Barth on Prayer

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It is truly astonishing for many to find in such a voluminous theologian as Barth, who perhaps has the undeserved reputation of being obscure, sometimes abstract, tinged with existential thinking and also categorised as neo-orthodox by those on the right and the left (a sobriquet that has stuck in certain circles despite the huge interest in his work, at times in the most unusual quarters), that when we examine what he had to say on prayer, we encounter a deeply spiritual person not at all the dry theologian repristinating an ancient orthodoxy.

For Barth prayer was not an addendum to a vast corpus too dense for the common Christian but the heart and very centre of his contribution. At the same time the depth and breadth of his spiritual vision is infinitely accessible, whilst emphasising the privileged place of every child of God through grace. In his swansong Evangelical Theology- an Introduction, he is adamant that prayer is central not peripheral to all Christian work, “The first and basic act of theological work is prayer…it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer”, (1963:149). He had already said back in the early fifties that “Theological work must be that sort of act that has the manner and meaning of a prayer in all its dimensions, relationships and movements”, (CDIII/4, 102). Migliore (2002:101) observes that “Prayer for Barth is the primary Christian action and essential ingredient in all Christian witness and activity…ora et labora (means for Barth)…not that prayer comes chronologically before work and is afterward incidental to it, but that prayer is constitutive to all faithful Christian action”.

Barth saw theological work as a “struggle conducted amidst great distress” (ibid p. 148). This was certainly his lot in life as he had to contend with so much opposition from all quarters. He remarked concerning the tragedy of theological enquiry in his age that

The real catastrophe of modern protestant theology was not as it has often been represented. It was not that it retreated in face of the growing self-consciousness of modern education. It was not that it imperceptibly allowed itself to be told by philosophy and history and natural science what ‘the free investigation of the truth is’…the real catastrophe was that theology lost its object, revelation in all its uniqueness. And losing that, it lost the seed of faith with which it could remove mountains, even the mountains of modern humanistic culture”. (CD I/2:294).

That ‘seed of faith’ could only be nurtured by letting God be God and through submission to the “word of Christ” (Romans 3:4 & 10:17). Towards the end of his life in his series of lectures in the USA, Barth unequivocally stated that this can only be achieved by firstly being open to heavenly influences not “locked in a closed, barred, stuffy and unlit room” (ibid p. 150), and by this turning Godward, the theologian is in essence “turning to prayer” (ibid p. 151). “Prayer” he must surely have discovered in his dark moments is “the movement in which a man wishes and seeks to gain new clarity about the fact that ‘God is the One who rules” (ibid p. 152).  Barth’s transition from a Swiss village pastor to a theological professor at Gottingen was a time of uncertainty and in his correspondence with his friend Thurneysen, Barth recounted “Now Safenwil has been left behind and in place of it there is a very great remoteness, a strangeness, a mystery, a loneliness, a wasteland, sea, wind, waves” (Webster, 2000:30). But secondly, in this wasteland where one least expects to find Him, one also surely encounters not a thing but a person. All human thinking and speech cannot be just about God but should be addressed to God. One encounters so often in Barth, the second person intimate address to God, rather like Paul, who cannot help but slip in to prayer or praise. Thirdly, Barth recognised that any theologian who thinks that they can proceed in their quest “with complete confidence” on other people’s work is deluded. In theological work we have to “begin again at the beginning”, because we are dealing with “the living God Himself in His free grace” (ibid p. 155), and for this reason theological work has the character of “an offering in which everything is placed before the living God”. Otherwise we are condemned to a “hardening of the arteries, barrenness and stubborn fatigue” as against the “happy science” that he knew theology to be! Fourthly, ultimately, theological work becomes a prayer to the Holy Spirit, without whose influence the task loses its genuineness and Barth adds “Only in God’s hearing of this entreaty is theological work at any time a successful and useful work” (ibid p. 158).

