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Barth, Karl

Barth, Karl (1886-1968), Swiss Protestant theologian, widely regarded as one of the most notable Christian thinkers of the 20th century. Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland. He held professorships at Goettingen and Muenster universities and at the University of Bonn. He opposed the Hitler regime in Germany and was deported in 1935 to his native Switzerland, where he pursued his literary and teaching work at the University of Basel.

The principal emphasis in Barth's work, known as neoorthodoxy and crisis theology, is on the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence, and the human inability to know God except through revelation. His objective was 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 prophetic teachings of the Bible. God is "wholly other," totally unlike humankind, who are utterly dependent on an encounter with the divine for any understanding of ultimate reality.


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Barth Audio

An Introduction to Karl Barth

By J. Livingston

When the curtain is rung down on the twentieth century and the annals of its church history are complete, there will surely be one name that will tower above all others in the field of theology-that of Karl Barth. In him a church Father has walked among us, a theologian of such creative genius, prodigious productivity, and pervasive influence that his name is already being associated with that elite group of Christian thinkers that includes Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. 1

Such a judgment is not heard only from the lips of Barth's disciples, for it is widely acknowledged today that Karl Barth has been the greatest Protestant theologian of this century and, perhaps, since Schleiermacher or even the Reformers. It is not an exaggeration to say that the theological movements of the past fifty years have had to define themselves and defend themselves vis-a-vis the theology of Karl Barth. Like the Reformers and Schleiermacher, he represented a genuine watershed in the history of Christian theology. And, like them, he was extraordinarily productive. His twelve volumes of Church Dogmatics alone contain over six million words on seven thousand pages!

Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland. His father, Fritz Barth, was a professor of church history and New Testament at Berne. At eighteen Karl began his theological studies at Berne under the direction of his father. However, following the continental custom, Barth attended several universities. He studied under many of the great liberal theologians of the turn of the century-Harnack, Reinhold Seeberg, Julius Kaftan, and Hermann Gunkel at Berlin, Theodor Haring at Tubingen, and Wilhelm Herrmann, Johannes Weiss, and Adolf Julicher at Marburg. The most important influence of these university years was that of Hermann, the leading Neo-Kantian and Ritschlian systematic theologian. For about a decade after completing his university studies, Barth remained a faithful disciple of Herrmann's Ritschlian brand of liberalism.

In 1909 Barth entered the pastoral ministry of the Swiss Reformed Church, serving as a vicar in Geneva for two years. In 1911 he was appointed pastor of the Reformed Church at Safenwil in Aargau where he remained for ten very formative years. It was during these years that Barth broke with the liberal theology. What began to trouble Barth was preaching-which message to address to his congregation Sunday after Sunday year in, year out. The liberal message which he had learned from his professors did not provide the real resource that his people needed. This became painfully evident with the outbreak of World War I. Barth became more acutely conscious of the vacuity and hypocrisy of his task each time he mounted the pulpit. In this situation he confided in his friend and fellow pastor, Eduard Thurneysen, who was experiencing a similar crisis. The two men agreed to suspend their political and ecclesiastical busyness and begin a reevaluation of their whole theological position. Thus began an intense period of theological study, particularly of the Bible. It was out of this that Barth discovered what he was to call "the strange new world within the Bible." world not opened to him by his Biblical professors Julicher, Weiss, and Heitmuller. In 1916 Barth began a careful reading of Paul's Letter to the Romans. Out of the notes compiled from this study there emerged his epoch making commentary on Romans. As in the case of Luther, here also the rediscovery of Romans lead to a theological revolution. The first edition appeared in 1919, while the more influential second edition was published in Munich in 1922. The book was a bombshell. It soon divided the theological world of Germany into advocates and bitter detractors. Julicher and Wernle wrote severe attacks on the book, and Harnack referred to Barth as a "despiser" of scientific theology. Writing about the impact of the book, Barth later commented:

"As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone." 2

There were numerous younger theologians who rallied to Barth's defense and saw in his Romans an expression of their own theological program. Among those who became identified with Barth were Emil Brunner (see left) (1889-1966), Bultmann, George Merz (1892-1959), Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1967) and Thurneysen (1888-1974). In the fall of 1922, Barth, Thurneysen, Gogarten, and Merz inaugurated a journal entitled Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times) which was to be the organ of the new "theology of crisis" or, as they preferred, the "theology of the Word of God." This little magazine played a vital role in shaping German theology for the next decade, until it was discontinued in 1933. In 1921 Barth left Safenwil and moved to Gottingen in Germany where he had been invited to become Honorary Professor of Reformed Theology. In 1925 Barth moved on to the University of Munster as Professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis where he remained until 1930 when he became Professor of Systematic Theology at Bonn. During this decade Barth produced some of his most powerful essays and addresses which appeared in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1924) and Theology and Church (1928). In 1927 his first attempt at an independent dogmatics appeared under the title The Doctrine of the Word of God, Prolegomena to a Christian Dogmatics. As Barth discovered, this was to prove a "false start." The reviews of the book made Barth aware that he was still working within a liberal, anthropocentric framework which he thought he had overcome. It also made him conscious of the serious differences between his own theological starting point and that of his friends Gogarten and Bultmann. Barth was thus forced to reconceive his whole theological method in order to avoid grounding his theology in an existential anthropology. The result was the Church Dogmatics, the first volume of which appeared in 1932. Between 1927 and 1932 Barth's theology developed in important new directions which represented a significant break with his earlier dialectical thinking. With this later period of the Church Dogmatics we are not chiefly concerned in this chapter, although something of the change in Barth's theology after 1930 will be indicated later on. During the 1930's Barth's theological work took a very practical turn with his declaration of war against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. By 1933 the German Evangelical Church had become largely a tool of the Nazi party. In April of that year the "Evangelical Church of the German Nation" was created and published the following "guiding principles":

