Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Karl Barth on ‘I-hymns’ [1]

In light of my recent post critiquing worship as self-expression, I thought I’d dedicate a couple of posts to Karl Barth’s analysis of so-called ‘I-hymns’. In Church Dogmatics I/2 (1938; ET 1956), Barth speaks of how Jesus Christ is humanity’s possibility of receiving revelation; that the receipt of revelation is itself revelation; that the content of this revelation is Christ himself; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes known this revelation to humanity. The important thing here is that the Spirit can do this because the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The two cannot be separated, even though they can and must be distinguished. This is what the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed seeks to preserve.

But what happens when Christ and the Spirit are separated? For Barth, the danger is that the Spirit is not seen specifically as the Spirit of Christ and so any knowledge claimed to have been revealed by the Spirit is not necessarily shaped or filled by Christ. Barth sees this as the foundational flaw in much of the hymnody of post-Reformation traditions. At the start of the Reformation period, Martin Luther essentially took his hymns directly from Scripture and from the medieval Church. Barth writes,

Luther’s hymns are completely lacking in all lyrical quality, i.e., in all emphasis upon the emotion of the subject. The one who speaks in them is neither giving to himself all kinds of accusatory, heartening, instructive and hortatory advice, nor is he constraining others with the challenge or invitation or demand to lay this or that upon their hearts. What these hymns contain is adoration and solid communication, confession of faith, confession of sins, proclamation. (CD I/2, p. 253)

But by the end of the sixteenth century, there had been a subtle change in the lyrical content of church hymns:

In place of the drama of creation, reconciliation and redemption, which is the work of the triune God, another drama is staged. We hear a monologue of the soul, or a duologue between the soul and God, or even at this early date of one soul with another. (CD I/2, pp. 253–54)

Barth appreciates that the hymn-writers of this period had good intentions; but ‘in what or in whom are we really believing?’ (CD I/2, p. 254) This, I believe, is the crucial point, and I hope I am not mishandling Barth when I rephrase his question as ‘What or who is this song about?’ (I have to say that I ask this question about a lot of the songs we sing in our local churches at the moment . . .) By the eighteenth century, ‘confession and proclamation have now really given way to religious poetry’ (CD I/2, p. 254), with the effect that true confession of Christ could be removed from any of the hymns from this period without serious repercussions.

So how does this happen? Barth provides a useful breakdown of the process:

  • a ‘spiritual song’ (ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς; Eph. 5:19) is a song in which the Word of God is preached and heard;
  • a sub-theme in the song becomes interesting;
  • this sub-theme then becomes independent from the main theme;
  • the now-independent sub-theme proves to be more interesting than the main theme;
  • the sub-theme becomes the main theme; and
  • the new main theme shapes our understanding of the old main theme (CD I/2, p. 256).

And all this because Christ and the Spirit have been separated!

I have to admit that I’m still trying to wrap my head around what Barth’s saying here; I’m not a Barth scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I dare say that my lack of familiarity with the output of the hymn-writers Barth mentions (e.g., Gerhard Tersteegan and Christian Fürchtegott Gellert—though chances are I might have sung their hymns unknowingly) hinders me from truly appreciating his criticism. That said, if Barth’s point is that the songs we sing in church are all the poorer because we are focussing on us and our (or my) relationship with God, then that is a point I can affirm—though to what extent do modern worship songs and choruses really separate the Spirit from Christ?

Barth also discusses ‘I-hymns’ in Church Dogmatics IV/1, but I’ll leave that for my next post.

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