Hostname: page-component-6b989bf9dc-zrclq Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-14T19:39:38.573Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

On Style in Karl Barth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Katherine Sonderegger
Middlebury CollegeMiddlebury, Vermont 05753


Karl Barth exacts a heavy punishment on his critics. Reading his many volumes is toil as well as pleasure, as Barth himself observed, in the special irony he reserved for his own work. But it is not the length of the Church Dogmatics, the scripture commentaries, the sermons or the letters, however great, that weighs on the critic. Critics are bothered — for lack of a better term — by his style.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 1992

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


page 65 note 1 See, for example, Barth's gentle self-deprecations in the Prefaces to the Church Dogmatics, especially vols. II. 2 and IV. 2. Despite his loud proclamations of a lost taste for controversy, however, these are self-deprecations with a sting.

page 65 note 2 This is Maurice Wiles' characterization, quoted in Frei, Hans, ‘An Afterword: Eberhard Busch's Biography of Karl Barth’ in Karl Barth in Re-View: Posthumous Works Reviewed and Assessed, ed. Rumscheidt, H.-Martin (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1981), p. 115.Google Scholar

page 66 note 3 Frei, ‘Afterword’, Barth in Re-View, p. 109.Google Scholar

page 66 note 4 The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Hoskyns, Edwyn C. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933) p. 331Google Scholar; Der Romerbrief, 1922, (Zurich: Theologische Verlag, 1940), p. 315.Google Scholar

page 67 note 5 Romans, p. 36; Romerbrief, p. 12.

page 67 note 6 For two versions of this break, see Frei, Hans, The Doctrine of Revelation in the Thought of Karl Rarth, 1909 to 1922: The Nature of Barth's Break with Liberalism (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1956)Google Scholar and Torrance, Thomas, Karl Barth: An Introduction to his Early Theology, 1910–1931 (London: SCM Press, 1962).Google Scholar

page 67 note 7 Sec, for example, the introduction to Barth in Livingston, James, Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II (New York: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 339340Google Scholar; Hans Frei's dissertation, The Doctrine of Revelation in the Thought of Karl Barth, 1909–1922, Chapter III.A ‘The Debt to Relationalism and Idealism’, and Tracy's, David understanding of Barth as both a ‘dialectical and analogical’ theologian in The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1987), Chapter 10.Google Scholar

page 67 note 8 Barth's major essays on Schleiermacher can be found in The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 trans. Bromiley, G. W., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982Google Scholar; Protestant Thought in the 19th Century SCM Press, 1972Google Scholar; and the brief, but provocative ‘Concluding Unscientific Postcript on Schleiermacher’ included in The Theology of Schleiermacher. For commentary on Barth's complex and unsettled relationship to Schleiermacher, see Barth and Schleiermacher: Beyond the Impasse? Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.Google Scholar

page 68 note 9 Barth, KarlTexte zur Barmer Theologischen Erklarng (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1984), pp. 2, 3.Google Scholar

page 68 note 10 There are many examples, but the well-worn story of Barth's summary of his thought — ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’ — might be the most celebrated and colloquial presentation of this interpretation. Other sites are Barth's essay on Feuerbach in Protestant Thought in the 19th Century and his responses to students in Karl Barth's Table Talk, ed. Godsey, John (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963).Google Scholar

page 69 note 11 Barth's point is that this idea is common to the Liberal school, but the language is Harnack's, Adolf, found in What is Christianity? trans. Saunders, Thomas Bailey (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978).Google Scholar

page 69 note 12 This celebrated sneer can be found in many places, but chief among these is Barth's essay on Feuerbach in Protestant Thought in the 19th Century.

