Hans Frei and the ‘Yale School’ of narrative theology are often understood to be Barthian in orientation, but only rarely have the origins and contours of Frei's engagement with Barth been treated in the secondary literature. Frei's dissertation itself remains unpublished, with the exception of an oddly edited abridgement that appeared ten years after Frei's untimely death. This lacuna is unfortunate, because Frei's dissertation on Barth, and especially his treatment of Barth's method, are of signal importance in that they set the agenda and orientation for much, if not all, of Frei's later work. Consequently, in this article I analyse Frei's dissertation on Barth, focusing primarily on his treatment of Barth's protest against ‘relationalism’. On Frei's reading, three moves constitute Barth's break with relationalism: the primacy of ontology over epistemology, the subordination of method to positive affirmations about God, and the conformance of interpretative method both to Barth's methodological commitments and to his affirmations about God. In his dissertation, Frei argues that Barth believed that, without these moves, theology would be vulnerable to Feuerbach's critique. Frei's construal of Barth's break with relationalism sets the agenda for Frei's own later work, in which he appropriates these Barthian moves by insisting on the primacy of biblical narratives in theological method. Similar to Barth, Frei takes twentieth-century hermeneutic theology to be vulnerable to deconstructionist critique. His insistence on the primacy of a literal reading of the biblical narratives is his attempt to rectify this vulnerability.