Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


If we stipulate rationalism as purely attempting to prove the existence of God then it is obvious that Barth, as well as Brunner, have no interest in such a project. By disallowing natural theology, any speculation on the existence of God is nullified. For Barth, the reality of God’s existence is presupposed or given through revelation in Jesus Christ. Rationalism, as a motif for Barth, assumes reason as internal to faith (as in Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding”) and confines it within revelation alone. A more interesting question is: how would Barth respond to an a posteriori natural theology that articulates God’s handiwork in the apparent intelligent design of creation through scientific inquiry? It is unclear, given that Barth never truly engaged in dialogue with the sciences, as his protégé Thomas Torrance did. However, we can speculate that Barth would allow this scientific inquiry as a form of worship through creation, but only one entailed within the gracious revelation of Jesus Christ.

In response to the philosophy of religion, Barth made his views clear in Church Dogmatics I/2 in a famous chapter called “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.” He believes that Christianity without revelation is certainly no better nor worse than any other religion. Again, he understands “religion” as relying on “innate” human capacities” and thus belonging to the subjective side of the human-divine correspondence. Revelation, must speak to this side if it is to determine our existence, for to deny this would be to deny it as revelation. Revelation, furthermore, must be regarded as a human phenomenological experience. It is thus open to the comparisons of history, psychology, etc. The human aspect of revelation thus introduces it into the sphere of religion. By recognition of the revelation of God as having a general human aspect, “Christian religion” becomes one in a mass of other human religious phenomena.
The fact that God’s revelation must be considered as a religion among other religions leads Barth to add an even more pertinent question to the discussion: “Whether theology and the church and faith are able and willing to take themselves and their basis seriously.” Religion in the 18th and 19th century had been the problem of theology rather than a problem for theology. Barth saw theology’s duty to the growing humanism of this period as a duty “to participate in this trend and lovingly investigate it. But it was certainly not its duty to co-operate in it.” It is precisely this “co-operation” that occurred. Thus, Barth sought to recapture the “object” of theology: “revelation in all its uniqueness.”
As Bromiley summarizes Barth’s concern not to coordinate revelation and religion:
Religion has to be considered (293), but it cannot be coordinated with revelation (294). If revelation on its subjective side becomes religion as event God himself is always the subject of the event. The question, then, is not that of relating revelation to a known factor of religion, but of finding out what religion is from the standpoint of the disclosed factor of revelation and faith.