We see in race, folk and nation, orders of existence granted and entrusted to us by God. God's law for us is that we look to the preservation of these orders....In the mission to the Jews we perceive a grave danger to our nationality. It is the entrance gate for alien blood into our body politic....In particular, marriage between Germans and Jews is to be forbidden.We want an evangelical Church that is rooted in our nationhood. we repudiate thespirit of Christian world citizenship. we want the degenerating manifestations of this spirit...overcome by a faith in our national mission that God has committed to us. 3

To oppose this "German Christian movement, Barth, along with Martiri Niemoller, led in the formation of the German Confessing Church. In May of 34 representatives of the Confessing church met at Barmen and out of that meeting came the famous Barmen Confession which was essentially the work of Barth. It affirmed the sovereignty of the Word of God in Christ over against all idolatrous political ideologies.

In view of the errors of the "German Christians" of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and are also thereby breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. we reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation. we reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.... 4

Barth carried further his denunciation of Nazism in a new theological journal, Theologische Existenz heute which he founded with Thurneysen. The publication of this journal marked the breakup of the Dialectical school. Henceforth Barth was to engage in several, often virulent, critical exchanges with Gogarten, Bultmann, and Brunner because of what he considered their willingness to acknowledge other authorities than the one Word of God in Holy Scriptures.

In December of 1934 Barth was suspended from his teaching post at Bonn and that next spring was forced out of Germany by the Nazis. The Basel City Council had in the meantime elected him to the chair of theology. He therefore returned to Basel where he lived and taught from that time forward. The decades of the forties and fifties were largely occupied with lecturing and the writing of the twelve volumes of the Church Dogmatics. Barth retired as "Professor Ordinarius" in 1962.

Major Themes in Barth's Theology of the Word of God.
The dialectical Method. The theologians of krisis learned their method from Kierkegaard. Like the Dane, they came to recognize that the truth is not found in the smooth Hegelian transition from thesis to antithesis to synthesis but in the dialectical tension between truth and truth-a tension never fully resolved. The reason for this is that a Christian theology is grounded in revelation, i.e., in the union of the two worlds of eternity and time, for which we have no analogy. Our language about revelation consists of words which attempt to express the intersection of our horizontal line of existence by the vertical line of God's transcendence. And this relation of time and eternity can only be expressed paradoxically. Our knowledge of God is therefore never immediate. Theology has frequently attempted to get at the truth immediately, either by means of dogmatism or mysticism, but all attempts at immediacy must fail. There is, however, a third way-the way of dialectic.

It is the way of Paul and the Reformers and intrinsically it is by far the best.... This way from the outset undertakes seriously and positively to develop the idea of God on the one hand and the criticism of man and of all things human on the other; but they are not now considered independently but are both referred constantly to their common presupposition, to the living truth which, to be sure, may not be named, but which lies between them and gives to both their meaning and interpretation. 5

The dialectical method never reaches a "solution," a triumphant synthesis or stable position. One who follows this method is like a bird in flight, always on the move.

On this narrow ridge of rock one can only walk; if he attempts to stand still, he will fall either to the right or to the left, but fall he must. There remains only to keep walking- an appalling performance for those who are not free from dizziness-looking from one side to the other, from positive to negative and from negative to positive. Our task is to interpret the Yes and the No and the No by the Yes without delaying more than a moment in either a fixed Yes or a fixed No; to speak of the glory of God in creation, for example, only to pass immediately to emphasizing God's complete concealment from us in that creation,...of the creation of man in the image of God simply and solely to give warning once and for all that man as we know him is fallen man, whose misery we know better than his glory....A Christian is the master of all things and subject to nobody-a Christian is the slave of all things and subject to everybody. I need not continue. He who hath ears to hear will understand my meaning. 6

To the Liberal onlooker, Barth's dialectic is merely perplexing, for he is used to knowing God immediately, of positing a direct continuity between the divine and the human. This is exactly what Barth denies-that we can know the nature of God by starting with man's psychic or historical experience! God is not simply man writ large. Man cannot capture the Truth about the eternal God in his own finite formulas. Man can only witness to the paradoxicality of God's own self revelation.

