Karl Barth: Reflections on “Revival”

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The awakenings of which we might think were not always, and
above all did not always remain, what they were meant to be and
very largely were within their limits and in their own way. It was not
merely that the dynamic of awakening did not always or usually last
long enough, but generally passed quite quickly into a new state of
slumber which made necessary new and often very different
awakenings. More particularly, the dynamic of the newly
experienced and proclaimed process of vocation often forced itself
into the forefront as such even [Page 514] in the initial stages. In
face of the static condition of popular Christianity, it could thus
* practice of piety
assume the form only of the power of generally religious and to that
extent “secular” feelings, excitements and explosions, of particular
experiences of the numinous in terms, e.g., of the majesty of God,
the stringency of a moral commandment or fear of the judgment of
God in death and hell. And in not a few cases it could even take the
form quite simply of the magic fluid of specific personalities
(evangelists, pastors, rulers of deaconesses etc.) and their influence,
and occasionally their lust for power. In such cases there was little
place for the call of the Lord, for dynamic illumination by the
Gospel, or for awakening by His revelation and to His knowledge.
The awakenings could become a ground of offence to both
Christians and non-Christians, obscuring instead of enlightening,
confusing instead of clarifying, leading away from the light of Jesus
Christ instead of to it, and thus bringing new sickness to Christianity
instead of restoring it to health.
Yet even in the worst cases we must not condemn or reject
without asking the following question. Even in the most strange and
perhaps bizarre of such awakenings, is there not concealed and
borne, at least potentially, something of the genuine awakening, of
the real illumination to “the knowledge of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ,” by which we should be stimulated and
reminded, and in which it is more important that we should
participate than simply criticise because of the weak and confused
way in which it is represented? Even the most dreadful conceivable
instances of enthusiastic extravagance surely do not alter the basic
necessity of the concern which they undoubtedly proclaim and may
impart in face of a Christianity, Church and theology continually
overcome by slumber. What would have become of mediaeval
Christendom with all its domes and altars and stained glass and
scholasticism and corpus christianum* so wonderfully represented in
its spiritual and secular head, if Francis and his followers had notentered the scene and initiated such a movement with all its healthy
and less healthy features? What would have become of earlier and
more recent Protestantism on the Continent and in England and
Scotland, and what could it possibly be to-day, without the great and
little stirrings and disruptions occasioned by dissenters and
enthusiasts and sectarians of many different kinds? It must not be
forgotten that in respect of its positive substance the Reformation
itself bore very clearly the marks of a revival in its early years, that
Luther and Karlstadt were at first good friends, and that Calvin could
talk of a subita conversio*. Many things would have been very
different and much better to-day if this forward-reaching motif had
not been lost so quickly when the Reformers and their successors
became afraid of their own rashness in the need to secure themselves
and out of aversion to the so-called fanatics.

Karl Barth is not remembered as having had too much good to say about Pietist and Revivalist traditions. But…ok, so he didn’t. (For more on this, see Eberhard Busch’s excellent book on Karl Barth and the Pietists.) However, I came across this fascinating passage in preparation for our weekly Barth reading group. Read on…!

The awakenings of which we might think were not always, and above all did not always remain, what they were meant to be and very largely were within their limits and in their own way. It was not merely that the dynamic of awakening did not always or usually last long enough, but generally passed quite quickly into a new state of slumber which made necessary new and often very different awakenings. . . And in not a few cases it could even take the form quite simply of the magic fluid of specific personalities (evangelists, pastors, rulers of deaconesses etc.) and their influence, and occasionally their lust for power. In such cases there was little place for the call of the Lord, for dynamic illumination by the Gospel, or for awakening by His revelation and to His knowledge. The awakenings could become a ground of offence to both Christians and non-Christians, obscuring instead of enlightening, confusing instead of clarifying, leading away from the light of Jesus Christ instead of to it, and thus bringing new sickness to Christianity instead of restoring it to health.

Yet even in the worst cases we must not condemn or reject without asking the following question. Even in the most strange and perhaps bizarre of such awakenings, is there not concealed and borne, at least potentially, something of the genuine awakening, of the real illumination to “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” by which we should be stimulated and reminded, and in which it is more important that we should participate than simply criticise because of the weak and confused way in which it is represented? Even the most dreadful conceivable instances of enthusiastic extravagance surely do not alter the basic necessity of the concern which they undoubtedly proclaim and may impart in face of a Christianity, Church and theology continually overcome by slumber. What would have become of mediaeval Christendom with all its domes and altars and stained glass and scholasticism and corpus christianum [Christian society] so wonderfully represented in its spiritual and secular head, if Francis and his followers had notentered the scene and initiated such a movement with all its healthy and less healthy features? What would have become of earlier and more recent Protestantism on the Continent and in England and Scotland, and what could it possibly be to-day, without the great and little stirrings and disruptions occasioned by dissenters and enthusiasts and sectarians of many different kinds? It must not be forgotten that in respect of its positive substance the Reformation itself bore very clearly the marks of a revival in its early years . . . . Many things would have been very different and much better to-day if this forward-reaching motif had not been lost so quickly when the Reformers and their successors became afraid of their own rashness in the need to secure themselves and out of aversion to the so-called fanatics.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2, pp. 513-4.

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2 thoughts on “Karl Barth: Reflections on “Revival”

  1. I am late reading this. The last few sentences (the part you underlined) reminded me of Calvin’s response to the Anabaptists, some thing I touched on in a paper I did for you a few years back. If I only had Barth as a reference back then 😉

    I think Barth is touching on a topic of more than a little importance, namely, how do we respond to that which is “outside the box,” invades our theological comfort zone or seems merely naive. This is a critical pastoral question, if for no other reason than it is quite possible that within a single congregation, both sides of an “awakening” may be present and not in agreement. It is a topic worth exploration.

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