Barth wants us to consider man as the subject of religion. Not man as a human per se, but as man (whether he knows it or not) in the revelation of Jesus Christ his Lord. It is this “revelation [that] singles out the Church as the locus of true religion.” The “Christian Religion” however is not the locus, or fulfilled nature of human religion, or in any way superior to all other religions. Rather it is that the truth of Christian religion is the revelation of grace by which it lives.
Barth believes that the Church, as the locus, can begin a theological treatment of religion and religions only for “those who are ready to abase themselves and their religion together with man, with every individual man, knowing that they first, and their religion have need of tolerance, a strong forbearing tolerance.” Without a readiness to give tolerance in the way they have received it, through God who has graciously reconciled sinful humanity, the church becomes mere religion and no longer the locus of true religion. Religion needs this toleration of itself, for in itself . . . it is shown . . . by revelation itself to be unbelief.”
Barth provides us with two standpoints from which to consider religion as unbelief. Firstly, revelation is “God’s self-offering and self-manifestation.” For Barth we must renounce all attempts to apprehend the truth, and let truth be revealed to us. However he also states that the “attitude and activity” by which the genuine believer met and still meets revelation is religion. “Arbitrarily and willfully” does humanity seek by its own insight to apprehend truth about itself. Revelation, as we have said before, opposes all these a priori ideas. “In religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation.” Barth presents humanity, creating in their religion a fiction and replacement for God, with little or no relation to God. It is not an outstretched hand that God fills in his revelation. Instead, revelation is a surprise to humanity!
Barth uses the Old Testament testimony against idolatry to emphasize that revelation does not link up with existing human religion. Rather revelation contradicts the arbitrary constructs and attempts of humanity. The New Testament proclamation of Christ is equally met with “a capricious and arbitrary attempt to storm heaven!” Thus, our attempts to seek after God can only be considered idolatrous to the revelation of God.
The second standpoint is that revelation affirms that man is unable to help himself. It opposes the self-righteousness of works. “He cannot in any sense declare himself that he is righteous and holy, and therefore saved . . . it would be a lie” against the truth of the Fall. God’s act of reconciliation is in opposition to the piety of religion, which Barth describes as an “abomination.” Though perhaps rare, it is possible to find a pious “godly” man within the sons of Adam, but a Christian is a different thing altogether.
By interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, Barth sets out to show the Old as a scripture of revelation against every religion of law and works and therefore all religions as such. He is, however, aware that religion can be criticized from within, and is careful to distinguish this from the abolishment of religion by revelation. “Religion is always self contradictory and impossible per se.” Barth addresses religion’s self-contradiction and humanity’s inward dialect as something within the life of religion itself, unlike revelation. Religion fails to overcome idolatry and self-righteousness in its own strength.
Human criticism points to a two-fold weakening of religion. Firstly, religion is a non-necessity and need not be indispensable, as it is only an externalization, expression, or representation that man has fulfilled for himself in religious life. Thus it is not an authentic need. Secondly, “the link between religion and religious man in his variable-ness is the weakness of all religions,” i.e. religion either changes with the times and therefore makes its truth claims to rest on these times (relativism), or it holds fast but dies due to a lack of fresh believers and adherents.
In the weakness revealed by human criticism, religion attempts to dispel its externalism by convincing itself that the previous “attempt to externalize God was a misunderstanding that deceived us right at the outset” and that an outward law is replaced and concentrated onto an inward loyalty to a nameless, impersonal and undirected will. Barth sees this progression as taking a two-forked route: that of mysticism or atheism.
Mysticism does not negate religion or attack it openly. For as Barth goes on to explain it requires external religion as the text by which it makes its attempts to interpret its internal meaning. Atheism is seen as little better, and perhaps all the more naïve for its outright “negation of the over-world of religion, the weakness and non-necessity of which are perceived.” However, it fails to see that other dogmas of truth and ways of certainty will take on religious character and create other over-worlds of religion.
Barth agrees that atheism and mysticism bring religion into crisis, however they fail to undermine its power “for their own existence is too closely bound up with the existence of religion.” A real crisis within religion, which outstrips humanity’s power to create its own gods, justify and sanctify itself, comes by revelation. Revelation is the positive Word of Christ that goes beyond any negative word of humanity (in pure mysticism and pure atheism). Only in the light of faith can the judgments of unbelief, idolatry and self-righteousness be made.

According to Barth, “religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies that any religion is true, i.e. that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God.” As Barth points out, Christianity comes under the judgment of revelation also. The only way for religion to become “true religion” is for it to “be justified.” For “revelation can adopt religion and mark it as true religion . . . there is true religion: just as there are justified sinners.”
If this is so, then there is no hesitation to say that Christianity is the true religion. Christianity does stand under judgment of religion as unbelief, but it is acquitted by the grace of God’s proclamation in revelation. The faith that justifies Christianity is not that which lives by Christian self-consciousness but “the faith that accepts Christianity’s weakness and therein displays its true power.”
“This power dwells only in weakness . . . the power of religious self-consciousness which is the gift of grace in the midst of weakness, unless Christianity has first humbled itself instead of exalting itself.” Thus, there is nothing with regard to the qualities of Christianity that give it any degree of superiority over other religions. Instead, it is made true as it is created, elected, justified, and sanctified in divine work of Jesus Christ.

This discipline, which is equated with Brunner’s “eristics,” is the most difficult to identify within Barth’s theology. His theology lacks the crisis and anxiety which apologetic theology is constantly fighting, as it fights its opponents in defense of its doctrines, and especially its truth. Barth rejects any apologetics that defends theological truth if this truth is assumed to be neutral and capable of being grounded in some general possibility unknown to us. Apologetics of this type attempts to validate the truth claims of Christian theology by means of rational reflection. As Hunsinger puts it:

"Such validation would show that these claims are either not precluded or else, more strongly, are actually required (or at least confirmed) by certain philosophical principles, or by the results of certain historical or scientific research. Apologetics might also attempt to show that Christian beliefs are commendable, because they enable us to obtain certain ends which we know on other grounds to be valuable or beneficial. The validity of Christian theology – its possibility, its necessity, or its instrumentality – is thus to be demonstrated on external grounds."