"How then," asks Barth, " shall the dialectician ...meet his critic ? Must he not say, in effect: 'My friend, you must understand that if you ask about God and if I am really to tell about him, dialectic is all that can be expected of me. I have done what I could to make you see that neither my affirmation nor my denial lays claim to being God's truth. Neither one is more than a witness to that truth, which stands in the center, between every Yes and No" 7

The dialectical method is the only way of preserving both the truth that God is not man-that he is beyond the finite realm-and, yet, that he has revealed himself in it. It alone can maintain the"Godness of God," the Wholly Otherness of the divine self-revelation in Time.God as Wholly Other. The rediscovery of distance between God and man-hence the "otherness" of God-is the leitmotiv of the crisis theology. It lies at the root of Barth's polemic against rationalism and mysticism, for both rely upon human resources and human experience for knowledge of God. For Barth the first task of theology is to emphasize the infinite distance between God and man. In the preface to the 1922 edition of the book on Romans, Barth wrote: " have a system, it is limited to a recognition of what Kierkegaard called the "infinite qualitative distinction" between time and eternity, and to my regarding this as possessing a negative as well as positive significance: " God is in heaven, and thou art on earth." 8

God can only be known through God. The finite creation is not a direct revelation of God. On the contrary, the creation hides God. This, claims Barth, is the paradoxical meaning of Romans 1:20

What are all those enigmatic creatures of God...but so many problems to which we have no answer? But God only, God Himself, He is the answer. And so the boundary which bars us in and which, nevertheless, points beyond itself, can since the creation of the world be clearly seen through the things that are made by God. By calm, veritable, unprejudiced religious contemplation the divine " No " can be established and apprehended. If we do not ourselves hinder it, nothing can prevent our being translated into a most wholesome KRISIS by that which may be known of God. And indeed, we stand already in this KRISIS if we would but see clearly. And what is clearly seen to be indisputable reality is the invisibility of God, which is precisely and in strict agreement with the gospel of the resurrection-His everlasting power and divinity. And what does this mean but that we can know nothing of God, that we are not God, that the Lord is to be feared ? Herein lies His pre-eminence over all gods; and here is that which marks Him out as God, as Creator and Redeemer. 9

The creation, when clearly seen, will declare the divine "No," will produce that real krisis in which we will come to know that from our creaturely perspective God is always hidden and unknown. We will discover the Reformed principle: "Finitum non capax infiniti, the finite cannot contain the infinite. God is Wholly Other. He is not given directly in the heart of man or in the world of nature. "There is no way from man to God.

There is, however the way from God to man-the way of God's gracious self revelation. God is only known by God, by his revelation in Jesus Christ. What, then, is impossible for man has been made possible by God. In Christ, God has revealed himself, God himself speaks. But, here, too, the God revealed, the Deus revelatus, is also the hidden God, Deus absconditus.. We cannot say that Go mains hidden until he reveals himself the crisis of faith we know that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is, indeed the hidden God! The knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and God's hiddenness are paradoxically, one and the same. It is especially in Jesus, as the Christ, that we see the awful hiddenness of God. Fort his reason, the seeing is not of the normal order of seeing-it requires the eyes a With, which are a gift of grace. God's revelation is always indirect and veiled End thus requires grace, for it manifests }self in a world where sin and "the flesh" rule. Revelation is a mystery, for it not only signifies the hiddenness of God but his becoming manifest in a hidden or nonapparent way. God's Revelation is always an "in spite of." It is never transparent. For confirmation we need only to look at the biblical picture of Jesus Christ.

He takes His place where God can be preseny only in questioning about Him; He takes the form of a slave; He moves to the cross and to death; His greatest achievement is a negative achievement. He is not a genius ...he is not hero or leader of men. He is neither poet nor thinker: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? ...In Jesus revelation is a paradox, however objective and universal it may be. That the promises of the faithfulness of God have been fulfilled in Jesus the Christ is not, and never will be, self-evident truth, since in Him appears in its final hiddenness and its most profound secrecy. The truth, in fact, can never be self-evident, because it is a matter niether of historical nor of psychological experience....Therefore it is not accseeible to our perception....In Jesus God becomes veritably a secret: He is made known as the Unknown.... He becomes a scandal to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness. In Jesus the communication of God begins with a rebuS, with the exposure of a vast chasm, with the clear revelation of a great stumbling block....To believe in Jesus is the most hazardous of all hazards. 10

In Christ, God's unveiling is also veiling, and so man's relation to God is always that of faith, never sight. The distance, the incommensurableness remains. One does not possess revelation as an object, but one is given the gift of faith.

In his revelation, in Jesus Christ, the hidden God has indeed made Himself apprehensible. Not directly, but indirectly. Not to sight but to faith. Not in His being, but in sign. Not, then, in the dissolution of His hiddeness- but apprehensible For as we men view and conceive Him, so we can speak of Him. we cannot do so without the veil and therefore without the reservation of His hiddenness, or apart from His miracle of grace. It is not true that the grace of His revelation ever or in any relationship ceases to be grace arad miracle. 11

On the basis of what Barth says about revelation, it is not surprising that he has nothing but scorn for those who seek to ground faith in the Jesus "according to the flesh." The quest of the historical Jesus is both a futile historical task and a sign of unfaith. In the earthly Tesus we encounter either an apocalyptical fanatic or the divine incognito. In either case Cod cannot be seen directly in the earthly Jesus. God is revealed in Jesus as the Christ, only by an event that breaks the bounds of history. The incognito is lifted by Christ's resurrection from the dead which is a scandal, for it constitutes an eternal event, an event that cannot be described historically.

