Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Universally recognized as among a very select few who have profoundly influenced all of Christian theology, Karl Barth remains perhaps one of the least understood theologians of the modern period. He is often acknowledged as the greatest Protestant theologian of this century. His major contribution was a radical change in the direction of theology from a 19th-century orientation toward progress to an orthodoxy that had to cope with the grim realities of the 20th century. His rejection of liberal theology led to an emphasis on the eschatological and supernatural in Christianity. He refused any synthesis between the church and culture, and emphasized the radical disjunction between God and human beings. An extremely voluminous writer, the sheer size of Barth’s corpus is intimidating. More significantly, his thought is dialectical. Barth’s theology oscillates back and forth from the radical discontinuity between God and creation (“no”) and the equally radical love of God for creation (“yes”).

Early Biography

Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland, on May 10, 1886. His father, Fritz Barth, was a Swiss Reformed minister and professor of New Testament and early church history. From 1904 to 1909, Barth studied theology in Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg. He studied under Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann and was attracted to the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher. From 1911 to 1921, Barth was a parish minister. In 1913, he married Nelly Hoffman, and together they had five children.

Career & Principal Works

In 1914, Europe ignited. Soon after the start of WWI, Barth was shocked when many of his teachers signed their allegiance to the war plans of the German government. Barth thought that their openness to culture (philosophy, history, and the sciences) had made them turn their backs on the gospel. Liberal theology failed to stand up against culture and it failed to reach Barth’s congregation in Safenwil. Disillusioned with the liberal theology of his youth Barth sought a completely new theological foundation by rereading scripture. By 1919, Barth’s research on Paul’s Letter to the Roman’s yielded the first edition (of six in the original German) of his Römerbrief (ET, The Epistle to the Romans). The following two years of study (which included Overbeck, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Ibsen and Kierkegaard in addition to the Bible) lead to a lecture entitled “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas” delivered in 1920. With the great liberal theologian, Harnack in attendance Barth proceeded to expound on his new appreciation for the wholly-otherness of God. In 1922, the second edition of Romans was published. This new edition, “divided the theological world into advocates and detractors” (Livingston 2000, 65). Though largely rebuked by New Testament scholars Romans found acceptance among the younger generation of theologians including Brunner and Bultmann, who “saw Barth as fighting on two fronts, against both the psychologizing and historicizing of Christian faith” (Livingston 2000, 66). Barth’s commentary stresses the “otherness” of God and the importance therefore of revelation and salvation as acts of God, not humanity. Romans draws heavily on the existentialist philosophy of Kierkegaard, with his characteristic emphasis on the infinitely qualitative distinction between God and humanity.

On the basis of the publication of Romans (he had never earned a doctorate), Barth was appointed professor at the universities of Göttingen, Münster, and Bonn, successively (1922-1935). In Göttingen, he did an exhaustive study of the great Protestant scholastic theologians. During his time as a professor, he sought to rid his theology of the last residue of natural theology. Barth sought “a theology that would stand on its own feet, so to speak, free of the support of other philosophical or anthropological sources” (Livingston 2000, 97). In 1927, Barth published a prolegomena to dogmatics, Die Christliche Dogmatik (Christian Dogmatics). After being reviewed as grounded in existentialist philosophy Barth decided to rewrite his Dogmatik, this time under the less autonomous title of Die kirchliche Dogmatik (Church Dogmatics). This move toward unambiguously Church-oriented theology was anticipated by Barth’s Romans, but was, perhaps, confirmed and strengthened by his study of the medieval theology of Anslem.

Barth’s increasing engagement with epistemological issues made him dissatisfied with what he had done. He became aware that he was still working within a liberal, anthropocentric framework. When he moved to Bonn, he was forced to rethink his theological method completely in order to avoid grounding his theology in an existential anthropology. His theology represented a significant break with his earlier dialectical thinking. In 1931, Barth published his celebrated Anslem: Fides Quarens Intellectum (Latin: Faith Seeking Understanding) in which he concurs with the great scholastic that theological knowledge is nothing but “an extension and explication of…the Credo of the Church” (Livingston 2000, 98). From this point on through the several volumes of the monumental Church Dogmatics, Barth’s method reflects this Anselmian approach. In contrast to liberal theologians, Barth relies only on the beliefs of the Church rather than also drawing on philosophy, the sciences, and culture in general.

In addition to the Bible, Barth draws on the ancient creeds of the Church. In 1935, Barth wrote Credo, an exposition of the Apostle’s Creed, and only eight years later, his Confession de la Foi de l’Eglise elaborated on the same topic. During this time, Barth also wrote several small commentaries and expositions of the Heidelberg and Geneva catechisms.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Barth became a staunch opponent of the Nazis’ plans to use the German Church to legitimate their racist and idolatrous agenda. Reacting to the creation of the state-sponsored Evangelical Church of the German Nation, Barth wrote a pamphlet published in Theologische Existenz Heute in June of 1933. Perhaps most revealing of Barth’s character and commitment to God above all else is the fact that a copy of this pamphlet was sent by Barth to Hitler himself.

