The ‘Postmodern’ Barth? The Word of God As True Myth

by Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien was associate professor of religion and dean of Stetson Chapel at Kalamazoo College when this article was written. His book The Word as Truth Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology is to be published this year (1997) by Westminster John Knox.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 2, 1997, pp. 338-342. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When most theologians were trying to adjust themselves to modernism, Karl Barth perceived that modernism was bankrupt. We should make use of “mythical” language, said Barth. Otherwise it would be impossible to bear witness to Christ.

"I keep getting proposals for books on Karl Barth," an editor told me. "Can you explain what is going on? I thought we might see a revival of interest in Tillich or even Bonhoeffer, but Barth? What does Barth have to do with postmodernism?"

The signs of interest in Barth’s theology are ample. The Karl Barth Society of North America is thriving, with well-attended conferences and a growing membership. In recent years some of the most popular and intellectually vigorous theology sessions at American Academy of Religion meetings have focused on Barth. Evangelicals and "postliberals" are engaging in dialogues that would not be possible without the mediating influence of Barth’s theology. Yale University and Princeton Theological Seminary are both bidding to become the host institution for a proposed Center for Barth Studies.

Most recent interpreters are rejecting the dismissive categorization of Barth that prevailed in academic theology for much of the past generation. Though the conventional tendency to read Barth as the dogmatician of an outdated "neo-orthodox positivism" is often armed with considerable evidence of his intellectual narrowness, it misses the deeper significance of Barth’s theological vision for our time.

Barth’s narrowness was in some ways prodigious. He took little interest in other disciplines and no interest at all in other religions. Though he claimed to accept the legitimacy and even necessity of critical biblical scholarship, he made practically no use of it. For all his warnings about the hubris of theological systems, his dogmatic theology looked like a massive new scholasticism. He claimed not to want followers, but blasted even close disciples when they dissented from his positions. His later dogmatic writings stifled the rhetorical dialectics and the polemic against religion that gave his earlier "crisis theology" its immense spiritual power. He was deaf to any manifestation of the Spirit outside the witness of scripture and preaching. Though he stated that men are not superior to women, he claimed that men are "first in sequence" in the divine order and thus bear a "primacy of service" before God. Though he emphasized the freedom of the Spirit-illuminated Word, his insistence on correct doctrine often appeared even to his followers to preclude any positive regard for theological freedom, difference or diversity.

It is here, however, at his supposedly weakest points that Barth’s thinking speaks most pertinently to a postmodern consciousness. Long after he relinquished the expressionist tropes of his "crisis theology" period, Barth’s theology remained a rhetoric of freedom. He refused to reduce God to one element of a system; he rejected every kind of philosophical foundationalism; and his theology blended too many patterns to be reducible to any single theme. (In How to Read Karl Barth, George Hunsinger identifies six dominant motifs in his thought.) Barth’s refusal to reduce God to one element in a theological system is surely the key to his greatness among theologians. Though his massive Church Dogmatics took on the appearance of an old-style dogmatism, his theological vision throughout this epochal work remained distinctively pluralistic and open-ended.

Barth insisted that Christian theology can be healthy and free only if it remains open to a multiplicity of philosophies, worldviews and forms of language. Nor is there any hierarchy among theological topics, he argued; there is no reason why a dogmatics should not begin with the Holy Spirit or salvation or eschatology: "There is only one truth, one reality, but different views, different aspects: just like the sun shines on different places."

By resisting the colonization of theology by philosophy or any other discourse, Barth prefigured the postmodern critique of all universalizing or "totalizing" discourses. The recognition of real differences is obliterated by universalist claims, the postmodernists argue. Barth’s polemic against theological modernism anticipated the postmodern critique of philosophical foundationalism in this respect. He emphatically rejected the foundationalist claim that philosophy can provide secure universal knowledge. By strenuously insisting on the transcendence and integrity of the divine object, he tried to liberate theology from its bondage to philosophy, bourgeois culture and church tradition.

Barth perceived the bankruptcy of modernism while most theologians were seeking to accommodate it. He recognized that the God of Christian faith negates and transcends Christian theism. Refusing to defend God with arguments that reduce God to the logic of a system, he lifted up the ineffable mystery, hiddenness, ever-graciousness and glory of the divine source of revelation. Put differently, Barth anticipated much of the postmodern critique of Enlightenment reason while vigorously opposing the nihilist presumption that there is no ground of truth.

