Karl Barth

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I thought only of the apartness of God. What I had to learn after that was the togetherness of Man and God — a union of two totally different kinds of beings.

Karl Barth (10 May 188610 December 1968) (pronounced "bart") was a Swiss Reformed pastor, and one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century, a leader of what became known as the neo-orthodox movement. He was largely responsible for the Barmen Declaration, which was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church opposed to Nazi policies.


  • What expressions we used – in part taken over and in part newly invented! — above all, the famous 'wholly other' breaking in upon us ‘perpendicularly from above,’ the not less famous 'infinite qualitative distinction' between God and man, the vacuum, the mathematical point, and the tangent in which alone they must meet.
    • Barth 1960, p. 42
  • "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed!" This is the voice of our conscience, telling us of the righteousness of God. And since conscience is the perfect interpreter of life, what it tells us is no question, no riddle, no problem, but a fact — the deepest, innermost, surest fact of life: God is righteous. Our only question is what attitude toward the fact we ought to take.
    We shall hardly approach the fact with our critical reason. The reason sees the small and the larger but not the large. It sees the preliminary, but not the final, the derived but not the original, the complex but not the simple. It sees what is human but not what is divine.
    We shall hardly be taught this fact by men.
    • "The Righteousness of God" (1916) in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928) as translated by Douglas Horton; this passage begins with a quote of Isaiah 40:3-5; often quoted alone has been the phrase following it: "Conscience is the perfect interpreter of life."
  • For the millions that suffer unjustly, the Confessing Church does not yet have a heart.
    • On the lack of passionate resistence to Nazi policies of persecution of Jews, even in the Confessing Church he helped found in opposition to Nazi influences on churches, in a letter written before leaving Germany in 1935, as quoted in Hitler's Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997) by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, p. 437
  • Faith is never identical with "piety" even if it were the purest and finest.
    • As quoted in The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, Vol. 1 (1968) edited by James M. Robinson
  • Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.
    • As quoted in An Introduction to Protestant Theology (1982) by Helmut Gollwitzer, p. 174
  • Faith in God's revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo.
    • As quoted in An Almanac of the Christian Church (1987) by William D. Blake
  • Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.
    • As quoted in The Harper Book of Quotations (1993) by Robert I. Fitzhenry, p. 223
  • Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.
    • As quoted in Finding the Magnificent in Lower Mundane : Extraordinary Stories About An Ordinary Place (1994) by Bob Stromberg, p. 69
  • The best theology would need no advocates; it would prove itself.
    • As quoted in Quotations from the Wayside (1998) by Brenda Wong, p. 78

The Epistle to the Romans (1918; 1921)[edit]

Quotations primarily from the translation of Edwin Hoskyns (1933)
  • The Gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men.
  • The known plane is God's creation, fallen out of its union with Him, and therefore the world of the flesh needing redemption, the world of men, and of time, and of things — our world. This known plane is intersected by another plane that is unknown — the world of the Father, of the Primal Creation, and of the final Redemption. The relation between us and God, between this world and His world presses for recognition, but the line of intersection is not self-evident.
  • The name Jesus defines an historical occurence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known world . . . as Christ Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above. Within history Jesus as the Christ can be understood only as Problem or Myth. As the Christ He brings the world of the Father. But we who stand in this concrete world know nothing, and are incapable of knowing anything, of that other world. The Resurrection from the dead is, however, the transformation: the establishing or declaration of that point from above, and the corresponding discerning of it below.
  • The Resurrection is the revelation: the disclosing of Jesus as the Christ, the appearing of God, and the apprehending of God in Jesus. The Resurrection is the emergence of the necessity of giving glory to God: the reckoning with what is unknown and unobservable in Jesus, the recognition of Him as Paradox, Victor and Primal History. In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it. And, precisely because it does not touch it, it touches it as its frontier — as the new world.
  • The power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted, force, known or knowable.
  • We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. The Epistle to the Romans is a revelation of the unknown God; God chooses to come to man, not man to God. Even after the revelation man cannot know God, for he is ever the unknown God. In manifesting himself to man he is farther away than before.
  • The revelation in Jesus, just because it is the revelation of the righteousness of God is at the same time the strongest conceivable veiling and unknowableness of God. In Jesus, God really becomes a mystery, makes himself known as the unknown, speaks as the eternally Silent One.
  • Religion is the possibility of the removal of every ground of confidence except confidence in God alone. Piety is the possibility of the removal of the last traces of a firm foundation upon which we can erect a system of thought.
  • God, the pure limit and pure beginning of all that we are, have, and do, standing over in infinite qualitative difference to man and all that is human, nowhere and never identical with that which we call God, experience, surmise, and pray to as God, the unconditioned Halt as opposed to all human rest, the Yes in our No and the No in our Yes, the first and last and as such unknown, but nowhere and never a magnitude amongst others in the medium known to us, God the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer . . . that is the living God.

