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Chapter Nineteen


After his split with Bultmann, Brunner and Gogarten, Karl Barth (1886­1968) developed an alternative to liberal theology mid-way, or seemingly mid-way, between historic Protestantism and Protestant modernism.

The Epistle to the Romans had not only made him famous. It turned him from a pastor into a professor of theology, eventually of world renown. Between the appearance of the first and second editions of The Epistle he was offered a chair at Göttingen, moving to Münster in 1925 and Bonn in 1930. With the rise of the Nazis, he joined the minority German Protestant opposition, and took the lead in drawing up the Barmen Declaration against the Nazis' pseudo-religious claims (1934). When forced to leave Germany in the following year, he was offered a post at the university of Basle, and at Basle he remained for the rest of his life.

Throughout World War II he used his reputation to stiffen Swiss resistance to the Nazi regime, even joining the Swiss army as a gesture of solidarity with the anti-Nazi opposition. But afterwards, like Buber, without in any sense excusing the Nazi war crimes, he worked to reconcile Germany and its conquerors. During the Cold War, on the other hand, he took what was then the "politically correct" line for the bulk of the Western intelligentsia. He made a point of dissociating himself from anti-communist campaigns. 177 In 1962 he retired from teaching, but continued to write and generally be an oracle on religious, political and social affairs until his death six years later.

Meanwhile, from the late 1920s, he had been working on his formidable Church Dogmatics, a survey and reinterpretation of the greater part of pre-Reformation and Reformation theology in the light of his newly found principles and approaches. By the time of his death it was longer than St Thomas's Summa. There are 13 volumes in 4 parts, devoted respectively to The Word of God, God, Creation, and Reconciliation. 178 As the volumes  appeared one by one, so his reputation expanded until it was greater than that of any other Protestant scholar of the time. The rewritten first volume, published in 1932, marked the final break with Bultmann. The fifth and final part on the Redemption remained unwritten.

His reputation can also, I think, be attributed to the fact that he was more than just a theologian. He was a character, a "personality," in the sense that the English Prime Ministers Gladstone and Churchill were personalities. One feels that whatever he had done in life he would have made a mark. He had an exceptionally strong will, and an astounding self-assurance and stubbornness which enabled him to maintain the most obviously wrong­headed positions against opposition from all directions without losing his nerve or prestige. Without being malicious or vindictive his natural combativeness was tempered by a sense of humour about himself he also loved a good fight. He was both fascinated and amused by his success. 179

At first sight, Barth's blend of Kierkegaard, Luther and a reconstructed Calvinism looked like a total rejection of modernism. Hence the name neo-orthodoxy.

God, Barth insisted against every current of fashionable Swiss-German theological thinking, is not an immanent, semi-pantheistic, possibly evolving  Being, speaking to men mainly through religious feeling or experience. Equally to be deplored were Bultmann's attempts to put Christianity at the service of Heidegger's existentialism. No. All these attempts to cut God down to the level of man's understanding had as little to do with the one true God as Hinduism and Buddhism have. The real God, the God of the Bible, is an all-powerful, incomprehensible, transcendent Being, completely "Other," standing in judgement above and outside His creation, though in complete control of it. Between this God and His creation, the gulf is unbridgeable. Poor miserable man, sunk in sin, is incapable of remedying his situation in any way until God takes the initiative.

Only if man opens himself to God's Word and grace when it "confronts" him in the Church's never-ceasing "proclamation" and responds with faith do things begin to improve. 180 The Word of God, not human experience, is the source of our knowledge and salvation. His full and final Word is the Person of Jesus Christ, God and man, the one and only Lord and Master of creation, who truly rose from the dead, not just in spirit, initiating a kingdom not to be confused with any earthly utopia. Christians must love and do good to their fellow men, but in no way is the building of the kingdom of God to be equated with human progress. There is no way of harmonising the wisdom of this world with the folly of the Cross.

In the theological climate of the 1920s and '30s, all this was astonishing enough. Traditional Protestants began to take heart, and Catholic theologians to prick up their ears. What Barth was saying might not coincide exactly with Catholic teaching. But it sounded a great deal better than most of what had been coming out of German Protestant theological faculties for the last 100 years. Here at last, surely, was a major Protestant figure with enough solid belief to make discussion worthwhile.

Moreover as time went on, Barth began to make his Calvinist God less remote and forbidding; to speak less about "God the Other" standing in judgement over men and nations and more about "the humanity of God" and the "God who is for man" and involves Himself in human history. Although God often has to say No to man, He is primarily a God who says Yes to him. This meant having to find a way around Calvin's doctrine of double predestination (from all eternity some are predestined to salvation, others to damnation).

