Well, maybe this will help you understand his method and approach.
Some time ago Jim West posted a reflection on Matthias Grünewald’s crucifixion scene from the Isenheim Alter Piece. As Jim noted Karl Barth had this picture hanging over his desk…
On the wall behind him hovered a reproduction of Matthias Grunewald’s ‘Crucifixion‘ scene from the Isenheim Altar. I believe this piece of art was the perfect symbol for Barth’s work. Pointing at Jesus, uttering the words ‘He must increase, and I must decrease’, is John the Baptist. This really was Barth’s motto- ilum oportet crescere, me autem minui. It’s the motto of all authentic Christian Theologians as well.
I have loved this picture since I first laid eyes on it. If my memory serves me correctly I was in a class at seminary and my lecturer was no doubt talking (passionately) about Barth. I knew very little about the piece, but I loved what it symbolised. Some years later my wife and I were returning from India and we were meant to enjoy stopover in Malaysia however, we both suffered “Bombay belly” and spent several days inside the hotel recovering. While channel surfing I came across a documentary on the Isenheim Alter Piece. Among the many fascinating things that stood out to me about the picture’s history was the fact it was painted for a hospital specialising in skin diseases and if you look closely at the picture you will notice Jesus’ body is covered in sores and wounds. It was a constant reminder to those for whom it was painted that Jesus suffers with those who suffer…
On a personal level it is not so much the image of Christ in the picture that inspires me and helps us understand Barth. It is the picture of John the Baptist standing to the right of Jesus. In one hand he has the Scriptures while his other hand is outstretched towards the cross. With one hand on God’s word and the other arm, with its elongated finger extended towards Christ, I am reminded and encouraged by what I think is the perfect metaphor for faithful preaching and teaching. I am also given an insight into how Barth wrote and understood his own theological pilgrimage.
If you want to understand Barth don’t read about him, actually read through his Dogmatics. But may I encourage you to do so with this picture in mind (the Baptist specifically). I guarantee you will soon appreciate what it is Barth is saying (even if you do not agree). At every point Barth seeks to be like the Baptist, pointing us to Christ. I can think of no greater act for a pastor!
I think I see his point now!