Karl Barth was a German theologian active during the early to mid-20th century. At the beginning of his career, many of his peers and teachers took a nationalistic stance on World War I, essentially equating German nationalism with Christianity, using God to sanction support for the German war effort. This created in Barth a theological crisis, inspiring him to completely transform his thought.
The changes were made most apparent in the second edition of his The Epistle to the Romans, published in 1922. Even George Lucas’ many changes to the Star Wars movies are no match for the utter and comprehensive revision that occurred in this second edition.
The book was ground-breaking. A contemporary of Barth’s remarked that the book “fell like a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” Barth’s theology took on even greater significance during Hitler’s rise to power. Barth was among the founding members of the Confessing Church, a German group dedicated to the resistance to Nazism.
In addition to front-running a subversive, anti-fascist group of Christians, Barth single-handedly pioneered what was eventually called Dialectical Theology.
Dialectical Theology is so called because it involves the dialogue (or dialectic) of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ of God. God’s initial word to humanity is an absolute ‘No’ due to humanity’s utter unrighteousness in the face of God’s righteousness.
God’s ‘Yes’ is pronounced in Jesus Christ, through whom God crosses the ever-expansive divide between God and humankind. Dialectical Theology consists of a back-and-forth with God’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ as claim and counter-claim—a movement which is not resolved. While there is thesis and antithesis, there is not quite synthesis.
Barth’s theology also earned the name Krisis (German for ‘crisis’) Theology because of the crisis involved in navigating these two polls, holding God’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in each hand at once. The dilemma, or crisis, of theologians is that “we ought to speak of God” but we are human “and so cannot speak of God” (WGWM, 186).
Barth’s desire was to cultivate a theology in which God’s revelation was understood as transcending culture and calling humankind into question. In this, the revelation brought to us in Christ does not give us all the answers about God. It is not the moment when we understand who God is perfectly and clearly. On the contrary, revelation introduces us to God’s mystery.
Uncertainty follows faith. The hidden God is the revealed God (ER, 422).
“In [Jesus Christ] God reveals Himself inexorably as the hidden God who can be apprehended only indirectly.” (ER, 369)
What we get, then, in Barth’s theology is an indictment of theology itself.
“What men on this side of resurrection name ‘God’ is most characteristically not God. Their ‘God’ . . . is the complete affirmation of the course of the world and of men as it is.” (ER, 40)
“God Himself is not acknowledged as God and what is called ‘God’ is in fact Man.” (ER, 44)
In our efforts to adapt God to our present culture, we end up compromising God’s essential divinity and settling for a “human contraption in place of the divine handiwork” (OR, 57). In other words, theology becomes idolatry. Theologians, he said, forgot that their concern was God (WGWM, 245-246).
In an effort to resist the theological tendency to idolatry, Barth (following Kierkegaard) emphasized the infinite qualitative distinction between God and humankind—the assertion that God is Wholly Other to us.
“Our conversations about God,” he says, “are always interrupted conversations” (ER, 494). As soon as we think we know God, we have lost God. For Barth, knowledge of God is incompatible with the human mind, and so all of our attempts at theology need to be tempered by a kind of agnosticism. “All human achievements are no more than prolegomena [introductory discussions]; and this is especially the case in the field of theology” (ER, 3).
Furthermore, God is not revealed in our conscience or our culture. Only God reveals God’s self. Barth rejected natural theology outright—the theology which states that we can come to know God by what we observe in the world. When his colleague Emil Brunner wrote an essay supporting a form of natural theology, Barth wrote a response entitled, No!.
For Barth, in God’s revelation we encounter a voice which is alternative to our own. It is a counter-voice. A critical one. Dare I say, an antagonistic one!
“Do we desire a test as to whether we have spoken rightly of the mission of the Son? Well, if we have not mightily offended every possible human method of investigation, and offended it at its most particularly tender spot, then assuredly we have spoken about—something else.” (ER, 252)
God is radically other than us, and so if we want to test whether or not we have a good theology, we should look at how much our conception of God calls us into question and calls our social world into question.
However, the voice of critical negation does point us to the Truth, to God’s ‘Yes’. Barth’s negative theology is not discovering what God is by what God is not, but by what we are not. God’s revelation through Jesus Christ in Scripture is never fully apprehended, but only seen as in a mirror dimly.
What we talk about when we talk about God, then, is not what we see all around us, nor is it what we find in our systematic theology, or our particular interpretation of whatever Scripture, or our getting-into-the-Holy-Spirit, or our intuition, or our #feels.
What we encounter in God’s revelation is a God who will not be domesticated. God will not be made subject to our modes of thinking and being. We are the ones who are made subject to God. Our proper response to God’s ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ is always obedience.
This is not, however, a call for obedience to a human institution which claims divine sanction. On the contrary, Barth says, “Christianity is the final protest against every high place that men can occupy” (ER, 467). Christianity is relentlessly subversive to all human structures.
What we must become obedient to is the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which is always an alternative word.
Furthermore, our obedience to God is never fully resolved or complete, but requires ongoing disputatious interpretation, meaning self-critical, conversational engagement with God’s revelation through Jesus Christ in Scripture.
Only by calling ourselves into question and calling our ‘God’ into question can we begin to construct a theology which eludes us, and by that movement reveals to us.
Jack Holloway studies Karl Barth and Marxism at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. Additionally, he is a musician and a lover of film. If you would like to read more from Jack, you can check out his blog here.
ER = The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed. Translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933.
WGWM = The Word of God & the Word of Man. Translated by Douglas Horton. New York: Harper & Bros., 1957.
OR = On Religion: The Revelation of God as the sublimation of Religion. Translated by Garrett Green. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
Like what you see here? Join us on Sunday mornings at 10:30 at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington for the conversation and our Q&A.