The Karl Barth Gifford Lectures (Aberdeen 1937/38) and their implications – D. Densil Morgan


The Gifford lectures and their implications

Barth Reception in Britain by D. Densil Morgan, T & T Clark, 2010, pp. 171-3.

         By the late 1930s there was little reason for the theology of Karl Barth to be unknown or misunderstood in Britain. His most faithful interpreters, John McConnachie, R Birch Hoyle, H.R. MacKintosh and now George S Hendry, had prepared the ground thoroughly while the essence of his mature theology was coming more and more into the public domain. Although his contribution to the thought of the incipient ecumenical movement, an essay in John Baillie’s preparatory symposium for the important gatherings of the Council for Life and Work in Oxford, July 1937, and Faith and Order in Edinburgh a month later, traverse the perhaps over-familiar ground of ‘revelation’,[1] other works such as Credo, the essays of God in Action to say nothing of the bold Trinitarianism of The Doctrine of the Word of God illustrated something of the breadth of Barth’s vision. R. Birch Hoyle’s further translation of a 1929 lecture The Holy Ghost and the Christian Life (1938) gave a further insight into the content of Barth’s evolving theology.[2] It was the Gifford lectures, however, which made quite explicit where Barth stood on a whole range of doctrinal issues. The quite remarkable though little commented on series of lectures delivered in Aberdeen in two phases, the first in March 1937 and the second a year later, show how Barth’s mature theology, already present in embryo in the Göttingen cycle of 1924-25,[3] was brought to bear on John Knox’s little-known (even in Scotland) Scottish Confession of 1560. Barth had, in fact, immersed himself in the confessional theology of the Protestant reformers as early as 1923,[4] and was now keen to convince the theologians of Aberdeen that their heritage was not to be despised: ‘The confession of John Knox is a good confession and moreover, in many respects a very original and interesting confession’.[5] It was on the basis of this that he explained to a British audience what his own theological scheme was all about.

            The Gifford Lectures, of course, were explicitly intended to elucidate the meaning of natural theology. The dilemma of Barth was acute ‘I certainly see – with astonishment – that such a science as Lord Gifford had in mind does exist, but I do not see how it is possible for it to exist. I am convinced that so far as it has existed and still exists, it owes its existence to a radical error’.[6] In order to show how erroneous, in his own eyes, the concept was, he used the confession – with the ready approval of his Scottish hosts – to highlight its perceived errors: ‘The background and antithesis to “natural theology” … is the knowledge of God according to the teaching of the Reformation’[7] and he proceeded, as a Reformed theologian, to set out his thesis. In his 10 lectures, corresponding to Articles 1 to 10 of Knox’s confession, he explained what had become his own highly original version of the Reformed faith. God was not just the sovereign Lord, rather he had acted in his very essence in order to be for and with humankind: ‘The Reformed Church and Reformed theology have never spoken about God and man as if God were everything and man were nothing. That is a caricature of Reformed teaching’.[8] God as creator presupposes a creation in which he has chosen to be bounteous and merciful. Moreover, He has done this from eternity in Christ: ‘Let us proceed from the simple fact that in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, God and man meet, and therefore are really together’.[9] In Christ humankind becomes not God’s antithesis or his servant still less his slave but his covenant partner and consort. Humankind too possesses glory.

