Karl Barth, N.T. Wright & the Problem of Apologetics

Two years ago, I considered myself a “Barthian,” probably unaware fully of what all that entailed (since the scope of Barth’s work would take a lifetime to comprehend). Nevertheless, having been converted first by “Dogmatics in Outline” and then by “Evangelical Theology” & “The Humanity of God,” I was all in. I discovered so much about what it means to think theologically within the new world imagined by scripture. Then, came the work of George Hunsinger, a Barthian theologian from the Princeton. His book, “How to Read Karl Barth” opened up to me some “motifs” within Barth’s seminal work “Church Dogmatics.” Having read bits and pieces of Dogmatics already, I immediately recognized some of the motifs Hunsinger was highlighting. For example, the motif of Actualism.

“It is present whenever Barth speaks, as he constantly does, in the language of occurrence, happening, event, history, decisions, and act… For example, when Barth wants to describe the living God in a technical way, he says that God’s being is always a being in act. Negatively, this means that God’s being cannot be described apart from the basic act in which God lives. Any attempt to define God in static or inactive terms, as is customary in certain theologies and philosophies, is therefore to be rejected. Positively, the description of God in act is a being in love and freedom. God, who does not need us to be the living God, is perfectly complete without us. For God is alive in the active relations of love and freedom which constitute God’s being in and for itself. These are the active relations of God’s trinitarian self-differentiation.”

This was helpful to me. I was able to name what Barth had already revealed rather poetically to me. That is, that in scripture, God is revealing himself through the narrative re-telling of his “act.” YHWH’s being cannot be separated from his act in history. He has chosen to reveal himself through his creating, judging, and redeeming humanity – namely through his Messiah event. We should, therefore, reject the notion that God can be reduced to “lists” or “facts.” For me, this was incredibly helpful insight in aiding my journey with scripture-reading.

At the same time, I was already being heavily influenced by the writings of N.T. Wright. Wright is a powerful apologist and New Testament scholar who has cut through the debate about the historicity of Jesus (i.e. the search for the Real Jesus) with incredible clarity. I know I am not alone in saying that N.T. Wright’s work in “Surprised by Hope” gives us an incredible resource for understanding the New Testament meaning of future, eschatology, heaven, resurrection, death, salvation, hope, etc. Further, the scholarly version of that work “The Resurrection of the Son of God” changed my entire approach to scripture. Wright’s entire project seems to be to aid us in getting “behind the text” historically. Not just that, but to expose any assumptions or presumptions we bring with us to the text as people firmly rooted in the 21st century (which makes us different animals to the first century audiences of the New Testament writers). For this I am forever in debt to N.T. Wright.

But a rift exists between these two Giants – a rift that Wright himself has been swift to point out. Barth’s theological method involves something rather foreign to a lot of us. No apologetics. For Barth, no one can be argued into the kingdom. God cannot “be proved” in any logical sense. Again, Hunsinger is helpful in tracing the thought of Barth on this point:

“Apologetics in this sense was the attempt to validate the truth claims of Christian theology by means of rational reflection. Such validation would show that these truth claims are either not precluded or else, more strongly, are actually required (or are at least confirmed) by certain philosophical principles, or by the results of certain historical or scientific research. Apologetics might also attempt to show that Christian beliefs are commendable, because they enable us to obtain certain ends which we know on other grounds to be valuable or beneficial.”

I can identify with this. One of the biggest frustrations I have is with fellow Christians wanting to argue the historicity of Genesis 1-3. I do not mind my brothers and sisters in Christ believing that this story is literal history (although I think it misses the point when taken literally), but I do mind them claiming to be able to prove on scientific grounds that Genesis 1-3 is literal. I can’t help but wonder in a face-to-face with these folks (like Ken Ham) how many times I would have to ask the simple question “How do you know?” before they would have to finally concede that you have to take some things on faith. Which is precisely Barth’s concern. Faith, if it is authentically faith, cannot by definition be proven, or it is no longer faith – it is fact. One does not need deep faith to believe facts. I share Barth’s concern.

But wait. Wright is an apologist. No way around it. And I love Wright. I am deeply indebted to Wright’s work in the shaping of both my own theology and my ongoing approach to scripture in general, and to Jesus and the Gospels in particular. So what is the deal? Do I only despise the apologetic discipline when I feel yucky about its aim, or when I disagree? Am I only “pro-apologetic” when I agree? I would hope this is not the case.

All this questioning and self-examination has led me to consider something new. Perhaps the apologetic discipline has a proper sphere, although a very limited one. Wright’s apologetic agenda does not set out to argue against a perceived secular opponent. Rather, it is part of a larger “in-house” debate about God (or “god” if you are Tom Wright), Israel, and Jesus. By in-house I mean among us Christians – like family business. After all, misconceptions about God can lead to poor behavior. All of this concerns our witness in the world. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy. At the 2010 Wheaton Theology Conference, Wright admitted that he too, like Barth, does not imagine that one can be “argued into the kingdom.” However, he does think misconceptions about the kingdom can be set straight so as to make the kingdom more appealing, or at least, allow the kingdom to “speak for itself.”

So perhaps that is the proverbial line that shall not be crossed. We should not set out to convince “outsiders” of the reality of God, or Truth, or Scripture, on the basis of logic or science. Barth would remind us, after all, that we would be doing so using the tools of the world, as if God could be comprehended apart from his revealed action in human history. This would reduce God to a set of “beliefs” in which the case for God and his existence could be rationally argued.