Thus, the problem with apologetics defined as such is that it denies the existence of revelation, just as natural theology denies the power of revelation. Apologetics can also attempt to validate revelation by subjecting it to alien standards. Revelation is such that it cannot be tested, commended, or construed by terms outside itself, thanks to Barth’s radical singular definition of it. Revelation, again, is received by faith.
When Barth insists that the offense of truth’s exclusivity in Christ cannot be overcome on apologetic grounds, he seems to be saying that it cannot be overcome apart from a personal encounter with and apprehension of God’s Word. This apprehension does not occur unless our trust, humility and obedience are fully engaged. Apologetic theology, like natural theology, seems to defer to the moment of personalist apprehension while offering an objectivist generalization which strangely deletes reference to Jesus Christ. By contrast, what Barth seems to be saying is this: insofar as Jesus Christ himself in inalienable to an authentic objectivism, personal encounter and commitment are inalienable to our apprehension of God. The two are so indissolubly united that neither can be had without the other.

Like natural theology itself, apologetics must be done in such a way that it is a posteriori to revelation.

While the theological debate left Barth and Brunner in deep conflict with one another, there was, in the sense of the “greater context” which Barth spoke of in his “Angry Introduction,” a reconciliation at the most important moment in life: on the cusp of death itself. George Hunsinger tells us the following about Brunner and Barth:
"An attempted reconciliation in 1960 did not work out. As Brunner lay dying in 1966, Barth was moved to communicate through a mutual friend. “If he is still alive and it is possible, tell him again, ‘Commended to our God,’ even by me. And tell him, Yes, that the time when I thought that I had to say ‘No’ to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious Yes to all of us.” These were the last words Brunner heard before he died."


By now it should be fairly obvious to the reader that Barth’s commitment to God’s grace fuels his hostility toward natural theology within the Church. Natural theology bypasses the mediation, the miracle, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God’s act of revelation. It renders human access to God immediate by way of innate spiritual and material capacities, as a general given truth.
In regards to its source and motivation, natural theology has been one way that the Church has chosen to affirm itself self-sufficiently, over against the penetrating revelation of God as Word. George Hunsinger interprets Barth’s view of natural theology in the following way:
It shows the extent to which we would rather bear our own lives, even through the wretchedness of guilt and death, than be carried solely by divine grace. It shows the extent to which we can endure the offer of God’s Word without being thrown off course. It shows the extent to which natural theology is something that has already been lived out before it has been thought and developed as such. Above all, it shows the extent to which we are prepared to affirm in self-sufficiency and self-justification that we ourselves already stand in the truth. “The core of this theology is that for us the truth can be had without the truth itself, because we are the truth itself, or at any rate, we are also the truth itself, in independence of the truth of God. This theology of life only needs to be made explicit as such and the whole of natural theology is in force in its basic idea” (II/1, 135-36 rev.).

For Barth, the question of truth cannot be answered without God’s help, nor even properly asked. Hence, the kind of access we might like to attribute to ourselves, as we do in other fields of knowledge, does not exist due to our sinful nature. All knowledge of God is rooted objectively and subjectively in the Holy God, who is set apart yet completely intimate to humanity.
Natural theology, as an expression of our desire for self-sufficiency, defends us against the miracle of grace, whereby God comes to us in our need to carry us to redemption, through guilt and death on the Cross, but in such a way that involves the subsequent surrender of precisely this self-sufficiency. Natural theology does not wish to allow this surrender. Instead it assumes that we have an independent status from God, standing objectively at the Archimedean point if you will, with no inadequacy. This natural theology is what Barth was schooled in, and what he attempted to break away from profoundly in 1916.
While grace “disrupts” us in order to liberate us, natural theology seeks to give us greater control. Natural theology is especially keen on using the language of grace, entailing grace as a choice that we can meet with utter poise. For we love nothing better than free gifts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this point well when wrote against the “cheap grace” of the German-Lutherans of his time, who felt that grace had no restrictions, and their obedience was completely irrelevant.
What Barth has against Brunner is that Brunner is formulating a natural theology that still seeks to explain grace as co-existing with nature, by which nature has its own self-grounded capacity for grace (at least in part). Nature cannot establish external conditions, especially on its own grounds, which grace must conform to. This would have grace cease to be free and sovereign. Instead, grace has the ability to reconstitute nature, as well as humanity itself, in order to have genuine fellowship with it. There is no autonomous capacity to choose revelation. Therefore, “natural theology (for all its good or bad intentions) not only reinforces human nature at its most unfortunate point, but also in the process fails to allow grace to be grace, revelation to be revelation, and God to be God.”
The only solution to the problem of subjectivity is to replace us with Jesus Christ as the respondent to grace. Barth’s theology always brings truth under Jesus Christ, especially as it regards our human existence. He is always “the missing center . . . Yet when he is restored to the center that is rightfully his, everything else falls into place.” Barth’s objectivism always entails subjectivism. And his “one-sidedness” always entails a “two-sidedness.” It is through Jesus Christ that this is accomplished - where God became Man because he was for Man, and responded to God as Man because he was for Man.


