Karl Barth (1886-1968)
According to most writers on Barth, his background is significant to the way
he formulated his theological thought. He was born in Switzerland and studied in
Germany under Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann in Marburg. His experiences
as a pastor and during the First World War tended to radicalise his thinking.
When he went Germany he eventually took up a teaching post in Bonn in 1930.
There he became a leader of the movement in opposition to Nazi attempts to
nationalise the Church and was a chief drafter of the opposition's Barmen
Declaration. As a result in 1935 he was forbidden to teach in Germany and
returned to Switzerland where he worked for the rest of his life. His massive
work, Church Dogmatics, was written between 1936 and 1968 (the final
section was left unfinished).
What could be termed his disillusion with human nature lead him to react
strongly against what he perceived was a "human centred" theology promoted by
those generally labeled "liberal" theologians. In particular he criticised
support given to the German authorities and the Kaiser in 1914 by some of the
liberal theologians who taught him in the early years.
In common with most of his contemporary Protestant theologians, the central
focus for Bath's work was the concept of justification by faith in Jesus the
Messiah (as opposed to faith in the Church as well). The second edition of
his Epistle to the Romans (1922) laid out his views for all to see.
He was later heavily criticised for his assertion that God is wholly
different from mankind - so different that mankind cannot initiate a
relationship with God. In the eyes of his critics this emphasis on the
transcendence of God brought about a disunity of the natural and the divine in
which God was viewed as distant to the point of irrelevance. If this was true
of God, they said, he might as well be "dead".
Barth asserted that because God is so wholly different, revelation is the
only way in which God can, as it were, reach mankind. This self-revelation of
God is through Jesus the Word of God, and in turn conveyed through the
Bible. Religion is the human means by which God's revelation is given
expression - though the particular means are essentially human constructs
rather than of the revelation.
His approach led Barth to be termed "neo-orthodox" in the sense that his work
can be interpreted as reinforcing traditional teachings at the expense of
hard-headed rationality. He consistently refused the allow the New Testament to
be opened up to analytical scrutiny merely as history which leads to an
understanding of Jesus as a person.
While he accepted fully the methods of historical enquiry, he thought that
they were worth something only as a way of interpreting the text as speaking
about humanity's deepest and most pressing problems of personal existence.
Faith, he said, is always in response to God's initiative. Reason is a human
phenomenon. Therefore revelation matters more than the analytical reason
employed by history as a discipline, since it is only from revelation that true
faith can spring and mature.
Having said this, Barth did not reject the conclusion that history can't as
it were be "invaded" by the supernatural. To allow this would, he thought,
destroy the almost infinitely intricate and seamless web or nexus of cause and
effect. He recognised that history depends for its validity upon an analysis and
interpretation of events.
At the same time, he concluded that revelation did allow final conclusions to
be drawn about truth. Those doctrines which could be established as God's
revelation were in a real sense absolute, not historically conditioned.
In this conclusion he appears not to have realised that revelation is
intervention in history, in the sense that it introduces new (and absolute)
information into the web of cause and effect. Information is in itself part of
that web. In other words, the concept of revelation can't be sustained
hand-in-hand with that of history. It is not enough to assert, as did Barth,
that history provides the subject matter with which we then wrestle and through
it come to terms with eternal questions; that through a dialogue with the past
we are enabled to confront the present.
Thus Barth yielded somewhat in his earlier strictures against studying the
Bible in terms of "what really happened". He acknowledged that the study of the
Bible as mere history was valid - but only up to a point, at which the response
of faith to revelation takes over. This response is not just to an historical
person whose history, as we have discovered, turns out to be as ambiguous and
uncertain as that of any ancient. The response of faith is also to the
mysterious working out of the Gospel (kerygma) through a lowly and
despised person. Barth wrote:
All human activity is a cry for forgiveness, and it is precisely this that is
proclaimed by Jesus and that appears concretely in him.
