Barth, Karl (1886–1968)

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Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was born in Basel in 1886. He held professorships at Göttingen, Münster, Bonn, and Basel. His impact on the theological world dates from 1921, with the substantially revised second edition of his Der Römerbrief (the first edition was published in 1919). Herein he attacked the prevalent "subjectivism" of Protestant theology, in which he perceived the attempt to fit the Christian revelation into the mold of human preconceptions. After that, though Barth changed and developed many of his ideas, a single main concern ran through all his writings: namely, how to prevent theology from becoming an ideology, that is, a creation of human culture. This was the reason for his early violent attacks on the then fashionable liberal theology, as expounded, for instance, by Adolf von Harnack. According to Barth, the danger of such attempts to formulate a "reasonable" Christianity is threefold: intellectual, ethical, and soteriological. First, there is the danger of identifying human conclusions with the Word of God and thus of destroying the validity of the concept of revelation, which is God's self-manifestation and owes nothing to human initiatives. Second, there is the danger that the church will simply reflect the social and cultural situation, thus losing its power of criticism and its prophetic function. Barth was deeply disturbed by the support given to the kaiser by a number of his liberal theologian teachers in 1914. It is notable that, while at Bonn, he threw his support behind the Confessing church in its opposition to the Nazis, an action that cost him his chair. Third, salvation comes from God alone, and the attempt to identify a human Weltanschauung with God's Word is an instance of the refusal to accept that the only justification is by grace. As Barth wrote: "This secret identification of ourselves with God carries with it our isolation from him."

The principle that theological exposition should be basically independent of human speculations (except insofar as historical and linguistic investigations, etc. are a necessary part of understanding Scripture) was reinforced by Barth's interpretation of the Fall. Not only is the human will vitiated by the Fall, but reason also, in such a way that it is impossible for men to discover the truth about God through their own efforts. Only if God manifests himself can there be any revelation. Thus Barth rejected the whole of natural theology as expounded by, for instance, Aquinas, and in particular its basis in the doctrine of the analogy of being (analogia entis ), on the ground that it implies some similarity between creatures and God. A strong motif in Barth's theology, therefore, is the transcendence of God (in the sense of his distance from creatures"the great Calvinist distance between heaven and earth"). Methodologically, all this implies that interpretation of the Bible should not betray the genuine meaning of the text by explaining away or avoiding those hard sayings that are supposedly scandals to modern thought. Nevertheless, Barth is no fundamentalist: The Word of God is not to be identified with the witness to it found in the Bible, and there is no question of using the latter as a "paper pope."

Der Römerbrief was critical rather than constructive, and during the 1920s Barth's theology had the character of being dialectical (to use a term that he later came to reject), that is, it called in question human preconceptions about God, often by denying them in the sharpest terms; but since theology is designed to proclaim what is God-given, it is always necessary to reach out beyond such denials. In this way, there is a constant dialectic between grace and man's religion. The concept that religion itself is under divine judgment, and is a human rather than strictly a divine phenomenon, has had great influence, culminating in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's idea of a "religionless Christianity."

In the late 1920s Barth started on the second main phase of his theological writing, and after what he called his "well-known false start," with the Prolegomena to a Christian Dogmatics (Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf, 1927), he began on his many-volumed Church Dogmatics (Die kirkliche Dogmatik, 1932 and onward). Herein he was influenced by his study of Anselm (expressed in Fides Quaerens Intellectum, 1931). The heart of the Ontological Argument is the recognition that theology does not need any metaphysical substructure; it contains within itself its own rationale, namely the unfolding of the inner form of God's Word. Thus dogmatics is systematic in that it presents the material in an orderly way and in that it aims exhaustively to touch on all areas of human concern, but it is not a deduction from some principle or set of principles.

The Church Dogmatics is a rich work, though not altogether a consistent one, since Barth's thought was developing in the course of his writing. Its main emphasis is Christocentric. God's revelation is essentially seen in the Christ-event, and Christ is God's Word. However, the God so revealed is trinitarian: "the work of the Son of God includes the work of the Father as its presupposition and the work of the Holy Spirit as its consequence." The first article, the work of the Father, is "to a certain extent 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." Consequently, such doctrines as creation must be seen from this perspective. The Bible presents no cosmology, but it does contain an anthropology; and thus God's relation to the natural world can only be understood by analogy with his saving revelation to human beings. Notions of a First Cause and Necessary Being, as explaining the existence of the cosmos, are thus beside the point, for they make no use of the concepts of grace and personality as ascribed to God. By contrast, the biblical saga of creation makes it continuous with God's covenant relationship with Israel.

Barth's exposition is controlled throughout by two considerations. First, dogmatics is necessarily church dogmatics, that is, it is an activity that must be carried on within the church, as the place where the preaching or proclamation of the Word occurs. Thus the theologian's continuous concern is to test the doctrine and preaching of the church, which, because it is carried on through human beings, is liable to go astray. Second, the standpoint from which the proclamation is tested is that of Scripture, which is "the document of the manifestation of the Word in Jesus Christ." Dogmatics would become irrelevant if it sacrificed this standard.