By the close of 1933, Pastor Martin Niemöller was the leader of the Pastor’s Emergency League, an organization opposed to the so-called German Christians. Barth joined with Niemöller and this group soon formed the basis for the Confessing Church in Germany. In May of 1934, the first Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church was held in Barmen. Most notably the meeting produced the Barmen Declaration. Owing to Barth’s authorship, the declaration was a statement of theology applied to the current political and social situation. In response to the idolatry promoted by the Nazi regime, “the declaration affirms the sovereignty of the Word of God in Jesus Christ” (Livingston 2000, 100). Furthermore, the Declaration condemns the racist policies of the government and calls for the independence of the Church. Importantly, the Barmen Declaration demonstrates Barth’s commitment to an “ethics wholly subservient to the Word of God” (Livingston 2000, 101). As Livingston notes, “Barth’s social ethics is an ethics of divine command and human obedience as these are apprehended in the hearing of the Word of God in the context of a concrete situation” (Livingston 2000, 101). Moreover, ethics is not for Barth the reduction of particularity to general principles or laws. Rather, one must discern God’s will in the concrete situation one finds themselves in and this theme is one that persists throughout Barth’s career (Barth, 1993, 11; Lovin 1984, 32-42).

Soon after the Declaration, Barth responded to Brunner’s defense of human capacity to receive natural revelation with his (in)famous “Nein!” For Barth, the deity of God and the reality of human sin mean that theology must start, proceed, and end with the self-revelation of God. Using natural theology, philosophy, or any of the sciences can lead only to anthropocentricism and idolatry (for a brief overview of the Barth-Brunner debate see McGrath 1997, 191-3). Although he would later qualify this kind of extreme separation between God and humanity, Barth always saw that theology could easily, and dangerously, become a mere tool of a thoroughly human agenda (Barth 1960).

In 1935, after refusing to take the oath of unconditional allegiance to Hitler, Barth was dismissed from his chair in Bonn and settled in his native Basel. Barth's refusal to comply with an instruction by the rector of the University of Bonn to end each lecture with the German salute put a provisional end to Barth's professional career in Germany. Barth himself described why he refused to comply: "I have begun my lecture (in summer at seven o'clock, in winter at eight o'clock) for the past two and one-half years with a brief devotion consisting of the reading of two Bible verses and the singing of two or three verses of a hymn by all present. The introduction of the Hitler salute in this context would be out of place and diversionary." (Prolingheuer, Der Fall Karl Barth, 240: Letter to Rust, 16 December 1933).

By the late 1930’s, Barth was completing the second volume of his Dogmatik. The theme continued to be that of God being known only through God’s self-disclosure. Church Dogmatics II includes extensive discussion of Barth’s idea, central to his ethics, that “God’s gift of freedom and obedience are one, because God’s command is given not as a demand but as a gracious offer” (Livingston 2000, 103). Human beings must continuously receive from God the answers to their questions about right and wrong. Ethical principles as such do not exist for Barth. Instead, Barth places emphasis on the Word of God. Hence, Barth’s ethics may be called theological in a literal sense. Barth’s higher standard of the Word of God made him slow to take sides on many social issues because he could (rightly) criticize both “from above” as it where. Rather than take sides between capitalism and communism, for example, Barth saw them both as idolatrously materialistic and called for the Church to follow its own path of “reconstruction” (Livingston 2000, 103). Nuclear war, however, did receive strong disapproval by Barth in the 1950s (Livingston 2000, 104).

After the war, Barth was invited back to Bonn, where he delivered the series of lectures published in 1947 as Dogmatics in Outline which followed (more or less) the presentation of the Christian faith found in the Apostle’s Creed (Barth, 1947). In contrast to more conservative orthodox biblical positivists, Barth conceived of the task of theology as human reflection on what is given in scripture but only in so far as the Bible is endowed with grace (Livingston 2000, 98). He spoke at the opening meeting of the Conference of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he visited Rome, a visit of which he wrote in Ad limina apostolorum. He was regular visitor to the prison in Basel (Deliverance to the Captives, 1959). Barth remained at Basel where he taught and wrote extensively until his retirement in 1962. He continued to work on his magnum opus the Church Dogmatics from 1932 until shortly before his death, December 10, 1968 at the age of 82.

2. Works (Selected List)

Römerbrief (1919, 1922; ET The Epistle to the Romans, 1933); Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of his Theological Scheme (1931; ET 1960); Kirchliche Dogmatik (1932-1967; ET Church Dogmatics); The Humanity of God (1959).

3. Themes


The main characteristic of Barth's work, known as neo-orthodoxy and crisis theology, is on the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence, and the human inability to know God except through revelation. The critical nature of his theology came to be known as "dialectical theology," or "the theology of crisis.” This initiated a trend toward neo-orthodoxy in Protestant theology. The neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth reacted strongly against liberal Protestant neglect of historical revelation. He wanted to lead theology away from the influence of modern religious philosophy, with its emphasis on feeling and humanism, and back to the principles of the Reformation and the teachings of the Bible. He viewed the Bible, however, not as the actual revelation of God but as only the record of that revelation. God's single revelation occurred in Jesus Christ. In short, Barth rejected two main lines of interest in Protestant theology of that time: historical criticism of the Bible and attempt to find justification for religious experience from philosophy and other sources. Barth saw in historical criticism great value on its own level, but it often led Christians to lessen the significance of the testimony of the apostolic community to Jesus as being based on faith and not on history. Theology that uses philosophy is always on the defensive and more anxious to accommodate the Christian faith to others than to pay attention to what the Bible really says.

