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An Overview and Evaluation of Karl Barth’s View of Biblical Revelation

Few theologians have exerted a greater influence on the theological scene of the 20th

century than the towering figure of Karl Barth. Even so, his view on biblical revelation

has often been targeted for criticism from both liberal and evangelical scholars. It would

nonetheless be naïve to suppose that neither camp could benefit from the correctives he

offered. According to Hunsinger, Barth has “achieved the dubious distinction of being

habitually honored but not much read”.1 The purpose of this assignment is to provide an

overview of Barth’s position and an evaluation of his prodigious contributions on the

doctrine of revelation.

Historical And Theological Background

Since no theology developed in vacuum, it would be helpful to locate Barthian theology

within the historical setting and theological trends that preceded him. By the 19th century,

Enlightenment philosophy had seriously challenged the place for religion in the public

square. Religious tradition was viewed with suspicion while boundless confidence was

placed in the progress of autonomous reason and empirical science. Even reactionary

movement like Romanticism, which emphasized self-expression and human feelings

against rationalism, still perceive religious dogma and moralistic authority as a hindrance

to authentic, individual freedom. As a response, Schleiermacher sought to reconstruct

theology as something relevant and essential to human nature itself. The source of

1
George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1991), page 27.

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theological discourse is expressing human intuition or universal feeling of total

dependence on God. Drawing from a pietistic heritage, he tried to show that true religion

is “an immediate relation to the living God, as distinct from submission to doctrinal or

creedal propositions about God.”2 By retreating from the domains of science and ethics,

theology was secured a safe refuge as an expression of God’s immanence in religious

piety. This methodology of doing theology ‘from below’ and resolving conflicts with

Enlightenment thought set the trend for liberal theology, in which Karl Barth was trained.

However, these ‘consciousness-theologians’ were not without critics. The 19th century

philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach leveled the crippling charge that such theology is

anthropology in disguise. The notion of God is merely mental projections of the

theologians themselves, making idols in the image of man. Talk about God is in the final

analysis veiled discourse about psychology of man, desiring eternal life and perfect

happiness. Rather than satisfying imaginary and unattainable desires with religion, would

it not be better to focus on attainable needs in the temporal world? Later, Barth would

concern himself with answering Feuerbach’s taunt with a theology that starts exclusively

with God’s revelation in Christ, ‘from above’ as it were, rather than man’s consciousness.

Having been a student of liberal theologians like Harnack and Herrmann, Barth was

ordained as an assistant pastor at a Reformed Church in 1908. Unfulfilled, he later moved

from Geneva to a small parish in Safenwil where the first rumblings of discontent were

felt.3 During the course of his preaching ministry, he found liberal habits of thought

2
Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age,
(InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992), page 41
3
Ibid, page 66

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unhelpful for ‘the specific minister’s problem, the sermon.’ Studying the Scriptures

diligently, Barth began to discover a strange, new world. He wrote, “As ministers we

ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought

therefore to recognize both out obligation and our inability and by that very recognition

give God the glory. This is our perplexity.”4 Barth’s theology would take seriously the

dialectical interaction between our impossibility and necessity of speaking about or for

God. Another factor that led to his revolt against liberal theology was the discovery that

his former teachers were among 94 German intellectuals who supported Kaiser

Wilhelm’s military imperialism5. He would later see how easily anthropocentric

theology, without a transcendent prophetic message, succumbed to what the Barmen

Declaration called “the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions

of the day.” Seeing no future for liberal theology, his formidable but latent theological

acumen would now be leveled against it.

An Exposition of Barth’s Doctrine of Revelation

4
Karl Barth, The Word of God and The Word of Man, translated by Douglas Horton, (New York: Harper &
Brothers, 1928), page 186
5
Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, page 66

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Contrary to the heirs of Schleiermacher, we find in Barth the insistence on God’s

absolute otherness from any human category or experiences6. One cannot speak of God

simply by speaking of man in a loud voice. God cannot be seized and made into an object

of earthly categories. That does not mean that He is ultimately unknowable. For Barth,

the only valid starting point for theological discourse is the claim that the sovereign God

proclaims his Word to humankind in three forms of revelation. The divine Word has

become incarnate, as the man Jesus of Nazareth, and in different senses, took on human

form in the prophetic witness of Scripture and in the preaching of the church7.