In discussing the relationship of obedience to prayer Barth stated that “..prayer is the most intimate and effective form of Christian action…prayer is the true and proper work of the Christian”, (CD III/3, 265). He went on to maintain that we must avoid at all costs trying to classify and explain prayer under convenient rubrics or categories like “worship, prayer and thanksgiving” or “try to bring it under the one denominator of confession or penitence”. Christian prayer is a confession of our innate weakness.. “our utterly empty hands are the only offering which we can bring before God and spread before Him” (CD III/3, 267).  Prayer is therefore primarily petition according to Barth and this is a theme he will take up at some length as he discusses the place of Jesus Christ as the primary ‘suppliant’. Barth is also strongly doxological in his theology. He is famous for his modus operandi of thinking God’s thoughts after Him, nachdenken in the German text. Of course one would expect that someone who had so virulently attacked liberal cultural Christianity and appealed to let God be God in his bombshell commentary on Romans, would at the same time consistently follow a similar line in emphasising the wholly dependent nature of our relationship with the creator. The question arises “Why does God choose to work within the framework of petitionary prayer?” “Why does it seem that he does nothing apart from the co-operation of the church?”  (Ezekiel 20:30-31; Ephesians 1, 2, 5 & 6). Various theories of prayer may have some merit but they all “suffer from a certain artificiality, because they miss this simple and concrete fact, losing themselves in heights and depths where there is no place for the man who really prays, who is simply making a request” (CD III/3, 268). This is the essence of prayer for Barth. This is the basic common denominator. God is not an arm twister. He waits to see how genuine we are; how much we want what only He can give; how desperate we are; hence the parable of the importunate widow (Luke 18). In Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, he draws a picture of the master leaving the ancestral home of Durrisdeer for the last time. He is sad as he talks to the faithful family steward. “Ah! M’Kellar,” he said, “Do you think I have never a regret.” “I do not think,” said M’Kellar, “that you could be so bad a man unless you had all the machinery for being a good one.” “Not all,” said the master, “not all. It is there you are in error. The malady of not wanting.”  Barth too emphasises the same attitude that we must assume when he says (2002:17)

“Because He is our God in Jesus Christ, God himself prompts us to assume before him an attitude that seems, at first sight, to be rash and daring; he requires us to meet him with a certain boldness. ‘Thou hast made promises to us, thou hast commanded us to pray; and now I come, not with pious thoughts or because I like to pray (perhaps I do not like praying) and I say to thee what thou hast told me to say : help me in my necessity. Thou must do so, I am here.’ Luther is right : the position of a man who prays demands not only utter humility but also a bold and manly attitude. There is a good kind of humility, which consists in freely accepting that place, in relation to God, which is ours in Jesus. If we are certain of what we are doing, and if we do not approach God on the strength of our own good intentions, then freedom is ours as a matter of course”.

When Barth expounds all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (2002), he rightly points out the boldness and temerity of a person who actually dares to importune God, “asking Him to concern Himself with human affairs; here is the person who dares such imperative language” (2002:45). Leo Harris, the founder of the CRC Churches International (1976:17), concurs with this seemingly astonishing fact that “this is a fundamental of God’s dealings with man. First He shows us what we are in Christ, gives us the bold declarations of His grace, and tells us that if we will believe them, they will become a practical reality in our lives”. He used to call this the “law of faith”.

It is however in his strong emphasis on our being caught up in the prayer of Christ and His making common cause with us in our humanity that Barth is perhaps the most striking in his attitude to the prayer ministry of the Church. His highlighting of the fact that no prayer is a solitary act is expounded at length in his treatment of The Lord’s Prayer and the communal nature of that prayer. It is in that sense that we encounter Barth, the practical theologian here, although that is to do him another injustice, for his theology of prayer is of course rooted in his Christology, his Christological concentration. Hunsinger has posited as one of the dominant motifs of Barth’s theology the concept of what he calls ‘double agency’, where we discover a “relationship of asymmetry, intimacy, and integrity between God and the human being….a fellowship of mutual co inherence and mutual self-giving, mediated in and by Jesus Christ”, (1993:223). This is perhaps one of the most striking assertions of Barth, but one that should not surprise us as it is strongly rooted in an understanding of the Pauline revelation, something which he later developed in his Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV/3:2). Here we see a fully developed view of the believer as in Christ, where Barth claims in his exposition of the Glory of the mediator (Christus Victor) that