Nothing daunted, Barth set to work and concluded that double predestination only applied to Christ. As representative of guilty humanity, Christ was first rejected on the Cross, then at the Resurrection accepted and raised to glory. Barth's later theology is spoken of as "swamped in grace." As a pastor, which he remained in spirit throughout his life, he repeatedly insists on the need for Christians to put all their trust in Christ and be cheerful and hopeful. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself" Such is the core of the kerygma or the Church's earliest "proclamation?' Such is the good news to which it is the Christian community's principal task to bear witness. What more can anyone want? As the bearer and transmitter of God's Word, the Church is as important as the Bible, indeed more important. 181

Contacts with Catholic theologians had begun as early as the 1920s. In 1928, Barth had been studying St Thomas, whom he found "uncannily instructive" and difficult to answer, so he invited the German Jesuit theologian Fr Erich Przywara (1889-1972) to a debate in his seminar. Przywara had just made a name for himself with his Philosophy of Religion. Barth was impressed, and the following spring asked Przywara to give a lecture on the Church. Przywara, Barth recorded, "shone for another two hours in my seminar and finally overwhelmed me for two whole evenings... 182 By this time Barth was teaching at Bonn, and that he was feeling the attractions of Catholicism seems indisputable. He was in contact with other Catholic theologians besides Przywara and often visited the monks at Maria Laach, sometimes with his students. In the preface to Part 1, Volume 3 of Church Dogmatics, he speaks of being reproached by Protestant colleagues for studying St Anselm and St Thomas and of having to defend himself against the accusation of "Catholicising." In 1931 he could find only one reason for not becoming a Catholic; all the other Christian denominations were "short-sighted and frivolous." This seemed to include the Orthodox. After a visit from the Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky, Barth spoke of not having "an overwhelming impression that we really needed this Eastern theology," and referred to the "obscurantist effect of Russian thought-patterns." 183 The one stumbling block to becoming a Catholic, apparently, was the Church's teaching that God can to some extent be known from his works. (The technical term is analogia entis, which Barth came to describe as "the invention of Anti­Christ.") Why this was such a stumbling block we shall see shortly.  By the end of the decade, however, there had been a change. Barth was entrenching himself more and more in a position which involved fighting off the objections of traditional Protestants and Christian existentialists like Bultmann and Brunner on the one hand, and justifying himself against the positions and practices of "Rome" on the other, with Rome as the principal target of his polemics and sarcasms.

The younger generation of Catholics who started visiting him in the following decade after the publication of the early volumes of the Church Dogmatics therefore had a tougher, more self-confident figure to deal with. Barth was no longer discovering marvels in Catholicism. Instead his Catholic visitors were to some extent looking to him for light. Anxious as they were for a loosening of Catholic theology, they saw him as a possibly useful ally.

In 1940, Fr von Balthasar, a pupil of Przywara, attended Barth's seminar on the Council ofTrent, thereby starting a long friendship, and in 1948-49 he gave a series of ten much-discussed lectures, later published as Karl Barth and Catholicism (1951). The French Jesuit, Fr Henri Bouillard, followed with a 1200-page thesis on Barth, with Barth attending Bouillard's viva voce at the Sorbonne. Later, Fr Hans Küng did a doctorate on Barth's theory of justification and became for a time a regular correspondent, as did Fr Karl Rahner. Barth himself spoke of a "whole chorus of German and especially French friends" who "in different ways and with different emphases all seem to want to look in a new way towards the centre." and "who alone can make possible theology itself or any attempt at ecumenical understanding." 184 The Belgian Dominican Fr Jérome Hamer also did doctoral work under Barth, but subsequently distanced himself from him.

Meanwhile more and more volumes of the Church Dogmatics had been appearing, and by the mid-1950s, even Rome was recognising Barth as a figure of consequence. He was invited to be a lay observer at the Council but retired on grounds of poor health; in 1966 he took part in an international congress of Catholic theologians in Rome "where he was greeted by those present with a long ovation"; Paul VI received him in audience, and from time to time he and Barth exchanged letters, and John Paul II has spoken of him as one of the theologians contributing to the renewal inaugurated by Vatican II.

The aspects of his theology which seem most to have attracted the members of the reform party were: his "Christo-centrism" he relates  everything to the Person and Work of Christ, who alone makes it possible for men to understand who they are 185; his "universalism" God wills and makes salvation possible and readily available to all men; the omnipresence of grace; his emphasis on the importance of Christian witness; his making the Church rather than the Bible the primary vehicle of revelation; his insistence that the Church is a community more than an institution; and the fact that it exists for the benefit of all humanity, not just of its own members.