            Man, of course, as the gospel had always claimed, is still a sinner. There is no room for any Enlightenment optimism as to human perfectibility or guiltlessness; humans are fallen and under judgement and the object of the divine wrath. But there is something more central to human disobedience and God’s righteous condemnation, namely that God has chosen for humankind: ‘That man is against God is true and important and has to be taken seriously. But what is ever truer, more important and to be taken more seriously is the other fact that God in Jesus Christ is for man’.[10] It is here that Barth’s celebrated universal Christocentricism shows itself in clear relief: ‘In this Lord and head, Jesus Christ, God and man, God and sinful man, are one. For this reason God maintains fellowship with all the men that belong to that people (namely humankind), whose Lord and head is Jesus Christ’.[11] This is not fortuitous; it has nothing to do with man as man; man is sinner and as such is damned, his will is in bondage and the imago Dei has been hopelessly marred. In no way can sin be downplayed. Yet God is for humankind because he has chosen, or elected, to do so. Election is no abstraction, neither does it have to do with two distinct groups, the reprobate and the saved. It has, rather, to do with Adam, the whole human race, and even more basically with the Second Adam, Jesus Christ: ‘God’s eternal decree and man’s election and thus the whole of what is called the doctrine of predestination cannot but be misunderstood unless it is understood in its connection with the truth of the divine human nature of Jesus Christ’.[12]

            Barth had been contemplating this radical recasting of the doctrine of election for a long time. His friend the French Reformed pastor Pierre Maury had also been led along the same path, in his case for explicitly pastoral reasons – how could those in anguish of soul know that they were among the elect? – and in the international Calvinist conference in Geneva in 1936 Maury gave a paper on election from a Christological standpoint which sharpened Barth’s views considerably.[13] Going beyond the view of the Göttingen Dogmatics that election was to be understood existentially and dynamically and not according to a rationalistic scheme which posited the existence of a fixed decree in which God had chosen pre-temporally who would be saved and who would be damned, Maury, and thereafter Barth, had grounded the decree in the eternal choice of Jesus Christ as God’s elect. It was a revolutionary reworking of the system. It would be treated in detail by Barth in the Kirkliche Dogmatik II/2 (1942) though it found its way, in a much paired down form, into the seventh Aberdeen lecture, ‘God’s Decision and Man’s Election’. What is remarkable is that no-one, even in Calvinistic Scotland, seems to have remarked upon its novelty at the time. When Barth’s lectures, translated by two young theologians, the Scot Ian Henderson and the Belfast Presbyterian J. L. M. Haire, was published as a substantial 240 page volume at the end of 1938, they scarcely created a ripple. The book was hardly reviewed, and when it was, as by A. L. Lilley in the Journal of Theological Studies, its significance was not apparent.[14] As the outbreak of war loomed ever nearer, Barth’s theology, if not his courageous stand against Hitler, was either misconstrued or else ignored by the bulk of Britain’s religious establishment.

[1] Karl Barth, ‘Chapter 2’ in John Baillie and Hugh Martin, Revelation (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), pp. 41-81.

[2] Karl Barth, The Holy Ghost and the Christian Life (London: Frederick Muller, 1938). (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

[3] See Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: its genesis and development, 1909-36 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp.327-74.

[4] See Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions (Louisville: Westminster Press, 2002); cf. John Webster, Karl Barth’s Early Theology(Edinburgh: T & T Clark,), pp.41-66.

[5] Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p.11.

[6] Ibid., p.5.

[7] Ibid., p.8.

[8] Ibid., p.35.

[9] Ibid., p.36

[10] Ibid., p.46.

[11] Ibid., p.59.

[12] Ibid., p.77. (my emphasis)

[13] See Pierre Maury, Predestination and Other Papers (London: SCM, 1960); cf. Mc Cormack. Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: its genesis and development, pp.453-8.

[14] A. L. Lilley, review of Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God, in the Journal of Theological Studies 41 (1940), 212-4.

See also this review of Morgan’s work:

Before being appointed Professor of Theology at University of Wales Trinity Saint David in 2010, Densil Morgan spent twenty two years at Bangor University, North Wales, where he was successively lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor. During that time he spent sabbatical terms in both Princeton and Oxford. He was British Academy Visiting Scholar at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2001, Visiting Scholar at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, in 2008, and during the same year was appointed member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton. In 2005 he was awarded the DD degree by the University of Wales on the basis of his published works. He was made Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2011 and was honoured by the Gorsedd of Bards by being appointed member in 2012. Densil has published on Karl Barth, modern doctrine and twentieth century church history.

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