In the fall of 1922, Barth, Thurneysen, Gogarten, and Merz started a journal entitled Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times) which was to be the organ of the new "theology of crisis.” This journal played an important role in shaping German theology for the next decade, until it was discontinued in 1933.


Many scholars debate the presence of methodological phases in Barth’s work. There are, however, prominent themes from the first edition of Romans to the end of his career. Chief among these consistencies is his dialectical approach (in the sense of “yes” and “no”). Where Hunsinger distills Barth to motifs based on content, this theme is mainly a formal observation but, an informative one nonetheless. (Hunsinger 1991 identifies six motifs in Barth, actualism, particularism, objectivism, personalism, realism, and rationalism and develops these at length. For a brief review of Hunsinger’s argument, see Molnar.) Owing to his disillusion with the liberal theology of his youth, Barth sought to balance the two sides of God and the human. This “balancing act” is seen most clearly by contrasting his early emphasis on God, that is, God’s wholly-otherness and distance from humanity as well as the created world with his later emphasis on the humanity of God. It is important to notice, however, that this apparent change over time is one of emphasis only.

Beginning with Romans Barth placed strong emphasis on the otherness of God. In contrast to the liberal theology he was taught by Harnack and Hermann, Barth saw that, “the Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. Salvation comes to them from him [God], and because they are, as men, incapable of knowing him, they have no right to claim anything from him” (Barth 1968, 28; Cf. Church Dogmatics I/1). This dualism between God and the world had several prominent consequences for Barth’s understanding of doctrine including, in particular, revelation and interpretation of scripture (See McGrath 1997, 306-8 on Barth’s move to start his Church Dogmatics with the Trinity, reversing the order of Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre). It is important to note that, as Torrance points out, the dualism at work in Barth does not imply the absence of an “active relation between God and the world” (Torrance 1995, 85). Rather, “Barth’s position rests upon an immense stress on the concrete activity of God in space and time, in creation as in redemption, and upon his refusal to accept that God’s power is limited by the weakness of human capacity or that the so-called natural reason can set any limits to God’s self-revelation to mankind” (Torrance 1995, 86).

In keeping with his distaste for natural theology Barth held theology to be, in contrast to the liberal theologians of his day (and today), a “science of the Church” (Barth 1995, 21-22; Church Dogmatics I/1, 1). Theology’s object of study is therefore the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ, scripture, and the proclamation of the Church. Jesus Christ, as the inspiration for scripture and the Church, is the ground of the witness to God’s Word. Scripture and the Church’s proclamation are however human creations and activities and as such become the Word of God only by grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing special therefore about the language used in the Bible (per se) nor the skill of the preacher, for the Word of God comes to humanity from God alone by grace (Church Dogmatics I/1, 191-4).

Despite the recognition of scripture as a human book, it is through the grace of God and by the Holy Spirit, also the revealed Word of God and therefore exegesis and interpretation of scripture are critical for Barth’s dogmatics. He discusses these at length in his Church Dogmatics (I/1; I/2). As a “science of the Church” dogmatics presupposes not the “objective” exegesis of the Romans but rather a completely interested “theological exegesis,” that is informed by the history of the Church’s hearing of God’s Word in scripture and hopes, through faith, to hear God’s Word themselves for their own time. This “interested exegesis” is further developed in Church Dogmatics I/2 under the title of “Freedom under the Word of God” (695-740). Principally, Barth calls for the recognition of humanity’s relative standing with respect to God’s Word. Human beings, while not forbidden to bring to bear their tools of philosophy and critical exegesis, are always required to subordinate the text and the meanings found there to God’s self, who is always “other than” the words we humans use to express God’s will (Livingston 2000, 105-6). Barth’s formulation of exegesis and hermeneutics has lead to broad criticism but is perhaps as far as one can go while maintaining the wholly-other character of God and the reality of revelation from such a God.

As early as the second edition of Romans the reader can find traces of the profound connection between God and humanity fully elaborated only later (37-8, for example, speaks of God’s “no” being the ground of the “yes” of salvation). By 1956 Barth explicitly recognized that his early emphasis on God’s distinctiveness as wholly other had been (and remained) necessary to counter the immanence of nineteenth-century liberal theology but that it was incomplete. In his lecture, entitled “The Humanity of God” Barth acknowledged a correction that had developed in his Church Dogmatics to the radical otherness of Romans (Barth 1960, 37-65). This shift in thought is often called Barth’s “Christological concentration” and involves the notion that God cannot be understood without Christ and, of course, Christ cannot be understood without humanity and vice versa. After 1935, all of Barth’s theology is focused on Christ. His doctrines of God, creation, election, anthropology, and reconciliation are all Christological (Livingston 2000, 107). True to his dialectical pattern, Barth saw all of theology as concerned with the work of God in Jesus Christ. As the ground, or source, and the goal of all creation, Christ is the model for humanity. Not only is Christ the revelation of God but he is also the source of human nature. Through Christ we learn our relationship to God and we receive the grace which God planned for us from the beginning (Barth 1960, 46-65; Church Dogmatics, I/2, 347; II/1, 319f; II/2, 4f, 94f; III/2, 160f; III/3, 186; IV/1, 3, 17f, 161-3). Moreover, since “Christ is the ground and goal of humanity,” evil and sin are not the final necessary fate of humanity (Livingston 2000, 107). Rather, although a human being may withdraw from relationship with God and therefore sin (idolatry), one is powerless to undo what Christ has done. As the author of creation and salvation, Christ restores covenant with God, so all of creation lies in essentially positive relation to God. “That is the first and the last word of God” (Livingston 2000, 107). Barth therefore calls sin and evil an ontological impossibility (Church Dogmatics II/1, 503f; II/2, 165f; III/3, 353f). Evil and sin, though real, exist only relatively and transitorily for nothing can prevent God from receiving humanity with the divine “yes!” (Livingston 2000, 108).