However, there was more that is "neo" and less that is "orthodox" in Barth's theology than at first appeared. The novelties took time to manifest themselves, partly because, as his magnum opus progressed, he kept shifting his position on certain points, partly because, although using the same terminology as Catholics, it was often with a different meaning. The Church Dogmatics are Protestant in tone but not all Protestant in substance, and it is possible to read long passages without noticing anything strikingly novel or heterodox. I will confine myself to the more salient "irregularities." 186

Reason and Revelation. Barth's great problem was that he wished to preserve the idea of an historical divine revelation, while at the same time, as we have said, having as little belief as Bultmann in the historicity of those parts of the Bible whose authors manifestly intended them as history. 187

How were these two positions to be reconciled? Somehow revelation had to be given a form, or lifted into a realm, where it was impervious to the inquiries and criticisms of philosophers, scientists and biblical scholars. This he did first by digging an unbridgeable chasm between natural and revealed knowledge.

Whatever validity natural knowledge, including radical biblical scholarship, has in its own sphere, we cannot have any genuine knowledge of God and His intentions until He tells us about them Himself. Up to then we are completely in the dark. Attempts to reach a natural knowledge of God by reason and analogy are worse than no knowledge. Indeed the distance between God and man is so enormous, they are so utterly unalike, that the use of analogy is close to blasphemy. The God of natural theology is a caricature, an idol, a non-Being. Efforts by philosophers, particularly existentialists and Roman Catholics, to link this non-Being to the God of the Bible must therefore be resolutely resisted. This is why Barth begins his Church Dogmatics with the Word of God, and only in Part II does he come to God Himself.

The mystics' efforts to know God by direct contact are likewise futile. So too, for salvation, are all that men busy themselves about in this world. Although Barth had a lot to say about the duties of Christians in this world, the logic of his scheme of things leaves as little room for a Christian humanism as for natural theology.

The Word of God. Barth's next step was to detach the Word of God from the Bible. Most people on first coming across Barth probably assume that when he speaks of the "Word of God" he means the Bible. But, while claiming to base his theology exclusively on the Bible, he maintains that it only "witnesses" to the Word of God. It is not itself the Word of God. It is true that to distance himself from Bultmann's "demythologising;" he makes a distinction between myth and saga. Myths are symbolic ways of expressing timeless truths; a saga has some kind of basis in historical events. But about how much of the Bible is myth and how much saga we are left in the dark. That is for biblical scholars to decide. The theologian has more important concerns, as we shall see shortly.

In so far as God does speak to men, it is through events and actions rather than words through the "mighty deeds" recorded in the Old Testament, culminating in His Final Word, the "Christ event"— the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of the Word made Flesh witnessed to by the New Testament. 188

The advantage of making revelation primarily the manifestation of a Person rather than a body of knowledge or the imparting of a message is that is does not then matter so much whether what the Person is reported to have said is literally true. A person's character can be conveyed through imaginary events and conversations as in an historical novel. 189

As to the way we are to understand the meaning of the deeds and events recorded in the Bible, God has left it up to men to interpret them as best they can. There has never been any guarantee they would get them right. Both the prophets and inspired writers of the Old Testament and the apostles and evangelists in the New Testament "were guilty of error in their spoken and written word." "The more clearly the biblical witnesses of Jesus Christ speak, the more what they say gets lost in what we today call the realm of pure legend." 190 Nor is the Church any more reliable as an interpreter. The Church, says Barth, "passes on its way through history... in understanding and misunderstanding of what is said to it." 191

The Word of God, in other words, is not located in any particular text or teaching. It floats in a void behind the stream of historical events which the biblical "witnesses" were struggling to interpret. Neither inspired nor inerrant, the Bible is merely an instrument which, as in Bultmann's system, God uses to convey to the community what He wants them to understand about Himself and His plans in the here and now. People are supposed to  hear the Word of God through listening to the Bible regardless of whether the human words they hear are true or false. Revelation, which is going on continually, is a purely interior thing. It takes place whenever a man or woman "responds in faith" to the Church's proclamation, which can be either the Scripture readings or the Sunday sermon. (Logically, it is difficult to see why God could not as effectively use the plays of Shakespeare or the Iliad and Odyssey.) God also speaks through everyday events, which is why the Barthian theologian goes about with his Bible in one hand, and the daily newspaper in the other.

