Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lessons from Karl Barth's miraculous healing

"Mention may be made of one notable incident.  Shortly before Christmas 1964 I had a slight stroke which for half a day robbed me of speech - perhaps a sign in view of the much too much that I have said in my lifetime(1).  Then, possibly in unconscious protest against the undue disparagement of the third Evangelist by ruling New Testament scholars(2), and certainly to the edification of the deaconness [sic.] who was caring for me(3), the name Zacharias (Lk. 1:22) clearly passed over my lips in description of my state.  Quite soon afterwards I was able to say more about the situation.  Nothing like this has happened to me since - not yet(4)!"
- Karl Barth, in "Preface," Church Dogmatics p.viii (T&T Clark edition)
The above quote appears as one of Barth's many fine-print excursuses, and to me is one of the most amusing and fascinating.  Not only does this little portion testify to the elderly theologian's experience of what he clearly considers a miraculous healing, it also is a very revealing and (for me, at least) endearing piece to read.  There are several things that jump out to me from this little paragraph. . .

(1) Barth's ability to make fun of himself appears clearly in his speculation that the momentary loss of speech was some sort of chastisement for having already spoken too much in his life.  Barth was verbose and opinionated.  One fellow theologian once quipped that Barth's Dogmatics must have been written for the angels - because only angels had time to read it all!  And Barth himself once said that, while there may be great painters or great scientists, there can be no such thing as a "great theologian," because one can only be great in reference to his or her subject.  No one is great standing next to God.

(2) Barth's freedom to be critical of the critics is a freedom that we need to hold onto.  The present surge within Pentecostalism to cast off it's fundamentalistic roots (or perhaps shackles) is a glorious thing.  God has been gracious to our movement, and has used us as a mighty witness to the rest of the body of Christ that the Spirit is a very present and powerful Person.  During this time, Pentecostalism, at least in America, has generally been rather fundamentalistic in its outlook and approach to the Bible.  As we cast off this unhealthy burden and discover the real depths and heights of both Scripture and tradition, we need to joyfully retain the freedom that Barth had to affirm the truth of the message of scripture: that God is a living God who reconciles us to Himself through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

(3) Barth's joyful amusement at the circumstances of his healing, and at its effect on the woman caring for him, makes me appreciate him that much more.

(4) His happy anticipation at the age of 80 that God may still have some surprises awaiting the old theologian - not least of which, Barth would probably say, would be the resurrection of his body - witnesses to me that a man can be a profound thinker, a controversial theologian, a "doctor of the church," and still be a man of faith, hope, and love.

Lastly, I wonder if it is no coincidence that this story appears in the preface to his volume on Spirit baptism.  As I have said elsewhere, Barth actually wrote quite a bit about the Holy Spirit.  He also wrote in some places about the miraculous experiences of many in the days of the early church.  As a modern, and as an inheritor of the Reformed tradition, Barth seemed often to think of the miraculous experiences of the early believers as little more than interesting "phenomena" - and certainly not as phenomena that the contemporary church should be seeking in its own life.  But God has a sense of humor, and his grace is sufficient even for sinners like Barth.  Miracles do happen, and God is still at work in the world.  God has spoken once for all in his Son - but the reconciling and healing work of the Spirit goes on until the End.

1 comment:

  1. What a great insight into the story of Barth.