Karl Barth recommends…the Dominicans!

September 14, 2012

Pope Pius XII called him “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.”

Karl Barth (1886—1968) was the eminent Swiss theologian who changed the face of Protestant theology in the Twentieth century.  His most famous work is the Church Dogmatics, a massive thirteen volume work of theology beginning with the Word of God and ending unfinished with the Church.  But what made him noteworthy initially was his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which Catholic theologian Karl Adam described as falling “like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.”  Trained in the liberal Protestant tradition, upon reading deeply and reflection on Paul’s message in The Letter to the Romans, Barth turned his back on that tradition, which he described as thinking of God as “man writ large.”  Protestant theology had thought in terms of religion, humanity’s search for God; but Barth re-oriented theology around Revelation, God’s speech to humanity.  From his commentary:

“Paul is authorized to deliver — the Gospel of God. He is commissioned to hand over to men something quite new and unprecedented, joyful and good, — the truth of God.  Yes, precisely — of God! The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine…The Gospel is the Word of the Primal Origin of all things, the Word which, since it is ever new, must ever be received with renewed fear and trembling.”

The importance of the Gospel proclamation in Barth’s work is well known. What is less well-known is his chosen proclaimers.  In the preface to his commentary Barth cites and comments on another pastor’s poem:

“God needs MEN, not creatures
Full of noisy, catchy phrases.
Dogs he asks for, who their noses
Deeply thrust into—To-day,
And there scent Eternity.
Should it lie too deeply buried,
Then go on, and fiercely burrow
Excavate until—To-morrow.

Yes, God needs…! I wish I could be such a Hound of God—Domini Canis—and could persuade all my readers to enter the Order.”

Extraordinary! The leading Protestant theologian of the Twentieth century recommending his readers to become — Dominicans!  But why would Barth recommend the Dominicans; what characteristic of the Order could answer his call?  I think the first quote from Barth’s commentary makes the reason clear: the Gospel of God is what the world needs and Dominicans are Gospel men par excellence.

St. Dominic is of course the exemplar of this: known as the Vir Evangelicus, “the man of the Gospel,” he raised up an Order of men “intent on procuring their own and other people’s salvation… evangelical men, following in the footsteps of the Savior, speaking to God or of God, among themselves or with their neighbors (The Fundamental Constitution of the Order of Preachers, II).” The formation of the brothers is aimed towards this one central goal: the preaching of God’s Word.  We are an Order of Preachers, men committed to the Gospel as Barth says, “the victory by which the world is overcome.”  It is as preachers of the Gospel, preachers of grace, that Barth could recommend the Dominican Order in his commentary.

While Pope Pius XII ranked Barth alongside the Angelic Doctor, it appears that Barth knew his subordinate role in comparison: he opened his Church Dogmatics with a prayer of St. Thomas: “Grant me, most gracious God, that I will desire and wisely seek and truly know and in all things fulfill that which is pleasing to thee, to the praise of thy name.”  To truly know and fulfill all that is pleasing to God — “to contemplate and share the fruits of contemplation” in the preaching of the Word, the motto and mission of the Order of Preachers. Something Karl Barth could apparently heartily recommend.

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