Richardson described this Christ-centeredness in this way: “Jesus Christ is the first Word

of the word of theology because he is the Word behind the words of Scripture”. 8

Man could not possibly work his way up to a true knowledge of God through

philosophical and anthropological supports. Barth saw in every form of natural theology

a failure to do justice to the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man. Our

search for intellectual understanding only functions within the framework of faith. In his

mature discussion on the theological method of Anselm, Barth wrote, “Therefore it is not

a question of faith requiring the ‘proof’ or the ‘joy’. There is absolutely no question at all

of a requirement of faith. Anselm wants ‘proof’ and ‘joy’ because he wants intelligere

and he wants intelligere because he believes.”9

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“Therefore, every one of the categories known to us by which we attempt to conceive him is, in the last
analysis, not really one of his categories at all. God shatters every syllogism.” Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides
Quaerens Intellectum, translated by Ian W. Robertson, (Ohio: The World Publishing, 1962), pages 29
7
Trevor Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, (Paternoster Press: Cumbria, 1999), page 28
8
Kurt Richardson, Reading Karl Barth, (Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2004), page 125
9
Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, translated by Ian W. Robertson, (Ohio: The World
Publishing, 1962), pages 16-17

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Revelation, in Barth’s understanding, is neither a collection of static statements found in

Scripture nor mythical metaphors representing the truth found behind Scripture. Barth

sought to do justice to the dialectic between the word of God and the words of man,

disclosure and concealment, the form of revelation and the revealing Subject. As a

witness or vehicle of revelation, Scripture points away from itself to the self-revelation of

God. Torrance summed it up in this way, “Biblical statements are true not because they

capture the truth in themselves but because they refer to truth independent of themselves.

A distinction is thus to be recognized between true statements and the truth of the

statements.”10 Instead of an inerrant deposit of divine truth, revelation is conceived as a

dynamic event whereby the Word himself freely and actively speaks to us through the

historically conditioned, sometimes contradictory and limited human words of Scripture.

The words of man in scripture and preaching become the Word of God whenever that

sovereign and gracious personal act happens11.

“The Bible is the concrete means by which the Church recollects God’s past revelation, is

called to expectation of His future revelation… The Bible, then, is not in itself and as

such God’s past revelation.”12 In response to the emergence of biblical criticism and

Strauss’ search for the historical Jesus, Barth does not deny the value of studying the

biblical text as a text per se. However, he would object to the attempt to find God by

treating the texts as merely an object of historical study. Truth cannot be captured in

“abstraction from an encounter with the person of the living God”.13 God must ever be

10
Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990),
page 112
11
Trevor Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, page 44
12
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), page 111
13
George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, page 27

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the Subject who freely reveals despite its human imperfections in and of itself. From that

vantage point, divine revelation remains possible and invincible, unperturbed by any

archeological finding or textual evidence that may suggest any scientific or historical

errors.

It has been popular nowadays to repeat clichés like “Truth is a person, not a proposition”.

Indeed, Jesus is the Word of God. However, the personal character of God’s Word should

not be played off against its verbal character. It rather means that Jesus Christ is a free

subject, rather than a thing that can be objectified or captured. “He is not bound to it but it

to Him. He has free control over the wording of the Holy Scripture. He can use it or not

use it… What Holy Scripture proclaims as His Word can be proclaimed in a new wording

as His Word so long as it is He himself who speaks in this wording.”14 As such, the

wording in Scripture could never be reduced or fossilized as a human system. The human

subject should always be the object of the speaking God who initiates and completes his

knowledge. This personal encounter should not be mistaken for some mystical feeling for

God speaks in the form of Word with its cognitive content. “As event or happening we

can no more hold on to it or recreate it than we can cause it. We can only live in faith,

recollecting it has happened once in the past, and trusting God’s promise that it will

happen in the future”.15 We should not confuse the event of a romantic encounter with the

empty hall in which it once took place.

An Evaluation of Barth’s View of Revelation

14
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.1, page 139
15
Trevor Hart, Regarding Karl Barth, page 31

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There has been increasing interest in the evangelical community to rediscover Barth as

scholars sought to rethink theology within an emerging postmodern context. His

methodology in which theology retains autonomy over other sciences has been lauded as

a fruitful non-foundational response to the Enlightenment demand for objective and

universal truth. In light of some affinities with postmodern tendencies, post-foundational

theologian John Franke is hopeful that Barth’s greatest influence still lies in the future

through the works of Hans Frei, Graham Ward, Walter Lowe and others.

