The theology of Karl Barth (1886–1968), which represents a theological tidal wave on the landscape of 20th century theology, is a totalizing system of doctrine rooted in a novel conception of God’s relationship with humanity, summed up in what he sees as an eternally and fully realized “Christ-event,” a sovereignly willed and enacted decision of divine self-revelation and divine-human reconciliation that, by God’s free determination, bears an indirect and dialectical relation to all creaturely phenomena, whether Jesus of Nazareth, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, or the faith, doctrine, and proclamation of the church.
The theology of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) evolved over the course of his life but roared through the theological world of the twentieth century like a tsunami, challenging the liberal theological systems that ruled the academy and many churches of his day. At the heart of Barth’s project was nothing less than a radically new way of thinking about God and his relationship with the world: given the qualitative difference between the “wholly other” God and human beings, God has freely decided to take man into his own divine life in a freely willed event of mutual becoming known as the “Christ event.” This event of Jesus Christ, also known as the Word of God, comprises the revealing God, his self-revelation to man, and man’s faithful reception of and response to God’s revelation for all men and for all time, so much so that God and humanity—as well as creation, sin (or “nothingness”), and ethics—are rightly understood only in terms of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Barth’s redefinition of orthodox terms led him towards the doctrine of universal salvation, though he equivocated on that matter. Barth also rejected the evangelical formulation of the inspiration of the Bible, claiming only that the Scriptures are “God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that he speaks through it,” and he rejected the traditional doctrine of a historical Adam.
Twentieth century Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968; pronounced “Bart”) was a theological titan whose thought, although complex and often elusive, roared through the theological world of the twentieth century like a tsunami, uprooting buildings and reshaping everything in its path. Even today, the ripple effects of his thought propel contemporary theological movements. At the heart of Barth’s project was nothing less than a radically new way of thinking about God and his relationship with the world.
Grasping this “new way” can be difficult for many Christians in part because, generally speaking, Barth developed his theology in reaction to the brand of liberalism that had arisen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and warped biblical Christianity in basic ways.
Bible-believing Christians who dive into Barth’s writings without recognizing this theological and historical context often find his thought confusing. But even those who are acquainted with Barth’s context still struggle to follow his heavily nuanced and repetitious writing style, hovering as he does around a topic, occasionally penetrating into it from one angle and then another.
To complicate matters further, despite its innovations, Barthian theology, even more than liberal theology, retains the language of traditional Christian orthodoxy (e.g., Word of God, Jesus Christ, revelation, etc.) while redefining its meaning. As a result, those who read Barth in bits and pieces can easily think that his theology represents no more than a ripple in the stream of church history rather than the tidal wave it actually was and remains.
Instead, to comprehend the scope of Barth’s whole massive project and its theological implications, one needs to gauge it from a broad perspective but also to peer into it closely enough, especially at key points, to avoid overgeneralizing or minimizing what he did. This is not easy. Throw in some profound philosophical influences, more than a dash of changes over time within Barth’s thinking, a corpus that runs over twelve thousand pages, including an unfinished magnum opus of thirteen volumes written over a span of thirty-five years (Church Dogmatics, often abbreviated as CD), and understanding Barthian theology becomes an exceedingly challenging task. Did I mention that Barth wrote in German?
Barth’s Reaction to Liberal Theology
Thankfully, navigating the breadth and depth of Barth’s theology is possible. To begin, one must realize that, as hinted above, it arose in response to what Barth saw as the anthropocentric, or man-centered, focus of liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1763–1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889). In essence, those thinkers rejected the supernatural essence of the Christian faith in an effort to adapt it to modern ideas, especially the notion that human insight and experience (not divine revelation) are the best arbiters of truth, and that God, whoever he is, must conform to modern sensibilities. The effect was a wholesale redefinition of the Christian faith, a new religion altogether.
For example, the Christology in one branch of liberalism claimed that God’s very being, ineffable in itself, was situated in the finite humanness of Jesus. At the same time, it was argued, Jesus’s constant awareness of his communion with God (his perfect “God-consciousness,” as Schleiermacher called it) rendered him the singularly ideal human being. According to this liberal outlook, Jesus—as the unique embodiment of God’s own life and humanity’s ideal—“saves” inasmuch as people experience the power of his ethical life and emulate it in their own context.