Barth reconceived the Protestant doctrine of election. For him, God elected God’s self for suffering and death in Christ and elected humanity for eternal life, simultaneously condemning Christ and raising up humanity. Barth stops short, however, of proclaiming universal salvation. Rather, God has extended unlimited love to all and it is up to human beings to accept this through faith. Those who believe are saved and those who do not are damned. The saved have only one appropriate response to the charis of God and this is eucharista or thanksgiving (Barth 1993; Livingston 2000, 109; Church Dogmatics IV/2, 733-51; IV/3, 99-103).

As has been seen in this brief overview of important aspects of Barth’s dogmatics, his dialectical, yes/no, approach informs every aspect of his thought. It is therefore, perhaps, unfair to cast Barth as a theologian of judgment without also recognizing the important place given to grace and election. For Barth humanity is both radically not God and (even more) radically called to covenant with God.

Revelation and God's Relationship to the World

In the first part of the twentieth century, Karl Barth proposed a radical question to biblical interpreters and Christian theologians – What if God exists? What if God really has revealed himself in the Christian revelation? How would this change the way theology and interpretation should be approached? As a result of what he perceived to be the “failure of the ethics of the modern theology of the time, with the outbreak of the First World War” (Barth 1960, p. 40), which he thought was caused by nineteenth-century theology’s preoccupation with anthropology, Barth set out to do theology from a ‘new’ vantage point, a vantage point that assumed “God is.” (Barth 1977, p. 257)

When Barth was seventy years old he gave a speech to a group of pastors in Switzerland. The year was 1956, and his days of impact were mostly behind him. Looking back on the theological climate he had inherited and what he and those around him had accomplished in the early 1910s and 20s, he offered the following assessment:

Evangelical theology…had become religionistic, anthropocentric, and in this sense humanistic. What I mean to say is that an external and internal disposition and emotion of man, namely his piety – which might well be Christian piety – had become its object of study and its theme…What did it know and say of the deity of God? For this theology, to think about God meant to think in a scarcely veiled fashion about man, more exactly about the religious, the Christian religious man….There is no question about it: here man was made great at the cost of God – the divine God who is someone other than man, who sovereignly confronts him, who immovably and unchangeably stands over against him as the Lord, Creator, and Redeemer….The stone wall we [young theologians] first ran up against was that the theme of the Bible is the deity of God, more exactly God’s deity – God’s independence and particular character…God’s absolutely unique existence, might, and initiative, above all, in His relation to man. Only in this manner were we able to understand the voice of the Old and New Testaments. Only with this perspective did we feel we could henceforth be theologians, and in particular, preachers – ministers of the divine Word. (Barth 1977, 39-40)

What Barth maintained – which he boldly stated in his early text, The Epistle to the Romans – was that what mattered for Christian theology and practice was the revelation of a God who was completely Other to human beings. The theological climate that Barth grew up in had been dominated by the rise of historical criticism. At the time of the First World War biblical studies involved mostly the scientific study of the texts without any attempt to understand them, and particularly, without any attempt to understand them in the way in which the author intended to be understood. For example, if an author believed that he had been encountered by the living God in a profound, unique way, and that he was therefore authorized to speak about this God, then an interpreter who did not read the text with a corresponding understanding would be missing something absolutely crucial. Barth’s fundamental criticism of the biblical interpreters of his time was not that they were attempting to be too ‘truthful’ about the text in their zeal for historical accuracy; but rather, that they were not being truthful enough. “Though [an interpreter] may here and there follow his author, he does not feel bound to wrestle with the understanding of him, for the simple reason that he has never made up his mind to stand or fall with him.” (Barth 1933, 18)

Specifically, Barth thought that the writers of the New Testament texts took seriously the notion that they, as apostles or their followers, were entrusted with a “herald’s call,” an announcement from God to humanity. Thus, the only way to engage these texts accurately was to stand inside this conviction. To engage them under any other understanding would not be ultimately truthful to them. If the interpreter did stand within the conviction that revelation was occurring through the announcement, she would soon realize that the unveiling of God meant other approaches to the text were invalid. Barth writes,

Because Deus non est in genere [God is not a kind], every theological method is to be rejected as untheological in which God’s self-revelation is apparently recognized, but in fact is subsumed beneath a higher term, whether that of truth, or that of divine revelation in general, or that of religion, or that of history, so that it now has to be interpreted in the light of this higher comprehensive idea….With whatever earnestness and sincerity we may attempt to speak of the God who is embraced by such a system, in the last analysis we are not speaking of God but of the higher synthesis furnished by our controlling idea. The absoluteness of God permits of no such systematizations. (Barth 1977, 311)

Thus for Barth the method of standing under the assumption of the writers as revealers of God would in fact release that fact into existence and would make obvious the revelatory nature of the texts. But Barth was not a closet fundamentalist; he did not believe that the truth of God was revealed by the texts as texts. For Barth, God reveals (note reveals, not revealed) himself once, in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That revelation is ongoing, continuous, permanent (Barth 1977, 262). The biblical authors, and the texts they wrote, were and are only vehicles for that ongoing revelation. Thus for Barth, historical criticism, while useful for discovering the history of the text as a text, is a demonstration of exactly the wrong method of trying to find God through the texts. By making the texts the object of human study, historical criticism necessarily takes the human person outside the place required to experience the revelation of God. This exemplifies Barth’s basic approach: human attempts to reach God must fail; the only way to succeed in reaching God would be to put oneself in the position of receiving revelation.