page 70 note 13 Schleiermacher, F. D. E.The Christian Faith trans. Mackintosh, H. R. and Stewart, J. S. (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1928), Section 15.Google Scholar

page 70 note 14 ‘Relationalism’ and ‘Relational theology’ are the coinage of Hans Frei; used as terms of derogation, see, for example, Hamilton, KennethSchleiermacher and Relational Theology’, Journal of Religion, 44, no. 1.Google Scholar

page 70 note 15 von Balthasar, Hans UrsKarl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung Seiner Theologie (Im Summa-Verlag zu Olten: Hegner Bucherei, 1951), especially Parts III and IV.Google Scholar

page 70 note 16 Küng's major work on Barth is Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection trans. Collins, Thomas, Tolk, Edmund E., Granskou, David (Nashville: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1964).Google Scholar

page 71 note 17 Küng, HansKarl Barth and the Post-Modern Paradigm’, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin IX, no. 1 (1988), pp. 2426.Google Scholar

page 72 note 18 ‘Karl Barth and the Post-Modern Paradigm’, p. 27, 29.

page 72 note 19 Frei's, Hans description, found, among other places, in ‘Niebuhr's Theological Background’ in Faith and Ethics: The Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr, ed. Ramsey, Paul (New York: Harper and Bros., 1957), Chapter III, pp. 964.Google Scholar

page 73 note 20 The famous ‘bell-ringer’ story is from the Christliche Dogmatik (Munchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1927), p. IXGoogle Scholar, cited in Busch, EberhardKarl Barth, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 121Google Scholar. The letters to Thurneysen are collected and translated in Revolutionary Theology in the Making, ed. Smart, James D. (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964)Google Scholar; Excerpts from the originals published in Antwort: Festschrift Karl Barth (Zurich: Zollikon, 1956), pp. 831865.Google Scholar

page 73 note 21 See, for example, The Humanity of God, trans. Thomas, John Newton (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974), pp. 4146.Google Scholar

page 73 note 22 I have in mind such figures as Paul van Buren, as a theorist of secularity, Dorothee Soelle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Friedrich Marquardt, and James Robinson. See the essay by Sykes, Stephen, ‘The Study of Barth’ in Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979)Google Scholar for another version of this ‘self-transformation’ of Barth's theology by his radical disciples.

page 74 note 23 See R. H. Roberts ‘Karl Barth's Doctrine of Time: Its Nature and Implications’ in Sykes, S.Karl Barth, pp. 88146Google Scholar. Barth's actualist tendencies, strongest in Romans, became balanced by God's being—the One who loves in freedom — in the Dogmatics. The ‘irreducible subjectivity’ of God's trinitarian life, as Barth expressed his aim in the doctrine of the Trinity, demands a ‘living’ God, who acts, and acts in sovereign freedom.

page 74 note 24 Others have ranged Barth in the phenomenological field, too, though, in making this report, I intend to place only one foot in this camp. I am not arguing that Barth is a phenomenologist, much less that he thought himself so. The parallels, however, are striking, and I think instructive. So, too, do Smith, StevenThe Argument to the Other: Reason beyond Reason in the Thought of Karl Barth and Emmanuel Levinas. (Chico: Scholars' Press, 1983)Google Scholar and Adriaanse, H. A.Zu den Sachen selbst. Versuch einer Konfrontation der Theologie Karl Barths mil der phaenomenologischen Philosophic Edmund Husserls. (The Hague: Mouton, 1974)Google Scholar. Though Barth himself did not make much of it at the time, his students saw parallels between his thought and the phenomenologisis. See his letters to Thurneysen in Revolutionary Theology in the Making, pp. 170, (for his reaction to Heidegger), and pp. 205, 222.

page 75 note 25 The Church Dogmatics, vol. 4.3, first half, p. 17S; Kirkliche Dogmatik, vol.4. 3, first half, pp. 197, 198.

page 76 note 26 These phrases belong to Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, Bultmann (whom I include for this idea, at least, among the Liberals); and Harnack.

page 76 note 27 See, for example, Church Dogmatics vol. 4.1, no. 59.3, ‘The Verdict of the Father’, section 4, on the ‘History of the Resurrection’.

page 76 note 28 Church Dogmatics, vol. 4.2, no. 64.2 ‘The Homecoming of the Son of Man’, section 4, on the communicatio operationum. Gotthold Lessing, the German dramatist and essayist, argued that religious truth demands certainty, and that it can never be found in the figures and events of history, a field of uncertain and changing facts. He advocated a Religion of Reason (truths common to all rational minds) combined with the native optimism of the 18th century about the moral education of the human race over time and a prescient taste for the 19th century notion of development.