In this self-giving Christ and the Christian become and are a single totality, a fluid and differentiated but genuine and solid unity, in which He is with His people, the Lamb on the throne with the one who recognises in Him his Lord and King, the Head with the members of His body, the Prophet, Teacher and Master with His disciples, the eternal Son of God with the child of man who by Him and in Him, but only thus, only as His adopted brother, may be called and be the child of God ” (p 540).

It should be noted that the Chalcedonian pattern of Barth’s Christology is a thoroughly consistent strand throughout the dogmatics (eg CD III/3, 247), where as Thompson (1978:101) observed “The true deity is revealed in Jesus Christ alone as is the true humanity. In this unity and distinction Jesus Christ is true God and true man”. This is why for Barth when we speak of God and man we are not speaking in “abstraction or isolation, but in their relationship and unity in Jesus Christ- a relationship and unity eternally willed and decreed, determined by God alone in the mystery of His electing love in which he became and always is the God of man, God with and for man” (ibid: 99).

In Philip Yancey’s Prayer- Does it make any difference? (2006), he talks about prayer as “keeping company with God”. Perhaps Barth would have penned this rather as “God keeping company with us”, as this is the basis of Barth’s theology of prayer. We can pray because He in Christ is the first suppliant and we enter into His praying. In CD III/3, 270 Barth says that in prayer “the hearing really precedes the asking”, “prayer derives from what the Christian receives”. In other words true Christian prayer is essentially response. We could not pray without the initial divine initiative not just by the example of Christ but by his act of earthly intercession as our representative man, the second Adam, whose prayer continues in heaven (John 17, Hebrews 2 and 7).  Christian prayer is being associated with Christ’s intercession not just in the act of prayer but organically because we are “bone of his bone”. We are caught up in His prayer and He with us. Barth is once again thoroughly faithful to the biblical revelation here as this is the express teaching of Jesus in the upper room discourse and the letter to the Hebrews, where Christ’s High Priestly ministry is emphasised. If Jesus is truly human then there must be a ‘humanity of God’, which means that he prayed antecedently to us all and we can only pray not just because He has opened the way for us in terms of access (Ephesians 2:18), but in His person he introduced us to a new relationship with His father, as Barth says in commenting on Calvin’s catechism and his article on Jesus Christ,

Calvin goes so far as to say that we pray through his mouth (comme par sa bouche). Jesus Christ speaks by virtue of what he has been and what he has suffered in obedience and faithfulness to his Father; and we pray as it were through his mouth inasmuch as he enables us to draw near and be heard, and he intercedes for us. Thus, in truth, our prayer is already made even before we formulate it. When we pray we can only go back to that prayer which was uttered in the person of Jesus Christ and is constantly repeated because God is not without man“. (2002:14)

Because Christ was an obedient Son (Hebrews 2), Barth is saying He prays vicariously through our prayers, which we offer in the name of Jesus Christ. “God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays” (ibid).