Jesus has been...declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Holy Spirit, through his resurrection from the dead. In this declaration and appointment- which are beyond historical definition-lies the true significance of Jesus. Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, is the end of History; and He can be comprehended only as Paradox (Kierkegaard), as Victor (Blumhardt), as Primal History (Overbeck). As Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically from above. Within history,Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem or Myth. As the Christ, He brings the world of the Father. But we who stand in this concrete world know nothing, and are incapable of knowing anything, of that other world. The Resurrection from the dead is, however, the transformation: the establishing or declaration of that point from above, and the corresponding discerning of it from below. The Resurrection is the revelation: the disclosing of Jesus as the Christ, the appearing of God, and the apprehending of God in Jesus. The Resurrection is the reckoning with what is unknown and unobservable in Jesus. 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. And, precisely becuase it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier-as the new world.The Resurrection is therefore an occurrence in history, which took place outside the gates of Jerusalem in the year A.D. 30, inasmuch as it there "came to pass," was discovered and recognized. But inasmuch as the occurrence was conditioned by the Resurrection, in so far, that is, as it was not the "coming to pass," or the discovery, or the recognition, which conditioned its necessity and appearance and revelation, the Resurrection is not an event in history at all. Jesus is declared to be the Son of God wherever He reveals Himself and is recognized as the Messiah. This declaration of the Son of man to be the Son of God is the significance of Jesus, and, apart from this, Jesus has no more significance or insignificance than may be attached to any man or thing or period of history in itself.-Even though we have known Christ after the flesh yet now we know him so no longer. 12

The hiddenness and mystery of God's revelation in Jesus Christ is further indicated in its very paradoxicality. There is no separation of grace and judgment, love and gospel, faith and works.

By being really and seriously put under the law, man comes to the gospel and by coming to the gospel through revelation and faith he is really and seriously put under the law. God's wrath and judgment is only the hard shell, the opus alienum of God's grace, but it is the man who knows about grace ...who alone knows what God's wrath and judgment are. 13

This mysterious "inner two-sidedness" of revelation in Jesus Christ is mere foolishness to the world. The gift of faith alone makes the divine transvaluation, this otherness and mystery of God's being and doing apprehensible. The Strange World of the Bible. This strange and unexpected Word of God is what we encounter when we turn and really listen to the Bible. This, of course, we don't wish to do. We prefer to go to the Bible with our own presuppositions, our own world-view, which we then read out of the Bible as its own. And the Bible allows us to do this if we don't really press the question of what lies within the Bible.

The Bible gives to every man and to every era such answers to their questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and "historical" content, if it is transitory and "historical" content that we seek- nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek.... What is within the Bible? has a mortifying way of converting itself into the opposing question, Well, what are you looking for? 14

One can find all kinds of edifying things in the Bible-if one does not penetrate too deeply. But, on closer inspection, the Bible contains little of real value in the realm of history, morals, and religion.

The man who is looking for history or for stories will be glad after a little to turn from the Bible to the morning paper or to other books. For when we study history and amuse ourselves with stories, we are always wanting to know: How did it happen? ...What are the natural causes of things? Why did the people speak such words and live such lives ? It is just at the most decisive points of its history that the Bible gives no answer to our Why.... The Bible meets the lover of history with silences quite unparalleled. 15

The same is true, Barth asserts, about morals. We look to the Bible for good practical wisdom and for examples of moral excellence-but again we are disappointed.

Large parts of the Bible are almost useless to the school in its nioral curriculum because they arc lacking in just this wisdom and just those "good examples." The heroes of the Bible are to a certain degree quite respectable, but to serve as examples to the good, efficient, industrious, publicly educated, average citizen of Switzerland, men like Samson, David, Amos, and Peter are very ill fitted indeed.... The Bible is an embarrassment in the school and foreign to it. How shall we find in the life and teaching of Jesus something to "do" in "practical life"... And in how many phases of morality the Bible is grievously wanting ! How little fundamental information it offers in regard to the difficult questions of business life, marriage, civilization and statecraft, with which we have to struggle.... How unceremoniously and constantly war is waged in the Bible! 16

Frankly speaking, the Bible is of little practical value, and this is because it is a witness to "the 'other,' new, greater world," because it is not of this world.

When we come to the Bible with our questions-How shall I think of God and the universe? How arrive at the divine? How present myself?-it answers us, as it were, "My dear sir, these are your problems: you must not ask me! Whether it is better to hear mass or hear a sermon, whether the proper form of Christianity is to be discovered in the Salvation Army or in ' Christian Science,' whether the better belief is that of old Reverend Doctor Smith or young Reverend Mr. Jones...you can and must decide for yourself."

It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us.... We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God's sovereignty, God's glory, God's incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God ! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoints of God. 17

What we find in the Bible is the world of God's incomprehensible being and acting, which drives us out beyond ourselves, beyond the Bible as the mirror of our own reflection, to the world of God. It is only when we arrive at this point that we encounter the krisis, the awakening to the relativity of all our thoughts and expectations. Only then are we prepared to hear of the last things which make known the truth that is hidden from the wise of the world. At that point only one possibility remains, but that lies beyond all thinking and all things-the possibility:

Behold, I make all things new! The affirmation of God, man, and the world given in the New Testament based exclusively upon the possibility of a new order absolutely beyond human thought; and therefore, as prerequisite to that order, there must come a crisis that denies all human thought. 18

The strangeness of the Bible is connected with its very revelatory character. Revelation requires that it be received and witnessed to through the mediation of worldliness. But the fact that God chooses to so reveal himself is part of God's veiledness and mystery. That God should reveal himself in the relative and problematical literature of the Bible is comparable to the scandal and mystery of the Incarnation. The worldly character of the Bible, therefore, is no accidental condition that we could hope would some day be removed. The indirectness of its witness is integral to its revelatory character.