Barth contrasted his notion of revelation with another notion, that of human striving to know God, either through philosophy or religion. For Barth, these strivings could not possibly reach the God who can only reveal himself. In the end, the strivings of philosophy and religion only teach us about human beings, and not about God. A few short quotes by Barth highlight this approach:

Thus we have here no universal deity capable of being reached conceptually, but this concrete deity – real and recognizable in the descent grounded in that sequence and peculiar to the existence of Jesus Christ. (Barth 1960, 48)

What does it mean to say that “God is”? What or who “is” God? If we want to answer this question legitimately and thoughtfully, we cannot for a moment turn our thoughts anywhere else than to God’s act in His revelation.” (Barth 1977, 261)

Philosophico-theological thinkers of the nineteenth century…were not capable of the insight that by the glorification of an absolute spirit they served a God who, measured by the biblical revelation, was alien, and who indeed, measured by the same standard, was not divine but created. (Barth 1977, 289)

What Barth is arguing is that Christian theology can – by taking seriously what the authors of texts believed they were doing, heralding the “Good News” – understand itself in terms of itself, and not in terms of “outside” influences. In fact, Barth believed this was the only way that theology could be done.

Why did he think this was so? It is helpful to investigate one of the absolutely crucial metaphors that Barth turned to again and again – the image of a tangent, i.e., a line touching a circle at only one point. This image, Barth thought, captured the theological reality of God’s relation to the world. Graphically:

 The first detail worth noticing in this picture is that God is totally other, not in any way a part of or knowable apart from his choosing to make himself known. Second, all of humanity’s strivings about God are doomed to fail, since they are situated within a horizon that does not in any way include God. And third, God made and makes himself known in one point and in one point only – in the God/man, Jesus.

Barth used the analogy of a tangent many times, and even when he did not use it explicitly, one can feel it not far from the surface. In reviewing the slogans he and his compatriots used in the heady days after the First World War, he wrote, “What expressions we used – in part taken over and in part newly invented! – above all, the famous ‘wholly other’ breaking in upon us ‘perpendicularly from above,’ the not less famous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man, the vacuum, the mathematical point, and the tangent in which alone they must meet.” (Barth 1960, 42) In his early work, The Epistle to the Romans, he wrote, “In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it.” (Barth 1933, 30)

Notice how this idea also lies just beneath the surface in the following excerpts from his writings:

What God is as God, the divine individuality and characteristics…is something which we shall encounter either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Savior, or not at all. (Barth 1977, 261)

They changed the glory of the incorruptible – for an image of the corruptible. That is to say, the understanding of what is characteristic of God was lost. They had lost their knowledge of the crevasse, the polar zone, the desert barrier, which must be crossed if men are really to advance from corruption to incorruption. The distance between God and man had no longer its essential, sharp, acid, and disintegrating ultimate significance. (Barth 1933, 49; bold original)

In all this mist the prime factor is provided by the illusion that it is possible for men to hold communication with the God or, at least, to enter into a covenant relationship with Him without miracle…apart from THE truth which lies beyond birth and death. (Barth 1933, 50)

God himself propounds the problem of God and answers it. (Barth 1933, 69)

The metaphor of the tangent shows that Barth specifically rejected both human spiritual experience and self-consciousness as a guide to God, and regarded both Christian and non-Christian religion as failed attempts to abide at the point of tangency. The job of Christian community is a negative job only – to seek to be a “void” in which the Gospel reveals itself. Barth used the analogy of a crater in the earth: a crater points away from itself towards the explosion or impact that caused it. Similarly, the Christian Church should exist only as testimony to the God that formed it. Otherwise, it falls into the trap of being ‘Christendom’ which negates the Gospel (Barth 1933, 36-7). Non-Christian religion, though having pieces of God given through God’s freedom, is confused and does not have the key to unite its palette of brush strokes into a unity – this is what the revelation of Jesus offers (Barth 1977, 317-9). All of these missteps occur because human beings, while trying to remain safe under the “arc” of the circle of human life, try to reach out and touch God. Only in the eternal present of the moment of Jesus Christ can the revelation of God occur, “the ‘Moment’ when men stand naked before God and are clothed upon by Him.” (Barth 1933, 111)

Barth uses these two ideas – the notion of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and the metaphor of a tangent – to talk about the personhood of God, a doctrine that Barth felt was given short shrift in the nineteenth century. Barth argues at length that theology’s problem during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that it made the mistake of accepting the Enlightenment’s claim that “man is the measure of all things.” Since the rationality of man was the theme of the Enlightenment, all other things – including God –had to find their place under that theme. Barth argues that the thought of God as infinite substance or Spirit – most definitely not as a person – permeated the philosophical theology of this period and was appealing because it made God perfect, yet perfectly safe to the all-knowing “I” of eighteenth-century man.