It seems, with hindsight, that Barth is trapped into an underlying
contradiction. On one hand we should not turn to uncertain historical research
which yields an equally uncertain and ambiguous person of Jesus, about whom we
cannot know "what really happened". On the other hand, Barth insists that we do
turn to the person of a Jesus of history to discover God's revelation through
him - even though we can't truly know a "Jesus of history".
If one were to insist that Barth state one what criteria we are to depend
upon when we look to Jesus for God's revelation, we would once again find a
difficult and contradictory position. As Van Austin Harvey says, Barth's stand
... he makes historical assertions on the basis of faith which he then claims
no historian has the right to assess ... Barth uses the stories [from the
gospels] to argue for the historical nature of the events but concedes that the
stories cannot, from a historical standpoint, stand any critical enquiry ...
Insofar as the believer wants to be historian, or the historian a believer, he
feels he has to surrender the autonomy of critical judgement. Barth, in effect,
claims all the advantages of history but will assume none of its risks.
We need to remember, however, that Barth worked in a particular context.
While much of his work was truly revolutionary within that context, some aspects
were specific to it. So, for example, Barth reworked and developed the important
German Reformed Church teaching about predestination. He thought that, because
God has pre-decided the issue, humanity cannot be condemned even though God's
revelation is rejected by some. The "triumph of grace" prevails even in the face
Because he insisted that theology had to do with God's revelation rather
than human "speculation" his interpretation of the Fall was that our reason
has been so corrupted that it becomes impossible for us to discover anything
about God through our own efforts. In effect, Barth rejected the entire field
of natural theology.
More than that, he held that theology and philosophy pursue entirely
separate paths. Theology contains within itself its own rationale based upon
Jesus Christ as the revealed Word of God. Dogmatics presents revelation in a
orderly way and is constantly to be tested by theology in case it goes astray.
Philosophy, insofar as it is metaphysical, has no point of contact with
Barth's resistance to any form of natural theology led him into conflict with
Emil Brunner, a friend and colleague. Brunner taught that there are points in
nature and in humanity for divine revelation to work. That is, he allowed for
ongoing debate between human reason and revelation. Barth wrote a curt reply
Nein! in which he reiterated that any such points of contact must
themselves derive from divine revelation the be valid.
It's perhaps worth noting at this point that the controversy erupted at a
point when Barth presumably did not want it thought that Adolf Hitler might in
any way be perceived as an object worthy of imitation, as a mediator of God's
revelation. A theme running through his work is how to prevent God-talk
becoming a human creation, the output of a particular culture in the form of
an ideology based upon human creation rather than God's revelation.
This background led to Barth's strong emphasis on the theology of the Word of
God, which operated in three ways:  through the person of Jesus as the Word;
 in Scripture; and  in proclamation of the Gospel.
God's revelation of self was a revelation of the Trinity which Barth thought
of as God revealing himself "through himself". So what is revealed in our
dimension of time/space is truly a revelation of an eternal reality. The
Fatherhood of God is perfectly revealed through the person of Jesus. The Holy
Spirit is the means by which we recognise God's revelation, the vehicle God
gives us (because we are incapable of ourselves recognising God's revelation) to
interpret and give meaning to what God reveals of himself.
The validity of revelation, thought Barth, is destroyed as soon as human
conclusions are put in place of the Word of God. When this happens, the Church
inevitably reflects merely a prevailing social and cultural outlook, rather than
the revealed nature of God. Salvation comes from God alone. As he wrote: "This
secret identification of ourselves with God carries with it an isolation from
Throughout Barth's theology, Jesus remains in the foreground. He writes:
"... from its beginning to its end, the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus
Christ". Thus all revelation necessarily contains an implicit or explicit
reference to Jesus. Revelation cannot be deduced from our experience or from
history or from any fact, for it is "... based on Jesus Christ himself as witnessed
in Holy Scripture".
