‘When the curtain is rung down on the twentieth century and the annals of its church history are complete, there will surely be one name that will tower above all others in the field of theology-that of Karl Barth. In him a church Father has walked among us, a theologian of such creative genius, prodigious productivity, and pervasive influence that his name is already being associated with that elite group of Christian thinkers that includes Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin’ .
How does one begin to critically assess the work of a giant like Karl Barth? The late John Webster (2000:1) claimed that he was ‘the most important Protestant theologian since Schleiermacher, and the extraordinary descriptive depth of his depiction of the Christian faith puts him in the company of a handful of thinkers in the classical Christian tradition’. This was fulsome praise. Evangelicals, however, have struggled with his theology and are in the main undecided about his contribution. Bolich (1980:59) observed over thirty five years ago that ‘The name of Karl Barth invites a variety of emotional as well as intellectual responses’ amongst Evangelical Christians, for example Bernard Ramm, famous amongst Evangelicals for his popular text on Hermeneutics ‘Protestant Biblical Interpretation’ amongst others  stated ‘Barth’s theology is a restatement of Reformed theology written in the aftermath of the Enlightenment but not capitulating to it’.  One could claim that Barth, in response to the claims of modernism, made an impassioned plea (over against the idea that we are masters of our destiny and we are at the centre of our universe), that though man may feel he can objectify everything, he cannot objectify God! God objectifies us! We come under His scrutiny. In was in this sense one could also suggest that Barth made a lasting contribution by calling into question the whole enlightenment project, which was the epistemological basis for modernism.
In this assessment I shall limit my discussion to Barth’s understanding of revelation.  As Lane (1992:200) observed of the early period in his theological journey, Barth ‘came to see the bankruptcy of liberalism, which exalted man at the expense of God, which studied man’s religion rather than God’s revelation’. If liberalism, he reasoned, could serve as a theological platform for the militarism and chauvinism of his until-then-esteemed German teachers, then it was a defective theology.  His ‘bombshell’ commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans (first published in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919) was the dawning of this realisation and the repudiation of the bankruptcy of liberal theology. Galli (2000:24) observed that ‘liberal theology had domesticated God into the patron saint of human institutions and values’. This commentary ‘rocked the theological community. Liberal theologians gasped in horror and attacked Barth furiously, for in this and later works, he assaulted their easy optimism’. He later colourfully described this experience of becoming the enfant terrible amongst his theological peers in his now famous words:
“As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror, he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone.” 
He rightly saw theology at that stage in his journey as being too closely intertwined with the then current reigning social, political and anthropological philosophies. He now had a vision of God as “wholly other”, of whom we can have absolutely no natural knowledge. God is the unknown who is disclosed to us exclusively in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Grenz and Olson (1992:75) claimed that
‘The strength of Barth’s theological method lies in its total reliance on revelation. Because of this, his theology is truly “theological”, being free from dependence on philosophical systems or cultural, intellectual fads. Consequently, Barth’s theology is able to take a prophetic stance toward the world, a strength clearly demonstrated in his early denunciation of Nazism as a form of idolatry arising out of natural theology’.
Just as Kierkegaard had roundly condemned the Danish state Lutheran church of his time for bowing to the prevailing culture and was consequently no longer capable of speaking into its life, so the post First World War German state church had been so closely linked to the ‘establishment’, it had no voice and had lost its way. 
Against this backdrop of resistance to popular culture (especially later as he confronted the Nazi regime), Barth forged his Christocentric model of revelation. . Torrance summarized Barth’s argument ‘If the God we have actually come to know through Jesus Christ is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his own eternal and undivided being, then what are we to make of an independent natural theology that terminates, not upon the being of the triune God – i.e., upon God as he really is in Himself – but upon some Being of God in general’? (1980:87-91). A proper understanding of God in Jesus Christ will call into question all our presuppositions and assumptions and will of necessity demonstrate the bankruptcy of any prior knowledge we might have had. Barth himself said of God’s revelation in Christ ‘He is the light of God and the revelation of God’. (1961:97). Barth declared in his magnum opus of Church Dogmatics ‘God’s revelation is God’s own direct speech…., from the divine I which confronts man in this act in which it says Thou to him’. Christian faith is absolutely unique. Bowden and Richmond (1967:23) reinforced this stance in claiming that ‘..theologies which allow that man can know something of God through rational speculation, through disciplined thought and reflection, are rejected as idolatrous’. Barth stated categorically (over against the Schleiermacherian ‘liberal protestant’ idea of the experience of a believer as being the focal point of revelation) that
‘Revelation in the Christian sense is (amongst other things) 1. A revelation which man needs not relatively, but absolutely, for his very life and being as a man, a revelation without which he would not be a man at all, a revelation which decided being and non-being: in other words, one which man cannot please himself whether he accepts or not.’
