A brief summary of Karl Barth’s break with liberal theology.

Image result for karl Barth and the philosophersIn a sharp exchange with Rudolph Bultmann in the late nineteen twenties Karl Barth caustically exclaimed ‘It is….a fact that I have come to abhor profoundly the spectacle of theology constantly trying above all to adjust to the philosophy of its age, thereby neglecting its own theme’.[1]

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) saw the Bible as a useful source to be ‘used in moral questions and employed as a manual for religion’, an interesting source book with value for a given society but not as a witness to God’s revelation as Barth progressively came to see it.[2]

We can see that in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) this was taken further as, on the other hand, he ‘hoped to find God not in nature as its aloof designer, but in the ‘idea’ in the meaning that lies behind the process of the human story as a whole[3]. Aiken (1956:72) stated that Hegel’s program constituted the first ‘thorough going attempt to view all philosophical problems and concepts, including the concept of reason itself, in essentially historical terms’. Reality is active and developing. In a sense, Hegel accepted the critique of metaphysics and attempted a reconstruction of theology. Classical theology has merits but needs reformulating. But others, like Tony Campolo, in his book  Partly Right: Learning from the Critics of Christianity (Thomas Nelson, 2008) have questioned Hegel for also perpetuating the myth of Germanic superiority- a kind of ethnic theology in which he ‘..spun out a… theory of human history that seemed to synthesise all knowledge and led many to think that the middle class of the Germanic peoples was the bearer of all that was good, true and beautiful in the world’.[4]

In order to understand the depth of the crisis that engulfed Barth’s life engendering his famous repudiation of liberal theology, which was being brought to birth 100 years ago with the sound of the guns on the Western Front booming away in the background, we need to remind ourselves of two particular occasions as he grappled firstly with the endorsement of Kaiser Wilhelm’s war policy in the manifesto that was signed by many of his old professors at the outbreak of the first world war and the subsequent publication of the first edition of his Romerbrief in 1919.  Secondly,much later in 1934, in opposition to the growing stranglehold on freedom of religious expression and the blurring of distinctions between church and state, he almost single-handedly authored the now famous ‘Barmen Declaration’ [5], which resulted in his banishment from his teaching post in Bonn and as a consequence exile in Switzerland. We need to realise how much Hegelian thought and philosophy had underpinned German bourgeois culture (Campolo, 1985:44-47). The implications of this wedding of Christian Theology to the march of (to a great extent) Prussian history [6] and its reformulation by Hegel’s abstract concepts as Grenz and Olson (1992:38) observe, comes at a great price: ‘Christian doctrine could be shielded from the attack of enlightenment rationalism only by moving its truth content beyond history as it is taken up and transformed into philosophy’.

Grenz and Olson (1992:39) also suggest that while Kantset forth ethics or morality as the focal point of the special religious dimension’ and that ‘Hegel moved the focus to the intellectual or speculative realm’, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) elevated the intuitive life with his emphasis on religion constituting the idea of dependence or feeling i.e. the inward, experiential and personalistic nature of faith. He defined this feeling as ‘a sense and taste for the infinite’ (Clements, 1993:589). ‘For Schleiermacher’ Clements adds, ‘the subject matter of theology is not directly, the divine reality itself, but always the human religious consciousness of the divine presence in which all things consist and cohere’ (1993:590). In a nutshell, as Grenz and Olson observe, his project was ‘to base theology on human experience- to show that religion is rooted in and even identical with an experience essential to humanity’.

