The Karl Barth Centennial: An Appreciative Critique

by Ronald Goetz

Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 7, 1986, p. 458. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Though Barth failed to see how completely God’s free love entailed human freedom, he did powerfully realize that human liberation is possible only if the God who creates and sustains this universe has the all-sufficient freedom and love to sustain that liberation. His greatness lies in his radical insistence that the God who humbled himself is the self-same almighty sovereign who created heaven and earth.

Karl Barth was born 100 years ago on May 10 in Basel, Switzerland. For better or for worse, his influence on this century’s theology has been incalculable. Many have certainly found that they have had to seek routes different from Barth’s; nevertheless, he is virtually impossible to ignore, for he provided a theological beacon from whose light both friends and enemies took their respective bearings.

It is part of the folklore of 20th-century theology that, with the outbreak of World War I, Barth became disillusioned with his own theological liberalism. 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 terminally defective theology.

Convinced that the chief error of liberalism was its reduction of theology to anthropology, Barth radically insisted upon the utterly transcendent sovereignty of God In his famous 1922 Letter to the Romans, he wrote of God as the "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. Even with the incarnation, all language about God entails an unresolvable dialectic, and thus remains perpetually flawed. Faith always creates a totally disruptive crisis for all human thought, enterprise and values.

This negative tone dominated Barth’s theology for the rest of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The emergence of Nazism gave a new urgency to Barth’s attack on all philosophical and anthropological starting points for theology. Having baptized each new wave of the human spirit for two centuries, Barth asked, how could liberalism withhold its baptism to Hitler? Barth was convinced that the church would never be able to say No to Hitler so long as it offered allegiance to any voice save that of Jesus Christ. An early leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church and the principal author of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, Barth was expelled from Germany to his native Switzerland in 1935.

In 1932 Barth published the first volume of his magnum opus, Church Dogmatics. By 1942, with the publication of the Church Dogmatics, II, 2, Barth’s negative phase was largely past. Coming very close to affirming universal salvation, his later theology has been characterized as a theology of the "triumph of grace." By 1956, in an extremely influential lecture that popularized themes already developed in the Dogmatics, Barth spoke of the "Humanity of God." "God is human" in "His free affirmation of man, His free concern for him, His free substitution for him."

The only aspect of Barth’s thinking that changed little during his lifetime was his politics. Despite the often-repeated charge that his theology led to political quietism, Barth himself was not quiet. He always insisted that theology had to be done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He was a lifelong socialist and political maverick whose political views elicited much hostility -- first in Nazi Germany, later in anticommunist America, and chronically in his own neutral Switzerland. As he once observed, in politics the radical is probably wrong but has a chance of being right; the conservative is always wrong.

The Barth corpus is vast. The never-completed Dogmatics alone ran to 12 volumes that average more than 600 densely printed pages each. Beyond this work, he produced a staggering number of books, lectures, articles and letters -- most of which were of the very highest order. Quite apart from the creativity and scope of his constructive theology, Barth was an imaginative (sometimes perhaps too imaginative) biblical exegete and an extraordinary intellectual historian. He had both the intellect and the energy to engage in theological conversation -- albeit often polemical conversation -- with most of the leading Protestant theologians of his time. And he contributed more than any other 20th-century Protestant theologian to opening serious dialogue with Roman Catholicism. (His influence, direct or indirect, on Catholic theology may be as great as it is on Protestant.) All this -- together with his various political involvements, both ecclesiastical and secular -- may explain why he regarded sloth as much as pride to be at the root of human sin. His was the Protestant work ethic gone mad.

Barth had many friends, but he also made many enemies (not a few of whom were former friends) The number of enemies can be attributed in part to the fact that he was probably more successful in overcoming sloth than pride. In discussing this matter, Hans Frei observes that Barth tried to overcome his own "pretensions," his own self-assertiveness and incredible self-confidence by "constant self-ironization and self-needling" (review of Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth, reprinted in Gospel Narrative, Dikran Hadidian, ed. [Pickwick, 1981]) But as Frei insightfully comments, "All too often ritual exorcism by humor actually reaffirms the tenant rights of the very demons seemingly expelled!"

Part of the reason that Barth tended to antagonize and drive people away was a function of his powerful mind and personality. Not only did he delight in theological combat, but he could, even without intending it, intimidate people. Yet beyond his personality was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- who by virtue of his radical christological emphasis remained very close to Barth -- called a "positivism of revelation." Barth reflected a radical confidence that he could find in the Bible the unvarnished truth about the nature of God and any other truth worth knowing. Bonhoeffer claimed that this led Barth to say "in effect, ‘Like it or lump it’: virgin birth, the trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all." Barth’s defensiveness in response to this charge reflects the fact that Bonhoeffer, attacking from within the Barthian circle, could do more damage than any of Barth’s outside critics. Bonhoeffer didn’t accuse Barth of personal arrogance, but he pointed sharply to the uncompromising tone of Barth’s theological enterprise.

