Theology of Karl Barth


The triune God

"The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian, and therefore what already distinguishes the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God or concepts of revelation." ^[1]^

"It can fairly be said that the chief ecumenical enterprise of current theology is rediscovery and development of the doctrine of the Trinity. It can also fairly be said that Barth initiated the enterprise" ^[2]^ Robert Jenson's quote must be seen in the context of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who placed the Trinity at the end of his systematic work, The Christian Faith (1821, rev. 1830). Barth purposefully placed the Trinity at the beginning of his Church Dogmatics, signifying its importance and centrality to the exposition and proclamation of theology. Since Barth, Protestant theologians have found a renewed interest in the Trinity, and contemporary theology has seen it return to the forefront of dogmatics and theological method.

Threefold Word of God

Barth held to what is known as the threefold Word of God. In other words, preaching (or proclamation), scripture, and revelation are considered to be three different, yet unified forms of the Word of God. Barth's analogy was the Trinity (see CD I/1, 121). Futhermore,

There is no distinction of degree or value between these three forms. For to the extent that proclamation really rests on recollection of the revelation attested in the Bible and is thus obedient repitition of the biblical witness, it is no less the Word of God than the Bible. And to the extent that the Bible really attests revelation it is no less the Word of God than revelation itself. As the Bible and proclamation become God's Word in virtue of the actuality of revelation, they are God's Word: the one Word of God within which there can be neither a more nor a less. Nor should we ever try to understand the three forms of God's Word in isolation. The first, revelation, is the form that underlies the other two (CD I/1, 120-121). Bruce McCormack notes that what Barth is after is a "unity-in-differentiation." ^[3]^ Each form is distinct from one another (as the persons of the Trinity are), yet are unified with each other (cf. CD I/2, 463).


"Real proclamation, then, means the Word of God preached and the Word of God preached means... man's talk about God on the basis of God's own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation, which cannot, then, be put on a human basis, but which simply takes place, and has to be acknowledged, as a fact" (CD I/1, 90). Barth's point is that preaching may become the Word of God not because of something we do, but according to God's direction. Thus, God's Word is free and not something controlled or possessed by the church.


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One of the most influential and controversial features of Barth's Church Dogmatics was his doctrine of election (see CD II/2). One thread of the Reformed tradition, following the interpretation of its most influential thinker, John Calvin, argued for the so-called double predestination: God chose some humans for salvation through Christ and others for damnation. These groups were sometimes called the "elect" and "reprobate." This choice (or election) was made by God and was the result of His "absolute decree," a mysterious and fundamentally inscrutable decision which, though it was a decision of ultimate consequence for the individual human, was fundamentally inaccessible and unknowable to him or her. God chose each person to be saved or damned based on the divine will, and it was impossible to know why God chose some and not others or whether God had elected or rejected oneself.

Barth's doctrine of election involves a firm rejection of the notion of an absolute decree. In keeping with his Christo-centric methodology, Barth argues that to ascribe the salvation or damnation of humanity to an abstract and absolute decree is to make some part of God more final and definitive than God's saving act in Jesus Christ. God's absolute decree, if one may speak of such a thing, is God's gracious decision to be "for" humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (Barth calls this God's "Yes"). With the earlier Reformed tradition, Barth retains the notion of double predestination, but he makes Jesus simultaneously the object and subject of both divine election and reprobation: Jesus embodies God's election of humanity and God's rejection of human sin. He is the electing God and the elect man. As the electing God, Jesus elects all of humanity in himself. And thus, as the elected man, all who are "in Christ" are elect in him. Non-believers, it is said, have simply not realized or recognized their election in Christ.

While some regard this revision of the doctrine of election as an improvement on the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination,^[_citation\ needed_]^ critics have charged that Barth's view amounts to an implicit universalism.^[_citation\ needed_]^


Barth has also been criticized for his alleged belief in universalism, however, Barth himself noted that insistence on necessary universal salvation impinged on God's freedom and suggested it was beyond the church's duty to speculate on the subject (Church Dogmatics 2.2, 417). "For Barth, the grace of God is characterised by freedom. On the one hand, this means that we can never impose limits on the scope of grace; and on the other hand, it means that we can never impose a universalist 'system' on grace. In either case, we would be compromising the freedom of grace - we would be presuming that we can define the exact scope of God's liberality. So Barth's theology of grace includes a dialectical protest: Barth protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism! The crucial point is that God's grace is free grace: it is nothing other than God himself acting in freedom. And if God acts in freedom, then we can neither deny nor affirm the possibility of universal salvation." ^[4]^

Barth says that,

"The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God's grace. But would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has he not ... been sacrificed for the whole world? ... [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides." ^[5]^ For Barth, then, we can neither affirm nor deny the possibility that all will be saved. So what can we do? Barth's answer is clear: we can hope (see CD IV/3, pp. 477-78). ^ [6]^


Barth's theology denies the necessity of apologetics. He states in The Epistle to the Romans:

The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel--that is, Christian Apologetics--is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. ... It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. ... God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him. ^[7]^


  • CD - Church Dogmatics
  • GD - Gottingen Dogmatics


  1. Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 301.
  2. Robert Jenson, "Karl Barth" in The Modern Theologians 2nd ed., p. 47.
  3. Bruce McCormack, "The Being of Scripture is in Becoming", in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, eds. Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez, and Dennis L. Okholm (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 59.
  4. Why I am not a Universalist, by Ben Meyers
  5. Barth, God Here and Now, pp. 41-42.
  6. Why I am not a Universalist, by Ben Meyers
  7. p. 35

Suggested reading

For primary resources, see the main page Karl Barth and the Barth bibliography.