Also in very Pauline language taken almost directly from I Corinthians chapter 2 he said
‘…Revelation in the Christian sense means the unveiling of certain facts that are fundamentally hidden from man, things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived..’. …’…. Revelation in the Christian sense is not an object which man can observe from outside; it is rather one which takes possession of man, seizes hold of him and calls him to action. It is anything but merely speculative. …. …revelation in the Christian sense is the self-revelation of the creator of all that is, the self revelation of the Lord of all Being. It is not an immanent, this worldly revelation, but comes from outside man and the cosmos. It is a transcendent revelation’. 
Conversely, Grenz and Olson (1992:75-77) argued that this strength possibly becomes Barth’s greatest weakness. ‘If there are no intelligible bridges connecting theology with other disciplines or with common human experience, how can Christian belief appear to outsiders as anything but esoteric?’ But Barth denied that we can know the nature of God by starting with man’s psychic or historical experience. According to Barth, God cannot be known or discovered through human attempts at discovering Him – whether those be through observing the world and making inferences about the possibility or probability of God’s existence, or through human reason’s reflecting on the concept of ‘God’ as a Perfect Being, etc. The result of these natural theologies is a self-created god in our own image, an idol. Instead, proper theology, he argues, must solely begin from the place where God has spoken, where He has revealed Himself – in Jesus Christ. Barth reflected a radical confidence that he could find in the Bible the unadulterated truth about the nature of God and any other truth worth knowing. In 1920, Barth declared that God ‘must be true to himself; he must be and remain holy. He cannot be grasped, brought under management, and put to use; he cannot serve. He must rule. He must himself grasp, seize, manage, use. He can satisfy no other needs than his own’.
Trevor Hart (2000:45) referred to Barth’s conception of Christian revelation as dynamic not static: ‘We risk falling under the dangerous illusion that God’s ‘Word’ …is something which has, as it were, become an earthly commodity and been handed over into human custody and control, domesticated and packaged for responsible human use….God cannot be confiscated or put to work even by the church’.
Barth’s view of Christian revelation differed radically from the prevailing liberal view. Hart (2000:41) again emphasized that for Barth ‘Christian faith and speech are essentially response and not essentially source. God produces faith and not vice versa’. Barth stuck to his guns despite opposition that came too from an unexpected quarter. In his notorious controversy with Emil Brunner on the subject of ‘Natural Theology’, Barth retorted ‘Nein!’ (no!). He could take no interest in a theology, which claimed that man in himself possessed some capacity to know God. Man could not know God other than as God freely made Himself known in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Brunner, on the other hand felt that ‘human nature was constituted in such a way that there was a ready made point of contact for divine revelation’. Between God and man there is for Barth not an analogy of being (analogia entis) but an analogy of relation (analogia relationis). Erickson, along with many others, felt that Barth’s response in this matter was an overreaction (1998:190). But to do justice to Brunner it must be said that he held that ‘The God of the Bible has nothing to do with the philosophical concept of God, because He is not thought as idea, but apprehended in His historical revelation of Himself’. (1936:54). He was, however, quite scathing of Barth’s understanding of revelation: ‘It seems to have escaped Barth’s notice that neither Luther nor Calvin has denied the existence of a revelatio generalis, and consequently of a natural knowledge of God; that both of them made a distinction between that word of God in which man is created, and of which, even after the Fall, he knows something, even though it be inadequate; and on the other hand, the word of God in Christ in which the believer learns anew that God is his creator’, (1936:116).
To take up Erickson (1998:181) regarding the question of the underlying assumptions in the matter of general revelation, he observed ‘When those who hold to a natural theology assume that there is a congruity between the human mind and the creation about us ….they assiduously avoid paradoxes and logical contradictions…a paradox is a sign of intellectual indigestion; had it been more completely chewed, it would have disappeared’!
This was the great rupture between these two theologians.
Barth was emphatic in insisting that we cannot construct a path to God. We have to come to Him on His terms. As Paul said in Romans 11:33-36: ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen’.