Yet the problem was, and always has been, that the God of the Bible addresses human beings as the I, and is heard by the ones who are addressed (Barth 1977, 267). The God of revelation, revealed in Jesus Christ, is not an It or even a He, but always an I – always the supreme subject who addresses us as our Measurer. Barth makes the interesting claim that in fact, we only know ourselves as we are addressed, as we are named, by this I. “He is not the personified but the personifying person…What do we know of our own selfhood before God has given us His name and named us by our name? What do we know of what it means to say Thou before God has named us in this way…We are thinking and speaking only in feeble images and echoes of the person of God when we describe man as a person, as an individual.” (Barth 1977, 285) God, in actuality, gives us the model of personhood; by being impacted by God, we become persons ourselves.

God’s personhood is most shown in his acting and in the fact that his acting creates fellowship. It is the agency of creating fellowship that shows us what love is, and defines for us what a person is (Barth 1977, 284). Doesn’t this create a logical tension with the idea that God is the impersonal absolute? Isn’t “love” language just anthropomorphism applied to something that is beyond personhood? Barth answers No. He argues that the tension is not between two concepts – personhood and absoluteness – which we in fact know completely and can therefore say, “Contradiction!” Neither concept is truly known except by a God who reveals himself as both love and as absolute. “The (to us) inexplicable paradox of the nature of God is the fact that He is primarily and properly all that our terms seek to mean, and yet of themselves cannot mean…yet allowing and commanding us to put or concepts into the service of knowledge of him…It is the paradox of the combination of His grace and our lost condition, not the paradox of the combination of two for us logically irreconcilable concepts.” (Barth 1977, 287)

The sum of the issue is that the personhood of God – so intimately linked to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ witnessed to in the Bible – is the exemplar of what personhood is; without that revelation, our conceptions of personhood would be very different. This perspective needed to be resuscitated from nineteenth-century theology because that theology was predicated not on revelation, but rather on the claim that human rationality – the transcendental ‘I’ of the human being – had the power to name all things as under its control. And anything under the control of our own ‘I’ could not be perfect, absolute personhood, but only perfect, absolute substance, something that was ultimately controllable. This safe, perfect God of Spirit or Idea did not challenge or threaten. It is no wonder, according to Barth, that in contemplating the situation, Feuerbach concluded that Christians were guilty of the greatest idolatry for creating God in the image of Man (Barth 1977, 292).

Barth’s discussion of the personhood of God is representative of his larger attempt to reintroduce classical Christian concerns into the theological discussion. The idea of revelation – the authoritative self-designation of God through Jesus Christ – became for Barth the lens through which he saw all historical and philosophical discussion as merely human activity that paled in comparison to the “Moment” when God touches humanity in love. Barth’s task was to do two difficult things at once – to avoid the trap of confusing the texts of scripture with the revelation and truth of God, and yet to find a “pivot point” of authority that allows human beings to be lifted up into a new reality.

The question that might be asked of Barth is whether or not this is an ‘honest’ way of doing theology. Is it valid to simply claim revelation as a brute fact, and that faith in revelation as such is the key to theology and the Christian life? What about those who want a rationale for why they should accept the idea of revelation from God at all? I think Barth would respond that the very nature of God requires the claim of revelation as brute fact, whether it is ‘legitimate’ by the standards of human rationality or not. Judging the legitimacy of concepts of God by any human standard apart from received revelation is exactly what Barth opposed. These standards define God and the knowledge of God in human terms, and end up producing a safe, inconsequential and incorrect picture of God. Whatever else these human standards might give us in theology, Barth argued that they do not give us the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. For Barth, evidence of whether this theological strategy is valid is found in the results such a strategy makes in the individual and the Church. A living God leaves an impact, and a Church vitally connected to such a living God should, like a crater, point not to itself or to a successful philosophical system, but to a living God.

4. Outline of Major Works

The Epistle to the Romans

Barth went into the parish ministry in 1911 (first an assistant pastor in Geneva, then pastor to the working-class parish of Safenwil). In 1913, he married Nelly Hoffman, a talented violinist; they had five children. The 10 years in Safenwill were the formative period of his life. Here Barth experienced conversion away from “culture Christianity.” Barth quickly noticed that he often preached to no more than a dozen parishioners. One day he visited a sick, elderly man in the parish. When Barth asked him to which church he belonged, the man responded resentfully: "Pastor, I've always been an honest man. I've never been to church, and I've never been in trouble with the police." Barth recognized that this man was representative of majority of people in that society with the same basic pattern of scant attendance at worship services and disinterest in church religion. In this context Barth was convinced to reconsider the "culture Christianity" represented by the liberal theology in which he had been trained.

It was in Safenwil during World War I that Barth reviewed his theology along with a neighboring pastor and student-friend, Eduard Thurneysen, who was experiencing a similar crisis. Barth was shocked at the conduct of his liberal teachers when they were confronted with the social and political situation of wartime Europe. He read the "Declaration of German Intellectuals," calling for loyalty to Kaiser and Vaterland. How could this happen? It happened, he argued, because of a fatal alliance between Christian faith and cultural experience.

