John Webster on Barth in 2000

john-websterBelow is the late John Webster’s article on Barth in the 2000 edition of  the New Dictionary of Theology, when he was Professor of Systematic Theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Canada.

Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. I. (2000) – New dictionary of theology (electronic ed., pp. 76–80). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

 Barth, Karl (1886–1968). The most significant theologian of the twentieth century. His multi-volume Church Dogmatics (CD) constitutes the weightiest contribution to Protestant theology since Schleiermacher.


Born into a Swiss theological family, Barth studied in Berne, Berlin, Tübingen and Marburg under some of the leading teachers of the day, notably Harnack and Herrmann, and after a brief period working for the journal Die christliche Welt (The Christian World) and as an assistant pastor in Geneva, he became a village pastor at Safenwil in the Aargau from 1911–21. Over the course of his ministry there Barth became increasingly dismayed with the resources of his liberal theological education, and his gradual rediscovery of Scripture as revelation eventually led to his explosive commentary on Romans. From 1921–30 he taught in Göttingen and Münster, played a leading role in the co-called ‘dialectical theology’ movement, and published very widely, including an abortive prolegomena volume Christian Dogmatics. After moving to Bonn, Barth began the CD, and became increasingly involved in opposition to Hitler, giving substantial theological weight to the Confessing Church, notably at the Barmen Synod in 1934. This led to his dismissal, and appointment to a chair in his native Basel, where he remained for the rest of his career and retirement, and where the several volumes of the (finally unfinished) CD were written.

Decisive for an understanding of his earlier thought is his eventual rejection of the liberal heritage of his theological mentors. Along with his fellow-pastor, Eduard Thurneysen (1888–1974), Barth became increasingly dissatisfied with the historico-critical method as a way of handling Scripture. Combined with a reading of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Franz Overbeck (1837–1905), Barth’s rejection of liberal constructions of the Christian faith led to a renewed emphasis on the eschatological, supernatural element of Christianity. His refusal of any synthesis between the church and culture was given a further decisive twist under the influence of Christoph Blumhardt’s (1842–1919) radical Christian socialism, and of thinkers such as Hermann Kütter (1863–1931) and Leonhard Ragaz (1868–1945). The fruits of these profound mutations in theological outlook are to be found in Barth’s sermons and occasional writings during the First World War, but above all in The Epistle to the Romans.

Commentary on Romans

First published in 1919 and then completely rewritten for a second edition in 1922, the commentary is not so much an exegesis as a sustained and intense reflection on what Barth would later call ‘the Godness of God’. Into the book Barth poured all his discontent with the synthesis of God and man which he found in the liberal religious ideal, and emphasized the radical disjunction between God and man in which God became man’s interrogator, the one who initiates a crisis in the continuity of human history. Both the content and the style of the book are at times apocalyptic, and it attracted heavy criticism from the academic establishment. Nevertheless, Barth, now a professor, continued his assault on the heart-lands of liberalism. He followed his work on Romans with expositions of 1 Corinthians 15 (1924) and of Philippians (1927), and in a famous published debate with Harnack in 1923 criticized the historico-critical method (which for Harnack was the expression of disciplined inquiry into objective truth) for its failure to treat Scripture as a revelation which disturbs. An early collection of essays, The Word of God and the Word of Man, develops Barth’s hostility to human religion, and similarly his published lectures from the 1920s demonstrate how radical was his confrontation with what he understood as the theology of subjectivity, as in his Göttingen lectures on Schleiermacher from 1923–4 and in the slightly later Münster lectures on ethics (1928–9).


Towards the end of the 1920s Barth began serious work on dogmatics, and his Christian Dogmatics in Outline was published in 1927. Barth later came to see this volume as a halfway house between the writings of the earlier 1920s and the CD. Whilst more constructive than the earlier ground-clearing writings, it retained vestiges of liberal Protestant theological method, which Barth only finally corrected through intensive study of Anselm. It was through his reading of Anselm, partly in debate with the philosopher Heinrich Scholz (1884–1956), that Barth left behind the ‘dialectical theology’ of his earlier period, and was able to expand a more solid basis for dogmatics than had been afforded either by the theologians of the religious consciousness or by his own eschatological and frequently aggressive rejection of their work. Barth’s work on Anselm’s theological procedure (which bore fruit as Fides Quaerens Intellectum [Faith Seeking Understanding] in 1931) enabled him to clarify the relationship between faith and rational inquiry in a more sophisticated way than the earlier debate with Harnack, and so furnished the methodological underpinnings for the CD. In particular, Barth came to envisage theology as an inquiry moulded by the object into which it inquires; the theologian’s task is not to establish the object of inquiry (by, for example, naturally-available ‘proof’ of God) but to be guided by the inherent rationality of the object itself. Theology presupposes an objective order of being, apprehended in the church’s Credo, which alone provides the basis for rational discourse about God. Associated with this work on theological method is Barth’s polemical rejection of natural theology in debate with an earlier fellow-traveller, Emil Brunner, and a series of expositions of creeds and Reformation confessions.