Modern theology has been nearly united in its resolve to determine the meaningfulness of Christianity on rational or other grounds that are independent of the narrated Word of Christ. As Hans Frei often noted, theological modernism has been defined by its fundamental assumption that theologians are obliged to adapt Christianity to the regnant or best available world-view. it is this assumption that Barth sought to overturn. He argued that theology should not be in the business of endorsing worldviews or any independent theory of existence.

Rather than commit itself to any particular worldview, Christian theology should use or appropriate as many worldviews and forms of language as are necessary to explicate the truth of God’s Word. Just as theology should not extol literal meaning over the language of narrative, paradox, irony and dialectic, neither should it commit itself to one worldview over another. Only a healthy pluralism in philosophy and rhetorical forms can free theology to do the work of locating the correspondence between human word and divine truth.

Barth did not deny that there are myths and even outright fairy tales in the materials out of which some of the biblical narratives were constructed. Though he preferred to speak of biblical "saga" rather than "myth" in order to distinguish biblical myth from the monist mythologies of other religions and philosophies, he urged that, by either name, the "mythical" aspects of scripture should not be regarded as dispensable for theology. He criticized Bultmann and other demythologizers for demeaning the biblical worldview in the course of adapting Christianity to a modern one: "We ought not to overlook the fact that this particular worldview contained a number of features which the primitive community used cautiously but quite rightly in its witness to Jesus Christ." Moreover, these features remain indispensable to Christian proclamation. "We have every reason to make use of ‘mythical’ language in certain connexions," Barth insisted. "And there is no need for us to have a guilty conscience about it, for if we went to extremes in demythologizing, it would be quite impossible to bear witness to Jesus Christ at all."

Barth’s assertion of the freedom of the Word set him not only against the demythologizers but also against the entire modern preoccupation with ascertaining the methodological limits of truth. If truth is grace, it can be known only through grace. The force of this truism in Barth’s thinking moved him to liberate theology from its dependence on philosophy and its vulnerability to demythologizing criticism. Barth protested against all claims to methodological neutrality, epistemological foundationalism and philosophical preunderstanding. The interpreter has no chance of hearing a new word if she brings her own preunderstanding to the text as a final norm, he cautioned. The Word does not seek to be mastered in order to be understood. It seeks, rather, to lay hold of us in our openness to it: "It wants to be evaluated in its relation to what is said in it when this has been spoken to us and made itself intelligible to us." Our understanding of the Spirit-illuminated Word must arise from the "mystery of the sovereign freedom of the substance," the subject matter, which invites us through human words and the movement of the Spirit to "investigate the humanity of the word by which it is told."

Barth’s alternative implied a methodological pluralism, not an impossible blank slate. He did not dispute the need for theology to use philosophy or hermeneutical theory; he disputed only that theology should sanction or presuppose any "fixed canon of possibility, truth and importance." "If we do not commit ourselves to any specific philosophy we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy," he remarked. His primary rule of interpretation was that "a text can be read and expounded only with reference to and in light of its theme." The authority claimed by the text (or by the person of whom it speaks) must therefore ultimately be self-authenticating. To appeal to any further authority to distinguish between text and theme is to set aside the priority of the Spirit-illuminated Word.

Moreover, this process of authentication does not come upon individuals in isolation or abstraction from the church, for the Word discloses itself through the church’s canonical scripture and in its proclamation. Barth’s doctrine of the threefold Word implied simultaneously the indissoluble unity of the Word with the texts, tradition and present life of the church, along with the necessity of always distinguishing between the Word and the text, the text and the community, and the present creeds and future possibilities. Because human beings are immersed in that which is transient, relative and passing, it is always a mistake to identify the promise of the church’s message with the questionable possibilities emerging out of the historical process. The gospel conveys the radically new possibilities of God, which are fallibly understood in the present, which stand on the borderline of human achievements, and which become evident precisely in the negation of those achievements.

