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By C. Fred Alford


The Montréal Review, June 2022



Making sense of Karl Barth in a couple of thousand words is absurd, right? Yet, Barth summarized his own teaching in a dozen words. When asked in 1962 (on his one visit to America) how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, he replied with the words of a children's song, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."  It's a good summary of his later work, and helps put his Church Dogmatics in a human context. For the younger Barth, the very idea of a human context was the problem, not the solution. It's essential to distinguish between Barth early and late.

It's also important not to ignore his unconventional private life, a ménage à trois among Barth, his wife Nelly, and his secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum. The complicated relationship lasted almost four decades. I think it might have a softened his theology so as to accommodate his selfishness. A good result for a bad reason. 

Religion is the problem

Barth's key point, his thesis, is that religion is the problem. "Religion is unbelief; religion is a business, one has to say: the business of the godless man." (Church Dogmatics, his emphasis)

Religion is at the mercy of society. Any society. However, this was particularly true in Nazi Germany, where the church capitulated to the Hitler, allowing him to appoint the chief bishop of the German (Lutheran) church. Barth led an attempt to establish an alternative "Confessing Church," but it too capitulated, rejecting converted Jews.

Scripture and revelation

Religion tames God, fitting him to our current needs. Barth wants to return to an original experience of God, which is possible only in revelation. But what he means is not his revelation, or yours, but the revelation that is written of in the scriptures, and testified to by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. (Barth, Epistle)

Scripture is holy and the Word of God, because by the Holy Spirit it became and will become to the Church a witness to divine revelation. (Barth, Answer)

Barth does not assume that authors of the Gospels were divinely inspired, but he assumes away the vast problems of different interpretations in different ages and cultures. Barth does not completely reject the historical critical interpretation of the Bible (form and redaction criticism), which looks at the historical circumstances in which the books of the New Testament were written. For example, redaction criticism has found that each of the four Gospels is the work of many men revising the work of their predecessors. There is no eyewitness testimony. The first gospel, Mark, was written no earlier than 40 years after the death of Jesus Christ; its attribution to a man named Mark is purely conventional.

The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of the faith which hears God Himself speak through the Biblical word of man.  (Barth, Answer)

The acceptance of this unbelievable testimony of the Scriptures I call faith. Again I do not claim that this is a discovery of my theology. I do ask, however, what else faith could be—disregarding sentimentalities—but the obedience I give to a human word which testifies to the Word of God as a word addressed to me, as if it were itself God’s Word?  (Barth, Answer)

How could Barth's claim be upheld? Some Biblical claims are more important than others. The belief that God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ is central. Magical cures, walking on water, and lots of bread and fish are not. Unless, that is, we accept them as metaphors useful at the time Christ lived in order to explain an experience of extraordinary power. But Barth doesn't accept the latter interpretation. It is too historical and contextual. It's all or nothing with Barth. 

Church Dogmatics

Barth's Church Dogmatics contains over six million words, and approximately 15,000 biblical citations.  It was incomplete at the time of his death. It's widely regarded as the most important work of Protestant theology in the twentieth-century. (It's called "dogmatics" because it assumes, rather than argues, that God revealed himself in scripture.) But if the assumption it is based on is false, then we must question the entire project.

Barth would distance God, making him unknowable. God is knowable only through Jesus Christ, as he appears in the gospels when read from the perspective of faith. 

A theologian’s claims either will be grounded in their own creaturely ideas about God or they will be grounded on what God has revealed in Christ. There is no compromise, nor is there any alternative.  (Johnson, Conclusion, p 359) 

Against Barth argued Adolf Harnack, who seems right at every turn: there must be a connection between the Bible and human moral ideals (though these ideals can be perverted; if so, then the Bible can act as a check on culture). If there is no continuity, the Bible can provide no comprehensible moral guidance.  Furthermore, if divine revelation is separated from history, the history of Israel and the church become irrelevant (Johnson, note 23, p 56)

Barth's personal life

Before looking at Barth's later theology, it's worth paying attention to his personal life. For almost four decades (37 years) Barth lived in an adulterous relationship with his wife Nelly, and his secretary and lover, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. For most of that time they lived together in the same house. Nelly was never happy with the situation, as you might imagine; neither was Charlotte.