In Bonn and then in Basel, in the midst of a host of controversial political and theological concerns, Barth began work on the CD. Originally delivered as lectures and then revised for publication, the CD is, for all its inner consistency, the record of a process of growth and change over thirty years: Barth is not simply mapping out a system. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the work is Barth’s ceaseless capacity for astonishment: at one level, the CD is the record of Barth’s captivation by the sheer weight, beauty and variety of Christian truth.

The heart of the enterprise, both methodologically and substantively, is Christology. For Barth, Christology is not simply one doctrine alongside others but the centre from which all other Christian doctrines radiate. Because of this, Barth’s theological procedure takes a distinctive form: Christian doctrine is constructed by inference from the person of Jesus Christ, who is the locus of all truth about God and man. This leads not only to Barth’s resolute realism and his hostility to all abstract metaphysical or anthropological foundations for theology, but also to his distinctive handling of analogy. In effect, Barth reverses the usual direction of analogy: instead of moving by analogy from the known realities of creation towards knowledge of the divine, Barth moves from God in Christ as the fundamental given towards affirmations concerning creation and humanity. It is the profundity of Barth’s exploration of this theocentricity which makes the CD one of the most important pieces of Protestant theology.

The CD as it stands comprises four volumes, on the doctrine of the word of God, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, and an unfinished volume on the doctrine of reconciliation. A fifth volume on the doctrine of redemption was projected but never begun before Barth’s death. Each volume is subdivided into part-volumes, expounding and meditating on a series of theses, and includes a great wealth of detailed historical and exegetical discussion, as well as treatment of the ethical consequences of the main dogmatic discussion. Volume one weaves together the doctrines of revelation and the Trinity, proposing that theology takes its rise from the self-positing of the divine subject. Revelation, as God’s gracious self-repetition, creates the experience of faith in the church, and constitutes man as a recipient of God’s word, which is God’s self-disclosure. The theological task is that of the self-scrutiny of the church against its objective referent, from which theology receives its status as a science.

From the outset, Barth’s consistent theological realism is evident: his starting-point, quite different either from his liberal heritage or from his contemporary existentialist peers, is the given actuality of the self-revealing God. This surfaces in volume two in the discussion of the knowledge of God, the capacity for which resides not in man’s readiness for God but in God’s readiness to share his own knowledge of himself with man: God’s self-knowledge is graciously reduplicated in the receiver of revelation. Accordingly, Barth expounds a severely negative evaluation of natural theology and of what he understood to be traditional doctrines of analogy. The discussion of the being of God in volume two is one of the most important treatments of the theme since Calvin. God’s being is described as his being-in-act, that is to say, God is himself or becomes himself in the loving act of creating fellowship with man in Jesus Christ. In effect, Barth radically recasts the doctrine of God by making the person of Christ central for theology proper. God’s absoluteness is therefore nothing other than his freedom for loving action. And similarly, the doctrine of election is a statement about God’s choice to be himself in Jesus Christ, and so to choose mankind as his covenant partner, who is given the task of obedience to the divine command.

The reality of man as God’s partner is treated at length in volume three. Barth refuses to handle the doctrine of creation as a truth that is naturally available. Instead, he links creation to covenant: man’s creature-liness derives from his adoption into the covenant of God with mankind made actual in Jesus Christ, who is both electing God and elected man. Thus history and human being as such are what they are because of God’s own assumption of historical, creaturely existence in the incarnation. Barth expounds the theme in particularly significant discussions of human temporality and human sin, again rigorously deploying the method of analogy from Christology, which comes to assume an increasingly large role in the argument.

When Barth turns to Christology in volume four, his style and thinking become increasingly concrete. At the time that Barth was working on volume four, he published an important essay on ‘The Humanity of God’, in which he corrected some of his earlier ‘dialectical’ thinking, and focused with even greater concentration on the man Jesus as the beginning and end of the ways of God with man. In this late stage of the growth of the CD, his writing becomes increasingly narrative in its handling of the Christological theme of abasement and exaltation. The ethical section of volume four, which was never finished (parts were published as a last fragment, CD IV.4, and parts as the posthumous The Christian Life) contains an increasingly realistic account of human ethical agency. This is expounded in Barth’s handling of water-baptism, whose sacramental status Barth denies in order to affirm its proper character as a human act of obedient response. Volume four is the maturest expression of Barth’s convictions about Jesus Christ the God-man, who furnishes a character-description of God and the origin of human participation in the covenant of God and creation. These writings also contain many suggestions for revision of aspects of his earlier theology, notably in their increasingly interactive account of the relationship of God and the natural order.