This may seem to annul all human effort and importunity in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). However, this is an incredible spur to so many in Christian churches that struggle with feelings of inferiority and see prayer as throwing up a desperate plea to a distant and transcendent deity (CD III/3, 267, 282).  As Hayford (1977: 101) asserted “The incarnation shows that God has willed to work all redemptive operations through man; and the establishment of the church is the evidence that both the Father and the Son want that process to flow through that agency..”. Paul talks about our adoption in Romans 8. The ancient Romans often adopted heirs in order to carry on the family business. God has adopted us – firstly because he wants us in the family – he wants us before he wants our work, but then secondly he wants us to carry on the family business begun by the Lord Jesus Christ – being witnesses to the Kingdom of God and agents of it, as we work in love for the healing and rebirth of creation which groans too as it is in childbirth waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom. Bishop Graham Cray used a wonderful expression in his speaking tour of Australia back in 2005. The goad of the promised future stabs into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” This is exactly what Barth is saying: that in creation’s apparent futility and the believer’s evident frustration with our unfulfilled present in terms of the Kingdom of God, the Spirit is at work, bringing us to God in prayerful dependence. The Spirit guarantees that God is at both ends of the praying – in the asking and answering. In all of this the Spirit enables us to be carriers of the foretaste of the Kingdom and to be people of hope. This is Ladd’s (1985:32) “presence of the future” or the inbreaking of the reality of the present reign of Christ, the alreadybut not yet tension of life in this present age as we wait for the “glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:14). Barth affirms that Christ really is present now in His people (CD III/3, 272) and this is the foretaste of all that is most certainly to come. This is what gives such a strong impetus to our prayers, as we do not lack anything in Our Lord. “From God (the church) looks back and down upon all that is not yet ordered, all that is not yet solved, all that is not yet liberated, all the disturbances and obstructions and confusions and devastations….(but it knows, says Barth) in all the weakness and imperfection of its creaturely existence..that it can live in this Already, in the full presence and receiving of the divine gift and answer” (ibid, 272). In our present weakness we can ask for His Kingdom to come, because it is here already through the life and incarnation of the first true suppliant. Barth (2002:36) therefore affirms in his exposition of the Lord’s prayer and particularly the phrase “Thy Kingdom come”, that

“…saying (it) to God….presupposes that he who prays thus has some knowledge of that Kingdom, that life, that righteousness, that newness, that reconciliation; that these things are not without meaning for him. He must know also that wherever this prayer is offered the Kingdom has already come. Once again we are in the amazing position of those who pray ‘Our Father’ in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and those who are his. Thy Kingdom come is equivalent to ‘Thy Kingdom is already come; thou hast established it in our midst.’ ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17.21). Thou, God the Father, hast accomplished all things in Jesus Christ; in him thou hast reconciled the world to thyself!

Migliore (2002:112) cites Alan Torrance (1988:111) in bolstering  his assertion that Barth tends to focus on the kingly office of Christ rather than the priestly office of total identification with humanity (Hebrews 4:14-16) as in a prayer of cry, protest and lament. It is perhaps an ad hominem argument, as he comments on Barth’s personal circumstances and the fact that he did not share in the national shame and guilt of Germany as a theologian like Jurgen Moltmann did. Is this criticism warranted?  When one considers Barth’s solidarity with the Confessing Church in Germany, his refusal to give the Nazi Salute before his lectures and his subsequent dismissal from his post and exile to his native Switzerland; his serving in the Swiss Army to defend his country; his famous sermons to the prisoners in Basel prison; without mentioning his pivotal role in the Barmen declaration and the poignancy of his post-war lectures in Bonn after the war, the actual content of his Dogmatics refutes this critique as baseless. Barth strongly emphasises Jesus’ oneness and unity with us in our humanity by portraying Him as the first “suppliant”. Surely to pray the Lord’s prayer is to take up a posture of desperation, that all is not right with the world and that unless the Kingdom of God is established, injustice will prevail (CD III/272-273). Barth can hardly be described as emphasizing exclusively the kingly office of Christ. Jesus’ position as a suppliant as portrayed by Barth is surely to see him as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) identifying with those who are downtrodden and this picture that Barth paints for us is totally consistent with Hebrews 5:7-10 (CD III/3, 275).   McGregor summarises CD III/3, 265-288 (2003) seeing the intercessory ministry of Christ not only associated with the prophetic and high priestly and heavenly function/ministry of Christ, but also primarily as Barth himself depicts it, with the human supplication of Jesus. Because he stooped to share our common life, He still shares our humanity and we are, as a consequence, caught up in the reality of that life lived before God.