No one can deny the relativity or the problematical character of the Bible. And the great danger is that the elimination of the human relativity of the Bible may lead to the elimination of the very thing the Bible is intended to bear witness to: the revelation of God. For is it not the very nature of revelation that the form in which it confronts us is relative and problematical? 19

The radically human and fallible character of the Bible is one of Barth's and Neo Orthodoxy's most consistent themes. 20 Contrary to what liberal theology claims, the Bible does not contain universally nobile and sublime truths. "The Bible," says Barth, "is the litterary moment of an ancient racial religion and of a hellenistic cultus religion of the Near East. A human document like any other." 21 This means that the biblical witnesses were fallible men whose historical and scientific judgements were often erroneous.

They shared the culture of their age and Environment, whose form and content could be contested by other ages and environments....In the biblical view of the world and of man we are constantly coming up against presuppositions which are not ours, and statements and judgments we cannot accept. 22

Moreover, the vulnerability of the Bible extends to its religious or theological content.

The prophets and apostles as such...even in their function as witness, even in their act of writing down their witness, were real historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their acting and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word. 23 23 [Finally], not a single verse of the Bible has come down to us with such absolute certainty and clarity that alternative versions cannot be suggested. we are therefore on uncertain ground. 24

That the Bible is the word of man is plain enough. And yet, paradoxically, to say that is to speak only half the truth. The Bible is both word of man and Word of God.However, the revealedness of the Bible as Word of God can be perceived, through the human limitations and barriers, only by a miracle of grace.

We have to recognize that faith as an eruption into this reality and possibility means the removing of a barrier in which we can only see and again and again see a miracle. And it is a miracle which we cannot explain apart from faith.... This is a miracle which we cannot presuppose. we can remember it. we can wait for it.... Therefore we are bound to take offense at the Bible in the light of that claim.... Only the miracle of faith and the Word can genuinely and seriously prevent us from taking offense at the Bible. 25

It is evident that for Barth the Bible is not a "content" which we can control. We cannot properly even say that the Bible is the Word of God. Rather, we can only go to the Bible remembering that the Church has heard God's Word in the Bible and expecting that we will also hear God's Word-to have faith in a " divine disposing." " The Bible is God's Word so far as God lets it be His Word." 26 The Bible only becomes God's Word. To say that the Bible is the Word of God is therefore not to say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible. God's Word is nothing else than the free disposing of God's grace. "The Word of God is an act of God which happens sperialissitile, in this way and in no other, to this and that particular man." 27 Put more succinctly, for Barth knowledge of the Word of God is not an anthropological problem!

Natural Theology-Nein!
The Word of God comes to man as a gift. It is not something that man can gain independently. Barth, therefore, takes no interest in a natural theology which claims that man in himself possesses some capacity to know God. Man cannot know God other than as God freely makes Himself known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Revelation cannot even be prepared for. It even lies beyond all natural human comprehension.

God's revelation in its objective reality is the incarnation of His Word....In other words, it becomes the object of our knowledge; it finds a way of becoming the content of our experience and our thought; it gives itself to be apprehended by our contemplation and our categories. But it does that beyond the range of what we regard as possible for our contemplation and perception, beyond the confines of our experience and our thought. It comes to us as a Novvm which, when it becomes an object for us, we cannot incorporate in the series of our other objects, cannot compare with them, cannot deduce from their context, cannot regard as analogous with them. it comes to us as a datum with no point of connexion with any other previous datum. 28

Barth holds that there is no point of contact, no Anknupfungspunkt, between revelation and man's natural experience and knowledge. Natural theology presupposes an analogia entis, an analogy of being between God and man. It assumes that the being of God is similar to the being of man and that, consequendy, man can gain some knowledge of God apart from God's special revelation. Barth considers the special evil of natural theology to lie in the fact that it splits up God, dividing his being from his acting in Jesus Christ. Natural theology conceives of God as a neutral being, in abstracto.

The intolerable and unpardonable thing in Roman Catholic theology is... that there is this splitting up of the concept of God and hand and hand with it the abstraction from the real work and activity of God in favour of a general being of God ...which means the introduction of a foreign god into the sphere of the Church. 29

The living God can be known only in his acting, which is the revelation of his very being. Natural theology is thereby excluded, for where do we see God's action but in his works of reconciliation in Christ, which is always a free gift of his grace. "This," Barth contends, is the place and the only place from which as Christians we can think forwards and backwards, from which a Christian knowledge of both God and man is possible.... It is here that all natural theology perishes even before it has drawn its first breath. Why? Because this is the Word in which God Himself has set the beginning of knowledge in the vacuum where there is no beginning for man as estranged from God and himself. 30

The fact is that natural man does not really want to know the true God. Because of sin, the natural man is at enmity with God. He would rather fashion idolatrous objects of worship which he can control and which can witness to his own sublime religiosity.

Natural theology is no more and no lest the unavoidable theological expression the fact that in the reality and possibility of n as such an openness for the grace of God therefore a readiness for the knowability, God in his revelation is not at all evident. 31

Natural theology issues in what Barth calls religion. The religious man is the man who imagines he can know God and who can justify and sanctify himself by his own efforts. Religion is the crown of all human achievement, the sign of man's transcendence over the lesser creatures.