After retirement, Barth worked a little more on the CD, took a lively interest in the work of Vatican II, and published some smaller pieces, including his final lectures at Basel, Evangelical Theology. A full appraisal of his work would need to take note of his published sermons in Basel prison, Deliverance to the Captives and Call for God, his collections of essays such as Against the Stream and Theology and Church, and his reflections on past theologians and philosophers in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century.


Barth’s work substantially affected the course of Protestant theology in Europe and beyond; although Barth resisted pressure to become the centre of a school, his work has been interpreted and extended by many, notably H. Gollwitzer (b. 1908), O. Weber (1902–66) and E. Jüngel in Germany, and T. F. Torrance in Britain. Critical appraisal of Barth often focuses on his account of the relation of God to his creation, asking whether his method and his fundamental theological convictions lead him into offering only an ambiguous affirmation of the value and reality of the natural order. In terms of his account of the knowledge of God, Pannenberg, for example, argues that Barth’s confidence in the self-evidence of the object of theology leads him into a fideism which refuses to offer any sort of bridges between the knowledge of revelation and knowledge of the human world. Something of the same set of issues emerge in discussions of Barth’s doctrine of man. Some critics suggest that by grounding the reality of man so completely in the humanity of God in Christ, Barth fails to give real weight to the natural order. Hence in his account of human freedom, sin and rejection of God, some find a lack of a real sense of man over against God. Or again, in the ethical sections of CD, particularly before volume four, he is interpreted as having so grounded man’s agency in Christ that the impetus for human obedience is removed, and sanctification is not recognizable as a human process. Catholic theologians in particular sense an ‘actualism’ or ‘occasionalism’ in Barth’s anthropology, in that he does not appear to lay sufficient emphasis on the continuity of man as the recipient of divine grace. The effect of Barth’s concentration on Christology upon his doctrine of the Trinity forms another area of discussion. By envisaging the Spirit as essentially the ‘applicatory’ or ‘subjective’ dimension of the work of Christ, Barth seems to lack a fully personalist account of the Spirit as a distinct divine agent. This is bound up with more general questions about the apparent ‘modalism’, in that his preference for the term ‘mode of being’ rather than ‘person’ suggests a high evaluation of the divine unity at the expense of a proper sense of plurality within God.

Many critiques of Barth are flawed by treating his theology too systematically, without sensing the checks and balances within the corpus of his work. Barth’s great strength perhaps above all was his ability to keep starting again. The several changes of course within his work were far from fickle; much more were they part of his restless reappraisal of his own thinking, and they bear witness to his ruthlessly interrogative and constantly fresh engagement with the matter of theology. Barth never settled down, and his readings of Scripture as well as of classical theologians from the past—Calvin and Schleiermacher above all—were constantly submitted to reappraisal and critique. Barth’s work is not simply a persuasive restatement of the main lines of the Christian faith; it also constitutes one of the major critical responses to the Enlightenment, with a significant place in the intellectual history of Europe.


Collected works: Gesamtausgabe (Zurich, 1971– ). Academic writings: for a useful chronological bibliography see E. Busch, Karl Barth (London, 1976). Chief works: The Christian Life (Edinburgh, 1981); CD, I:1–IV:4; Credo (London, 1936); Dogmatics in Outline (London, 1949); The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford, 1935); Ethics (Edinburgh, 1981); Evangelical Theology (London, 1963); Fides Quaerens Intellectum (London, 1960); The Humanity of God (London, 1961); The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London, 1938); Prolegomena zur christlichen Dogmatik (Munich, 1928); Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1972); The Resurrection of the Dead (London, 1933); Theology and Church (London, 1962); The Theology of Schleiermacher (Edinburgh, 1982); The Word of God and the Word of Man (London, 1928).

See bibliography in M. Kwiran, An Index of Literature on Barth, Bonhoeffer and Bultmann (Sonderheft to Theologische Zeitschrift, 1977). See especially: H. U. von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (New York, 1971); G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (London and Grand Rapids, MI, 1956); G. W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Edinburgh, 1980); C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message (London, 1967); C. Gunton, Becoming and Being (Oxford, 1978); E. Jüngel, Barth-Studien (Gütersloh, 1982); idem, The Doctrine of the Trinity (Edinburgh, 1976); idem, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Edinburgh, 1987); H. Küng, Justification (London, 1964); K. Runia, Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI, 1962); S. W. Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth (Oxford, 1979); J. Thompson, Christ in Perspective (Edinburgh, 1978); T. F. Torrance, Karl Barth (London, 1962); R. E. Willis, The Ethics of Karl Barth (Leiden, 1971).

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