The beauty of Barth’s theological style is also its chief limitation. His whole theology is mirrored in every doctrine. He constantly tried to restate the whole of the preceding Dogmatics at each unfolding juncture of his thought (sometimes seemingly in every paragraph). This restatement was intended to shed light on his new point while also showing how the new doctrine would in turn enlighten everything that preceded it. For Barth, there is a total, logical connection between all doctrines so that every doctrine mirrors every other. Perhaps Barth is wordy, but the sheer cumulative power of his thought is magnificent.

However, this very cumulative power has the unfortunate secondary effect of presenting everything Barth said as if it were an equally significant and necessary part of the whole. This cumulative impact not only creates a certain "like it or lump it" impression, but it virtually invites the undecided critic to dismiss Barth for being hopelessly unyielding and for claiming to know more than any creature can about the nature and purpose of the one God. Then when Barth himself changed his mind -- as he so often and so publicly did, as if it were merely a matter of an excusable error after he had formerly fired so all-inclusive a barrage in support of his now-discarded view -- it is small wonder that many people became exasperated and, though they might themselves be deeply influenced by him, preferred not to admit it.

To be sure, Barth has a number of unabashed supporters who find themselves fundamentally in phase with his basic enterprise. For such, Barth’s polytechnical forays and expositions, far from offensive, were things of beauty. When Barth was on the attack, his anger was prophetic. He had the courage to speak out where others were timid. He articulated far better than one could oneself what one had always deep down believed. If Barth changed his mind, it was a healthy sign that he recognized how far short we all fall from the truth of God.

I never met Karl Barth, though I did see him when I was a graduate student in Chicago in 1962 during his only trip to the United States. He gave several lectures and participated in a panel discussion with a number of American theologians. I was deeply impressed, even more than I expected to be. Yet somehow I felt relieved that I hadn’t studied with him. I felt that I had all the Karl Barth I needed, or could take, from his books. In order to breathe theologically, I needed distance from the one I regarded as my mentor.

Even though I didn’t know Barth personally, I used to experience intellectual pangs of disquiet, if not guilt, when I knew down deep that I would have serious disagreements with him. Were he alive and had he taken any notice of my theological work, I am still sure that he would tear the hide off me. I don’t think I’m alone among "Barthians" in such a feeling. If Barth lovers can feel the need to put this colossus at a distance, it is easy to understand how Barth’s theology could be anathema to those who could not even begin where he began -- i.e., in a trinitarian adherence to the authority of the Scriptures.

It is precisely this question of freedom that I would most want to press on Barth himself. More specifically the question is: Given the absolute freedom of God in Barth’s thought, is there any room left for the significant freedom of the creature? Surely the all-inclusive, unyielding, self-confident style of Barth’s theology is not altogether unrelated to his belief that the free love of God is invincible. But can an invincible love, however loving, still be capable of liberating its object?

The "early" Barth affirmed a version of the sovereignty of God that came close to precluding human freedom from the start. God’s lordship was absolute. 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 line Word of God and the Word of Man (Harper, 1957) , p. 74].

Such a doctrine of a divine management that cannot serve but can only rule effectively precludes any serious talk about human freedom. Having seen where the vaunted liberal pride in human independence and self-salvation had led theology, Barth was convinced that only by absolutizing the grasping, seizing management of God could human presumption and pride be curbed. But if Barth meant what he said about God’s rule, it would seem that only with automatons could such a God ever be reconciled.

Barth would never mitigate his affirmation of the utter majesty of God, but he came to see that there is a greater lordship than that of an imperious potentate -- i.e., the sovereignty of a God who can even risk suffering at the hands of his creatures. Thus, in this later theology he will completely reverse himself on the question, Does God serve? Barth argues that the predicates of the eternal, almighty God can be known only as God relates to humanity as a suffering servant:

It is in the light of the fact of His humiliation that on this first aspect all the predicates of His Godhead must be filled out and interpreted. Their positive meaning is lit up only by the fact that in this act He is this God and therefore the true God, distinguished from all false gods by the fact that they are not capable of this act, that they have not in fact accomplished it, that their supposed glory and honour and eternity and omnipotence not only do not include but exclude their self-humiliation. False gods are all reflections of a false and all too human self-exaltation. They are all lords who cannot and will not be servants, who are therefore no true lords, whose being is not a truly divine being [Dogmatics IV, 1, p. 130].