The implications of Barth's thesis for the relationship between philosophy and theology are clear. Insofar as philosophy is metaphysical, in the sense of saying something about God or some such substitute as the Absolute, it collides with theology; and it is the theologian's proper task to show how metaphysics has here gone beyond its legitimate limits. Philosophy, as logic, philosophy of science, and so on, is a proper inquiry, but one that is quite separate from theology. Barth does, however, allow (in his Fides Quaerens Intellectum and elsewhere) that philosophical concepts may be used in exegesis, so long as they are kept strictly subordinate to the Word of God. But Barth remains insistent that theologians should not make concessions to secular thought; indeed, he holds that such concessions are a principal reason for the contempt that many philosophers have had for "philosophical" theologians. Thus traditional forms of apologetic are ruled out.

Two issues arising from Barth's whole approach are crucial. First, how is one to know that the revelation in Christ is the true one? Or more particularly, how is one to know that the whole doctrine of God as expounded by Barth is true? Second, how can these propositions about God be meaningful if the similarity or analogy between God and human persons is denied? For Barth, the first question is one that virtually does not arise. The Bible, for instance, does not set out to prove God's existence or attributes, rather, it witnesses to his acts. The task of the preacher or theologian is to proclaim this revelation. Theology must be a rational inquiry that is appropriate to its subject matter, namely God's gracious self-revelation; and any attempt to establish the truth of doctrine upon grounds that are extraneous to its subject matter is both irrelevant and dangerous. Thus the Christian message is not to be seen as a religious teaching amid rival teachings, for all religious and metaphysical revelations and conclusions are projections of human wishes (here the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach is apparent). It by no means follows, however, that any particular statement of theology that is consistent with these presuppositions as to the nature of theological inquiry is correct. Barth holds that dogmatics is a continuing process within the church, and it is, of course, a human activity suffering from the defects of human reason. It is therefore necessary to consider the criteria of the worth of a system of dogmatics. These criteria are necessarily derived internally from God's self-revelation (by the former arguments). Barth singles out two. First, theological thinking must be humble: this is a practical test of whether it is refraining from establishing its own claim to truth, i.e., its being in effect an ideology. Second, it must express the doctrine of predestination, which encapsulates the whole of the revelational approachwhat man "achieves" in relation to God is due to God. Because of the element of paradox in the first criterion (for the Thomist can be humble in his approach), Barth is at times inclined to speak in a syncretistic way. Imagining a conversation in heaven, he says: "Yes, dear Schleiermacher, I understand you now. You were right, except on some points!" (Karl Barth's Table Talk ). Further, the notion that theology is dialectical, so that a statement can be balanced by affirming its apparent contradictory, has rendered Barth less rigid than many of the Barthians.

As to the problem of the meaning of theological utterances, Barth holds that revelation is a relational concept, and thus God does not, so to say, reveal himself independently of the human apprehension of his self-manifestation. Consequently, the knowledge of God is itself given by God, through grace. Thus, the analogia entis is replaced by the analogia fidei (the analogy of faith); faith gives us understanding of the nature of God and is God-given. Thus God is the cause of true theological assertions, as well as their ground.

Barth's influence has been great. This is partly because he has provided the outline of a theology that is powerfully biblical without being fundamentalist and, therefore, can escape the charge of being irrational by being nonrational. The most eminent Europeans who stand close to Barth are Emil Brunner and Oscar Cullmann. The former entered into controversy with Barth in the early 1930s over the question of the fallen character of human reason. Brunner held that in some areas this thesis was obviously false, for example, in the natural sciences; but, nevertheless, in relation to knowledge of God, men are capable of only the most shadowy awareness on their own. One of the most important attempts to apply Barth's theology has been Hendrik Kraemer's The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (1938), which aims to show that all religions, including empirical Christianity, are under the judgment of the revelation in Christ. Thus there is no need to argue for Christianity as an empirical phenomenon as against other religions. But the question remains: If there is no correspondence between the Gospel and empirical Christianity, the church is a sham; and if there is, then the comparison and contrast between empirical Christianity and other faiths is possible, and apologetics unavoidable. This is one illustration of the central problem posed by Barth's theology.

See also Anselm, St.; Brunner, Emil; Creation and Conservation, Religious Doctrine of; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Harnack, Carl Gustav Adolf von; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Revelation; Thomas Aquinas, St.


There is a useful bibliography of Barth's works in T. F. Torrance's Karl Barth, an Introduction to His Early Theology, 19101931 (London: SCM Press, 1962). The main works translated into English are The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933); Church Dogmatics, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T. and T. Clark, 1936; Edinburgh, 1956 onward), 4 vols., comprising 11 separately published sections, one of which is Church Dogmatics: A Selection with Introduction, edited by H. Gollwitzer and translated by G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961). An outline, by Barth himself, of the thought in this work is Dogmatics in Outline (London: Philosophical Library, 1949). Later works include The Humanity of God (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960); and Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960); and Evangelical Theology: an Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963). See also Karl Barth's Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey (Edinburgh, 1963).

Works expressing related thought are E. Brunner, Dogmatics, 2 vols. (London, 1949; 1952); Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time (London, 1951); and H. Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: Edinburgh House Press for the International Missionary Council, 1938). Philosophical criticisms of Barth's position can be found in H. D. Lewis, Morals and Revelation (London: Allen and Unwin, 1951) and Ronald W. Hepburn, Christianity and Paradox (London: Watts, 1958), Ch. 5.

Ninian Smart (1967)