Christianity is forward-looking in its faithfulness to an eschatological Word that relativizes all historical possibilities and achievements. Though his later theology expressed the point more gently, Barth never retracted his early claim that only a thoroughly eschatological Christianity bears any relationship to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is the power of the future and ground of all redemptive possibility. Consequently, "spirit which does not at every moment point from death to the new life is not the Holy Spirit."

The eschatological Word is enough. Never an object of perception or cognition, it can only be believed. The Word is different from all other objects because it gives itself. Christianity either lives faithfully by this life-renewing Spirit of Christ or it resorts to sickly religious substitutes. Barth’s list of poor substitutes included not only philosophy and myth, but every form of apologetics, natural theology and ritual practice.

The intricacies of his arguments on this subject and the problems with them will provide ample material for the next generation of Barth scholarship. I believe that Barth, while making a convincing case against an appeal to reason prior to faith, lurched to an extreme position that failed to do justice to the apologetic aspects of theology as "faith seeking understanding." Similarly, in his laudable concern to refute the idea that Christianity is an illustration of mythical truth, Barth (and Frei after him) set Christianity against an artificial and reductionist conception of myth. Though Barth acknowledged that scripture contains mythical elements, he defined myth in essentially anti-Christian terms. It is doubtful that he ever would have used the term in a positive sense if Bultmann’s demythologizing had not driven him to it.

Barth’s rejoinder to Bultmann contained, however, the seed of a more promising orthodox approach to Christian myth. There is no reason why the gospel cannot be both mythical and true. Christian theologians need not oversell the distinctiveness or antimythical character of Christianity, since the gospel uses and is an example of mythical speech. As Barth told Bultmann, "there is no need for us to have a guilty conscience" about recognizing and proclaiming the gospel in all of its mythical character, for if all myth were removed from the gospel, it would be impossible to witness to Christ. Whether it is called myth or saga, mythical speech is intrinsic to Christianity. If Christianity is true, it is as true myth.

One Christian thinker who grasped this point was C. S. Lewis. Compared to Barth, Lewis’s understanding of the history and problems of theology was slight, even simplistic. Despite his lack of theological training, however, his religious writings are marked by a keen and realistic sense of the mythical character of Christianity—a sense that eluded Barth. As a young Oxford classicist, Lewis moved from determined atheism to Hegelian idealism to a belief in a personal divine power before allowing himself to consider whether the Christian version of the myth of the dying god might be true.

He judged that as literature the Gospels are too artless and historical to convey the taste and feel of genuine myth, but he recognized that the substance of the gospel narrative "was precisely the matter of the great myths." The gospel core is a common mythical motif, he observed; it shows up in the myths of Balder, Adonis, Osiris and Bacchus. Less than a century before Christianity, it appeared in Mithraism. What is the relation of these myths to Christian myth?

Lewis could not address the question without confronting the fact that he liked the pagan myths but was repulsed by Christianity. Something made him turn away from the story and images of the Christ myth. After a prolonged inner struggle to understand his visceral reaction, he realized that the Christ myth made a claim to truth that was both distinctive and personally threatening. The myth of the dying and rising god has always been true, he reasoned, but Christianity claims that in Christ the myth was concretely realized.

If the Christ myth is true in the way that it claims to be true, it stands to other myths as the fulfillment of their promise and truth. It is not an illustration of mythic truth, but the ground of its possibility and the realization of its fragmentary glimpse of the Real. The question is not whether Christianity is fundamentally mythical, but whether Christ became and fulfilled the great myth.

It occurred to Lewis while studying the Gospels that if ever a myth were realized in historical time and space, "it would be just like this." He was struck in particular by the Gospels’ distinctive literary character and by their representations of Jesus. As literature, the Gospels are in some ways like the ancient myths or the ancient histories, he noted, but in their total character they are not like anything else. More important, no person in any literature is like the New Testament figure of Jesus: as real as Socrates, "yet also numinous, lit from a light from beyond the world, a god." The force of this impression brought Lewis to Christianity. He found in Christ the source of the truth and delight he had known in pagan mythology.

Lewis never tired of explaining the peculiar and ultimate way that myths are true. What myth communicates is not "truth" in the formal sense, he observed, but reality. Truth is always about something, "but reality is that about which truth is." Myth is neither abstract, like truth, nor bound to the particular, like direct experience. Myth is more like the isthmus "which connects the peninsular world of thought with that vast continent we really belong to."