But how can the faithful know whether they have understood all these messages correctly? Barth's official reply is the same as Bultmann's; that a man who has understood rightly knows it intuitively. That he can't explain why is beside the point. In practice, however, it is theologians who hold the key that unlocks the door to right understanding of the Word.

Theology and Theologians

In the original evangelical or Calvinist churches, the preacher or minister of the Word determined how the Bible or the Church's "proclamation" was to be understood. However, it was assumed that the Bible had a stable, ascertainable meaning, and for the most part it would be the meaning laid down by Calvin. However, as scholars holding views like Barth's and Bultmann's about Holy Scripture have supplanted the minister of the Word, the Church's proclamation has come to be regarded as being continually open to revision. Theology, Barth says, is "not a matter of stating old or even new propositions that one can take home in black and white... If there is a critical science at all, which is constantly having to begin again at the beginning, dogmatics is that science:" Theologians must constantly question the biblical texts "as to whether and to what extent authentic witness of God's Word may be actually heard in them." This continual re-assessing of the "proclamation" applies not only to the Bible but to the whole corpus of Christian doctrine and theology. The "thought and speech of the community have behind them a long history which is in many ways confused and confusing." The chief task of the theologian, therefore, Barth tells us, is to check that current Church proclamation is in keeping with the Word of God. 192

Here, however, he starts to go round in circles. "Dogmatics," he says, "measures the Church's proclamation by the standard of Holy Scripture," and elsewhere "by Scripture and the Word." But Scripture, we have been informed, cannot be relied on to transmit the Word faithfully. So who is left to tell the flock what God has been trying to say through His holy book: the Church's past proclamation, or this week's newspapers? Who, but the theologian. And what standard has he to go by apart from an inner intuition?

"Like the pendulum which regulates the clock, so theology is responsible for the reasonable service of the community." 193

Although, Barth tells us, theology is a humble science, he has in fact elevated it to a position indistinguishable from divine revelation, and theologians to a status equivalent to that of the prophets and apostles. It is true he speaks of primary and secondary witnesses to the Word. The prophets and apostles belonged to the first category, theologians like St Irenaeus, St Augustine, St Bonaventure, St Thomas, or Barth and Bultmann to the second. 194 The former were direct witnesses of God's deeds down to the Christ event. But since God continues to speak through public events, is there really any substantial difference between the two categories? Jeremiah witnessed the fall of Jerusalem, Barth the fall of the Hitler regime. Moreover, as we saw a moment ago, all have been equally liable to misread the meaning of God's actions as they have unfolded through history. There is, in other words, no boundary between revelation and theology. All there has been, from the earliest Old Testament writer, down to the most recent book by a contemporary critical scholar, is a stream of  "theologising," constantly changing ground. In this shifting tide of speculation the only fixed points seem to be the affirmations that "Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour" and "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself"

In spite of its seemingly solid structure and coherence, Barth's Church Dogmatics is in reality like a vast fairy castle floating on air. This is somewhat as Barth himself saw it. He compared, his theology to a bird in flight. All theology, besides floating on air, is moving through the air, changing shape as it goes. Barth loved and was fascinated by theology, the whole sweep of opinions and controversies about the Christian mysteries down the centuries, but in the way that a collector loves his acquisitions. It would not, I think, be unfair to compare his ideal theologian to a juggler tossing coloured glass balls in the air just to make them spin and flash in the sunlight. What the juggler must never do is let any of the "balls" come to rest long enough in one of his hands to become a doctrinal definition or dognia.195

The Trinity

According to a well-known Dominican theologian, Luther's subjective attitude to truth, his preoccupation with what God has done "for me" or us and relative indifference to what God is like in Himself, is one of two classic Lutheran themes to have recently found their way into Catholic theology via Karl Barth. 196 Luther himself characteristically summarised his attitude: "Christ has two natures: how does that concern me? Be He by nature man and God, that is his affair. But that he has ... poured out his love to become my salvation ... it is in this that I find my consolation and my good." With Barth, this approach would seem to have affected his view of the Trinity. He refused to consider the Trinity in itself apart from the acts of creation and redemption, with the apparent implication that, had God not chosen to create the universe and redeem men, He would not have been the same God. The creation and human history thus come to look like part of the being of God. "The idea of a self-contained ontological Trinity" (that is, of a Trinity for which creation was not in some sense a necessity) was the object of "consistent attack" by Barth and Brunner. 197 The idea appears in a more marked form in the later Karl Rahner.