Though he was trained by liberals of this sort, Barth eventually criticized liberal theology for dragging God down from heaven and imprisoning him within a naturalistic view of reality. He was particularly horrified when his own teachers supported Kaiser Wilhelm II’s war policy in what became World War I. For Barth, such confidence in human prowess was inexcusable before a transcendent God. Eventually, Barth condemned Protestant liberalism as hopelessly compromised to worldly agendas and as pastorally useless to the church.
In its place, Barth argued, the church needed a vision of God as “wholly other,” one in which God is, and relates to man as, the God who utterly transcends the realm of human experience.
For Barth, this entailed that even God’s self-revelation would not intersect ordinary human experience, but would only touch it, as he put it early in his career, “as a tangent touches a circle” (The Epistle to the Romans, 30). That is, God would paradoxically be hidden even when he is revealed and would reveal himself only on his own terms, far beyond the reach of human reason, language, or experience. Anything less, in Barth’s mind, would establish a line of continuity between God and creatures by which God would lose his transcendence and human beings could manipulate or control God, so as to bend him into the categories of modern thought and thereby commit the cardinal error of liberal theology. This fundamental conviction helped lead Barth to birth what has variously been called “Dialectical Theology,” “Theology of the Word of God,” “Neo-orthodoxy” (a label Barth rejected), or simply Barthian theology.
The Centrality of the “Christ Event” in Barth’s Theology
At the core of Barth’s theology is the enigmatic idea that God freely reveals himself to man in a singular event that is both transcendent and constitutes the entirety of God’s gracious dealings with human beings. The importance of this revelatory act for Barth cannot be overestimated. He calls this action “the Christ event,” since, for Barth, it is in Jesus Christ that God freely chooses to be God for man and where God chooses to take humanity to himself as God. On this scheme, however, the event of Jesus Christ encompasses the revealing God, as well as the revelation itself and the man who receives the revelation.
Already this way of putting things pushes the classical Christian confession of the incarnation (i.e., that the eternal Son of God voluntarily and permanently assumed a human nature to himself in history for us and our salvation) in a strange direction. But Barth pushes it beyond the breaking point by claiming that the Christ event is not something that belongs to ordinary history at all, at least not as the liberal theologians understood history, nor as evangelical theologians understand it today. Instead, for Barth, the Christ event is an event within God’s own life—an eternally fulfilled “becoming” in God himself—in which God becomes man and man participates in God, always and forever.
Behind this conception of God’s “being in act” (CD II/1, 262) is Barth’s view of the qualitative difference, even opposition, between God and man that only God can overcome. But whereas liberal theology claimed that the infinite God traverses this gap by inhabiting human experience via Jesus’s ethical life in history past (to which to biblical writers are said to bear fallible witness) and its influence on people today, Barth argued that Jesus Christ, rightly understood, is actually an event or decision in which God takes time into his own eternity as God. As Barth puts it, in Jesus Christ “God assumed a being as man into His being as God” (CD IV/2, 20). On this understanding, the temporal character of the Christ-event stands over against the ordinary historical experience of human beings, since it is God’s event, not ours. For Barth, “God actually takes time to Himself and makes it His own” (CD II/1, 616), objectively and eternally and in a manner that transcends all categories of human knowledge or experience.
The irony of this notion is that Barth’s new construal of the divine-world relationship did not exactly reject the liberal notion that God and man share a common mode of existence; it simply removed that point of contact from Historie (i.e., a German word that can refer to history as it is reconstructed by modern methods) and recast it as a paradoxical, or “dialectical,” event in what Barth sometimes terms Geschichte (i.e., history as posited by God for us, not as man considers it for himself) or “God’s time for us” (CD I/2, 45). That is, instead of defining God and Jesus in terms of human experience and piety towards God (as in liberalism), Barth sought to define both God and humanity in terms of the Christ-event. But, in both liberalism and Barthianism, God and humanity participate in a common mode of existence, whether human experience (Schleiermacher) or the Christ-event (Barth).
Theological Implications of Barthian Theology
Barth’s “Christological” starting point colors everything else in his theology. That is to say, every doctrine of Christian teaching for Barth is redrawn in terms of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, viewed as the “eternal-temporal act” (such “dialectical” phrases being common for Barth) of God’s own life.
