Listen to some people today and you get the impression that the only heresy left is believing in heresy. This is the influence of postmodernism, which questions the existence of absolute truth and often leads to epistemological and moral relativism. I know that this is true, because I looked it up on Wikipedia.
So many readers of Karl Barth are surprised when very early in his first volume of the Church Dogmatic, he begins to speak about heresy and like it’s a bad thing. This can sound especially strange to these readers when they remember that Barth was often accused of being a heretic, a teacher of heresy. Shouldn’t Barth have been more tolerant and understanding about heresy? This kind of confusion can occur when we project postmodern values back onto Barth’s modernist times.
The topic of heresy arises in Barth’s discussion of the need for prolegomena. Prolegomena is the introduction that often comes at the beginning of a systematic theology that lays down the ground rules and method like a foundation on which the systematic theology will be built. Barth notes that in modern times prolegomena have become quite long, when in earlier and simpler times they were quite short or non-existent. Barth asks, does our modern age’s skepticism make these long introductions necessary? Are prolegomena needed to overcome our modern unbelief?
Barth answers, No. Unbelief isn’t something new. The first apostles did not operate in a gullible age that made the first spread of the gospel easy. Instead, they encountered unbelief in every stage of their mission. Similarly, all the great theologians of the past have confronted unbelief in whatever form it took in their lifetime. Barth argues that if skepticism was the true enemy of theological truth, then it was much more dangerous in the 17th and 18th centuries than in his own time, the 20th century.
Barth also cautions against taking unbelief too seriously. According to Barth, the theologian’s task is to evaluate and criticise the church’s talk about God against the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Theologians can’t afford to take their eyes off this great subject and theme of their work in order to justify theology to the demands of unbelievers and skeptics. The result in that case, Barth argues, would be bad theology and bad apologetics. Untrue and unconvincing. Faith and unbelief are like two boxers that stand back to back. They swing punches, but none of them land on their opponent. They are saying very different things on the basis of profoundly different assumptions, for there is no common ground on which faith and unbelief can work together. Theological truth is most convincing, Barth therefore maintains, when theologians do theology well, which requires them to take God’s self-revelation more seriously than any skepticism.
However, there is a form of unbelief that must be taken seriously, because it claims to be a form of faith. In fact, on the basis of formal criteria, it seems to be actual faith, even Christian faith. It belongs to the church. It recites the creeds. It reads the Scriptures. It speaks of Jesus Christ. But, Barth argues, when the actual content of what it says is scrutinized, it is seen to be saying something very different to Evangelical theology, the theology that takes the God of the gospel seriously. When this form of faith is measured by the criteria of Christ, it is seen to be what it really is – unbelief. This is heresy.
Barth identifies two examples of heresy that will become his sparring partners in his Church Dogmatics. The first is the form of Roman Catholicism that opposed the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The second is Protestant Modernism which speaks of God in human terms, rather that in God’s own terms. The theologian must take these forms of unbelief seriously, because they claim to be faith, but faith of a very different kind. And the theologian can take these forms of unbelief seriously, because they share common ground. They have arisen from inside the church, not from outside. They represent our unbelief and our temptations to forsake the truth of Jesus Christ.
And so faith and heresy are like two boxers standing face to face. They swing punches and the punches land, and the struggle goes back and forth. Heresy is what makes prolegomena necessary, because it represents the struggle for the truth of the gospel against our own selves.