Barth’s emphasis on the unique Word of God, from above, also offered a prophetic stance

over world events, powers and movements. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Barth

was quick in criticizing Nazi ideology of expelling Jewish Christians from ministry and

growing encroachment of a “German Christian” movement which regarded the Fuhrer as

a German prophet16. Co-founding the Confessing Church, he was also instrumental in

drafting the Barmen Declaration, which resisted the temptation to identify God’s

revelation in other events, powers and historical figures beyond the God incarnate, Jesus

Christ. His courageous refusal to submit to the Fuhrer cost him teaching positions in

universities and he was subsequently sent back to Switzerland. From our vantage point

after the World War, we could see with moral clarity the evils of Nazi ideology.

However, it is a testament of Barth’s theology that it offered a powerful critique of

oppressive political powers at a time when the church and world in general were still

having moral blind spots.

16
Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, (T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1990),
page 9

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Hans Urs von Balthasar once likened his theology to an hourglass “where God and man

meet at the center through Jesus Christ. There is no other point of encounter between the

top and bottom portions of the glass.”17 However, in his understandable zeal to emphasize

the transcendence of God’s revelation in Christ, an alleged “christomonism” may have

failed to do justice to God’s general revelation available to the entire human race through

nature as mentioned in Romans 1-2 and Psalm 19. His assumptions that genuine

revelation would always bring forth positive and salvific response influenced his

interpretation of such texts as merely expressing a witness in nature that is already known

from special revelation. Yet the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is that both

Gentiles and Jews, with and without the law, knew God because He has made it plain by

the things that have been created.18 Therefore, they are without excuse of being totally

ignorant of God. Bertrand Russell’s plea that God has not given him enough evidence for

faith would have some currency if God did not leave a universal and accessible witness

apart from the law. For Paul, at least, the issue is willful suppression of knowledge

already in their comprehension.

In the works of conservative scholars like Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til, Barth

was criticized for clinging to the ‘upper story’ of religious meaning without being

grounded in the ‘lower story’ of historical facts, rationality and science.19 “His position

was that though the Bible contains mistakes, “a religious word” comes through anyway.

17
Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, page 76
18
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, pages 191-194. Erickson provided a more detailed exegetical
discussion on the relevant texts.
19
Francis Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer Trilogy: The God Who Is There, (Leicester: Intervarsity Press,
1990), page 86

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“Religious truth” is separated from the historical truth of the Scriptures.”20 There is no

way to verify its truth claims. The critique of fideism should not be dismissed too

quickly. Concerning those who would use any ‘other fact’ besides the fact of God to

support the Christian religion, he has this poignant critique:

“But the Christian religion cannot be supported from without if it can no longer stand

alone. If it does stand alone it does not allow itself to be supported from without.

Standing alone, it stands upon the fact of God, which justifies it, and upon that alone.

There is therefore no place for attempts to support it any other way.”21

In more recent times, Wolfhart Pannenberg, a former student of Barth, has made

necessary corrective to what he perceived to be increasing privatization of modern

theology as a merely subjective sphere ‘sheltered’ from public scientific or historical

inquiry. The retreat of theology into a cultural ghetto owes much to a post-Enlightenment

milieu which views authority with suspicion. Systematic theology ought to be a discipline

in search for universal truth that illumines all human knowledge. As such, theological

statements ought to be boldly open to rational inquiry of the historical basis on which

they rest. Faith is not to be seen as a pietistic leap in the dark. The Christian faith hinges

on the historical event of Christ’s bodily resurrection in space-time (1 Corinth. 15:14). As

an event in history, it is open to rigorous investigation according to sound principles of

historiography.