Kant based knowledge of God on practical reason; Hegel on a new speculative rationalism that detects the march of Absolute Spirit through history and lastly Schleiermacher sought to provide an alternative approach through intuition (Grenz and Olson, 1992:43). This latter project of Schleiermacher is strangely similar to the ‘ad hoc’ approach to spirituality in post-modernism. In this sense, perhaps, Schleiermacher’s influence has percolated through to post-modernity; liberal theology in the guise of a ‘smorgasbord’ ‘do-it-yourself’ spirituality persists today. Eclecticism is one of the major tenets of post-modernists.[7] Schleiermacher would, in all probability, have not approved of this state of affairs. However, this is where his theology was inevitably going to lead. Barth felt that he would never have endorsed the ‘manifesto’. But the end result of his project was to allow for subjectivity to be the ruling maxim. But of course the greatest flaw and danger in Schleiermacher’s theology, as Barth pointed out (and this is where he parted company with him) was its incipient anthropocentrism. Barth himself said in 1946 ‘Nobody can say today whether we have really overcome his influence or whether we are still at heart children of his age’ (1973:426). In a sense, Barth’s whole constructive theology was written in the light of these antecedents, and we do not truly understand him unless we come to grips with this hugely important backdrop to his life’s work.


[1] R. Bultmann, in Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922-1966, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1981), 38.

‘Only when a theological faculty undertakes to say, or at least points out the need for saying, what the others rebus sic stantibus (in these circumstances) dare not say, or dare not say out loud, only when it keeps reminding them that a chaos, though wonderful, is not therefore a cosmos, only when it is a question mark and an exclamation point on the farthest rim of scientific possibility—or rather, in contradistinction to the philosophical faculty, beyond the farthest rim—only then is there a reason for it’. K. Barth, ‘The Word of God and the Task of the Ministry’, in The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (Peter Smith, 1978), 194. However Hesselink cautions ‘All theological systems rely to some extent on philosophical foundations. Augustine rested on Plato, Aquinas on Aristotle, Luther on Ockham, Calvin on Scotus..’ (1983:33).

[2] Barth rebuked this kind of arrogance and utilitarian use of scripture ‘Anyone who thinks that he can approach the Bible so certain of what he wants, with such sovereignty as was characteristic of the time, will undoubtedly have to wake up one day to the fact that he cannot be content with the Bible as he used to be. Indeed, he may not be satisfied with it at all.’  K. Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1973), 116.

[3] (Grenz and Olson 1992:33).

[4] It is a known fact of history where that worldview led- to the myth of Prussian superiority and ultimately the Third Reich and the absolutism of the Nazi war machine and its belief in the triumph of the so called Aryans!

[5] With copious amounts of coffee in a hotel room one afternoon!

[6] ‘..the historicising of  Christianity, its subordination to the time of this world, is its great betrayal, while the modern theologians of this historical Christianity simply perpetuate and advocate that betrayal- ‘Bismarck-religion’, Overbeck called it’. T. F. Torrance, Karl Barth an Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, (SCM, London, 1962) 42.

[7] ‘Postmoderns contend that we can no longer reasonably hold out the prospect of discovering the one, universal symbolic world that unites humanity at a level deeper than that of our apparent differences. Instead, they say, we must come to grips with the realization that we inhabit a globe consisting of “multiple realities”. Different groups of peoples construct different “stories” about the world they encounter. These different languages, in turn, facilitate different ways of experiencing life’.   S. J. Grenz, A Primer on Post-Modernism, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1996), 42-43.

Aiken, H. The Age of Ideology, (New York, Mentor Books, 1956).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. 2/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, Eerdmans, 2002).

Barth, K. The Epistle to the Romans, (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1933).

Bromiley, G.W. Historical Theology, an Introduction, (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 2000).

Bultmann, R. in Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922-1966, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1981).

Clements, K. W. (Ed), Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1987).

Grenz, S. J. A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996)

Grenz, S.J. and Olson, R.E. 20th Century Theology. God and the World in a Transitional Age, (Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: IVP, 1992).

Hesselink, I. J. On Being Reformed, (Ann Arbor, Servant Books, 1983).

Hicks, P. Evangelicals and Truth A Creative Proposal for a Postmodern Age, (Apollos, Leicester, 1998).

Sim, S. (ed), The Icon Critical Dictionary of Postmodern Thought, (Icon Books, Cambridge, 1998).

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