Karl Barth


Lewis Sperry Chafer

This below comparison was taken from Bernard Ramm’s book, After Fundamentalism, and can be found at this website.

Chafer spent three years at Oberlin College and then left to teach in a school for boys that D. L. Moody had founded. That was the sum total of Chafer’s formal education.

Barth studied in the universities of Bern, Marberg, Berlin, and Tubingen. He studied under such men as Adolph von Harnack, Reinhold Seeberg, Julis Kaftan, Herman Gunkel, Theodor Häring, Wilhelm Herrmann, Johannes Weiss, and Adolph Jülicher. In philosophy, he studied under the famous neo-Kantians Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp. In addition, Barth eventually was honored with eleven doctorates from substantial universities and collected a number of prizes and awards.

Having no formal theological education, Chafer also had no linguistic training. It is apparent from his Systematic Theology that he is always working with secondary sources, whether in the biblical languages or theological literature.

Having gone through the typical Swiss gymnasium (a sort of high school in Germany and Switzerland to prepare students for university), Barth was taught Latin, Greek, and French. When he came to the Scripture, he worked with both the Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and when he cites the church fathers he sites the original Greek or Latin. In addition, he could speak the modern languages of Swiss German, German, English, French, and Italian, and complained of his poor ability in Dutch.

Reading Chafer’s theology, it is apparent that he is not at home at all in philosophy. He makes rare references to philosophers, and in most cases Chafer is citing some other sources and not the philosopher directly.

Barth learned philosophy from Cohen and Natorp. His writings show that he is totally competent in philosophy, having written technical interpretations of such philosophers as Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Sarte. Wherever he does get into philosophical territory, he handles the matters with competence. Naturally he knew well the philosophy of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas.

Chafer’s coverage of historical theology is minimal. Altough he sites Augustine, Calvin, Edwards and others, he does so almost uniformly from a secondary source. Judging from his published theology, he had rarely read the original works of the great theologians.

Bath’s coverage of historical theology is monumental. Furthermore, he always cites them in their original language. It is generally conceded that if Barth has chosen to specialize in historical theology he would have written the most definitive book in the history of theology. As the Church Dogmatics now stands, its many sections of historical theology make the reading of the text valuable alone for that reason. If one has no use for Barth’s theology, there is still great worth in reading it for the historical theology.

Chafer’s citation of Scripture’s is modest. There are not more than 800 references in the index.

Barth’s citation of Scripture is the greatest in the history of theology–15,000. Furthermore, there are 2,000 long and short exegetical sections in the Church Dogmatics, showing Barth’s intense occupation with the text of the Scripture. And in addition to that are all the concept concordances of Scriptural texts scattered throughout the Church Dogmatics. Even master’s these and doctrinal dissertations on Barth never give the proper impression of Barth’s vast knowledge of Holy Scripture, his incessant citing of it, and the numerous exegetical inserts.

I came across this comparison a couple of years back, and I recently have begun to think more about that comparison. Why? I think mainly because I have been thinking about the role of education, and its importance in ministry, church, theology, etc. I run in circles where theological education is not looked upon very highly, but more as a path that clouds one’s judgements, and gives them a skewed view of God and Scripture. And I also run in very formally educated circles, where people spend years in theological education, and where they believe education and that path it takes you down can only lead to a better understanding of God and Scripture. I happen to be more at home in that latter circle since I think education of any kind is a good thing, and I enjoyed my own. And if you think this isn’t a relevant or debated topic, then you must read Tony Campolo’s and Brian Maclaren’s book, Adventures in Missing the Point: How The Culture Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel, where they devote an entire chapter to this issue.

I think my attendance at Fuller Theological Seminary from January of 1998 to June of 2003 can attest to that. I graduated with a Master of Divinity (yeah, I know. It took me five years instead of 3…but hey, full-time work can slow down the process) in 2003, with a desire to pursue another 4-5 years of Ph.D work. But somewhere along the process I decided to put that on the backburner, as I have really enjoyed full-time ministry. But I do miss seminary, and being in a classroom, and thinking about things theologically. That is probably why I am headed back to school this September to continue more graduate work in the Marital and Family Therapy program at Fuller. If it sounds like I am tooting my own horn, I hope that is not the case, but I felt like full-disclosure was important so that you know my own biases.

I know many with or without formal theological education who are doing amazing jobs in ministry and in theology, and vice-versa. I am not concerned per-se about theological training, and either the experience in it, or lack of it. What I am concerned about is some of the name calling I see going on at times, or the mudslinging against those who either have it, or don’t have it. And what concerns me more, are those who sling mud at theologians, or ideas, when they have not read the people themselves. All they have done is read someone else’s work, and what that person has to say about someone. Well, if you want to know what C.S. Lewis says, then read him. Don’t read what someone else says about him. If you want to know what John Calvin said, then read him, don’t read just what someone tells you about him.

This type of discussion has been emerging (for lack of a better word) lately. I have seen all types of people question those associated with the emergent movement, though they have probably never read any book by anyone in that movement. This comes from the other side as well, as I have seen people slam fundamentalists without reading any works by some of their authors.

I have had people tell me I’m a liberal because I went to Fuller, and I have had others tell me I’m a conservative because I went to Fuller…all within the same day. I had an undergrad professor tell me not to go to Fuller because I would graduate, and no longer know what I believed. And I had other professors tell me go to Fuller, and steer away from these other seminaries.

Well, I did graduate from Fuller, and I’m confident of what I believe, though that doesn’t mean my inquiring nature is diminished, nor do I think I have all the answers, or no room to grow. There is a fear that formal theological education will corrupt, and one will cling to any heretical doctrine that blows in the wind. But I have found that to be untrue in my theological training. Rather, it has prepared me to study and critically think through serious theological issues, while having the training of Greek, Hebrew, research methods, etc., so that I can wade through Scripture and first-hand writings and resources that I wouldn’t have been able to without it. One does not need this to study God’s word, and to be in ministry, but it has been an asset to me.

I just came across a quote from the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer. He says, “The very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind to be concerned only with what the Bible was actually teaches.” Interesting quote I thought, especially since he commonly references the research and thoughts of formal theologians in his Four Volume Systematic Theology. One of the theologians that he wrote against was Karl Barth, who is probably best known for his 14 Volume Church Dogmatics.

None of us come to a subject with an unprejudiced mind, whether we have formal training in that area or not, whether it be theology, philosophy, economics, etc. We all come to something with our own ideas, whether we received them through experience, training, family rearing, social influence, etc.

Both Chafer and Barth have something to offer us, whether we agree theologically with them. I have just become more concerned at those who email me, wondering why I have a Barth link on my site. But after further dialogue, it becomes apparent they have never read Barth themself, but only the critique of others.

So maybe you think formal theological education is a good thing, or maybe you think it is a bad thing. I think both can be true at times, but I have found it to be a good thing.