We human beings generally comprehend power as a reality that is on a continuum between abject weakness and invincibility. Thus, politically we measure sovereignty in terms of invincibility. We Americans celebrate victories over anyone whom we can vanquish, even if it is only tiny Grenada or the tin-pot Qaddafi. We even accuse ourselves of weakness when we confront areas of the world where our power is of no avail.

God the suffering servant, on the other hand, never clearly wins. Within the creation, God’s reality is so unobtrusive that it is possible to fail to see that a God even exists. God’s power is of an altogether different order than the power structures of this world. God conquers through suffering love. Further, in this world the evidences of the suffering conquests of God are present exclusively in events that faith alone can perceive. Such talk is obviously only vacuous, wishful thinking apart from its eschatological validation. In the Kingdom of God, where the Sermon on the Mount will be the law, the proof that love is the only source of lasting power will be manifest to all. Until then, we hope in things unseen.

If, as I recently argued in the Century ("The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy," April 16) , belief in the suffering of God is the most basic revolutionary development of 20th-century theology, then Paul Tillich and others were wrong in contending that, in his movement from Romans to the Dogmatics, Barth went from a revolutionary to a conservative stance. In fact, the Dogmatics constitutes a genuinely revolutionary work, while Romans reflects an older, indeed philosophical, concept of God’s sovereignty, as Barth himself admitted.

Granted, the "catholic" Barth reappropriates the whole tradition of orthodox Christian theology. However, this reappropriation virtually turned the orthodox tradition on its head at many key points. Barth reasserted "orthodoxy," but with the proviso that God’s capacity to suffer was the proof of his true lordship. Thus Barth’s "neo-orthodoxy" stood in remarkable tension with 18 centuries of orthodoxy and, for that matter, with mainstream liberalism as well, for both, in their own ways, denied God’s suffering.

The doctrine of predestination is pivotal to Barth’s thought. Yet the Protestant partisan and self-styled Calvinist interprets the atoning death of Christ and God’s eternal predestining decree in the very teeth of Luther and Calvin: election is the "sum of the Gospel," for God’s election of humanity is a predestination not merely of humanity but of God himself. "Man is not rejected. In God’s eternal purpose it is God himself who is rejected in his son. . . Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at his own cost" (Dogmatics II, 2, p. 167). Therefore, "there is no such thing as a created nature which has its purpose, being or continuance apart from Grace" (p. 92). Such a universalistic understanding of God’s suffering love constitutes a drastic reversal of the terrible inscrutable darkness of the secret will of the God of Luther and Calvin.

Barth sought to break the impasse that Western Christianity faced from the Pelagian controversy on. Both Pelagius and Augustine had agreed that the great majority of the human race were damned; they differed only on the question of the basis of that damnation. For Augustine it was finally the predetermining will of God. Thus, significant human freedom is precluded in the matter of salvation. For Pelagius, on the other hand, one merits damnation by one’s evil deeds. But this presupposes that we have all been born with the perfect and complete freedom necessary to fulfill God’s law, indeed, that human beings could live morally perfect lives unaided by grace.

Barth, whose God is the one who "loves in freedom," realized that the grace of the free God must be consistent with significant human freedom contra the Augustinian-tradition. On the other hand, salvation is by grace alone, contra Pelagius. Universalism seems to answer many of these dilemmas. It is God’s predestined will that all persons on earth -- or in hell, for that matter (for Christ descended into hell to preach his kerygma) -- freely accept their divinely preordained salvation. The atonement is unlimited. Christ died for everyone. The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is that Christians have accepted and are called to testify to what God has done for all humanity, and non-Christians have not yet accepted.

Barth realized that he was walking a tightrope, for a totally consistent universalism inevitably precludes freedom. If we are all to be dragged -- in some cases kicking and screaming -- into the kingdom, nothing we are or do matters. We are in the thrall of the divine will to save us. Even God’s freedom is curtailed, for not even God is free from his own deterministic schema. Barth never quite closes the door on the possibility of rejection, and he even had dreams that he might himself be rejected. Universalism -- which might have seemed to be the logical outcome of the decree of God and the atonement of Christ -- is finally only a devoutly-to-be-wished possibility; it is not inevitable.

Though the crux of the problem has been shifted in a salutary manner away from predestination as a mystery of almost fatalistic darkness, the tension between God’s love and God’s sovereign freedom remains. For if it is God’s will that all are saved, but some individuals forever refuse God’s love, then their rejection would frustrate God’s loving intention. Thus if anyone is ultimately damned, both God’s sovereignty and his universal love are compromised. Yet if God were to compel us to be saved, our salvation would contradict our created natures, for we were created in the image of the free, self-determining God.

