St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 03:
What Became Narrative Theology:
Karl Barth (1886-1968)

Resource Paper Extracted

What happens when Christian faith becomes different and distant from the general culture in which we live? How can the essence of Christianity be realised so that it can provide a challenge to wayward culture?
A survey of contemporary theologians begins with a reaction against European high culture seen to collapse in both World Wars. European culture had become used to the notion of development and progress, for which liberal Protestantism was regarded as the highest form of religious development:: nothing like the superstitions of other religions and freed of all the clutter of Roman Catholicism. Hope was in the joining of religion and culture, and yet suddenly Europe turned itself into killing fields and then, leading up to and in a second war, experienced the industrial scale killing of the genocidal Nazis and the evils of Stalin's oppression. Christian theology had to be more robust, even if intellectually there was no turning back from the developments of science and practical human thought.
Karl Barth, born in 1886 and died in 1968, was Swiss-German and educated through the liberal theology in part of Albrecht Ritschl, promoting religious experience whilst attacking the scholasticism that had joined Christian thought with the earlier Greek thought of Aristotle.
Karl Barth came to reject Ritschl and all that it represented. He moved to Kierkagaard, the Danish theologian who emphasised the vitality of faith over Hegel's theological-cultural synthesis. Barth developed instead what is called dialectical theology, which although it in part uses Hegel's method, antithesis and synthesis, this was a much more closed-in method of coming to the truth of a matter. Here is an example of Barth discussing Jesus's humanity, the conundrum that Jesus was human and yet was sinless unlike any human:
He [Jesus] was not a sinful man. But inwardly and outwardly His situation was that of a sinful man. He did nothing that Adam did. But he lived life in the form it must take on the basis and assumption of Adam's act. He bore innocently what Adam and all of us have been guilty of. Freely he entered into solidarity and necessary association with our lost existence. (Barth, K. (1936-1962), Church Dogmatics, 1.2.152, quoted in Hanson and Hanson, 1980, 123).
It is in this constant tooing and froing that Barth builds up his arguments. This dialectical theology can be defined as a method of affirming and negating forceful singular theological arguments in order to transform the reader. It works on the heart, the centre, the kerygma, of the matter. And his argument against liberal culture theology was for revelation and encounter. Rejecting all kinds of divisions, including that between a Jesus of history and a Christ of faith, he argued for an encounter with the Christ through this positive-negative method. For Barth, Jesus Christ was and is the earliest Covenantal promise fulfilled which the Council of Nicaea described. But there is no cultural route to Christ, no joining of your experience and that of Christ, just a one way encounter from God, witnessed by scripture, of the Christ event.
So it was a sort of toughening up of Christianity. Until Barth, there was a sense that truth was becoming based in the object world of science, for example in a scientific view of evolution and the origins of humankind, and that religious belief was therefore becoming located in the subjective world of religious experience, what anyone thought about what they believed. From such subjectivity comes revision of dogmas. Karl Barth wanted a new, more solid basis for faith. He wanted to get back to the insights of the Reformers that Scripture was the essential witness to the source and cause of faith. The Bible is the overarching narrative of the story of Jesus Christ. Karl Barth may have disliked the idea of religion, but he of course needed a Church, and a Church tougher than subjective liberalism and, also, a Church that had guts against the Nazis. There is some history in Germany about tough Churches, and it is not good. Germany had been developing an inclusive Protestantism, one that even was attractive to modernist Jews, but the composer Wagner wrote in anti-Semitic form for a form of German Church with an Aryan Jesus that eventually was to provide support to Hitler and the Nazis. Karl Barth and others supported a tough Church in the original line of German Protestantism, a Confessing Church that had to be underground in its resistance to the Nazis, and one that followed Scripture in a critical sense.
Here we can make a useful comparison between Karl Barth and Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962). The theologian and sociologist. H. Richard Niebuhr claimed that the Biblical narrative essentially illustrates the story of our lives. So when we encounter the Bible in church, what we do is essentially compare its stories with the story of our own life. This is how it is meaningful to us. Barth won't have this either: he says the Bible narrative tells the story of God and God alone. We see that, as a good sociologist might, H. Richard Niebuhr is theologising about experience and that means theologising about culture. For Barth, the Biblical narrative is the story of God and therefore the identity of Jesus Christ.
