Nearly 100 years ago, a book was published in Switzerland that, as one scholar put it, “landed like a bombshell on the playground of theologians.” That playground was inhabited by liberal theologians, and the bombshell was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. His commentary on Romans catapulted Barth onto the scene and sent shockwaves through church and academy. In this commentary, despite its excesses, we first find themes that profoundly shaped Barth’s later theology.
More interesting to me is that the book contains themes that I believe are particularly relevant to evangelicalism today, one of which we’ll consider here: Barth saw in Romans a complete refutation of the human-centered religion of his day. Describing “the characteristic features of our relation to God,” he wrote:
Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say “God.” We assign to him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. . . . We press ourselves into proximity with him: and so, all unthinking, we make him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with him, we permit ourselves to reckon with him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as his companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. ...Secretly we are the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust himself. . . . Our well-regulated, pleasurable life longs for some hours of devotion, some prolongation into infinity. And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. ...1