Theology Thursday: Karl Barth’s Theology

by Max Andrews

Theology Thursday is a new feature on the blog, which gives a brief introduction to a theological person of significance.

Theologian: Karl Barth (1886-1969)

General summary of his theology: Barth has made man contributions to Christian theology. In this post I’ll discuss general theological ideas in Barth’s thought.

If the word of God the task of theology then there is a problem:  of all disciplines theology alone is confronted with an unanswerable question [for us]–What is before birth and after death?.  The question that my finite self overcomes nihilism.  Theology, whether preaching or teaching, the theological task is impossible but necessary because the question must arise in we existing human beings; and so, theology as the human speaking the word of God as God’s own speaking cannot be done; therefore, No.  Yet, theology, in seeking to speak the word of God, to human finitude and human need must be done.  In recognizing that theology cannot be done and cannot answer the question while still pursuing and seeking after the answer is to do two things:  glorify God and may open the field (when God allows it) to the possibility that an answer may come from God to existing human beings.  No human being, though, can say or speak absolutely and unambiguously the word of God as God’s own speaking.  Therefore, any true word of God that comes through our human speech is again still NO and YES, YES and NO, because it both is and is not the word of God.

To speak the word of God as God’s own speaking (theological methodology) is very existential (particularly Romans).  Barth’s first attempt at writing a systematic theology was the Christian Dogmatics 1927.  Barth’s quest led him to Anselm.  Through Anselm’s theological method, he saw the way to declare God’s own way of declaring the word of God.  Jesus is THE word of God (Jn. 1.14).  Scientia of Jesus, which was Barth’s turning pointing.  Deus est id quo maius cogitari nequit (that than which nothing greater can be conceived).

Anselm was the second part of Barth’s theology.  If one accepts this definition or meaning, or Word, that is given here, then all the rest of the argument follows necessarily from common reason.  The Anselmian God points to the necessary conclusion.  By this definition, God must exist in the mind and in reality outside the mind.  God must exist not only in reality but also exist necessarily.

Barth saw that for Anselm, id quo, this is no mere definition, no mere meaning but it is in fact a naming of God according to reason even as the Word “God” is the naming of God according to faith.  Anselm has given us a revelation, or a word of God.  Those words which bring about the very reason of the reality, God.  These words are that in which the very meaning brings about the reality of the encounter with God.  God is in these very words in the sense that they are a revelation of God’s manifestness, and so, to understand and to come to grips with that statement is in fact to encounter the living God.  In a way far more concretely and emphatically than ever before in his career Barth finds that the word of God is the place wherein we find God manifested.

Theology is rethinking the words in which God is manifest. Nachdenken (rethinking and thinking after the words wherein God is experienced).  Every such word of revelation is an encounter with God and human beings.  Emphatically, the word is Jesus and he is the ultimate place of the encounter of God and human beings.  When one reads the Bible as God intended, one reads it as God is the subject and the predicate and the object.  So, in the Bible the word of God is spoken by God, about God, that God is God.

God in his redemptive self-giving wants to be known by faith.  Barth did not seem to hold a fully orthodox view of Scripture.  Barth listened to Scripture very carefully in order to hear the word within but he seemed to maintain that Scripture is not directly the word of God.  Scripture witnesses to the witness that is Jesus Christ and it is there that Christ—God meets us there with grace.  This is Barth’s view of inspiration called dynamic inspiration.

  • Inspiration is always in the present tense.
  • Difference between this and illumination is zero.
  • AND that it WAS inspired
  • Functional infallibilist/inerrantist
  • In principle, he allows for the fact that there can be errors in Scripture, but woe to the person who says they found one

In Barth’s thought, election is the sum or the heart of the gospel (good news).  In dialogue with John Calvin, Barth turns Calvin’s double predestination into the salvation of all humanity (in principle, if not in actuality).  For Calvin, predestination is the eternal and mysterious decree of God whereby some are elected to damnation and some are elected to salvation.  According to Barth, in response to Calvin, Calvin saw predestination in the hiddenness of God whereby the decree is mysterious but in so doing, Calvin is working contrary to his own usual practice/method whereby he usually established doctrine upon God’s revelation and the clear manifestation of God’s will in Jesus Christ is both the actively choosing and the chosen human being.  As God incarnate Jesus then is the electing or choosing God and as truly human Jesus Christ is the passively elected or chosen human being.  When we can and do know who is elect for Christ who is the manifest God, humanity is chosen for salvation and God is self-damned.  Jesus is elected to damnation and rejection at the cross.  The one who is the being for men, which is also Jesus, is elected to salvation and acceptance.  Therefore, in Barth’s formulation Jesus transforms double predestination from a division between saved and lost humans to a division between the divine and human, which God himself victoriously overcomes.

Faith is faith in the non-rejection of humanity in Christ.  As a consequence (2:2 in Dogmatics), Barth has a unique reading of the history of Israel and the Church.  As Jesus represents and is the choosing God and the chosen man, we also see in him choosing Israel and the Church.  In Israel we see God’s self-rejection.  In the Church we see the divine acceptance on the human.  Community expressions of both divine self-rejection and acceptance of the human; both are therefore in God’s will and both are accepted.  We must only reflect on God as revealed in Jesus and not as he is not revealed.

Barth’s double predestination has led him to charges of universalism.  Barth rejects univ. (apokatastasis).  If you mean all people in general will be saved, this is wrong; rather, predestination can only be given as a double negative.  There is no one who has not already been saved not in general but one by one there is no one who is not saved.

Positives about Barth

  • Barth gave renewed emphasis to the Godness of God and reemphasizing divine transcendance
  • Called people to the real point of theology which is God not humanity
  • Stressed the problems that may arise if a person begins his or her theology with philosophy rather than the word of God
  • Stressed the primacy of Scripture over religious experience of liberalism and over church tradition as reflected in Roman Catholicism
  • Strong emphasis to God’s grace rather than ethics, Virgin conception, bodily resurrection, substitionary atonement

Negatives about Barth

  • Barth eschews the traditional understanding of inspiration.
  • Barth’s doctrine of election is far too close to universalism despite his efforts to avoid the charge.
  • Barth uses too much of an existential hermeneutic when exegeting Scripture.

3 Responses to “Theology Thursday: Karl Barth’s Theology”

  1. It probably goes without saying that any student of KB will, on principle, disagree with any such short profile on KB and his work. On point I did have is that I am really surprised that you don’t say more about his view on natural theology, given your apparent bend in that direction.

    • Hey Caleb. Well, discussing Barth has been two Thursday’s now. The first on his Christomonism and this last one a general sum. I could do one on his rejection of natural theology in the future though.


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