Thompson (1974:120-123) weighed in in Barth’s defence ‘Barth’s position here has been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. For example, his is considered primarily as a negative approach denying that man by the light of reason, nature and history can attain to god, whereas what he is basically concerned to do is to affirm the truth of God in Jesus Christ’. Thompson also affirmed that creation’s light is a reflected light similar to ‘cat’s eyes’, which exist and have a ‘light’ but only shine when lit up by the light from elsewhere (a motor-car etc.). The heavens do declare the glory of God, but only in the light and by the power of reconciliation’.It is interesting that while Erickson (1998:195) disputed Barth’s position on general revelation as untenable, he admitted that ‘Paul asserts..that humans do not clearly perceive God in the general revelation’. Sin has obviously marred the witness. Creation is subject to futility and the witness is ‘somewhat refracted’. One cannot help but think that, despite what Erickson claims is his poor exegesis of passages like Psalm 19 and Romans 1, Barth would have exclaimed ‘Exactly, that is what I have been saying all along-namely that the one and only true revelation of God is in Christ’. The apostle affirms this in his second letter to the Corinthians chapter 4 verse 6 ‘For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’. Erickson (1998:195) (in his usual even handed manner) seemed to nevertheless backtrack here ‘Thus in Paul’s mind the possibility of constructing a full-scale natural theology seems seriously in question’.
So it was in his ‘Romerbrief’ that Barth was concerned to show that we can’t align ourselves with God in the ‘natural’. This is of course entirely in harmony with Pauline theology in this respect. ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’. (1 Corinthians 2:14). ‘The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God’. (Romans 8:6-8). There was always, of course, a strong Reformed/Calvinist element in Barth’s theology, which is hard to dismiss. At a series of lectures Barth gave toward the end of his life in 1962 at Princeton Theological Seminary, it is obvious that he had not budged on this issue. He said on that occasion
‘Theology (cannot) choose for its object and theme – in place of God- human existence or faith or man’s spiritual capacity (even if this should include a special religious capacity, a “religious a priori”….Theology…knows that ..God claims and arouses man’s entire spiritual capacity, more, in fact, than his spiritual capacity. But theology is interested in all this because it is primarily and comprehensively interested in God himself. The dominant presupposition of its thought and speech is God’s own proof of his existence and sovereignty. If theology wished to reverse this relationship and instead of relating man to God, related God to man, then it would surrender itself to a new Babylonian captivity. It would become the prisoner of some sort of anthropology or ontology that is an underlying interpretation of existence, of faith, or of man’s spiritual capacity’. 
Barth remained consistent.
Berkouwer (1955:21-33) outlined Barth’s offensive against Natural Theology.
‘..it is clear that Barth considers natural theology to be one of the most dangerous enemies of church and theology, an enemy in which everything is at stake’ (ibid. p.22). ‘He does not believe that one first knows something about revelation and then learns to know the revelation in Christ as a special form of that revelation. On the contrary, one must know about Jesus Christ in order to know anything about revelation’ (ibid. P.22).
In general revelation there is no ultimate authority. It is ‘creaturely revelation’. It is about the King, not the King Himself. The remarkable sympathy for natural theology, Barth maintains, is because there is in man no innate receptivity for grace per se. This again is very Pauline in language and thinking- Galatians 3:22-23. ‘But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed’. This was the basic tenet of the reformers- that we could not save ourselves. We were helpless to do anything and the law, Paul says, held us as prisoners, locked up until faith should be revealed. So one could argue that Barth is just being consistent with Reformed theology. Berkouwer (1955:27) reiterated this when he said ‘..there is no receptivity in man for grace. Because man is by nature shut up to the grace of God, therefore he seeks some way to knowledge apart from grace, in short, another way to God’. This is, in Berkouwer’s opinion, opposition to grace.
All this could be construed as very one-sided thinking. However, Johnson (1997:80) has cautioned against inflexibility with regard to this vexed question. He believed that ‘Theistic anthropology…points to humanity’s fitness for a theonomous as opposed to an autonomous existence. True, (he conceded) none of these disciplines is competent per se and by itself to disclose the true humanity that resides in Jesus Christ. But in principle each of these disciplines could contribute to theological understanding’.
This stance is perhaps Karl Barth’s lasting legacy to the church. Perhaps in retrospect his narrowness on the question of Christian Revelation left him open to charges of inflexibility. However, this issue was the pivotal battle for Barth. If he ceded ground here, the door would have been opened to allow for a weakening of the unique revelation of God in Christ. The school that had nurtured him had revealed itself as utterly powerless to transform lives. There could be no compromise. In this sense he stood with the reformers and with Martin Luther. Here he stood. He could do no other.
A Letter from Karl Barth to Japanese friends
‘In all circumstances, theology is a beautiful, a joyful task. It may and should be that today also for you. I say this to you after I have tried to study theology for more than fifty years. When I began doing this as a young man, I was often worried and morose in my work. Later, I could see that if one grasps it rightly, one is led by theology to a place that-despite all difficulties and tiresome work that awaits one there-is a bright place. Here with all one’s longing to see “face to face” (I Cor. 13:13) one can live-for oneself and for others. My dear Japanese friends, if you also find yourselves led to this bright place in your theological activity, then you have rightly understood me, and I think that your work also will be a sowing of living seed among both Christians and non-Christians of your land and people.