Although Barth's "Christocentrism" has been much praised, there is a marked difference between the way he understands the word and the way the Church understands it. The Church's teaching is and always has been "Christ-centred" in the sense that it proposes Christ as the model of human perfection, as the one mediator between men and God, and as mankind's Head and King. A representation of the crucified Christ hangs in every church. The risen Christ is present in every tabernacle. But as a system of beliefs, Christianity is first of all Trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity is what distinguishes it from all other religions, and its earliest statements of belief, the creeds, are Trinitarian in form. Barth's Christocentrism, on the other hand, means that the "Christ event" is the sole source of knowledge about God and the meaning of human life. The "Christ event" is like a small aperture in the otherwise impenetrable wall separating the natural from the supernatural world. 198 Barth's theology has, rightly I think, been called "Christomonist" rather than "Christocentric."199


The reconciliation of God and the human race resulting from "the Christ event" is without doubt the central theme in Barth's theology. This, for Barth, is what the Church fundamentally exists to proclaim. 200 But he gives it an all-embracing significance that Catholic teaching does not allow. Catholic teaching distinguishes between reconciliation and justification. God and humanity have been reconciled in Christ. As representative of the human race, Christ has paid the price of all men's sins. But not all men have taken advantage of the fact. Only those who have made an act of faith and received the baptism of water or desire are, through the infusion of sanctifying grace, "justified," and only if they persevere in that state will they reach salvation.

Barth, on the other hand, tends to identify reconciliation and justification. God and humanity have not only been reconciled "in Christ." According to Barth's teaching in the Dogmatics,  a man is justified in Christ whatever he may do ... and whether he is a member of the Church or not. A man does not enter the Church to be justified, but to be a witness to the world outside the Church of the accomplished fact of justification." 201 The only difference between Christians and the rest of mankind, for Barth, is that Christians know they have been justified, the latter so far don't. Does this mean that everyone is saved too? Although we cannot affirm it, Barth says, we cannot deny it.202

Grace, Nature, Creation, Evil, the Moral Law

Following some of the early Greek Fathers, Barth tends to make little or no distinction between grace as the gift of divine life to men and the creative act by which God brings the universe into existence or the sustaining power by which He keeps it there. Everything God does is "grace." This widening of the word's meaning not only obscures the importance of grace in the usually understood sense as something vital for perseverance in virtue and  ultimately salvation, it makes the activity of creatures as secondary causes superfluous or non-existent. It creates the impression that, as men need grace to reach salvation, bees need a special divine assistance, beyond what is given with their nature, in order to make honey. He has not endowed created things with any existence or consistency independent of a succession of direct interventions on His part.

To some extent all this flows from Barth's bizarre ideas about God's initial act of creation. In creating the universe, we are told, God turned his back on nothingness or chaos, and it is only his minute-to-minute watchfulness that keeps the world from returning to that state. This continuing tendency of things to relapse into nothingness or chaos is the origin of suffering and evil. There are no evil spirits. Angels have a sort of existence, but only when they are acting as God's messengers, not, it seems, the rest of the time. Are they merely symbolic manifestations of God's power? It seems so. The human soul is not naturally immortal. It survives death by a special act of God. This makes hell problematical. Does God have to intervene to make it possible for people to go to hell, when left to themselves they would simply cease to exist? In morals, Barth has lent his authority to the development of situation ethics; there can be no rules applicable to all situations.

The Church.

For Barth, the Church or Christian community is all Christian denominations together regardless of disagreements. Some have understood God's Word better than others, Barthian evangelicals presumably having understood it best of all. But no denomination since World War II has made such a poor job of interpreting God's Word that it can be considered as no longer belonging to the Church. Heresy, possible in theory, is hardly so in practice. In practice, too, it would be better if we could avoid the word "Church." "Christian community" better describes what we mean. The way Christians have organised themselves at different times and places is a matter of personal choice or cultural accident.

In spite of this, the Church or Community stands at the very centre of Barth's theology, since it is only through the Church's existence and evolving proclamation that we can know anything. This is why he asserts so emphatically that, in the last resort, "the subject of dogmatics is" not God or the Incarnation but "the Christian Church. 203

Faith and religion

"Religion" is something distinct from faith, and on the whole harmful to it. Faith, true biblical faith, comes from God. Religion is of man's making. So is any seeking after God before God has personally summoned him. Only the man who has biblical "faith" finds the true God. Religion is all the practices and pieties that collect around the worship of God, and which not only can be, but most often are, the grave of faith. Until the latter part of his life, Barth would seem to have regarded the Catholic Church as the form of Christianity in which faith was buried deepest under "religion."