He began working through the problems posed by the war and the failure of liberal theology to account for such a dark episode in human history. He initiated a radical change in theology, stressing the "wholly otherness of God" over the anthropocentrism of 19th-century liberal theology. He questioned the liberal theology of his German teachers and its dependence on the rationalist, historicist, and dualist thought that stemmed from the Enlightenment. Barth believed that liberal theology had accommodated Christianity to modern culture, and it had to be changed.

Being aware that the theology which he had been taught gave him little to say to his congregation, Barth reviewed his philosophy and theology. Thus started a period of theological study, particularly of the Bible. He discovered in the Bible a "strange new world": the Bible was not about our religion or morality or history, but about the Kingdom of God. This biblical reality can be understood only by inhabiting it.

It was in this context that Barth began a careful study of Paul's Letter to the Romans in 1916. The result of these efforts was his first major work, The Epistle to the Romans (first published in 1919 and then completely rewritten in 1922.), in which he contradicted the liberal theologians who considered Scripture little more than an account of human religious experience and who were concerned only with the historic personality of Christ. According to Paul, argues Barth, God condemns all human undertakings and saves only those people who trust not in themselves but solely in God. Barth argued that in Scripture we find "divine thoughts about men, not human thoughts about God." God is God and he has wrought our salvation.

Romans is a huge, breathless, exciting sermon rather than commentary. In it, Barth reflects on what he would later call "the Godness of God." What God thinks about people is more important than what they thing about God. Human knowledge can lead us to a void, a longing, and dissatisfaction. God, the living God, had come to deliver confused, self-contradictory human beings like himself from their sin. In this book, Barth stressed the discontinuity between the Christian message and the world. God is the wholly other, and known only in revelation. Human task is to reshape himself or herself to God's design, rather than the other way around.

This study brought him to the attention of theologians everywhere. The book divided the theological world of Germany and Switzerland into advocates and bitter detractors. This book initiated the revival of orthodox Protestantism based on the Bible. There were numerous younger theologians who saw in Barth's Romans an expression of their own theological program. Among those were Emil Brunner, Bultmann, George Merz and Friedrich Gogarten.

Church Dogmatics

From 1932 to 1967, Barth worked on his Church Dogmatics, a multivolume work that was unfinished at his death. It consists of 13 parts in four volumes, running altogether to more than 9,000 pages. Although he changed some of his early positions, he continued to maintain that the task of theology is to unfold the revealed word attested in the Bible, and that there is no place for natural theology or the influence of non-Christian religions. His theology depended on a distinction between the Word (i.e., God's self-revelation as concretely manifested in Christ) and religion. Religion, according to Barth, is human attempt to grasp at God and is opposed to revelation, in which God has come to humans through Christ. "Religion is the enemy of faith." "Religion is human's attempt to enter into communion with God on his own terms."

The printed volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in English translation are as follows:

Volume I Part 1: Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics

Volume I Part 2: Doctrine of the Word of God

Volume II Part 1: The Doctrine of God: The Knowledge of God; The Reality of God

Volume II Part 2: The Doctrine of God: The Election of God; The Command of God

Volume III Part 1: The Doctrine of Creation: The Work of Creation

Volume III Part 2: The Doctrine of Creation: The Creature

Volume III Part 3: The Doctrine of Creation: The Creator and His Creature

Volume III Part 4: The Doctrine of Creation: The Command of God the Creator

Volume IV Part 1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation

Volume IV Part 2: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the Servant As Lord

Volume IV Part 3, 1st half: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the True Witness

Volume IV Part 3, 2nd half: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the True Witness

Volume IV Part 4 (unfinished): Doctrine of Reconciliation: The Foundation of the Christian Life (Baptism)

5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Criticism and Influence

Barth’s theology has been widely criticized by many theologians. Beside the liberal Protestant reaction, his neo-orthodoxy has been criticized for not being open enough to non-Christians, ignoring culture, employing Biblicism, for the density of his writing, and the sheer size of his Church Dogmatics. It should be noted in regards to the first criticism that Barth is, on at least one occasion, just as critical of Christian religion (as opposed to faith) as he is of other religions (Church Dogmatics I/1, 280-300). Overall, however, the fundamental criticism of Barth’s theology boils down to a questioning of his (albeit somewhat qualified) dualism.

In terms of revelation, he is accused of denying any significant role for humanity in the reception of God’s Word (Bultmann, Brunner, Tillich, and Pannenberg). Criticism is this area would seem to ignore statements such as, “In Him the fact is once for all established that God does not exist without man” (Barth 1960, 50). Regarding history, he is said to have no place for the historical and supra-historical event of Jesus Christ to happen. In other words, salvation history happens for Barth neither entirely with God nor entirely with humanity (or perhaps at all in some respects). Concerning the relationship between the world and God, many have been critical of Barth because his dualism ignores the actions of humans and that he does not adequately account for the connection linking God and the world between revelatory events. Although these criticisms are not without merit, there is a strong tendency to take isolated statements of Barth’s and to extend them logically to a level of abstraction that he himself avoided while ignoring (due, perhaps, to the immensity of his work) the “balancing” statements he makes.

