Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology

9780802847836.jpgChristoph Barth (1917-1986), son of the renowned Karl and brother of the relatively well-known Markus, is the lesser-known Barth of the family. A respected scholar in his own right, he spent much of his time teaching in Indonesia and published much less than the father and brother. His most popular and important work is his Old Testament theology God with Us, a work that was originally published in four volumes in Indonesian and later condensed and translated into English.[1]

This evaluation will (1) deal particularly with Karl’s clear influence on Christoph; (2) offer a brief overview of the nine divine acts upon which his Old Testament theology is structured, and (3) include some final thoughts on the work as a whole.

Like Father, Like Son?

From the gate, anyone who has read Karl can see his influence on his youngest son’s treatment of the biblical text. First, Christoph is highly exegetical. Though he does not stray from theological trails (after all, he calls it a “theological introduction”), he mostly hovers around the biblical text and grounds his arguments in exegesis. He is not offering a schematic list of Israelite doctrines nor a critically-developed philosophical or literary treatment; rather, he sees the Old Testament narrative as a theological witness to the God who acts. Similarly, Karl devoted extended writing to commentating on biblical texts, and even in the massive Church Dogmatics, he is often more exegetical than dogmatic, more narratival than propositional.

Second, Christoph introduces his method by keying in on the aforementioned act of divine initiation. Like a good Lutheran with some Barthian flare, he emphasizes God’s unrivaled sovereign freedom to elect and interact with Israel. He also approvingly cites von Rad’s theological task revolving around “a dynamic story instead of a static system of religious ideas” and notes that this was Israel’s own understanding as well as the way the apostles first proclaimed the gospel.[2] Every part of the Old Testament “was consciously written as witness to God’s acts in history.”[3] For Christoph, the Scriptures give testimony to the way in which God has dynamically acted upon and interacted with his people. This is akin to the way in which Karl viewed revelation in general and the biblical narrative in particular.

Whether one agrees fully with Karl or not, the influence on Christoph seen in his view of God’s sovereignty and his attention to the text is commendable. If nothing else, Christoph alleviates himself of the charge that he is only dealing in ideals and opinions rather than biblical data. As with any method, there are deficiencies and flaws. Christoph brings subjectivity to the table, as does any interpreter trying to make sense of the biblical text, but at least he is dealing with texts. When considering a theological or hermeneutical method, it means next to nothing if one is not dealing with Scripture itself. Christoph accepts the challenge, albeit imperfectly, that all biblical and theological scholars must face: make every effort to let the text inform the method.

I will continue in the rest of this review to refer to them by their first names to avoid confusion. (Sorry, Christoph — perks of being Karl’s son.)

The Divine Acts

The bulk of God with Us interacts with the nine divine acts that Christoph views as the “essential subject matter of the OT.”[4] The acts, divided into chapters, are as follows: God created Heaven and Earth; God chose the fathers of Israel; God brought Israel out of Egypt; God led his people through the wilderness; God revealed himself at Sinai; God granted Israel the land of Canaan; God raised up kings in Israel; God chose Jerusalem; God sent his prophets. While admitting that there are doctrinal and legal elements within sections of Scripture like the Pentateuch, he asserts that these elements “are integrated into the structure of the story of Israel’s origins in the mighty acts of God.”[5]

In Chapter 1, Christoph posits that God’s creation of Heaven and Earth is not merely a static event in history, but rather “a salvific fact, an event that evokes thankful joy and confession of faith.”[6] God did not simply create all things and set them on their way; he now preserves and will ultimately make all things new, including mankind. He persuasively notes that questioning God’s creation of potentially fallible humans is only an attempt on man’s part to rid man of individual guilt; God created voluntary partners, not mindless robots. Where Christoph errs is focusing too highly on personal guilt and dismissing original sin. He is correct in asserting that focusing on Adam’s mistake is shameful blame-shifting, but this does not mean that Adam is not culpable, at some level, in man’s depravity. He disappointingly creates a false dichotomy rather than addressing the nuances of this issue. However, he is dead-on in concluding that “[God] will not abandon his work or leave it unfinished.”[7]

Chapters 2 through 4 introduce the reader to God’s initial election of patriarchs and his initial interactions with his chosen nation, Israel. Christoph’s main focus is the Exodus event, a topic “first in importance,” because “[i]t occurs almost everywhere in the OT” and cannot be naturally explained “either by the strength of the Israelites, the weakness or stupidity of the Egyptians, or the configuration of the terrain that might favor Israel rather than Egypt.”[8] Christoph makes the case that for the Israelites, this was paradigmatic of God’s victory over enslavement and his desire for his people’s freedom. He states that the Exodus event was in God’s mind even when he elected the fathers because it demonstrating his promise-keeping of establishing Israel as God’s people “officially and authentically.”[9] To Christoph’s credit, the case can be made that the New Testament offers a congruent typology of the Exodus. This can be seen in places such as John the Baptist’s preaching and preparation for Jesus, Jesus’s birth and Herod’s attempt to kill him, and in Simon’s allusion to Isaiah 52 when Jesus is presented in the Temple.[10] One also thinks of general themes of the gospel’s liberation of man from slavery to sin.