Theology, however, requires free persons. As a young theologian, I belonged to a “school.” It was not a bad school; I still think gratefully of my former teachers. But I later had to free myself from their school not only because there were some things in their instruction which were not entirely right, but simply because it was a school. And now I would not want the result of my life to be the formation of a new school. I am in the habit here of telling everyone who will listen that I myself in any case am no “Barthian.” The reason is that after having learned some things, I would like to remain free to continue to learn. You understand what I am saying to you: Concern yourself as little as possible with my name! Because there is only one interesting name, whereas the promotion of all other names can only lead to false bonds and can only provoke boring jealousy and obduracy in others. Do not take a single sentence from me untested. Instead, measure each of them by the Word of God who alone is true and who is judge and supreme teacher of us all. You understand me rightly if you allow yourselves to be led by what I say to what the Word of God says. Good theologians do not live in a house of ideas, principles, and methods. They stride through all such houses in order to come out again and again into the open. They remain on the way. They have the distant high mountains and the infinite sea of God before their eyes, and just for that reason and in closest proximity they surely also have their fellow human beings-the good and the evil, the fortunate and the unfortunate, the Christian and the non-Christian, the Eastern and the Western-to whom they may be witnesses in all modesty’ .
 J. Livingston, An Introduction to Karl Barth (no longer accessible on the internet)
 B. Ramm, et al. Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House, 1967) Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, A Textbook of Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker Book House, 1970).
 B. Ramm, After Fundamentalism, (San Francisco, USA: Harper and Row, 1983), 14; emphasis his.
 It is not in the scope of this present discussion, however, to discuss the relationship of this understanding to the Trinity (Revealer, Revelation and Revealedness) and it’s Christological basis.
 See below- Barth’s letter to some Japanese friends. ‘As a young theologian, I belonged to a “school.” It was not a bad school; I still think gratefully of my former teachers. But I later had to free myself from their school not only because there were some things in their instruction which were not entirely right, but simply because it was a school’.
 K. Barth, Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen, Deutschland: …, 1927), IX.; cited in P. Lehrnann, ‘The Changing Course of a Corrective Theology’, Theology Today (October, 1956), 334.
 ‘He reaffirmed his rejection of natural or historical ‘points of contact’ and…his emphasis on ‘God alone’ and ‘Jesus Christ alone’ over against the association of Hitler and German national destiny, culture and race with the purposes and revelation of God’. D. Ford, ‘Karl Barth’ In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Edited by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford, England:Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 31.
 Thompson summarises Barth’s position ‘Religion (including the Christian) is, according to Barth, the human attempt to reach a god and worship him. Revelation, on the other hand, abolishes this false religion of the natural man and at the same time by the justification and sanctification of man by grace elevates religion to its true nature. The truth or falsity of religion and religions outside the Christian sphere must be judged by this standard. Since Jesus Christ is Lord of all in reconciliation we may expect true words from any sphere yet they can be known as such only in and through the same Lord’. J. Thompson, Christ in Perspective, Christological Perspectives in the Theology of Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 190.
 K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1/1 (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 304.
 J. Bowden & J. Richmond (eds.) ‘Theology of the Word of God’, in A Reader in Contemporary Theology, (London, England: SCM Press, 1967), 23
Barth, ‘The Christian Understanding of Revelation’, in: Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946-52, London, England: SCM Press, 1954), pp. 205-12, 214.
Here in perhaps the strongest language, Barth nails his colours to the mast, and states unequivocally that God is the originator of all Christian revelation.
 K. Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, (London, UK: Harper and Row, 1957), 74.
 See G. Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology, (Louisville, Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Knox Press 2000), 106-130 .
 A. McGrath, Christian Theology, (Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 192. Passages such as Psalm 19, Romans 1 & 2, Acts 14:15-17 and 17:22-31 support this thesis.
 E. Brunner, God and Man, (London, England: SCM Press, 1936), 54.
 Brunner also cogently argued that ‘In spite of their interest in a clear distinction between nature and grace, the Reformers, without exception, avoided this exaggeration. (of comparing the ‘crude natural knowledge’ against a more ‘perfect spiritual knowledge’) They did indeed strictly limit the value of natural knowledge of God, but they never denied its existence. For they knew well that this denial must also involve the denial of sin’. Ibid., p. 116.
 K. Barth, Evangelical Theology an Introduction, (London, UK: Collins, 1963), 14.
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