In religion the supreme competence of human possibility attains its consumation and final realization....In the end human passion derives its living energy from that passionate desire: Eritis sicut Deus! In religion this final passion becomes conscious and recognizable....Can there be any affirmation of passion with which Prometheus robs Zeus of his fire?...It is the crowning of all other passions with the passion of eternity, the endowment of what is finite with infinity, the most exalted consecration of the passions of men. 32

Yet, according to Barth, religion is not only the grandeur but also the misery of man. Religion is man's misery because "it is precisely in religion that men perceive themselves to be bounded as men of the world by what is divine."33 Like the law, religion makes man aware of the limit of human possibility, the cleavage between existence and nonexistence. Our capacity for religion directs us to that final negation-the recognition that we mast die.

Religion, though it come disguised as the most intimate friend of men...is nevertheless the adversary. Religion is the most dangerous enemy a man has on this side of the grave. For religion is the human possibility of remembering that we must die: it is the place where, in the world of time and of things and of men, the intolerable question is clearly formulated-Who, then, art thou ? " The Law of God brings men under condemnation; for, in so far as they are under law, they are slaves of sin, and consequently guilty of death" (Calvin). 34

Religion ultimately exposes man's sinful condition as that of unbelief. The religious man actually wants to do what only God can do. He strives to reach God; he does not have faith. This is the spiritual rebellion of the religious man who refuses to depend on God's grace.

Sin is always unbelief. And unbelief is always man's faith in himself. And this faith invariably consists in the fact that man makes the mystery of his responsibility his own mystery, instead of accepting it as the mystery of God. 35

This faith, which Barth calls religion, is the antithesis of the revelation of God witnessed to in the New Testament, which speaks of Jesus Christ as the one who acts for us and on us.

If the crisis of man's religion is to have a positive resolution it can only come as a breaking in upon man's religiosity from outside man. This is what happens in God's selfrevelation in Jesus Christ. It is in the light of that revelation alone that man can recognize his religion as idolatry and as unbelief.

According to Barth, it is possible to speak of " true" religion but only in the same sense that we can speak of a "justified sinner," i.e., "as a creature of grace." If by the concept of a "true religion" we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself and as such, it is just as unattainable as a " good man," if by goodness we mean something which man can achieve on his own initiative. No religion is true. It can only become true. .. . And it can become true only in the way in which man is justified, from without....like justified man, religion is a creature of grace.36

It follows that Christianity is not the true religion as such. It can only become so by grace. "That there is a true religion is an event in the act of the grace of God 1 in Jesus Christ." 37 Insofar as the Christian religion is understood and lived in the light of the Christian revelation, it can rightfully be called the one and only true religion. However, it is the free grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and received in faith that constitutes the truth of the Christian religion and natural theology.

If God has given man the decisive revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, then to seek to find God somewhere else is to fail to give God the honor. To attempt to confine or limit God to some human institution or agency, whether it be the Bible, the tradition, or the institutional church, is also to make something else more ultimate than Jesus Christ. The Bible, the Church, and the tradition-like John the Baptist in Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece (see left)-can only point and witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.To start at any other source is to go astray. In his writings Barth returns again and again to this painting by Grunewald as the final word on the issue of natural theology. Barth's description of the Isenheim Nativity is a beautiful summation of his position in nuce.

Over there, but quite lonely, the child Jesus lies in His mother's arms, surrounded with unmistakable signs reminding us that He is a child of earth like all the rest. Only the little child, not the mother, sees what is to be seen there, the Father. He alone, the Father, sees right into the eyes of this child. On the same side as Mary appears the Church, facing at a distance. It has open access on this side, it adores, it magnifies, it praises, therefore it sees what is indeed the glory of the only-begotten of His Father, full of grace and truth. But it sees it indirectly. What it sees directly is only the little child in His humanity; it sees the Father only in the light that falls upon the Son, and the Son only in this light from the Father. This is the way, in fact, that the Church believa in ant recognizes God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly.... Because of this light streaming down from above, it worships before this human being as before God Himself, although to all visual appearance He is literally nothing but a human being.... It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery. It can and must adore with Mary and point with the Baptist. It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this. 38

The Later Direction of Barth's Theology.
It is not exceptional that a man with a mind and spirit as gifted and lively as Barth's should, over sixty years of publication, have set out on new and revolutionary paths. A careful study of Barth's writings reveals several such creative advances in new directions, nevertheless always within a general perspective that remained extraordinarily consistent. The most significant change evident in the later volumes of the Church Dogmatics after 1935 was what Hans Urs von Balthasar has called Barth's "Christological concentration." This "change" is actually only a dialectical shift of emphasis, from a theology of the Word of God to what Barth called a theology of the "Humanity of God."

In his later years Barth looked back to the book on Romans as a necessary "corrective" to the immanentism and humanism of liberal theology which prevailed at the turn of the century. Romans, with its "Wholly Other" and ''infinite qualitative distinction between God and Man," had to be spoken, and, Barth believed, must still be heard. Nevertheless, it is not the whole truth of the Gospel and needs its own dialectical corrective, which Barth sought to achieve. In a lecture delivered in 1956, Barth commented that the revolution he had forced upon theology forty years earlier was basically a rediscovery of the Godness of God, and then he asked:

But did we not largely fail to perceive that the Godness of the living God... has its meaning and power only in the context of His history and of His dialogue with man, and therefore in His togetherness with him ? Yes, indeed-and that is the point from which there must be no going back .... It is the divinity which as such has also the character of humanity. It is in this form and only in this form that the statement of the Godness of God is to be opposed to the theology of the preceding period. 39

Barth had never conceived of God's revelation as an abstraction but instead as always present in the person of Jesus Christ. However, after 1935 Barth's whole theology became focused on Christology.Not only the doctrine of God but the doctrines of creation, election, and anthropology are now all defined christologically. This is because, for Barth, God's Godness "includes in itself His humanity." In Christ humanity is taken up into the very Godhead itself.

