Karl Barth’s Nos and Yeses to Science

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From time to time, we like to step back and consider how great theologians have engaged with science. Many readers of this newsletter are undoubtedly familiar with the influential theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). If so, you might also know about Barth’s “dialectical” method that involved a “No” with a “Yes” when he addressed any particular topic or theological doctrine. It is particularly evident in his approach to modern science.

Barth’s No

Where we might expect Barth to engage science—in unfolding the doctrine of creation—he will disappoint many of us. In his early career (around the writing of his revised commentary on Romans), he proposed a strong distinction between God and world. Using a mathematical metaphor, he wrote, that God is related to the world as a “tangent” is related to a circle, that is, a line touching only at one point. Similarly, he rejected any form of natural theology—that God’s nature can be read from the world (although I believe that Barth was more concerned about what can be called a Nazi-infused “culture theology”). At any rate, the early Barth did not think a theologian can read the book of nature and find much of use.

In 1945, Barth began his Church Dogmatics (or CD) III/1: The Doctrine of Creation by undertaking a “radical exposition” of Genesis 1 and 2. This implied for Barth no need to engage with natural science in order to formulate his doctrine of creation. He continued by asserting a characteristic of his method, the independence of theological thought from other disciplines. “It will perhaps be asked in criticism why I have not tackled the obvious scientific question posed in this context. It was my original belief that this would be necessary, but I later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections, or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation.”

The later Barth sounds strikingly like the early one in these passages, and it’s accurate to describe this position as an “independence” approach to science and theology (with the hint of the “conflict” model). It is necessary, however, to read the next page because the harshness is softened somewhat by Barth’s call for freedom: “There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science which really is science, and not secretly a pagan Gnosis or religion, has its appointed limit. I am of the opinion, however, that future workers in the field of the Christian doctrine of creation will find many problems worth pondering in defining the point and manner of this twofold boundary.”

Barth generally did not solicit the insights of modern science as a way to understand God’s creation, which we would certainly see as a limitation. In my opinion, Barth, never fully emerged from the shadow of the philosopher Immanuel Kant who set out clear boundaries for those who wanted to make religious proclamations—they could do so in the sphere of morality but were strictly limited on metaphysical statements.

The good news is that Barth didn’t entirely stay there because he listened to his students and because he continued to learn from what God did in Christ.

And Now Barth’s Yes

In the mid 1950s, Barth moved toward a more fruitful interchange between the Scripture and the insights of the world toward the final years with Church Dogmatics IV: The Doctrine of Reconciliation. As he pursued more fully the reality of God’s coming into the world in Jesus Christ, he found implications for the world itself—it is no longer to be understood simply as distinct from God, but as reconciled in the person of Jesus Christ. Barth’s reflections on “other lights” and “parables of the kingdom” in CD IV/3.2 demonstrates that God is set in a different relation to the world, one in which God’s presence works through worldly entities.

Barth reclaimed John Calvin’s emphasis on creation as the “theatre of God’s glory.” He also shifted toward a Christologically reconciled relation of God and the world. God speaks through these other lights and secular parables, such as creation and science. Methodologically, this allowed him to learn from other disciplines.

It should probably not entirely surprise us then that, toward the end of Barth’s life, when Thomas Torrance talked with him about integrating science into his theology, Barth replied affirmatively. Alister McGrath has commented (in a paper about Torrance) that we can consider Barth a “scientific theologian.” As he put it (here via video): “I must immediately emphasise how helpful Barth is at some important points to a principled dialogue between theology and the natural sciences, mainly on account of his insistence that it is not possible to develop a universal method, capable of being applied across all disciplines; rather, it was necessary to identify the unique object of Christian theology, and respond in a manner which was consonant with its distinctive characteristics.”

This, for McGrath, parallels the sophisticated methods of science. To my ears, it is reminiscent of Albert Einstein, who developed his mathematics, and thus his method, in response to the specific science that he was analyzing, e.g., relativity. It is mirrored beautifully in the German word that Barth employs in his discussion of theological method, Sachlichkeit, with its root Sache, “the thing” or “the matter” being observed. Method is not universal for Barth or for science—it must fit the particular object of study.

What We Learn from Barth

Barth’s Church Dogmatics alone has over 6 million words, and so it’s no surprise that there’s much more to be said about Barth and science. For now, what we learn from Barth is that we can grow—we might even say, evolve—in understanding how to bring science to theology. And when we focus as Christians on how God reconciles all creation through Christ, we realize, like Barth, that we have a good deal to bring to this conversation.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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