One of the most significant implications is Barth’s claim that ordinary human beings access God’s revelation in Jesus Christ only indirectly, through creaturely realities which, in themselves, lack the capacity to impart knowledge of God. According to Barth, God’s Word comes to human beings in a flash, as a momentary act of God through creaturely realities that, precisely as they are used by God in his self-revelation, also veil, contradict, and conceal him. For example, since Jesus Christ alone is the Word of God, God’s revelatory act, we “do the Bible poor and unwelcome honour if we equate it directly with this other, with revelation itself” (CD I/1, 112). For him, therefore, the Bible is rendered at best a fallible witness to revelation whenever God chooses to use it for this purpose (“The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that he speaks through it;” CD I/1, 109). This explains why Barth interprets inspiration as a description of God’s miraculous influence on the biblical authors and readers, rather than, as the New Testament teaches, a short-hand reference to the fact that all Scripture is, itself, “breathed out by God [theopneustos]” (2 Tim. 3:16) and so is, itself, the “living and active” (Heb. 4:12) Word of God. This orthodox understanding of inspiration, of course, is indispensable to the gospel, because it is in the Scriptures that learn of Jesus Christ, and it is by the Scriptures inspired by his Spirit that we enjoy ongoing fellowship with the triune God in faith-wrought union with Christ (cf. John 15:7–10, 17:17; 2 Cor. 3:16–18).
A second implication of Barth’s theology is even more basic. Because for Barth God’s action in Jesus Christ absorbs time into God’s being and, with it, encompasses all of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, the transitions that make up the history of redemption are subsumed into simultaneity in the Christ event. To grasp this notion’s extreme departure from orthodox theology, recall that Scripture infallibly presents (a) God’s “very good” creation (Gen. 1:31) as the arena into which sin entered through Adam’s fall (Rom. 5:12); (b) records the incarnation of the eternal Son of God as God’s remedy for sin (Heb. 2:14–15); (c) affirms the temporal sequence of his historical death, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly reign (Phil. 2:8–9; Acts 2:33–36; 1 Cor. 15:25) as the essence of the gospel (Rom. 1:1–4; 1 Cor. 15:3–5); and (d) depicts Christ’s accomplishment of redemption as the historical basis for sinners to experience salvation through the gift of faith (Rom. 1:16–17; Eph. 2:8–10).
By contrast, Barth’s theology has no place for a sinless creation that became defiled by sin in history (“There never was a golden age. There is no point in looking back to one. The first man was immediately the first sinner,” CD IV/1, 508) and there is no need for a sinner to transition from being under God’s judgment to being under his grace through faith-union with the risen Christ (“In believing, they are only conforming to the decision about them that has already been made in Him,” Christ and Adam, 34). This is the case for Barth, because, as God and man converge in the Christ event, all people are already included in Jesus Christ as the only locus of God’s election and judgment. That is, as the event that defines “God’s time for us,” Jesus Christ is both God’s act of self-revelation to man and the reconciliation between God and humanity. The inevitable theological consequence of this position is the objective reconciliation of all people to God, despite Barth’s equivocal answer when pressed as to whether he taught a doctrine of universal salvation (“I do not teach it, but I also do not not teach it,” as quoted by Eberhard Jüngel in Karl Barth, 44–45).
Barthian theology is a totalizing system of doctrine rooted in a novel conception of God’s relationship with humanity, summed up in what he sees as the Christ event. Yet Barth’s massive corpus, use of historical sources, orthodox language, sweeping discussions, paradoxical phrases, innovative exegesis of the Bible, subversive treatments of classic doctrines, critiques of modern philosophy, engagement with Roman Catholicism, opposition to Nazism, and even his personal life remain the object of intense study and debate today.
Students of Barth should endeavor to penetrate his theology as deeply as possible, evaluating his statements under the light of Scripture as the very Word of God written, and utilizing the help of the orthodox creeds and confessions of the church. Only this approach will enable readers to handle the tidal force of his thinking without damaging confessional commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, by the grace of God.
Primary sources for Barth’s Theology
- Karl Barth, edited by Helmut Gollwitzer, excerpts from Church Dogmatics
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
- Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
- Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
- Karl Barth, The Word of God and Theology
Interpretations of Barth’s Theology
- Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936
- G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction and Critical Appraisal
- George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology
- Keith L. Johnson, The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary
Evangelical Assessments of Barth’s Theology
- Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism
- David Gibson and Daniel Strange, eds., Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques
- James J. Cassidy, God’s Time for Us: Barth’s Reconciliation of Eternity and Time in Jesus Christ
- James J. Cassidy, Video address: “Karl Barth’s Analogia”
- Michael Reeves, Video lecture: “An Evangelical Assessment of Karl Barth”
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