On Christoph Barth’s “God With Us.”

One can only surmise how daunting a task it must have been to be the progeny of distinguished Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Nevertheless, such is the burden Christoph Barth (1917–1986) was born to bear. Despite being the second son of the esteemed biblical scholar and dogmatician, Christoph’s contributions to the fields of biblical theology and Old Testament (OT) scholarship are decisive in their own right. The present work, God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, is representative of Christoph’s aptitude for introducing immense subjects in methods that students and laymen alike can disseminate. This is not only indicative of Christoph’s milieu, it is indicative of his ministerial necessity, considering God With Us is the byproduct of OT lectures given during his posting in Indonesia. “He intended to write a textbook sharpening his student’s ears,” Christoph’s widow, Marie-Claire, reveals in the foreword, “so that in listening to what God had said and done in the past, they would be open to what God’s Spirit says and does now.”1 Regrettably, Christoph never witnessed the realization of this vision, dying of cancer prior to its formalization. Thanks to the editorial care of Geoffrey Bromiley and the approving endorsement of his widow, however, there is immense benefit still to be mined out of Christoph’s life work.2

It is no wonder that God With Us remains such an accessible compendium of OT insights when one considers that it is is a work derived primarily from a teacher’s lesson plans. This accessibility is, perhaps, the book’s best feature. To be sure, there are more robust volumes on OT theology, each of which delve into more particular matters of the Christian faith — but Christoph’s doggedly scriptural approach is a most welcome method for introducing the sweeping narratives of OT Scripture. His treatment of OT theology is kept, by his own admission, to the “main topics of faith.” “So far as possible,” he writes, “OT theology must let scripture speak for itself. It must survey the main topics of faith which the books express. It must allow the essential message to go out to our time.”3

After a brief introduction, one is shepherded through these “main topics of faith,” which Christoph identifies through nine epochs of God’s particular intervention into human history, which also happen to coincide with the nine chapter divisions. “Each of the topics,” he insists, “has a theological aspect (in the strict sense), an anthropological, a soteriological, and an eschatological aspect, so that each contains an OT theology on its own.”4 Spanning from the creation account, to the Exodus, to the wilderness wanderings, to the prophetic oracles — Christoph avers that each is paradigmatic of God’s overriding providence over the dynamism of mankind’s existence as he orchestrates all things according to his redemptive interest. “No part of Israel’s scripture,” Christoph writes, “does not at least presuppose God’s mighty acts in word and deed to bring in his kingdom. God’s dynamic initiative, not timeless religious truth, is the main theme of biblical testimony.”5

God With Us is among the rarest of biblical theological volumes in circulation considering it contains almost no footnotes or external citations. For some, this might be seen as a forfeiture of technical criticism. Indeed, there is a segment of academia that might gloss over this publication in favor of more intricate works of OT theology. But by no means does that diminish the enduring resonance of Christoph’s work, which remains endearingly devotional and practical, almost pastoral. Indeed, what allows his theological pedagogy to abide is his biblical insistence — if not stubbornness.

Hues of orthodox Lutheranism come to the fore throughout the text, as should be expected from a son of Karl Barth. Nevertheless, Christoph maintains a resolve to interpret Scripture not according to reformed doxology, but according to biblical theology. His confession that “OT theology must let scripture speak for itself” is, therefore, not banal introductory parlance. Rather, it is the paradigm by which one apprehends not only Christoph’s theological framework but also the biblical narrative itself. The OT, not to mention the entirety of Scripture, is God-centered. Such is why Christoph is so adamant about allowing God’s Word to form the crux upon which one’s faith stands.

It is befitting, then, to admire and applaud Christoph Barth, as Richard Hess comments, “for his refusal to compromise the message of the Old Testament by reshaping it either into the moulds of critical and alien methodologies or into categories of systematic theology.”6 God With Us is, indeed, an achievement of OT theology considering it emphasizes the gravity of the OT itself. The OT, according to Christoph, is not merely a repository in which one can “find extra knowledge or spiritual treasure, but” is the peculiar place to which one can resort to “know who Jesus is and to find pointers to God’s will and salvation in our own day. In this sense the old scripture is still a treasury of new revelation that the church everywhere needs.”7 Consequently, what allows God With Us to endure is precisely because the preponderance of its message is less concerned with man’s words than with God’s.

1

Marie-Claire Barth, foreword to God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, by Christoph Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), viii.

2

I would highly recommend to you Fred Sanders’s blog which further discusses Christoph Barth’s God With Us, along with Brandon D. Smith’s article, “Like Father, Like Son? Christoph Barth’s OT Theology.”

3

Ibid., 5.

4

Ibid., 7–8.

5

Ibid., 6.

6

Richard S. Hess, “What is the Old Testament Saying for the Christian?” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 10.1 (1992): 66.

7

Barth, 2.