Barth's attitude to narrative was rather like his attitude to Mozart: it was Mozart and only Mozart who seemed gifted by God. As for humanity, well Barth himself kept a mistress for twenty years much of the time living in the same house as the wife.
Here is the point, Barth pays a heavy price for his refusal to relate anywhere to human culture and human objective thought. There is no knowledge in this encounter, other than its own. Narrative is self-contained. The Bible may appear to be historical, but it is history-like. It is an encounter into history, but we are dealing here with revelation and that is from beyond. Something else needs to be said about Karl Barth and Scripture. He is not fundamentalist in any way. It is the whole shape of the Biblical narrative that tells the story of God and his encounter with the world and humanity through the identity of Jesus Christ. It is not about detail - he refused to affirm or deny the Virgin Birth, for example - but about the force of argument.
Also in that the identity of Jesus Christ is a saving identity for humankind, Barth was accused of being a universalist that is to say all humanity would be loved and saved by God. Nothing from Karl Barth suggests that some humans are damned forever, as was the view of some original Reformers. His neo-Calvinism is not very Calvinist.
So Karl Barth is very much a contemporary theologian in that he accepted Biblical criticism and did not condemn humanity. However, because the truth of the Biblical narrative is self-contained, and because God is absolutely not of this world but transcendent, the world is left to be relative. Nothing here can be anchored as true. H. Richard Niebuhr was interested in what happened to the world. Agreeing with Barth that God is fully transcendent, H. Richard Niebuhr said that the world is relative, shifting, transient. So, for H. R. Niebuhr, God can be understood differently by humans as culture shifts and this understanding is crucial to how humans organise religion all of which was neither here nor there for Karl Barth because religion was always a sinful human manufacture.
So, when we get to postmodernism, we can see one source of its relativism in Karl Barth. He has left the world to make it up as it goes along, even to reinvent how it might understand God.
In his later life Karl Barth was fed up with Christology, and thought he could have written alternatively from the standpoint of the biblical narrative of the Spirit. One wonders what difference this would have made. He also started to think better of humanity and its religious longings. He had mellowed a bit.
Finally there can be another contrast and yet agreement with another theologian, that of the Unitarian James Martineau (1805-1900) who was well versed in leading German theology. For Martineau the story of God was in general experience, for which the Biblical narrative was just one example of a general Christian-identified theism. Remember for Barth, the Biblical narrative is the story of God, full stop. Also it needs saying that Barth is not a theist: God is rather too distantly transcendent to be theist. Although, then, Martineau also believed in a kind of pure, vast, theistic God, its location of authority in the experiential consciences of individuals rather than in one holy Book, meant that this was going to be highly subjective in interpretation. And there is no way of relating such subjectivity to an overarching truth either, because even a conversation towards truth cannot impose the result back on the individual. So, just as with Karl Barth and the utter particularity of the Biblical narrative leads eventually to relativism and postmodernism, so did the mirror opposite theology of James Martineau, the ultimate liberal of the nineteenth century and promoter of the experience of transcendence.
The modern era in theology was born, in that the price of Karl Barth's evangelical theology was the secularity of the world.

Main Points Summary:

  • Culture may provide a weak, subsumed religion
  • The kerygma of the Gospel is seen as beyond experienced based religion: the Biblical narrative is its own witness to encounter of Christ; H. Richard Niebuhr saw relativity on earth result from a high view of transcendence
  • Barth was no fundamentalist or anything near
  • Barth leads to postmodernism, and so does the mirror opposite, where the Bible and Christ told within is but an example of a higher essence of religion


Hanson, A.T. , Hanson, R. P. C. (1980), Reasonable Belief: A Survey of the Christian Faith, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Barth, Karl', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 58-67.

Retained notes on 'Narrative Theology' from Dearey, P. (1996/ 97), MA Course: Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society, Department of Theology, University of Hull.

Beeson, T. (1999), 'Karl Barth (1886-1968)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 51-52.

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Adrian Worsfold