20
Francis Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer Trilogy: Escape From Reason, page 240
21
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, page 357

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While Barth would insist that the human words in biblical text are fallible, he also forbid

judgment to be made since there is no “absolute position from which to establish actual

errors”.22 We may justifiably suspect that Barth is happily inconsistent at this point. For

what hermeneutical value is it to “say that errors are present but cannot be firmly

delineated?”23 Not a few scholars have also pointed the paradoxical fact that for someone

who denies the infallibility of Scripture, he somehow managed to come up with

voluminous propositions in the Church Dogmatics! Grenz and Olson put this question

pointedly, “Would it have been possible for Barth to spin out his magnificent modern

exposition of classical Christian belief if he had held consistently to his theory of

Scripture?”24 Perhaps, evangelicals of an earlier generation like Carnell were right in

calling Barth ‘an inconsistent evangelical’ at heart.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, evangelicals have much to gain from a closer reading of Barth’s theology

in order to avoid the danger of bibliolatry. That is, in our zeal to defend the inerrancy of

Scripture from critics, the temptation is to confuse or merge its humanity with its divine

character. The result is a docetic view of Scripture. If a Christological analogy is

appropriate here, we may stretch it further and say that inspired Scripture is fully human

like us in every way yet without sin or error. In the same token, the distinct human

dimension should not be ‘separated’ from the divine in a Nestorian fashion either. In

22
Geoffrey Bromiley, Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publ., 1979),
page 44
23
Gregory Bolich, Karl Barth & Evangelicalism, page 192
24
Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, page 76

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holding them in tension, we could affirm an authentic, Chalcedonian union of its dual

natures.

After all, the inherent authority of Scripture located in God’s once-for-all verbal

inspiration of its authors is compatible with Barth’s stress upon the ongoing internal

testimony of the Holy Spirit, which shines in the readers’ darkened hearts to give them

full assurance of its authority.25 Didn’t Article V of Westminster Confession also teaches

that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof,

is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our

hearts”?26 There is perhaps more convergence of views here than meet the eye.

However, I am also wary of a certain circularity in this argument here which Strauss

called “the Archilles’ heel of the Protestant system”. To be sure, we know that the Word

is inspired through the gracious work of the Spirit. However, while showing to others

that the Bible is God’s Word, especially in a pluralistic context where our presuppositions

are not shared, Christians may need to broaden the circle further. It is legitimate to start

from the claims of Scripture and then work out how on its own self-testimony alone

could we make sense of our human experience, history, the cosmos and morality in a

comprehensive and coherent manner. In our own time, the question of biblical authority

encounters the twin dangers of restrictive authoritarianism on one side and lawless

individualism on the other. Here Barth is a reliable guide in showing us that in its

25
Karl Barth, Translated by G. W. Bromiley, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instructions in the Christian
Religion, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub., 1990), page 225.
26
Westminster Confession of Faith, (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Pub., 1973), page 22

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freedom, God’s word exercise authority and the interpretive community is truly free

when it is obedient to the Word.

Instead of accepting everything Barth wrote as ‘gospel truth’ or tearing it apart in

reactionary fashion, we should instead read Barth dialectically as a response suggested by

Bernard Ramm. “The evangelical who reads Barth dialectically is just as ready to grant

Barth one point as to criticize him at another.”27 With caution, we could recognize a debt

to him for dropping a bomb on the theologians’ playground and putting orthodox

doctrines like Trinity back to center stage. We also find in him admirable qualities like

the humility and courage in which he continually refine his views from foreign

philosophical baggage. When someone once asked Barth to summarize his massive

volumes, he thought for a moment and then said: "The greatest theological insight that I

have ever had is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Bibliography

1. 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, Stanley Grenz & Roger

Olson, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992

27
Bernard Ramm, The Evangelical Heritage, page 110

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2. Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, Karl Barth, Translated by Ian W. Robertson, The

World Publishing: Ohio, 1962

3. Christianity And Barthianism, Cornelius Van Til, Presbyterian And Reformed

Publishing: Pennsylvania, 1962

4. Christian Theology, Millard Erickson, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2001

5. Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Karl Barth, Translated by G.W.

Bromiley, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1999

6. Church Dogmatics: Selections, Karl Barth, Selections by Helmut Gollwitzer, T & T

Clark: Edinburgh, 1961

7. How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape Of His Theology, George Hunsinger, Oxford

University Press: New York, 1991

8. Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans Publishing:

Grand Rapids, 1979

9. Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, Thomas Torrance, T & T Clark:

Edinburgh, 1990

10. Karl Barth & Evangelicalism, Gregory Bolich, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1980

11. Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology, Kurt Anders

Richardson, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2004

12. Regarding Karl Barth, Trevor Hart, Paternoster Press: Cumbria, 1999

13. The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instructions in the Christian Religion, Karl Barth, Translated

by G. W. Bromiley, Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1990

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