The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928)[edit]

  • It is evident that the relation to God with which the Bible is concerned does not have its source in the purple depths of the subconscious, and cannot be identical with what the deep-sea psychical research of our day describes in the narrower or broader sense as libido fulfilment.
  • The Truth lies not in the Yes and not in the No, but in the knowledge and the beginning from which the Yes and the No arise.
  • There is no way from us to God — not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way — even of this way — would not be God.
  • Our Yes towards life from the very beginning carries within it the Divine No which breaks forth from the antithesis and points away from what now was the thesis to the original and final synthesis. The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world.

The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1939)[edit]

The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation (1939)
  • God is personal, but personal in an incomprehensible way, in so far as the conception of his personality surpasses all our views of personality.
  • While it is beyond our comprehension that eternity should meet us in time, yet it is true because in Jesus Christ eternity has become time.
  • Eternity is here (in the stable at Bethlehem and on the cross of Calvary) in time.

Dogmatics in Outline (1949)[edit]

Dogmatics in Outline (1949) as translated by Tr. G. T. Thomson ISBN 006130056X
  • He is the One who stands above us and also above our highest and deepest feelings, strivings, intuitions, above the products, even the most sublime, of the human spirit. God in the highest means first of all … He who is in no way established in us, in no way corresponds to a human disposition and possibility, but who is in every sense established simply in Himself and is real in that way; and who is manifest and made manifest to us men, not because of our seeking and finding, feeling and thinking, but again and again, only through Himself. It is this God in the highest who has turned as such to man, given Himself to man, made Himself knowable to him … God in the highest, in the sense of the Christian Confession, means He who from on high has condescended to us, has come to us, has become ours.
  • When attempts were later made to speak systematically about God and to describe His nature, men became more talkative. They spoke of God's aseity , His being grounded in Himself; they spoke of God's infinity in space and time, and therefore of God's eternity. And men spoke on the other hand of God's holiness and righteousness, mercifulness and patience. We must be clear that whatever we say of God in such human concepts can never be more than an indication of Him; no such concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable.

Church Dogmatics (1932 - 1968)[edit]

  • Scientific dogmatics must devote itself to the criticism and correction of Church proclamation and not just to a repetitive exposition of it.
    • 1:1
  • There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.
    • 1:2
  • Where dogmatics exists at all, it exists only with the will to be a Church dogmatics, a dogmatics of the ecumenical Church.
    • 1:2
  • We are now assuming that we have here the centre and goal of all God's works, and therefore the hidden beginning of them all. We are also assuming that the prominent place occupied by this divine work has something corresponding to it in the essence of God, that the Son forms the centre of the Trinity, and that the essence of the divine being has, so to speak, its locus ... in His work, in the name and person of Jesus Christ.
    • 2:1
  • Man can certainly keep on lying (and he does so); but he cannot make truth falsehood. He can certainly rebel (he does so); but he can accomplish nothing which abolishes the choice of God. He can certainly flee from God (he does so) ; but he cannot escape Him. He can certainly hate God and be hateful to God (he does and is so) ; but he cannot change into its opposite the eternal love of God which triumphs even in His hate. He can certainly give himself to isolation (he does so — he thinks, wills and behaves godlessly, and is godless) ; but even in his isolation he must demonstrate that which he wishes to controvert — the impossibility of playing the "individual" over against God. He may let go of God, but God does not let go of him.
    • 2:2
    • Paraphrased variant: Man can certainly flee from God... but he cannot escape him. He can certainly hate God and be hateful to God … but he cannot change into its opposite the eternal love of God which triumphs even in his hate.
      • Quoted in Simpson's Contemporary Quotations (1998) by James Beasley Simpson
  • The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God's election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.
    • 2:2
  • The saving of anyone is something which is not in the power of man, but only of God. No one can be saved — in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved — in virtue of what God can do. The divine claim takes the form that it puts both the obedient and the disobedient together and compels them to realise this, to recognise their common status in face of the commanding God.
    • 2:2
  • Since Jesus Christ is a servant, looking to Him cannot mean looking away from the world, from men, from life, or, as is often said, from oneself. It cannot mean looking away into some distance or height. To look to Him is to see Him at the very centre, to see Him and the history which, accomplished in Him, heals everything and all things, as the mystery, reality, origin and goal of the whole world, all men, all life. To look to Him is to cleave to Him as the One who bears away the sin of the world. It is to be bound and liberated, claimed, consoled, cheered and ruled by Him.
    • 4:4
  • The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us.