Barth's theology was subjected to deep criticism during his lifetime and in the following decades. Some have argued that he was too negative in his description of humankind and too narrow in limiting revelation to the biblical tradition, thus excluding the non-Christian religions. Some accuse him of his intellectual narrowness. He took little interest in other disciplines and no interest at all in other religions. Barth is also accused of excessive biblicism. Although he claimed to accept the legitimacy of critical biblical scholarship, he made practically no use of it. The very size of the Dogmatics has been a source of criticism too. Mascall, in particular, has said that it takes so much time to read this theologian of the word that no time is left to read the Word itself. Barth’s style is indeed majestic and difficult as well.

Barth’s positive influence can be felt in the current work of the so-called postliberal theologians. Among these are Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Ronald Theiman, William Placher, Kathryn Tanner, and Charles Ward. Barth’s continues to provide a negative influence for the work of theologians of correlation such as Paul Tillich, David Tracy, Hans Küng, Rosemary Ruether, and Schubert Ogden.

Barth’s theology reacted to the profound challenges of the twentieth-century. In light of the mass destruction of the World Wars, the Holocaust(s), and countless other tragedies, Barth’s call to know our collective place under heaven while not denying that we do in fact have a significant relationship with God seems to have been a crucial one. Moreover, as Robert McAfee Brown says in his foreword to Credo, “The reader has the privilege of disagreeing with Barth. He no longer has the privilege of ignoring him” (Barth 1962, xi).

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. 1971. The Theology of Karl Barth. New York.

Barth, Karl. 1928. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Weston, WV.

Barth, Karl. 1936. Credo.

Barth, Karl. 1936-1975. Church Dogmatics. [Kirchliche Dogmatik] Translated by T.H.L. Parker, W.B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J.L.M. Haire. Edited by G.W. Bromiley and G.T. Thomson. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

Barth, Karl. 1949 [1947]. Dogmatics in Outline. Translated by G.T. Thomson. New York: Philosophical Library.

Barth, Karl. 1960. Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of his Theological Scheme.

Barth, Karl. 1960 [1956]. “The Humanity of God,” in The Humanity of God, 37-65. Trans. John Newman Thomas. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Barth, Karl. 1960. The Humanity of God. Richmond, John Knox Press.

Barth, Karl. 1962 [1935]. Credo. With a foreword by Robert McAfee Brown. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Barth, Karl. 1963 [1962]. Evangelical Theology, an Introduction.

Barth, Karl. 1968 [1933]. The Epistle to the Romans. Translated from the 6th German edition [Römerbrief] by Edwyn C. Hoskyns. London; Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Barth, Karl. 1977. Church Dogmatics. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark.

Barth, Karl. 1979. Deliverance to the Captives. London: Greenwood.

Barth, Karl. 1993. The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life: The Theological Basis of Ethics. Translated by R. Birch Hoyle with a foreword by Robin W. Lovin. [1st English edition London: F. Muller, 1938] Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Barth, Karl. 1995 [1936]. “Theology” from God in Action. In The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath, 21-22. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Biggar, N. 1993. The Hastening That Waits: Karl Barth's Ethics.

Bouillard, Henri. 1957. Karl Barth. Paris.

Bromiley, G.W. 1979. Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Busch, Eberhard. 1976. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Philadelphia.

Casalis, Georges. 1963. Portrait of Karl Barth. Reprinted 1981.

Hunsinger, George. 1991. How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of his Theology. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jüngel, Eberhard. 1986. Karl Barth: A theological legacy. Philadelphia.

Livingston, James C. Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, Sarah Coakley, and James H. Evans, Jr. 2000 [1997]. Modern Christian Thought Volume II: The Twentieth Century. 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lovin, Robin W. 1984. Christian Faith and Public Choice. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

McCormack, Bruce L. 1995. Karl Barth' Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1910-1936. New York and London: Oxford University Press.

McGrath, Alister. 1995. The Christian Theology Reader. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

McGrath, Alister. 1997 [1994]. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell.

Molnar, Paul D. "Review of How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of his Theology." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60(4), 791-6.

Parker, T.H.L. 1970. Karl Barth.

Stroble, P. 1994. The Social Ontology of Karl Barth.

Sykes, S. W. 1979. Karl Barth: Studies of His Theological Method.

Torrance, Thomas F. 1990. Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. Edinburgh.

Torrance, Thomas F. 1995. "The Ground and Grammar of Theology" [1980]. In The Christian Theology Reader, ed. Alister McGrath, 85-8. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Webb, Stephen H. 1991. Re-Configuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth. Albany, NY.

Webster, John. 1995. Barth's Ethics of Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

7. Internet Resources

“Barth, Karl.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online article.

“Karl Barth,” Wikipedia article.

Barth Literature Search Project, an online searchable bibliography.

Center for Barth Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary, website.

8. Related Topics

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906-1945)

Harnack, Adolf von (1851-1930)

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770-1831)

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813-1855)

Lindbeck, George (1923- )

Niebuhr, Reinhold (1892-1971)

Pannenberg, Wolfhart (1928- )

Rahner, Karl (1904-1984)

Ruether, Rosemary Radford (1936- )

Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1786-1834)

Tillich, Paul (1886-1965)

Torrance, Thomas (1913-2007)

Tracy, David (1939- )

Vatican II (1962-1965)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Zdravko Kujundzija (1999), Derek Michaud (2003), and Paul Cassell (2005).


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