Thus Jesus is the Word of God and God's revelation is through him. Barth
insists, however, that this revelation is essentially Trinitarian. The
presupposition of Jesus is God the Father "... and the work of the Holy Spirit
[is] its consequence." He continues that "to a certain extent" the work of the
... is the source, the third article, the work of the Holy Spirit, the goal
of our path. But the second article, the work of the Son, is the Way upon
which we find ourselves in faith. From that vantage we may review the entire
fullness of the acts of God.
In the light of the above, one might wonder what Barth made of miracles and
the resurrection of Jesus from death. In his 1924 book The Resurrection of
the Dead Barth argued that the Resurrection, because of the nature of
revelation as God's sole, powerful initiative, was not centrally important. He
later modified this stance, coming to regard the empty tomb as an "indispensable
sign" of God's activity in history.
In the face of revelation which, remember, sinful people passively receive as
a gift, Barth interprets sin primarily as rebellious pride. In this sense, sin
is a claim to enlightened freedom, the would-be autonomous, self-contained
person "... who wants to be Lord himself". Only when we are convinced of our
sinfulness can we recognise God's free gift of forgiveness through his
This sin draws upon itself God's judgment. But, through Jesus, God takes this
judgment upon himself thus neutralising the way sin poisons us.
Looking back at Barth, one can only acknowledge the power of his convictions
and the persuasive force with which he convinced many of his contemporaries and
through them a great number of non- theologians of his views. At the same
time, his overall stance has proved fatally flawed.
How is one to know what is truly revelation? Barth permits biblical
criticism - but, in the final analysis, only insofar as it allows us to become
clearer about revelation. The question of the validity of his dogmatics
doesn't arise for Barth. This is because he isn't setting out to prove
anything by force of evidence and argument, but merely to witness to
the revelation. Arguments external to the biblical witness are simply
irrelevant. All such conclusions are essentially projections of human wishes.
Barth admits that revelation is relative to human beings. That is,
we are the target of God's revelation of himself through Jesus Christ. Man's
reasoned search for the nature of "being" or reality is, in Christianity,
replaced by analogia fidei - that is, faith is God-given and this gift
allows us to understand God. Barth fails to grasp and therefore to deal with
the problem of analogy. How is it possible for humans to understand God except
in their own terms? But once one allows this, then reason, the means of
understanding, must also be allowed.
His teaching about revelation and faith brought him considerable criticism
for what appears to be a circular argument. His claim to rest upon divine
revelation is one which by its nature can't be tested except by reference to
itself. Barth's thought is a form of fideism, a theology which, because of its
form, is impervious to criticism from
outside its own frame of reference.
In other words, Barth escapes a charge of irrationality by being
non-rational. Once he has established that he is proclaiming a revelation, all
he need do is build upon his own perception of that revelation. His entire
dogmatics, because it sets out to exclude the entire body of human knowledge and
all human thought and reason except what is contained within the dogmatics,
cannot be challenged except on grounds he refuses to acknowledge as valid.
Barth insulates himself perfectly against any external argument by using
reason to forward an argument which itself does not permit the full application
of reason in refutation. Perhaps, in a time of great flux and uncertain social
change, that is why his system was adopted by so many and lasted so long.
The Church universally proclaims that the ultimate truth of its faith lies
in an historical person - Jesus Christ. Barth doesn't disagree with this. But
history by definition requires rigorous, searching application of human reason
in many disciplines. This extends Christian thought inevitably far beyond the
tight limits of biblical criticism which Barth allows for the sake of
clarifying God's revelation through Jesus. If Barth is correct then the Church
is a sham. If the Church's proclamation of an historical person is valid, then
the entire rational edifice of human knowledge is relevant to it, apologetics
are inevitable, and dialogue with philosophy and science necessary.
In the final analysis it's not intellectually honest to make the distinction
he does between faith and reason. A consequence has been that in the last 30
years or so Christians have turned back from Barth's dead-end to try to isolate
more of the historical Jesus, in an awareness that history is important. What
"really happened" does matter.
 The Historian and the Believer, SCM Press, 1967