Witness to an Ancient Truth (1962)[edit]

Quotations taken from the TIME magazine (20 April 1962) cover story "Witness to an Ancient Truth"
  • The goal of human life is not death but resurrection.
  • The enterprise of Adolf Hitler, with all its clatter and fireworks, and all its cunning and dynamic energy, is the enterprise of an evil spirit, which is apparently allowed its freedom for a time in order to test our faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • I had to show that the Bible dealt with an encounter between God and Man. I thought only of the apartness of God. What I had to learn after that was the togetherness of Man and God — a union of two totally different kinds of beings.
    • On his Epistle to the Romans (1918; 1921)
  • I do not preach universal salvation, what I say is that I cannot exclude the possibility that God would save all men at the Judgment.
  • When the angels praise God in Heaven I am sure they play Bach. However, en famille they play Mozart, and then God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them.
  • When I come before these men I do not have to explain that we are all sinners. They have committed every sin there is. All I have to tell them is that I, too, am a sinner.
    • On his preaching to prisoners in the Basel jail.


  • Man as man can never know God: His wishing, seeking, and striving are all in vain.
  • The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us.
    • This has been widely cited to Church Dogmatics, but without citations to volume or chapter, and has not been located in this form in existing translations of that work.

Quotes about Barth[edit]

Alphabetized by author or source
His treatment of Christian dogma has soared across denominational boundaries, affecting the thought of Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians as well as his own Reformed Church. ~ Time magazine
Preachers read him, and his thought probably affects a good share of the sermons spoken in U.S. churches any given Sunday, but laymen hardly know his name. ... In a way, this lack of a following is a tribute to the originality and individuality of Barth's accomplishments. ~ Time magazine
  • Barth's dedication to the sole authority and power of the Word of God was illustrated for us … while we were in Basel. Barth was engaged in a dispute over the stained glass windows in the Basel Münster. The windows had been removed during World War II for fear they would be destroyed by bombs, and Barth was resisting the attempt to restore them to the church. His contention was that the church did not need portrayals of the gospel story given by stained glass windows. The gospel came to the church only through the Word proclaimed. … the incident was typical of Barth's sole dedication to the Word.
  • At the center of the discussion of the nature of practical theology is the issue of the relation of theory to praxis. If theory precedes and determines practice, then practice tends to be concerned primarily with methods, techniques and strategies for ministry, lacking theological substance. If practice takes priority over theory, ministry tends to be based on pragmatic results rather than prophetic revelation … Barth, from the beginning, resisted all attempts to portray theory and praxis in opposition to one another. In his early Church Dogmatics he described any distinction between “theoretical” and “practical” as a “primal lie, which has to be resisted in principal”. The understanding of Christ as the light of life can be understood only as a “theory which has its origin and goal in praxis”.
    • Ray S. Anderson, in The Shape of Practical Theology : Empowering Ministry with Theological Praxis (2001), p. 14
  • A Christ-intoxicated man. ... What emerges from Barth's theology is a breathtaking, daring vision of a universe in which tragedy, demonic evil and chaos have been met and defeated in the figure of Jesus Christ.
    • Hans W. Frei, of Yale University, as quoted in TIME magazine (20 April 1962) He here draws upon a famous statement by Novalis who called Spinoza a "God-intoxicated" man."
  • One of the cardinal points of Barth's doctrine of God is that He is the transcendent God. On every hand Barth is out to set God immensely above the dieties of the world, and the substitutes for God which modern philosophy and scientific research into Nature's forces have put into "modern" man's mind. ... Barth makes it explicit from the beginning that God is the unknowable and indescribable God. The hidden God remains hidden. Even when we say we know him our knowledge is of an imcomprehensible Reality. ... Barth's contention is summed up in the dictum: Finitum non Capax infiniti, the finite has no capacity for the Infinite. ... On every hand Barth speaks of time and eternity as two distinct realms, an unbridged chasm between God and man, and the unknown God.