Barth faces the logic of this seemingly intractable impasse between God’s sovereignty, God’s love and human freedom by acknowledging that God took an astonishing "risk" when he constituted himself as the God of a creature who not only can fall, but who has fallen (pp. 163-166) God so radically committed himself as humanity’s "friend and partner" that he "ordained the surrender of His own impassibility."

Here, I think, we find the crux of the whole question of human freedom in Barth’s theology. How far will Barth really push his radical insistence that God actually risks the divine honor, aseity and impassibility in this utter commitment to humanity?

For Barth, freedom is the creature’s capacity gladly to accord itself with the freedom of God. Barth does not fall into the trap of the so-called "free-will defense" of God, that theodicy which allegedly explains evil by rooting it in human freedom. Supposedly our freedom entails the capacity to choose for or against God. Thus, we created evil by misusing our freedom. "It would be a strange freedom that would leave man neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly" (The Humanity of God, p. 76) The sinner is not free; the sinner is a slave of death, and death is the termination of all decisions, be they free or enslaved. As God’s gift, human freedom cannot contradict God’s freedom. No other understanding of freedom makes any theological sense. Freedom is a prime attribute of God. To say that freedom is compatible with sin -- indeed, that freedom requires the possibility of sin -- would be to imply that God cannot be God unless God could sin. Such is absurd. Yet there is a potential totalitarianism in equating all true freedom with God’s will. Everything depends on the degree to which God’s love is genuinely reflected in the kenosis, the self-humbling of Christ (Phil. 2:7)

Has God so humbled himself that he wills our freedom to be truly a mirror of his own freedom? Or are we created and redeemed merely to exercise our "freedom" in abject gratitude to God who alone is capable of eternally significant action? Any true affirmation of human freedom must celebrate the fact that God has set us free to contribute creatively to the creation through that which God did not create: human culture. Therefore, we must be so bold as to say that God has set us free so that we might creatively contribute to our own being. In our God-ordained freedom, we are to be more than God’s passive partners.

The true test of agape lies in the answer to the question: Does the love that begins in the free nature of God create in the object of the love the very freedom of its source? In the last analysis, in certain critical doctrines Barth does not adequately pass this test. A crucial, though by no means isolated, example of this inadequacy clusters around his understandings of evil, history and eschatology.

If, for example, evil has been defeated from the very outset, and human history has already been secured by God in election, does this not render history a mere process by which God can effect the inevitable triumph of his grace, with human beings little more than the passive beneficiaries of his boundless and irresistible good will and grace?

Barth’s historical theomonism inevitably leads to his eschatological theomonism. Barth interprets the scriptural promise that, in the end, God will be "everything to everyone" to indicate that our finite life will be finished -- that time will have ended, and humanity will forever stand completed in the eternal impassibility of God. There can be no question of our developing new enterprises in an ongoing redeemed life -- in any "beyond." "Man as such, therefore, has no beyond. Nor does he need one, for God is our beyond" (Dogmatics, III, 2, p. 632). Thus Barth develops an eschatology that seems to render redeemed humanity frozen in eternity, undercutting the very agape that he elsewhere so eloquently defends.

God, in the freedom of his love, has determined that his own life will be affected by the creature. Indeed, he has tied his own destiny to human destiny so tightly that our suffering is his suffering, and our growth in freedom is his growth in freedom. Luke tells us that, under the care of Mary and Joseph, "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52). If God was truly incarnate in Jesus, then it was not God’s humanity abstracted from God’s divinity that was subject to development in fellowship with human beings. It was both natures of the inseparably united God/human that "increased."

The paradox of God’s love is that the all-great God wills to achieve even greater richness and glory by means of his humble dependence upon his creatures. A theology of divine kenosis must celebrate, not minimize, God’s willingness to evolve his ever-increasing glory by irreversibly binding himself to his creatures in an eternal and reciprocal relationship.

Despite Barth’s refusal fully to follow out his theology of the divine self-giving, I must confess an ongoing allegiance to his thought. Though Barth failed to see how completely God’s free love entailed human freedom, he did powerfully realize that human liberation is possible only if the God who creates and sustains this universe has the all-sufficient freedom and love to sustain that Liberation.

Barth’s testimony to the reality and sovereignty of God is a vital foundation if we are to hold out for anything more than the fleeting, tragic significance of human liberation. If God cannot or will not sustain us unto eternity, then God is finally, in Jesus’ phrase, a "God of the dead." And all our hopes and aspirations for human existence are mocked by our inevitable extermination.