In a 2010 article in Calvin Theological Journal, Cornelis van der Kooi lays out the differences between Bavinck (whose Reformed Dogmatics was influential in Barth’s own theologizing) and Barth with regard to the Christian’s relationship to the culture. (Bibliographic information is at the end of this post.)
Bavinck was impressed with modernity and thought that “theology should be aware of cultural and societal shifts.” Bavinck was “impressed by cultural and social changes and considers the cultural milieu of modernity as a gift from God.” Bavinck does not see the world as hostile toward God “for the world and the culture are in relationship with God the Creator.” (73)
Barth, on the other hand, “seems less impressed by the theological and psychological changes in culture. Barth believes that no culture or era, in itself, has access to the truth of Christian faith because no time period can claim priority over another.” (73)
(This is the basis of Barth’s criticism of people like Bultmann and Brunner because they “argue for a special hermeneutic that will give modern man access to the truth of the Gospel.”) (73)
Barth “makes a sharp distinction between human culture and God’s revelation….God’s Spirit does not indwell human society but only touches it as a troublemaker not a peacemaker.” (75)
In a 1915 address, Barth laid out three propositions (these are preserved by Paul Wernle and are given on p. 74 in van der Kooi’s article):
1. The world remains under the rule of the Devil and we are unable to improve or reverse the situation.
2. Everything will be changed when the kingdom of God comes.
3. Our task here is to trust in Jesus Christ and to “long for the kingdom of God.”
This does not mean we have no responsibility toward society. Jesus shakes up the world order now just as he did in his earthly ministry.
Barth’s influence resulted in a change in theology and its self-awareness and self-understanding. “Theology departed from an attitude of constructive cooperation with social institutions and moved toward a prophetic self-understanding whose first task was critical comment and opposition.” (75)
This is a thorny question that Christians in every age must wrestle with. I think Barth’s position is the one most supported by history and by our everyday experience. It is also the one that seems most closely to align with the Gospels, Epistles, and, most notably, the Book of Revelation.
There are three things that are crucial in this perspective (they are hinted at in van der Kooi but, except for the third one are not stated as solutions):
1. By maintaining (van der Kooi says “widening”) the gap between God and the world as Barth did, we make more clear the fallenness of the world and the futility of any attempt to forestall or reverse its further decay.
This doesn’t mean that we withdraw from the world, or that we deny common grace, but that we maintain a distinction between God’s relationship to the world as Creator and his relationship as Redeemer.
2. By speaking from the realm of faith into the world, we “provide orientation for ordinary life in the world.” (75)
That is, we address God’s Word to people who belong in another realm but who live in this realm in such a way that we are shaped by God’s Word and grow in dependance on God’s Word and Spirit.
3. By proclaiming the unadulterated Word (as opposed to mere principles from the Word as Bavinck maintained), we remain close to the source of life in the midst of death and preservation in the midst of decay: Jesus Christ himself.
The only source of life in the midst of death is Jesus Christ who brought life into a world of death, triumphed over death, and promises to defeat death for those whose trust is in him.
And once again, we see that Jesus Christ is and must be the center.Bibliographic information: Cornelis van der Kooi, “Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth on Christian Faith and Culture,” CTJ 45 (2010): 72-78.