We must not refer to the second "person" of the Trinity, to the eternal Son or the eternal Word of God in abstracto....According to the free and gracious will of God the eternal Son of God is Jesus Christ....He is the decision of God in time, and yet according to what took place in time the decision which was made from all eternity. 40

We cannot, then, look at Creation as the work of "the Logos in itself," of a Deus absconditus, but only to the work of God as it is seen in Christ. Creation must always be viewed in the light of God" eternal covenant in Christ. Barth thus refers to the covenant as "the internal basis of creation." Christian theology does not have the responsibility of showing how creation promises, proclaims and prophesies the covenant, but how it prefigures and to that extent anticipates it without being identical with it; not how creation prepares the covenant, but how in so doing it is itself already a unique sign of the covenant and a true sacrament; not Jesus Christ as the goal, butJesus Christ as the beginning of creation. 41

According to Barth, Jesus Christ, as the only ground and goal of creation, is the due to anthropology. If we want to understand man, we needn't construct some general anthropological model, nor should we even look to the arehetypal image of fallen Adam. Christ alone is the prototype of humanity.

There in the eternity of the divine counsel which is the meaning and basis of all creation ...the decision was made who and what true man is. There his constitution was fixed and scaled once for all.... No man can elude this prototype. We derive wholly from Jesus not merely our potential and actual relation to God, but even in our human nature as such. For it is He who, as the ground and goal of the covenant of grace planned for man, is also die ground and goal of man's creation. 42

If Christ is the ground and goal of humanity, then sin and evil cannot be the last word about man. In his relation to God a man may become a sinner and thus distort and corrupt his own nature, but he cannot revoke what was decided in Jesus apart from him concerning the true nature of man....And if Jesus forgives his sines and restores his spoiled relation to God, this means that Jesus again controls what originally belongs to him....He has the freedom and power to do this....And does just that by making Himself our saviour. 43

In virtue of the eternal covenant in Jesus Christ, the creation-including man-stands essentially in a positive relationship to God That is the first and last word of God ! Barth can therefore speakof sin and evil as "nothingness" and as the "ontological impossibility," for they are denied by the prior covenant of grace in Jesus Christ.

It (sin and evil) is that which is excluded from all present and future existence, i.e. chaos, the world fashioned otherwise than according to the divine purpose, and therefore formless and intrinsically impossible.... That which is ungodly and anti-godly can have reality only as that which by God's decision and operation has been rejected and disappeared and therefore only as a frontier of that which is and will be according to God's decision and action. 44

By speaking of the "impossibility" of sin, Barth does not mean that there are no such realities as sin and evil but rather that they exist only relatively. Sin is an attempt to evade and escape from grace, but sin cannot finally prevent God from addressing His Yes to man.

Certainly even as this man has not ceased to be the good creature and the elect of God. Even as a wrongdoer he cannot fall from the hand of God; he cannot, as it were, snatch himself out of the divine grasp. 45

The radicalness of Barth's " Christocentric concentration" is most evident in his treatment of the doctrine of election, which he calls "the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best."46 46 It is here that Barth parts company with the Reformers most emphatically.

For the Reformers, God's election-coming before Christ-is a mystery. Some men are elected to salvation and others to eternal damnation. Why some confess Christ and others remain unbelievers is part of God's inscrutablie will, the work of the Deus Absconditus. For Barth such a conception of double predestination, as a mixed message of joy and horror, is intolerable. Not because it appears unjust from our human perspective, but becuase it is contrary to God's eternal covenant of grace in Jesus Christ, for "before Him and Beside Him God does not elect or will anything." According to Barth, Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected man. 47

In Jesus Christ God in his free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory. 48

Here Barth develops a doctrine of double predestination, but one far different from that of John Calvin. According to Barth, predestination takes place in Jesus Christ alone, but it, too, involves a twofold movement. In Jesus Christ, God elected Himself for rejection and death, but also elected sinful man for election and eternal life. Here Both God's Yes and God's No is addressed to Christ alone as the rejected of God, the Yes is spoken to man whom God in his original covenant has elected for fellowship with Himself.

What we have to consider in the elected man Jesus is, then, the destiny of human nature, its exaltation to fellowship with God....It is in this man that the exaltation itself is revealed and proclaimed. For with His decree concerning this man, God decreed too that this rnan should be the cause and the instrument of our exaltation. 49

Jesus Christ represents "the original and all-inclusive election," for of none other can it be said that "his election carries in it and with it the election of the rest." Jesus is at once the elect for all and the reprobate for all. It therefore follows that for Barth predestination is "the non-rejection of man." 50 Does this not entail a doctrine of apakatastasis, of universal salvation? Barth is unwilling to make such an assertion about the freedom of God's grace.