N.T. Wright himself, in his vast and concentrated quest for the historical Jesus, has noted that the Jewish world that Jesus was so much a part of (the world that we cannot ignore if we are to rightly understand the gospels), rejected, like Barth, the notion that God can be reduced to a set of beliefs. For example, N.T. Wright says in his book “The New Testament and the People of God”:

“Another way of stating the problem facing anyone who wants to plot the belief-system of Jews is as follows. Jews do not characteristically describe the nature of Judaism in terms of beliefs. Indeed, Judaism often contrasts itself with Christianity at this point… (down to footnote)… The concept of creed as the essence of a religious community is, as far as Judaism is concerned, as unreal as a disembodied spirit… the old rabbis seem to have thought that the true health of the religion is to have a theology without being aware of it.”

However, the source that Wright sites here (Shechter 1909), indicates that some “logical” questions arise here. “One might ask: will any theology do? Supposing it is the wrong theology?”

Good questions. Insert apologetics in its rightful arena – as a discipline that should remain within the community. For we acknowledge that apologetics is a weak source for bringing people into the community. So the discipline of apologetics remains “our” discipline. It is a wonderful form of communication and science and art that engages the mind of the community to align and re-align it with the will of the One who called it into being.

So, I still to this day appreciate this statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a wonderful way to bridge the gap between Barth and Wright and the problem of apologetics:

“The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself. If the deed is to have become a force, then the world itself will long to confess the Word. This is not the same as loudly shrieking out propaganda. This Word must be preserved as the most sacred possession of the community. This is a matter between God and the community, not between the community and the world. It is the Word of recognition between friends, not a word to use against enemies. This attitude was first learned at baptism. The deed alone is our confession of faith before the world.”


  1. Hi Joe. I lurk on your blog. I have it in my Google reader so I get each new post. I’ve really enjoyed reading your words lately as you’ve been posting so often. Keep it up!

  2. Joe:

    I, like Greg, have your blog hooked into my Hotmail so that I receive every “volume.” While I certainly do not claim to have been a mentor, nor even a peer, in your earlier days of development, at least I could generally comprehend much of what you presented. Now, combined with the waxing of your knowledge and insight and the waning of mine, I must confess that I have to spend quite a bit of time working through your ideas. After 10-20 minutes, I can rip away enough of the cobwebs to see part of the way down your path.

    As you know, I have had the privilege of sitting at the feet of some pretty good teachers (theologically speaking in this context). At this juncture, I believe that you have the breadth and depth of understanding commensurate with any of them.

    Thanks for sharing these insights with us. Keep up the good work!

  3. WOW! Thanks brother Steve! And you need to know you have been much more of a mentor to me than you realize. Although, I think your trouble to comprehend is more a testimony to my inability to communicate well, and less a problem of my “breadth” of knowledge or understanding.

  4. Nice entry. I have hardly read a paragraph of Barth and this makes me want to delve right in.
    ‘Apologetics’ in the church is called ‘polemics’, fyi.
    Also, I agree that we cannot argue anyone into the kingdom, yet apologetics is necessary as a means of demonstrating the rationality, consistency, etc. of our faith in order to testify and present the gospel to all the world as the Bible instructs us to do. In this sense we do need it if only to demonstrate that we are not a deranged cult that the government needs to squash (peace time is a luxury) or those sorts of things. In my mind, the intent of apologetics has never been a means of ‘converting’ but a defence.

  5. This may be very old, but I chance upon this. I am only beginning to deep into Barth’s work, although I am familiar with Wright’s. I would like to point out the solution to the tension “Barth rejects apologetics while NT Wright engages in apologetics” which you may find helpful.

    The truth is that I don’t think Wright was engaged with what Barth would have conceived of as “apologetics” (such as the ontological argument or argument from first cause etc). I do not think Wright uses that term of himself often either. Rather, what Wright is doing is trying to clarify the historical person of Jesus. He may be, at some points, defensive about the Christian faith (just as Barth does). However, on the whole Wright is concerned with clearing up the confusion people have about Jesus and tell us what the gospel say about him. For example, in Jesus and the Victory of God, he is more concerned with elucidating the gospels account of Jesus rather than defending the historicity of this or that particular part.

    This means that Wright is in the category that Barth calls “witness.” Barth says we should not need apologetics, and that our only task is to witness to Christ. For me, Wright’s primary work on the historical Jesus is exactly that – witnessing to the Jesus of Nazareth who walked and breathed on earth.

    I hope that this category of witness can help clarify the tension you wrote on.

    • Matthias,

      I don’t disagree with your assessment of the general trajectory and purpose of Wright’s work. However, having read a good deal (certainly not all) of Barth’s work, I find it difficult to imagine him writing a popular level book entitled, “Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense” But your point is well taken and accurate. And I appreciate the comment!

  6. This is an important topic, thanks Joe for bringing it up. I`d like to find resources for a constructive dialogue between those guys.

    Yours was well written indeed.
    I want to give few footnotes and considerations:
    1. I think Barth was very much apologetical, it might have even been his motive of “doing” theology the way he did, motive behind his hermeneutics and basis of his view of scripture. Well learned in historical criticism, he was trying to “save” christianity from the criticism`s hands, and existential philosophy gave good resources for that. He was constructing a christian religion that was to be non-falsifiable=ultimate act of apologetics.
    2. Wright instead is not so apologetic, in that he takes seriously historical criticism, which may proof christianity`s basic claims wrong, he keeps the religion falsifiable. But when talking about Genesis it`s a whole different ball game, Wright uses the hermeneutical tools suited for such literary genre, namely creation stories. He is nowhere near creationism. A basic hermeneutical move when going from genre to genre. Gospels are treated more as biographies and eyewitness testimonies, Genesis very differently.
    3. So when reading Genesis, Barth`s hermeneutics might work well (As you might notice I don`t think his hermeneutics work so well with the Gospels), and he might have much common ground with Wright.

    It would be nice to hear more of Wrights comments on Barth, to know if there`s common ground for dialogue.


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