page 77 note 29 See, for example, Barth's celebrated ‘open letters’ with Harnack, collected in Revelation and Theology, ed. and trans. Rumscheidt, Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972).Google Scholar

page 77 note 30 Some can be detected in the essays, Word of God; Word of Man, trans. Horton, D. (Pilgrim Press, 1928)Google Scholar [Das Wort Gott und die Theologie], especially ‘The Problem of Ethics Today’; Barth himself mused out loud about its effect on his early thought in The Humanity of God, pp. 39–41. Busch, Eberhard, however, in his intellectual biography of Barth, Karl Barth, trans. Bowden, J. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976)Google Scholar rejects the claim that Barth's break with Liberalism represented a response to the crisis of confidence common to Europeans after the War; see Barth, p. 120.

page 78 note 31 This was Schweitzer's, Albert famous messianic portrait in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. Montgomery, W. (New York: Macmillan, 1968), Chapter XIX; pp. 370, 371.Google Scholar

page 79 note 32 This is a leitmotiv of the Dogmatics as a whole; Barth first develops this theme in vol. 1.1, paragraph 4.3 ‘The Revealed Word of God’.

page 79 note 33 Barth's hegelian turns of mind are well-known. For his use of hegelian terminology in the doctrine of the Trinity, see Williams, R. D., ‘Barth on the Triune God’ in Sykes Karl Barth, pp. 147193.Google Scholar

page 80 note 34 Epistle to the Romans, p. 254.

page 80 note 35 Barth's own writings do not always stay clear of such ‘domestication’. Consider, for example, the tone struck by Barth's response to his students in his Tabletalk, in his answers to scholars in a Chicago conference, ‘Introduction to Theology: Questions to and Discussion with Dr Karl Barth’, recorded in the University of Chicago Divinity School newsletter, Criterion, (Winter, 1963), pp. 311 and 18–24Google Scholar; and his addresses collected in Dogmatics in Outline, trans. Thomson, G. T. (New York: Harper and Row, 1959).Google Scholar

page 81 note 36 Barth has been accused, especially by his Catholic critics, of ‘Occasionalism’ in his marked emphasis upon God's act in revelation. See, for example Hamer, J.Karl Barth: L'Occasionalisme théologique de Karl Barth (Paris: Desclé de Brouwer, 1949)Google Scholar. Strictly speaking, occasionalism is a philosophical position, metaphysical or epistemological, which holds that ordered causality between created things does not exist — God alone acts — or cannot be known to its observers. By extension, occasionalism in theology works to undo stability in the creaturely realm or faithfulness in the divine, and it is in this sense that the term has been used against Barth. He has shown himself sensitive to the charge — God's love is ordered to his freedom — but defends himself against it by underscoring the divine fidelity in election and covenant.

page 82 note 37 [L]e sujet donts' occupe une bonne dogmatique est inépuisable. Et donc, je n'ai jamais eu le sentiment de me répéter, parce que, dans tous ces milliers de pages j'étais comme si je faisais la ronde, autour d'une montagne et puis qui se présente, maintenant de ce coté, maintenant d'un autre. Et puis moi, je ne me suis jamais ennuyé. C'était toujours la meme montagne, n'est-ce pas. Et enfin, je marchais, j'espère aussi que mes chers lecteurs, se sentent invités de marcher avec moi, autour de cette montagne et que je ne les ennuie pas parce que c'est toujours moi qui explique les beautés de cette montagne. Reforme, Samedi 30 Mai 1964 [Saturday, May 30, 1964].

page 83 note 38 While the phrase itself appears in Calvin's Preface to the New Testament, the idea of the creation as a mirror of God's glory and providence echoes throughout the Institute, particularly Chapter V, ‘The Knowledge of God Shines Forth in the Fashioning of the Universe and the Continuing Government of It’.