Summing up, we could say that Barth unquestionably believed, indeed deeply believed, in God, and His sovereign power, justice and mercy; in Christ as, in some sense, God's spokesman and agent in bringing peace between earth and heaven; in the existence of a special people summoned to bring the Good News to the rest of the world: in the Sermon on the Mount as the rule of Christian life; and in the importance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But almost everything else in his theology seems to be problematical.

Soon after Barth's death, his influence in the Protestant world began to wane, something which can happen for a time even to writers whose works are of enduring value. But in Barth's case there was, I think, an additional reason. He was attempting the impossible. There is no way of maintaining a solid body of Christian doctrine or belief once you accept the conclusions of radical biblical scholarship, and I would say this has been demonstrated by the course of Protestantism since his death. "Advanced" Protestant "ecclesial communities" and theologians, taking their stand on the infallibility of the critical method, have continued to move further and further into doctrinal and moral relativism, while "conservative" Protestants anxious to uphold traditional teachings (from highly educated evangelical scholars to the members of fundamentalist sects) have entrenched themselves with more or less effectiveness in the defence of the Bible's authenticity. For Protestantism, there is no middle way as Barth thought there could be. Everything indeed suggests that in the long run only the Catholic Church will be able to handle critical scholarship without being blown up by it even if in the meantime many of her scholars have received serious cuts and burns or even been mortally wounded.

That the influence of Barthian neo-orthodoxy on Catholics has not, as was hoped, been all benign will, from what has been said in this chapter, be easily seen by Catholic readers, so I will confine myself to a few of the more  obviously adverse effects for the sake of non-Catholic readers.

We cannot in fairness lay all the blame for the Catholic theological revolt on Barth. He did not have Catholic faith. But his views on the nature of theology and the role of theologians have provided dissenting Catholic theologians with precisely the arguments they needed in their attempts to raise themselves to a position of authority on a level with that of bishops. 204

He was not the only theologian to promote the notion of "on-going revelation" But he was probably the most authoritative.

His separation of faith from reason helps to explain why Paul VI had several times to lament the spread of "fideism" among Catholics making belief a totally irrational act — and the widespread abandonment of apologetics. Apologetics, the art of explaining the rational grounds for believing, was anathema to Barth. Its abandonment after the Council, when apologetics became all but a dirty word, is, I believe, one of the main reasons so many Western Catholics are now incapable of seeing why one version of Christianity is to be preferred to another, or even one religion to another.

Among scholars, his irrationalism has led to a revival of what is known as "Averroism" — the theory that revelation and the findings of reason can contradict each other yet both in some unexplained sense be "true."205 This was not only Barth's position; it is now common among Catholic scholars. An example is the American biblicist Fr Raymond Brown in regard to the Resurrection and Virgin Birth. As a critical historian, Brown knew they were pious legends; "by faith," he believed they were real events.

Finally we should mention Barth's continuing polemic against most things Catholic. Except for the period when he was feeling the spell of Fr Przywara, and towards the end of his life when he mellowed under the influence of ecumenism, he never ceased making the Church the butt of his sallies and denunciations. It is difficult to think that this barrage of unfavourable comment from a man of his scholarly standing, with whom it was the Church's policy to remain on good terms, was not at least partly responsible for so many influential people in the Church at the time of the Council, from the late Cardinal Suenens to countless conciliar periti having come to believe and start propagating the idea that everything had been going wrong in the Church since the reign of Constantine.

Barth's influence on the Catholic faithful at large was more indirect. Like Bultmann and Bonhoeffer, his influence only made itself felt in a significant way when the clergy began to read books applauding them, when students for the priesthood started attending courses in Protestant seminaries, and when the results made themselves felt in Sunday sermons.


177. The phenomenon "no enemy to the left" communists are always in some way to be excused, Nazis not can be partly explained, I think, by the fact that the communist idea is naturally more marketable. Communists were claiming they could make the world perfect for everybody. Nazis were only offering to make it more agreeable for Germans.

178.   Dogmatics: "In Christian theology, the systematic presentation of doctrines so as to form a coherent whole ... most familiar in connection with the Barthian attempt to cover the whole theological field afresh in the light of a new understanding of the Bible" (Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought. London, Collins, 1981). The word "dogmatics" gives theology a relatively substantial sound without making it too solid. Barth was averse to the idea of universally binding truths implicit in the word "dogma." For a summary of Church Dogmatics by a Catholic admirer, but not an uncritical one. see Grace versus Nature, Hugo Meynell, London, Sheed and Ward, 1965.