  • John Webster, Barth, 2nd edition. Continuum, 2004.
  • Paul T. Nimmo, Karl Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed. T&T Clark, 2013.
  • Colin Gunton, The Barth Lectures. T&T Clark, 2007.
  • Eberhard Busch, Barth. Abingdon Pillars of Theology. Abingdon, 2008.
  • Geoffrey W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. Eerdmans, 1979; T&T Clark, 1991.
  • Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology. Eerdmans, 2004.
  • George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology. Oxford UP, 1993.
  • John Franke, Barth for Armchair Theologians. WJK, 2006.

Other studies

  • Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Baker Academic, 2008.
  • George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation. Ignatius, 1992.
  • John Webster, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth. Eerdmans, 1956.

Development of thought

  • Karl Barth, How I Changed My Mind. John Knox Press, 1966.
  • Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936. Oxford UP, 1997.
  • Bernd Jaspert, ed. Karl Barth ~ Rudolf Bultmann, Letters 1922-1966. Eerdmans, 1981.
  • Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Fortress/SCM, 1976; Eerdmans, 1994; reprint Wipf & Stock, 2005.
  • John Webster, Barth's Earlier Theology: Four Studies. T&T Clark, 2006.
  • T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931. T&T Clark, 2001.

Barth and Evangelicalism

  • David Gibson & Daniel Strange, eds. Engaging with Barth. Apollos, 2008; T&T Clark, 2009.
  • Sung Wook Chung, ed. Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences. Baker Academic, 2007.
  • Bernard Ramm, After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology. Harper & Row, 1983.
  • Philip R. Thorne, Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: his reception and influence in North American Evangelical theology. Pickwick, 1995.
  • Donald Bloesch Jesus Is Victor!: Karl Barth's Doctrine of Salvation. Abingdon, 1976.
  • Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology. Baker Academic, 2004.
  • Gregory G. Bolich, Karl Barth & Evangelicalism. IVP, 1979.


  • Kevin Vanhoozer, "A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation." In Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences, ed. Sung Wook Chung, pp. 26-59. Baker Academic, 2006.
  • Mark D. Thompson, "Witness to the Word: On Barth's Doctrine of Scripture." In Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques, edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, pp. 168-197. T&T Clark, 2008.
  • Bruce McCormack, "The Being of Holy Scripture is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation With American Evangelical Criticism." In Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, ed. Vincent Bacote, et al., pp. 55-75. IVP, 2004.
  • Francis Watson, "The Bible." In The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, pp. 57-71. Cambridge UP, 2000.
  • Klaas Runia, Karl Barth's Doctrine of Holy Scripture. Eerdmans, 1962.
  • Mary Kathleen Cunningham, "Karl Barth." In Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Justin Holcomb, pp. 183-201. NYU Press, 2006.
  • Geoffrey Bromiley, "Karl Barth's Doctrine of Inspiration", Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 87 (1955): 66-80.


  • Donald Wood, Barth's Theology of Interpretation. Barth Studies Series. Ashgate, 2007.
  • Richard Burnett, Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis: The Hermeneutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period. Eerdmans, 2004.
  • John Webster, "Barth, Karl." In Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer, pp. 82-84. Baker Academic, 2005.
  • Bruce McCormack, "The Significance of Karl Barth's Theological Exegesis of Philippians." In Epistle to the Philippians, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Karl Barth, pp. v-xxv. WJK, 2002.
  • Francis Watson, "Barth's Philippians as Exegesis." In Epistle to the Philippians, 40th Anniversary Edition, by Karl Barth, pp. xxvi-li. WJK, 2002
  • Paul McGlasson, Jesus and Judas: Biblical Exegesis in Barth. Scholars Press, 1991.
  • Mary Kathleen Cunningham, What is Theological Exegesis? Interpretation and Use of Scripture in Barth's Doctrine of Election. Trinity Press Intl., 1995.


  • Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. by John Webster. Eerdmans, 2001; T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Paul Molnar, Divine Freedom And the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue With Karl Barth And Contemporary Theology. T&T Clark, 2005.
  • Peter S. Oh, Karl Barth's Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Karl Barth's Analogical Use of the Trinitarian Relation. T&T Clark, 2007.
  • Alan J. Torrance, Persons in Communion: An Essay on Trinitarian Description and Human Participation with special reference to Volume One of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. T&T Clark, 1996.

See also