For Barth the gates are opened and we are enclosed in His asking. We may not be able to continue, amplify, or complete Christ’s intercession, but we can give “voice and expression to the groaning of creation” (CD III/3, 279. cp Romans 8:22-27). So Barth is adamant that prayer is not a magnificent solitary act in which a Christian believer displays his spiritual devotion to God apart from any union with his Saviour. The act of asking has to be seen in the light of the divine gift and answer of an asking which is done in this order. We ask because He asked. Our asking is only possible because it is caught up in His asking. Despite his reservations Migliore says that “In line with his characteristic christocentric emphasis, prayer for Barth is a participation in the praying of Jesus Christ. He is the supreme pray-er, the great suppliant….He is the true human petitioner” (2002:99). As a result God allows Himself to be moved by our petition; He responds to our cry.

Perhaps Barth was ahead of his time in speaking of an “openness in God”, as he did not see His immutability as a prison to His resolve and will and action, that He was living in splendid isolation unable to respond the pleas of humanity. God is not alone declares Barth (CD III/3, 285) in His trinitarian being and in CD III/4 penned a year later he takes up the theme of prayer this time in the context of a discussion on ethics and The Command of God the Creator and Humanity’s freedom before God, to say unequivocally that we cannot make excuses and hide behind our pride and say nothing, because after all “What difference does it make?” We pray because it is permitted by God….the permission then becomes a command…..need is never the basis nor anxiety. Our perceived distance from God and our own sense of unworthiness will not necessarily motivate us to pray. Permission becomes a command and order and therefore a necessity. Barth says the real issue is not that we don’t know how to pray but that we don’t want to, because we try to evade the judgement and consequences of not living by His grace. “When the bolt of disobedience is pushed back anyone can pray” (CD III/4, 97).  All masks and camouflages must come off (CD III/4, 98).  As Henry Nouwen says “To pray is to walk in the full light of God, and to say simply, without holding back, ‘I am human and you are God’ ” (1985:54)

Barth’s theology of prayer is so relevant for those of us engaged in pastoral ministry. It is immensely practical and is truly theology for and in service of the church. Prayer is not poor, distant and pitiable subjects of a transcendent deity hoping to somehow get his attention. It is rather that the deity, in our case God in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19), has totally assumed our lowly position. The writer to the Hebrews (5:7) says that “during the days of His life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” and was “heard because of His reverent submission”. The disciple is not greater than his master. We pray because He prayed. No other reason is necessary. Ora et labora, in that order, is the church’s rule of life. If as Barth maintains “Theological work must really and truly take place in the form of a liturgical act” (1963:163), then as Saliers says (2002:XIX), we are being called to return to God in prayer and worship, which is the arena in which true Christian theology belongs.

See too:

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

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. III/4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV/3.2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975).

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

Barth, K. Evangelical Theology, (London, UK: Collins, 1963).

Barth, K. The Humanity of God, (Louisville, Westminister, John Knox Press, 1960).

Barth, K. Prayer: Karl Barth, 50th Anniversary Edition, Ed, D. E. Saliers, (Louisville:Westminister, John Knox Press, 2002).

Prayer Karl Barth


Dorrien, G. Theology without Weapons, the Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2000).

Harris, L. Five Keys of Authority, (Adelaide: Crusade Publications, 1976).

Hayford, J. Prayer is invading the impossible, (Plainfield: Logos International, 1977).

Hunsinger, G.  How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Hunsinger, G. Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000)

Ladd, G. The Gospel of the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).

Migliore, D. ‘Freedom to Pray: Karl Barth’s Theology of Prayer’, Prayer: Karl Barth, 50th Anniversary Edition, Ed, D. E. Saliers, (Louisville:Westminister, John Knox Press, 2002).

Nouwen, H. With Open Hands, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985).

Thompson, J. Christ in Perspective, Christological Perspectives in the Theology of Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).

Torrance, A. ‘Christian Experience and Divine Revelation in the Theologies of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth’,Christian Experience in Theology and Life, Ed, I. Marshall, (Edinburgh: Rutherford House Books, 1988).

Yancey, P. Prayer: Does it make any difference, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006).

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