Just as myth transcends thought, the Christian mystery of the incarnation transcends its mythical nature. "The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact," Lewis explained. "The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history."

In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, myth happens. Christ is true myth because the Word became flesh in the man Jesus. "We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate." The miracle is that in Christ the myth of the dying God does not cease to be myth. The Christian accepts Christ as the fulfillment of myth with the same imaginative embrace that she rightly accords all myths.

The historical and mythical elements are equally necessary. It is not always clear that Lewis understood these elements to be irreducibly intertwined, but the logic of his understanding of Christian myth leads to a view of myth-history similar to Barth’s view of saga-history. What gives the Christian gospel its distinctive identity is precisely its irreducible conflation of truth-claiming myth and history. "The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened," Lewis wrote. Christianity is true myth "in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties."

Put differently, Christian myth works on us as a Word of God in forms that limited human understanding can appropriate. Though his own theology was conventionally orthodox, Lewis emphasized that "the doctrines we get out of the true myth are of course less true," for doctrines are translations of God’s mythical Word into relative, fallible concepts. All of our efforts to express the actuality behind the Christ event are less true than the actuality itself.

The upshot for theology is that God’s language is the actual movement of God’s Word in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. The Word is apprehended as event. Pagan myths express certain truths about God through the images that mythmakers have found at their disposal, Lewis explained, but Christianity is God’s myth expressed "through what we call ‘real things."’ Myths are proximate forms of transformation that must themselves be transformed by the Word in order for their truth to be realized. As James Loder remarks, "The Christ event resonates with the transformational potential in every personality." The presence of Christ’s Spirit calls for ongoing transformation in the form of life-giving works of love. The Word becomes true myth in order to redeem all history through ongoing transformations of the human spirit.

The danger that attends every project of mythmaking is that the new myth will create new forms of idolatry. Against every attempt to make God relevant or identify God with a cause or conceive God as a knowable object of thought, Barth insisted that God’s actuality is prior to the logical form of contradiction. The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy and mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace. The God of biblical faith is concerned not about unbelief but about the sin of giving one’s heart and mind to idols.

Though Barth often claimed in his later career to have moved beyond the spirit and method of dialectical theology, his theology continued to affirm the dialectical movement of God in self-revelation. Bruce McCormack rightly emphasizes that the dialectical Paulinism of Barth’s Romans commentary remained key to his theology. In revelation, God becomes objective without ceasing to be hidden. God enters our condition and makes Godself present to us in Christ, but in a way that eludes human control.

The dialectic of presence and hiddenness is fundamentally constitutive of Christian existence. To break the dialectic in either direction is to betray the living truth of revelation. That is, to move one-sidedly in the direction of presence is to falsely objectify the gospel; to emphasize absence or "wholly otherness" is to betray the living truth that God has disclosed to us in Christ.

For Barth it was axiomatic that true knowledge of God begins not with an act of imagination or creativity but with the knowledge of God’s hiddenness. God is incomprehensible, for God does not exist in the sphere of human power. "God is not a being whom we can spiritually appropriate," he explained. "The pictures in which we view God, the thoughts in which we think Him, the words with which we can define Him, are in themselves unfitted to this object and thus inappropriate to express and affirm the knowledge of Him." No image from myth, doctrine or even scripture can bring us to God or show God to us. But through the movement of God’s Word, the various images that scripture contains can become God’s truth. The myth of the dying god becomes divine speech through God’s action in Christ.

The images that become God’s truth do not acquire this status through any capacity or quality of their own, but only through grace. "We do not encroach upon Him by knowing Him: we do not of ourselves become like Him; we do not of ourselves become master of Him; we do not of ourselves become one with Him," Barth explained. "And all this means—we cannot of ourselves apprehend Him."

Only in one place is the hidden God apprehensible, and even there only indirectly. In Christ the hidden God is apprehended "not to sight, but to faith. Not in His being, but in sign. Not, then, by the dissolution of His hiddenness—but apprehensibly." The Word made flesh is the first and definitive sign of all signs, but the Word is made known to us only after the flesh, through the Spirit. In Christ we see the human face of God no longer according to the flesh, but in and through the movement of the Spirit.