179.   For example, he is said to have had portraits of famous theologians lining the wall of his staircase ending at the top with a mirror. However, as has been the case with similarly powerful characters, the mixture of qualities and quirks which distinguished him did not always make life easy for his wife and children. There is a certain ruthlessness in unusual men when they are not saints. He undoubtedly saw his secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who seems to have been of a higher level of intelligence than his wife, as indispensable to his work and the development of his ideas, and possibly she was. Nevertheless it was fairly insensitive to insist on her living in the house with the family and quite often to go off on holiday with her, leaving his wife behind, an arrangement which is admitted to have caused tensions "which shook (the family) to the core" and caused "unspeakably deep suffering" (Kart Barth, his life from letters and autobiographical texts, Eberhard Busch, London, SCM Press, 1976, pp. 185-6). Barth. says Busch. "did not hesitate to take ... the blame for the situation which had come about ... but he thought that it could not be changed."

180. The word "proclamation" has a special significance in Barthian theology. The faith can only be proclaimed. It is incapable of rational justification or explanation.

181. On this point, Barth's theology of revelation, as we shall see, turns Lutheranism upside-down. For sola scriptura, it substitutes sola ecclesia, or rather solo communitas.

182. Busch, op. cit., p. 183.

183. Ibid., p. 215.

184. As Barth saw it, his visitors "envisaged a kind of reformation of the Catholic Church and of Catholic theology from within. And now I was to be introduced like a new Trojan horse to bring it about (against St. Thomas and also against Augustine)." Ibid., p. 362.

185.We can perhaps see an anticipation here of the Council's teaching that "Jesus Christ reveals man to himself."

186. A devout Catholic friend, a great lover of the old liturgy, distressed by most of the post-conciliar changes, told me she once read all thirteen volumes of the Church Dogmatics without realising there was anything amiss. A Presbyterian reader, on the other hand, began to suspect that Barth "wasn't as orthodox as he sounded" when he noticed how "many former Barthians became 'Death of God' theologians." C O'Neill, Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology, University of Edinburgh: private letter to the author.)

187. "Opponents of Barth like Bultmann were infuriated by (his) seeming to say that he believed that the Resurrection happened (in the normal sense by which the grave became empty and the transformed body of Jesus left this universe) when he did not believe anything of the sort but Barth never really concealed his actual position from those who took the trouble to read carefully what he wrote... (He) is perfectly explicit that the history of the forty days is not part of the facts of history to which the life of Jesus from his birth to his death belong" (The Bible's Authority, C O'Neill, Edinburgh. & T Clark, 1991, p. 273).To justify his position. O'Neill says, Barth distinguishes between "Mirakels" and "Wunders."A "Mirakel" is what all Christians up to the 19th century have always taken miracles to be acts of God which, no matter how extraordinary enter into the continuum of historical events. A "Wunder" is seemingly a sign from God that enters people's minds independently of the continuum of historical events. The Resurrection and the Virgin Birth are both "Wunders" not "Mirakels."

188. The neologism "Christ event" seems to owe its origin to the "process" metaphysics and theology of the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (d. 1947). For Whitehead, the world is a compound of events and processes rather than things.

189.Since Vatican II, Catholic scholars affected by radical biblical scholarship have shown a similar preference for regarding revelation as the manifestation of a Person rather than the communication of a message. For example, Fr William Nicholson SJ, formerly of Fordham University, New York, tells us that "the Church's magisterial task is to preserve in itself and communicate the revealing Word of God, not something (e.g. 'an interpretation of reality'), but Someone." Quoted in the American Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, Sept 1994. For the Church, revelation culminates in a Person, it is true, but a Person who spoke, and whose words very definitely involved "an interpretation of reality." Christ, says Vatican II :completed and perfected revelation... by the total fact of his presence and self-manifestation by words and works, signs and miracles" (Dei Verbum, 4). And He "commanded the apostles to preach the Gospel ... which he fulfilled in his own person and promulgated with his own lips" (ibid., 7).

190. See "The Christian Understanding of Revelation" in Against The Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1946-51, SCM Press 1954 p 222 In his strange, sometimes almost perverse way, Barth tries to make a virtue of this supposed unreliability of Holy Scripture, even to glory in it. "For is it not of the very nature of revelation that the form in which it confronts us is relative and problematical." Ibid., 223.The more incomprehensible revelation is, the more reason is humbled.