Christoph also hits the nail on the head when he stresses that “[God] did not need ambassadors, or spokesman, or executors of his will, or servants to assist him. All he needed was his arm, his hand, or even his finger.”[11] No doubt, but what of the human instruments he used? He acknowledges but too quickly downplays the significance of God’s calling on his creatures to join what he is doing in reconciling the world. Covenant faithfulness on the part of God’s people is a key motif in the Old Testament. He demands it. Of course it is God who initiates and acts, but he does not act completely divorced from his creatures. He reacts in both favor and disappointment (wrath, even) toward obedience and disobedience. He calls insubordinate men like Jonah to go to Nineveh. His instruments matter. God rescued the Israelites and praise of his name is demanded, but he did so out of concern for his people. God is calculated, but not disconnected; glory-emitting but not megalomaniacal. To be fair, Christoph might not outright deny this point, but the implication makes one wonder how he could fully accept the premise.

Chapters 5 through 9 survey God’s revealing of himself to Israel at Sinai, granting land to his people, and his interactions with and through kings and prophets. Of particular note is Christoph’s attention to God’s foreshadowing and promising of a Messiah. He notes that though the acts of God mentioned throughout the book to this point are “rooted in history … God and his revelation are not imprisoned in past history.”[12] Indeed, “God lives and moves” as do his great acts, and so the liberation from Egypt and the raising up of Israelite kings are pointing forward to something and someone better.[13] In perhaps Christoph’s most shining moment in the entire text, he rightly interacts with the ways in which the prophets foretold of the Savior’s multi-faceted purpose. Here, Christoph offers a useful picture of how the coming Savior would not merely be the ideal king that Israel needed, but would also be the priest, teacher, and prophet that Israel needed. He then, in biblical theologian form, takes New Testament texts and looks back into the Old Testament without aloof proof-texting that divorces the Old Testament from itself. His perceptive understanding that the Old Testament could not fully grasp or encapsulate Jesus is argued thoughtfully, and he convincingly emphasizes that New Testament writers did, however, receive “a key to the understanding of the mystery of Christ’s person and work,” as mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 24:25-27.[14] Christoph did well to highlight the overtly prophetic Old Testament passages about the coming Messiah without getting bogged down in speculative texts. Not to mention, any argument using the words of Jesus as justification is worth considering at the very least.

Final Thoughts

The major strength of this work is Christoph’s descriptions of God’s interaction with his people – acts that are entrenched in history but not always static to the historical setting. In the progression of revelation, as he notes often, God is seen as both keeping his word and even going beyond the hearer’s expectations of his word. Religious dogma by itself remains lifeless if God himself is not sovereignly bringing it to life through his words and deeds. These acts are too often overlooked as part of the background of the text rather than the primary foreground. God with Us gives a survey of the prevailing exegetical-theological message of the Old Testament rather than another rigid, map-and-biography-driven critical approach to the Old Testament.

The struggle occurs when Christoph becomes too Barthian. The God he describes surely loves his people and gives evidence as such, but appears unnecessarily distant and superseding in terms of carrying out his purposes. One thinks of Karl’s affinity for Rudolf Otto’s “wholly other” God; however, we must balance this with the fact that real people in real situations interacted with and responded to God’s divine activity. Again, one should never deny Scripture’s clear depiction of God as the sovereign architect of all that exists and all that happens within that existence, but he is not a robotic being with no regard to the prayers of his people. Christoph seems to readily emphasize eminence over immanence rather than incorporating and celebrating the tension.

All of this said, God with Us is a fantastic OT theology, even with some of its theological misgivings. It is intensely practical and presents a God-centered view of the Old Testament’s message, the kind of OT theology we could use more of. And as a work written for the church, it’s a beneficial read for just about anyone.

[1] Christoph Barth, God with Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), viii.

[2] Ibid., 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] See this interesting treatment: R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf (accessed April 22, 2014).

[11] God with Us, 81.

[12] Ibid., 220.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 233.

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One thought on “Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology

  1. Pingback: Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology — Biblical Reasoning | James' Ramblings

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