Making Sense of Karl Barth

My previous post on Karl Barth was concerned with the historical era in which he lived, his unorthodox three-way marriage, and how that might have softened some of his views.  This post focuses on his theology.  His key point is that religion is the problem.  “Religion is unbelief; religion is a business, one has to say: the business of the godless man.”  (Church Dogmatics, his emphasis)

Religion is at the mercy of society.  Any society.  However, this was particularly true in Nazi Germany, where the church capitulated to the Hitler, allowing him to appoint the chief bishop of the German (Lutheran) church. Barth led an attempt to establish an alternative “confessing church,” but it too capitulated, rejecting converted Jews. 

Scripture and revelation

Religion tames God, fitting him to our current needs.  Barth wants to return to an original experience of God, which is possible only in revelation.  But what he means is not his revelation, or yours, but the revelation that is written of in the scriptures, and testified to by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. (Barth, Letter) 

Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation. (Barth, Answer)

Barth does not assume that authors of the Gospels were divinely inspired, but he assumes away the vast problems of different interpretations in different ages and cultures.  Barth does not completely reject the historical critical interpretation of the Bible (form and redaction criticism), which looks at the historical circumstances in which the books of the New Testament were written.  For example, redaction (a fancy word for editorial) criticism has found that each of the four Gospels is the work of many men revising the work of their predecessors.  There is no eyewitness testimony.  The first gospel, Mark, was written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Jesus Christ; its attribution to a man named Mark is purely conventional.

The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of the faith which hears God Himself speak through the Biblical word of man.  (Barth, Answer)

The acceptance of this unbelievable testimony of the Scriptures I call faith. Again I do not claim that this is a discovery of my theology. I do ask, however, what else faith could be—disregarding sentimentalities—but the obedience I give to a human word which testifies to the Word of God as a word addressed to me, as if it were itself God’s Word? ” (Barth, Answer)

I honestly don’t see how Barth’s claim can be upheld.  Some Biblical claims are more important than others. The belief that God came to earth as Jesus Christ is central.  So too is belief in the resurrection.  But magical cures, walking on water, and lots of bread and fish are not.  Unless, that is, we accept them as metaphors useful at the time Christ lived in order to explain an experience of extraordinary power.  But Barth doesn’t accept the latter interpretation.  It is too historical and contextual.  It’s all or nothing with Barth.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way. 

Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, ‘Like it or lump it’: virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn’t biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of significance.  (Bonhoeffer, Letters, p 286)

Church Dogmatics

Barth’s Church Dogmatics contains over six million words, and approximately 15,000 biblical citations.  It was incomplete at the time of his death.  It’s widely regarded as the most important work of Protestant theology in the twentieth-century.  (It’s called “dogmatics” because it assumes, rather than argues, that God revealed himself in scripture.)  But if the assumption it is based on is false, then we must question the entire project.

Barth would distance God, making him unknowable.  God is knowable only through Jesus Christ, as he appears in the gospels when read from the perspective of faith. 

A theologian’s claims either will be grounded in their own creaturely ideas about God or they will be grounded on what God has revealed in Christ. There is no compromise, nor is there any alternative.  (Johnson, Conclusion, p 359) 

Against Barth argued Adolf Harnack, who seems right at every turn: there must be a connection between the Bible and human moral ideals (though these ideals can be perverted; if so, then the Bible can act as a check on culture).   

Harnack insisted that the central claims of Christianity must stand in continuity with the highest moral ideals of a culture, because if no such continuity exists, then the gospel will be unintelligible . . . . As Harnack sees it, Barth’s claim that divine revelation is distinct from history effectively erases the history of Israel and the church.  (Johnson, note 23, Answer, p 56)

Barth changed

We cannot understand Barth unless we understand how much he changed over the course of his career.   In an essay written when he was over 70, Barth relaxes, expressing the relationship between God and man in covenantal terms, the terms of partnership.  He moves from talking about the absolute otherness of God to “His togetherness with man.” (Humanity of God, p 99)  To even write the “humanity of God” would once have been anathema to Barth.    

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. (Humanity of God, p 100, author’s emphasis)

It’s impossible to write about Barth without distinguishing between early and late Barth.  In Barth’s view, his early theology failed because he didn’t recognize the intimate relationship between God and humanity expressed in Jesus Christ.  We fail to understand God unless we recognize his decision to live in covenant with Man. 

Prison sermons

One of the best, and most agreeable, ways to understand Karl Barth is to read the sermons he delivered to the inmates of  Basel Prison.  Delivered relatively late in his career, in his late 60’s and early 70’s, they are remarkably clear and free of jargon (Deliverance; Call for God).  More than this, they convey the way in which he changed his view on the otherness of God, who in his prison sermons becomes someone who loves and wants to be loved. 

What his command says when we hear and understand it properly is this: Allow yourself now quite simply to be loved by me, and love me in return. That, just that, is ‘the good,’ if you do it. That, just that, is the root, the meaning, the force of all Ten Commandments. ‘Love and do what you like’ said a great father of the Church [Augustine]. A bold saying, but a true one. For that’s what it’s like.  (Call for God, p 24)


When asked in 1962 (on his one visit to America) how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, he replied with the words of a children’s song, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  It’s a good summary of his later work, and helps put his Church Dogmatics in a human context.  For the younger Barth, the very idea of a human context was the problem, not the solution.     



Karl Barth, “An Answer to Adolf von Harnack’s Open Letter,” in The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, by Keith L. Johnson, pp 44-57.  Baker Academic, 2019 [cited as Answer]

Karl Barth, “The Humanity of God,” in The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, by Keith L. Johnson, pp 93-102.  Baker Academic, 2019 

Karl Barth, Call for God: New Sermons from Basel Prison.  Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd., revised edition, 2012. 

Carl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives.  Wipf and Stock, 2010.  [Cited as Deliverance]

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 1, part 2, §17.  Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance.  T&T Clark, 2010.  

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans. E. C. Hoskyns. Oxford University Press, 1933).  [Cited as Letter]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge.  Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1971. [cited as Bonhoeffer’s Letters]

2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Karl Barth”

  1. I like his Criticism of religion but I don’t understand his theology No doubt I would have to spend more time on it
    I am not sufficiently interested but I do know more than I did as you write so clearly

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