191. Dogmatics in Outline, London, SCM Press, 1960, p. 10.

192. Ibid., p. 12., and Evangelical Theology: an Introduction, Edinburgh,T. & T. Clark, 1963. pp. 44 & 45.

193.   Ibid., p. 42. Prof. O'Neill comments: "As he (Barth) is the only true guardian of 'revelation' this all means that we have to humble ourselves in his presence" (letter to the author).

194.   "The witnesses to the Old and New Testaments ... were theologians" (E.T., p. 30. Barth's emphasis). For other characteristic statements on this topic, see E.T. pp. 44. 46, 47. Theology must "risk" taking Holy Scripture "as a working hypothesis." "No dogma or article of the creed can be taken over untested by theology from ecclesiastical antiquity." What theology "supposes to know and think today (sic), will only seldom agree completely with what the fathers of yesterday thought and said."

195. "I think the clue to the audacity of the Church Dogmatics is that Barth believed all great works of art were self-sustaining, suspended in a void ... all human thought creates in a void" (O'Neill, letter to the author).This attitude, O'Neill maintains, was characteristic of many of Barth's contemporaries in Germany (op cit., pp. 277-8). We must act, they held, as if certain things were true even if they are not, or can no longer be proved to be: as if God existed, as if there were a natural law, as if men have free will as if we could add, there has been a divine revelation. O'Neill gives a list of names and works expressing this viewpoint from Spengler's Decline of the West to Freud's The Ego and the Id, to which he says Barth's Epistle to the Romans belongs. Perhaps it explains Barth's dislike of Bach and love of Mozart. Bach, he complained. "preached." Mozart, presumably just played about with beautiful sounds.

196. Aidan Nichols OP, The Shape of Catholic Theology, Edinburgh, 1991. p. 315.

197. Cornelius van Til, The New Modernism, London 1946, p. ix.

198. It is impossible here not to see the influence of Kant. The Christ event gives us our one peep through the veil of phenomena into the world of "things in themselves."

199. Barth even goes so far as to maintain that "for Christians the existence of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is the ultimate certainty; and that Jesus Christ came into the world as a man is the proof of the existence of the world and man" an example of Cartesian doubt surely carried to an extreme. (Meynell, op cit., p. 89, summarising a passage from Dogmatics, Part 3.Vol. 1). In 1951, von Balthasar had referred to Barth's "Christological narrowness," an observation leading to a temporary cooling in their relationship. But the word "Christomonism" was first used by Barth's Protestant opponents, as Barth himself tells us (Church Dogmatics. Part 3,Vol. 3, p. xi). More recently it appeared in an article by Cardinal (then Father) Avery Dulles SJ on the theology of John Paul II, (Communio, Winter 1997. p.920).The Pope's Christology, Cardinal Dulles says, is Christocentric but "avoids Christonumism." (Italic added). Cardinal Dulles does not mention Barth, but he seems to be distancing the Pope's teaching from Barth's. He concludes the paragraph with the words."The theology of J.P. II. while remaining Christocentric, is pneumatological and Trinitarian." Barth's Christomonism was not entirely original. "We find God in nothing but Christ," was a dictum of his teacher Wilhelm Herrmann. Did Barth. in spite of all this, truly believe that Christ was God? Von Balthasar has spoken of a "downplaying" of the Incarnation in modern theology "because it is impossible for the holy God to be incarnate (as in consistent Protestantism), for example, Karl Barth..." ("The Fathers, the Scholastics and Ourselves." Communio. Summer 1997).

200. The greater emphasis in the Catholic Church on the concept of "reconciliation," as for example in the use of the word to describe the sacrament of penance, could also reflect Barth's influence; likewise the conciliar teaching that, through the Incarnation, "Christ has in a certain sense united himself with every man" (Gaudium et Spes. 22).

201. Meynell, op. cit.. p. 257.

202.      "According to Barth all men are saved by God in Christ, and the Christian differs from others only in his knowledge of this fact" (Meynell, op cit, p.161). For Barth's universalism, see Dogmatics 2.2.

203.  Dogmatics in Outline, SCM Press, 1960, p. 9.

204.    For instance, "no ecclesiastical authority should be allowed by theology to hinder it from honestly pursuing its critical task, and the same applies to any frightened voices from the midst of the congregation" (E.T., p. 43).

205.    Averroes wanted to advance philosophical propositions contradicting the Koran. His theory was therefore partly designed to appease Muslim theologians. Repudiated by the Church in the 13th century, it had a brief revival among Catholics in the early 16th century under the title "Latin Averroisrn."

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version:  16th February 2021


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