If we are to respect the freedom ofdivine grace, we cannot venture the stateme at it must and will finally be coincident wi e...doctrine of the so-called apokatastas o such right or necessity can legitimate deduced....But, again, in grateful reco tion of the grace of the divine freedom A nnot venture the opposite statement th ere cannot and will not be this final opening and enlargement of the circle of election. 51

One thing is certain: man cannot place limits on the loving-kindness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The fact is that God has declared himself for man, for all men. What distinction, if any, can be made between Christians and non-believers, if Jesus is at once elect for all? The difference, for Barth, is not that the Christian is saved and the non believer damned. The Christian and nonbeliever stand together in their common need. It is God who steps down to both.

Who is it who really has to stoop down at this point ? Not one man to another, a believer to an unbeliever.... He who stoops down to the level of us all, both believers and unbelievers, is the real God alone, in His grace and mercy. And it is only by the fact that he knows this that the believing man is distinguishod from the unbeliever. 52

The man of faith does not arrogantly glory in his clection. His acknowledgemcnt of God's gracc simply makes him aware that he is called and chosen to be in Christ, to live the life of truth rather than falsehood. The Christian is called to service in response to the gift of God's grace. "This service, and therefore the blessedness of the elect, consists in gratitude for the self-offering of God." 53 If we ask what is meant by gratitude, and therefore blessedness, Barth replies that it is participation in the life of God in a human existence and action in which there is a representation and illustration of the glory of God Himself....The elect man is chosen in order to respond to the gracious God, to be His creaturely image, His imitator. 54

The Christian life is marked above all else by joyful thanksgiving.

The only answer to Charis is eucharistia (thanksgiving)....Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth Grace evokes gratitude like the voice and echo. 55

It is no wonder that Barth has been called the theologian of the Good News. To think of Barth only as the theologian of crisis and judgment is to fail to hear the central theme of his Church Dogmatics, which is the gospel of God's gracious election. If anything, Barth is criticized today for his optimism! His theology has been referred to as "the triumph of grace," 56 a triumph which, it is claimed, has relativized evil and devine judgement and has left no place for real human freedom. It is now said that in Barth's theology man is "swamped by grace." There is little question that Barth's theology is open to serious criticism, but it is equally clear that the old stereotype, which portrayed Barth as a gloomy, pessimistic, rather narrowly orthodox theologian who stressed the transcendent otherness of God, is now impossible for anyone who reads the Church Dogmatics. Barth is indeed appropriately called " God's joyful partisan."


1. Karl Barth, How I Changed My Mind, in John Godsey, ed. (Richmond, 1966),P.99

2. Karl Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, 1927), p. IX; cited in Paul Lehrnann, "The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology," Theology Today (October, 1956), p. 334.

3. cited in Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church's Confession Under Hitler (Philadelphia, 4. Ibid., pp. 239-240.

5. Karl Barth, The Word of Cod and the Word o+Man (New York,1957), p.206.

6. Ibid., pp. 207-208.

7. Ibid., p. 209.

8. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, 1960), p.10.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-47.

10. Ibid., pp. 97-99.

11. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II (Edinburgh,1956), p.199.

12. Romans, op. cit., pp. 29-30.

13. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I, 1 (New York,1936), pp. 204-205.

14. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Mall, op. cit., p. 32.

15. Ibid., pp. 35-36.

16. Ibid., pp.38-39.

17. Ibid., pp.42-43,45.

18. Ibid., p.80.

19. Karl Barth, Against the Stream (New York,1954), p. 223.

20. Barth emphasized this point in strongly polemical terms in "The Strange New World of the Bible" in 1916, again throughout the Church Dogmatics and in his farewell lectures as Professor at Basel in 1962. See his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York,1963), pp. ff.

21. Word of God and Word of Man, op. cit., p.60.

22. Church Dogmatics I, 2, p. 508.

23. Ibid., p. 529.

24. Against the Stream, op. cit., p. 221.

25. Church Dogmatics I, 2, pp. 506507.

26. Church Dogmatiss I, 1, p. 123.

27. Ibid., p. 181.

28. Church Dogmatics I, 2, p.172.

29. Church Dogmatics II, 1, p. 84.

30. Church Dogmatics IV, 1, p. 81.

31. Church Dogmatics II, 1, p. 135.

32. Romans, op. cit., p. 236.

33. Ibid., p. 242.

34. Ibid., p. 268.

35. Church Dogmatics I, 2, p. 314.

36. Ibid., pp.325-326.

37. Ibid., p.344.

38. Ibid., p. 125.

39. "The Humanity of God," in God, Grase and Gospel, op. cit., p. 37.

40. Church Dogmatics IV, 1, p. 52.

41. Church Dogmatics III, 1, p. 232.

42. Church Dogmatics III, 2, p. 50.

43. Ibid., pp. 5051.

44. Church Dogmatics III, 1, p. 102.

45. Church Dogmatics IV, 1, p. 540.

46. Church Dogmatics II, 2, p. 3.

47. For a full treatment of this theme, see the Church Dogmatics II,2, pp.29-145.

48. Ibid., p. 94.

49. Ibid., p. 118.

50. Abide pp. 117, 167.

51. Ibid., pp. 417418.

52. Church Dogmatics II,1, p. 95.

53. Church Dogmatics II, 2, p.

54. Ibid.

55. Church Dogmatics IV, 1, p. 41.

56. For a critique of Barth's theology at this point, see G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, (London, 1956).