  • Most of my criticisms stem from the fact that I have been greatly influenced by liberal theology, maintaining a healthy respect for reason and a strong belief in the immanence as well as the transcendence of God. ... Not that God is not transcendent. The liberal so believes, but he also contends that God is also immanent, expressing his creative genius throughout the universe which he is ever creating and always sustaining as well as through the essentail goodness of th world and human life. It is not that God is above us to which the liberal objects, but he does demur when he is asked to affirm that God is with us only in a tiny segment of "experience."... The liberal also finds God in the beauty of the world, in the unpremeditated goodness of men, and in the moral order of reality. ... It must also be noted at this point that Barth speaks of the generally accepted metaphysical and ethical attributes of God, sovereignity, majesty, holiness, ect., with a degree of certainty. It was once said of Herbert Spencer that he knew a great deal about the "Unknowable" so of Barth, one wonders how he came to know so much of the "Unknown God." ... In spite of our somewhat severe criticisms of Barth, however, we do not in the least want to minimize the importance of his message. His cry does call attention to the desperateness of the human situation. He does insist that religion begins with God and that man cannot have faith apart from him. He does proclaim that apart from God our human efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. He does suggest that man is not sufficient unto himself for life, but is dependent upon the proclamatiom of God's living Word, through which by means of Bible, preacher, and revealed Word, God himself comes to the consciences of men. Much of this is good, and may it not be that it will serve as a necessary corrective for a liberalism that at times becomes all too shallow?
  • Barth has been variously damned as a heretic, a narrow-minded Biblicist, and an atheist in disguise — and praised as the most creative Protestant theologian since John Calvin. President James McCord of Princeton Theological says that "he bestrides the theological world like a colossus." Harvard's German-born Paul Tillich, the contemporary religious thinker whose stature most nearly rivals Barth's, has often disagreed with Barth — : "shouting at each other over a glass of wine" — but calls him, "the most monumental appearance in our period." Roman Catholic theologians, notably in Europe, have praised his thinking in terms they usually reserve for St. Thomas Aquinas. Once, upon hearing that Pius XII had paid tribute to his work, Barth smiled and said, "This proves the infallibility of the Pope." More seriously, he insists that the best critical work on his works — over 500 titles so far — has been done by such Catholic Modernists as French Jesuit Henri Bouillard and Father Hans Urs von Balthasar of Basel.
    By contrast, Reinhold Niebuhr regards Barth as a "man of infinite imagination and irresponsibility" writing "irrelevant theology to America. I don't read Barth any more," he says. And Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary speaks for a host of U.S. fundamentalists in charging that "Barthianism is even more hostile to the theology of Luther and Calvin than Romanism.
  • His treatment of Christian dogma has soared across denominational boundaries, affecting the thought of Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians as well as his own Reformed Church. Preachers read him, and his thought probably affects a good share of the sermons spoken in U.S. churches any given Sunday, but laymen hardly know his name. ... In a way, this lack of a following is a tribute to the originality and individuality of Barth's accomplishments. His kind of God-thinking has been commonly called "neo-orthodoxy" and "theology of crisis" — labels that Barth rejects, since they scarcely define it at all.
    • "Witness to an Ancient Truth", TIME magazine (20 April 1962)
  • Barth accepts and welcomes scholarly criticism of the Bible, even when it shows the Scriptures to be full of errors and inconsistencies. He does not consider the Bible infallible, and he deplores orthodox Protestants who make it into "a paper Pope." Nevertheless, the Bible testifies to God's Word, which is revealed to man through human speech. The words that the Biblical writers use may not always be the appropriate ones, but they must be accepted as words elected by God.
    • "Witness to an Ancient Truth, TIME magazine (20 April 1962)

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