According to O’Donovan, Barth and Brunner agree that human beings are unique creatures due to the unique relationship that God has chosen to have in covenant with them. The imago Dei must describe the relational aspect of man in order to describe its uniqueness. They both realize that in order for the doctrine of the imago Dei to say anything about the relationship between God and humanity, it must identify with the Word of God. This identification exists between being created in the image of God and receiving one’s true being in that Word. It further instructs us into a sustained true being through grace. The imago Dei is thus the “life- and form- bestowing transcendent divine relationship in which man as man participates.”
Where Brunner and Barth differ is in their articulation of this relational aspect of humanity. Brunner believes that this relational being of humanity can be found in the human constitution as originally created by God. Barth opposes this and instead advocates a Christ-centered understanding of human being.
For Brunner, the formal aspect of the imago is a transcendental structure of human subjectivity. He understands a person to be an individual example of freedom, responsibility, and decision. As the personal identity has continuity in both the sinful nature and in the act of faith, so does this transcendental structure of human being. But this formal definition of a person becomes difficult for Brunner to sustain when he materially describes the formal aspect in terms of our various capacities to know God as He is in Himself, as well as His Word for us. As O’Donovan points out:

"His concept of person depends on this move to actuality for its ethical force, its power of communicating the uniqueness and superiority of human being. In this move as well resides the tension of law and Gospel, for these actual capacities of sinful man constitute, at one and the same time, his openness to God’s saving grace and the negative totality of his rebellious will."

Barth rejects Brunner’s idea that the concept of a formal image as transcendental subjectivity never arrives at the individual’s actual being, but instead only stops at his/her possible being. Barth can accept Brunner’s “understanding of person as individual being in its singular destiny established by God’s Word of election as long as God’s elective Word is His revealed Word in Jesus Christ and as long as the singular destiny established is actualized from its inception within the covenant of God’s gracious dealings.”
The continuity of personal identity, which transcends both sin and faith, is a neutral concept for Brunner that is entailed within in his transcendental structure. As such, humanity cannot have this structure, for there is nothing neutral in actual sinful humanity – there could never be! Instead, sinful humanity falls within the scope of faith whereby individuality is conformed to the redeeming Word of Christ. This conformity “is the being with which he was created and within which his unique destiny unfolds.” Thus the only exclusion that occurs is in the corruption and destruction of human being. Sin thus threatens humanity with “non-being,” “irrationality,” and “perdition.” The covenant of grace in the Incarnate Word of Jesus Christ safeguards the “actuality of each man” as promised, here and now. St. Paul testifies that Jesus Christ is the true “image of God, full and perfect, in whom there is no division of form and content.” The only uniqueness attributed to humanity is found in their participation within the humanity of Christ alone.
Barth further implies that his own Christ-centered understanding of human being is consistent with the Word of God’s election of humanity. Brunner’s transcendental structure abandons the theological and Christological realism that he wants to maintain. “Whereas [Barth’s] Christological formulation of person keeps the focus on God’s transcendent act, Brunner’s transcendental formulation shifts the focus to an immanent and abstract structure, losing sight of the covenantal foundation of human being.”
Finally, O’Donovan highlights the ethical consequence of this shift of focus:

"namely, a loss of universality in the application of the concept of person. Barth’s reply of 1934 draws out this consequence with passionate lucidity by pointing to those ‘children of Adam’ who, ‘as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions’, and so fall outside the category of self-determining subjectivity. His examples, ‘new-born children and idiots’, carry as timely evocations for us as for the German church of 1934. While his words then resonated in the abyss opened up by the German Christian Movement’s demand that the nation be protected against the unfit and inferior, so the same words now resonate in the abyss opened up by the demonstrated willingness of members of our society routinely to dispose of incompetent human life by technological means."