingren said Barth overemphasized human knowledge instead of redemption from the guilt and corruption of sin.  Barth, Wingren noted, had a sort of Schleiermachian bent.  “It is strange that we must make this statement, but it is necessary: In Barth’s theology man is obviously the center.  The question about man’s knowledge is the axis around which the whole subject matter moves.”  (Sources: Wingren’s Theology in Conflict: Nygren, Barth, Bultmann p. 28-29; this is also mentioned in William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, p.80 & 279.  Willimon, who loves Barth, even admitted this was “true,” since for Barth, “sin is mostly a form of unknowing” [ibid, 80].)

Van Til, independent of Wingren’s conclusion, wrote similarly.  Barth’s “theology is still nothing but an anthropology.”  Elsewhere he says that Barth’s ontology coalesces with this epistemology.  According to Barth, Van Til wrote, “all human beings who exist, that is, really exist in the Christ, and all human beings who have knowledge of anything at all have this knowledge because they are one with the process that is Christ and that is God.” (See Van Til’s New Modernism p. 375.)

After reading Barth for a few years now, I do believe these are legitimate concerns, but I’m still reading.  He has “tossed around” my furniture, but I’ve not yet crossed the 1,000 page mark so I best not comment too much.  When I cross the 1,000 page mark, perhaps I’ll have something to say (although one never knows with Barth!).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 thoughts on “Barth: Anthropocentric?”

  1. I’m no Barth expert, but I don’t know if I’d say that Barth’s theology is anthropocentric.

    I think it’ll be hard to substantiate the claim that “man is obviously the center” of Barth’s theology. His theology might very well be anthropocentric, but if that is the case, it’s far from obvious. Granted, there are passages that can be taken out of Barth’s work that sound anthropocentric at a particular point, but I don’t think one can say that his entire theology is characterized by anthropocentricity. It’s strange that the same theologian whose accused of being excessively Christocentric (some say Christomonic), can also be accused by others of being anthropocentric. I definitely see the former, but I have difficulty seeing the latter–this may very well be due to my own slants and biases, though.

    – Josh


  2. Well, I’ve read at least a thousand pages of Barth, and I don’t buy it. It has a grain of truth — Barth is focused on knowledge, but this is largely because of his context as a Church theologian purging the errors of, broadly speaking, natural theology in the Protestant churches. His solution or paradigm, however, is most certainly not determined by the knowing subject; rather, it is Christ alone who, at once, reveals the problem and the solution. The whole point of Barth’s repeated discussion of the knowing subject is that he or she must turn entirely to the Word of proclamation in order to know God. Anthropology is demoted; it is given its proper dogmatic location within (or “after”) the doctrine of God.

    And, Wingren’s criticism is just saying, “Barth is Reformed when he should be Lutheran.”


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