Lots of people who have made major contributions to public life have failed in their private lives. Thomas Jefferson had a child with one of his slaves. A slave cannot consent. Yet, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which for all its flaws and omissions is a noble document. Can't we just say the same thing about Barth? A flawed personal life does not devalue his theology. Unfortunately, it's not so easy.  Barth rationalizes his adultery in a way that runs counter to his theology. Perhaps not just Barth's life, but his early theology, were both flawed.

Barth, as just seen, asserted that we must ground our theology in the revelation of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. This was his argument against the Enlightenment. Subjective experience not only doesn't count; it is the enemy. But in his letters to Charlotte, most of which have been preserved, Barth justifies himself entirely in terms of subjective experience, saying in effect that their relationship felt so good and so right that it had to come from God.

It cannot be the devil's work. It must have some meaning and a right to live. … I love you and do not see any chance to stop this. (Galli)

Christiane Tietz, who published an article based on his letters, argues that they reveal an

insecure Barth . . . which stands in some contrast to the theological Barth with his clear judgment and harsh opinion. (Tietz, p 99)

Barth writes in what has rightly been called a magisterial style, as though his work was an addendum to the Sermon on the Mount. Barth's letters, on the other hand, are written in a whiny 'why can't it be easier for me?' tone.

Barth explains that he does not want to flee the cross of an unfulfilled marriage. But why should God not allow us to take the cross on the other shoulder? (Tietz, p 104)

Is Barth really comparing himself to Christ? Did Christ get to move his cross to a more comfortable position? What does taking the cross on the other shoulder even mean? That he gets to have two wives?

Barth's later theology

In an essay written when he was over 70, Barth relaxes, expressing the relationship between God and man in covenantal terms, the terms of partnership. He moves from talking about the absolute otherness of God to "His togetherness with man." (Humanity of God, p 99)  To even write the "humanity of God" would once have been anathema to Barth.

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in Him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in His one Person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. (Humanity of God, p 100, author's emphasis)

In Barth's view, his early theology failed because he didn't recognize the intimate relationship between God and humanity expressed in Jesus Christ. We fail to understand God unless we recognize his decision to live in covenant with Man.

Prison Sermons

One of the best, and most agreeable, ways to understand Karl Barth is to read the sermons he delivered to the inmates of Basel Prison. Delivered relatively late in his life, in his late 60's and early 70's, they are remarkably clear and free of jargon (Deliverance; Call for God). More than this, they convey the way in which he changed his view on the otherness of God, who in his prison sermons becomes someone who loves and wants to be loved.

What his command says when we hear and understand it properly is this: Allow yourself now quite simply to be loved by me, and love me in return. That, just that, is ‘the good,’ if you do it. That, just that, is the root, the meaning, the force of all Ten Commandments. ‘Love and do what you like’ said a great father of the Church [Augustine]. A bold saying, but a true one. For that’s what it’s like.  (Call for God, p 24)


I have taken away from many people many things (namely beautiful and dear and high things!), because I pointed to the question, to the claim, which is posed to human beings, to the judgment to which they are subject and to which they have to submit themselves. I certainly think I very often spoke too strictly, too securely, having to sacrifice concretely only very little myself. (Tietz, quoting Barth, p 108)

Was the increasing humanity of Barth's theology in later years, in which Jesus becomes not only our judge, but also our companion, "man's loyal partner," the result of his struggle to come to terms with his own "complicated" existence?  Perhaps, but if so, the price was paid by others. 


P.S. Charlotte had a nervous disorder, and died at a relatively young age. It was Nelly, Barth's widow, who made sure she was buried in the family cemetery plot.


C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.



Karl Barth, “An Answer to Adolf von Harnack’s Open Letter,” in The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, by Keith L. Johnson, pp 44-57.  Baker Academic, 2019 [cited as Answer]

Karl Barth, "The Humanity of God," in The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, by Keith L. Johnson, pp 93-102.  Baker Academic, 2019 

Karl Barth, Call for God: New Sermons from Basel Prison.  Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd., revised edition, 2012. 

Carl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives.  Wipf and Stock, 2010.  [Cited as Deliverance]

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God, vol. 1, part 2, §17.  Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance.  T&T Clark, 2010. 

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edition, translated by E. C. Hoskyns. Oxford University Press, 1933. 

Mark Galli, What to make of Karl Barth's steadfast adultery.  Christianity Today, Oct. 20, 2017.  www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html

Keith L. Johnson, editor.  The Essential Karl Barth: Reader and Commentary.  Baker Academic, 2019 [Reader].

Christiane Tietz, "Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum," Theology Today, 2017 (vol. 74, #2, 86-111).


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