Influence Achievement and Agenda

The influence of Karl Barth has been so extensive as to be virtually coterminous with the history of theology during and since his lifetime. Since his work was both so decisive in its method and so comprehensive in its scope, we continue to meet it both in those whose approaches coincide with his, in those who argue - against him - for other ways, and also in those who extend the topics with which he was concerned within and outside his frame of reference. So much did he reconstitute and consolidate the state of Christian theology for the twentieth century that he is always a point of departure for others. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, we can identify particular types of his influence, and a selection of those influenced.

There are those who stay almost entirely within his construction of the appropriate frame of reference for theology today, tracing, interpreting, and confirming its importance (e.g., Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, John Webster). Others stay within his frame of reference, but extend it into areas with which Barth himself was not directly concerned (e.g., Thomas Torrance, Alan Torrance, Timothy Gorringe).

There are those who agree with Barth's theology in significant respects, and do him justice by using other frames of reference by which to enlarge the significance of what he did (e.g., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Mackinnon, Hans Frei, Eberhard

Jüngel, Robert Jenson, Stephen Sykes, Oliver O'Donovan, Colin Gunton, David Ford, Rowan Williams, Stanley Hauerwas). Others depart critically from his frame of reference and transpose his concerns into other ones (e.g., Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Küng, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Graham Ward).

Such a sketch still understates the disseminated influence of Barth, however. If we consider the ways in which doctrinal theology is pursued today, Barth's treatments of particular topics - revelation, Christology, Trinity, creation, evil, redemption - are tacitly accepted as the formulations from which further discussions begin. In one sense, this piecemeal use of Barth often does not spring from, or produce, thorough understanding of his theology; but in another sense, it testifies to the importance it has had for subsequent theology.

If we consider Barth's place in the wider scene of theology today, however, we find that his theology is now seen as the chief example of a particular option - what can be called the "traditional doctrinal" - as one who shows how to refound, consolidate, and strengthen it. As we have seen, he does this by establishing the normative standing of a theology whose method and content are interwoven, whose epistemology is built on the actuality of the event of revelation in Jesus Christ, the Word of God through whom God constitutes himself triunely in the creation and redemption of the world, and all that can be concluded therefrom. Today, however, Barth's work seems more a splendidly worked example of "traditional doctrine" -intense, rich, and provocative - of what can be achieved within the parameters he established, and sustained through a remarkable purity of form (which is what makes its adaptation very difficult). Even to suggest that is to recognize the contingency of Barth's approach: not simply that it is - as he claims it should be - contingent upon the act of God, but that it is also contingent, even in its method and content, upon the ultimate outworking of the Kingdom of God. If that is so, then the certainty which Barth's theology yields, albeit a very restricted form of certainty, is transposed into a historical-eschatological frame of reference which will require it - and all its features - to be opened for fresh exploration. But, as we have seen, the close interweaving of method and content in his theology makes this very difficult: it resists acknowledgment of its own historical contingency, which is perhaps why Barth so often found himself starting afresh and why so many of Barth's interpreters stay within the "traditional doctrinal" option in the use they make of him.


1 Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1981, p. 203.

2 These are collected in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

3 Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991.

4 Barth was unwilling to have these published, although they were later published as Eth ics, ed. Dietrich Braun, 1973, 1978, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1981.

5 Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth, trans. John Drury, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.

6 McCormack, p. 129.

7 Published in 1922. It was the sixth edition of this commentary that was translated into English by Edwin Hoskyns and published in 1933.

8 McCormack, p. 207.

9 "Spirit means the eternal decision by which God decides for men and men for God. Spirit is the pleasure which God has in men and the goodwill which men have towards God. Spirit means to belong to Christ, to participate in His question and, consequently, in His answer; in His sin and, consequently, in His righteousness; in His 'No' and, consequently, in His 'Yes'; in His death and, consequently, in His life. The Spirit is existential meaning and sense. It makes and creates sense." Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th edn., trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933, p. 283.

11 Of Paul, Franz Overbeck, Plato, and Kant, some of the writings of S0ren Kierkegaard (only then achieving prominence) and Dostoyevsky, in particular.

12 Karl Barth, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, preface to the second edition, p. 10.

13 His lectures have been published as Karl Barth, The Theology of the Reformed Confessions 1923, trans. Darrell L. Guder and Judith J. Guder, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

14 It had "no absolute supposition apart from the Word of God in which dogmas are grounded and from which they necessarily follow." Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, ed. Hannelotte Reiffen, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991, Vol. 1, p. 13.

15 Karl Barth, "Church and Theology" in Theology and Church: Shorter Writings 1920-1928, Munich 1928, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith, London: SCM Press, 1962, p. 295.

16 Karl Barth, The Holy Ghost and the Christian Life (1929), trans. R. Birch Hoyle, London: Frederick Muller, 1938, p. 15.

17 Karl Barth, Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intel-lectum, 2nd edn. 1958, trans. Ian W. Robertson, London: SCM Press, 1960, p. 15.

19 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-77, ET of Kirchliche Dogmatik, 1932-1970, I/1, p. xii. Hereafter, "CD."

20 This was indicated in a lecture delivered in 1956. "What began forcibly to press itself upon us about forty years ago was not so much the humanity of God as His deity -a God absolutely unique in His relation to man and the world, overpoweringly lofty and distant, strange, yes even wholly other . . . the humanity of God at that time moved from the center to the periphery." "All this, however well it may have been meant and however much it may have mattered, was nevertheless said somewhat severely and brutally, and moreover - at least according to the other side - in part heretically." "The Humanity of God," trans. John Newton Thomas in Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, Richmond, VI: John Knox Press, 1960, pp. 38, 43.

21 These "motifs," as he calls them, are well described in Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, ch. 1, but they are not arranged as here.

24 Hunsinger, p. 28.

25 Hunsinger, p. 58. The same can be found at every level of the Church Dogmatics. In each case we move from the proximate to what gives it its actuality, but then we also move beyond this "what" - as proximate -to that which makes it what it is, and eventually to the source of all determination in the being of the God who acts as this God does.

35 Karl Barth, "The Proclamation of God's Free Grace" in God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. van Buren, London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 36ff.

36 John Webster, Karl Barth, London: Continuum, 2000, pp. 76ff.

44 There may be overtones of modern post-Kantian idealism (e.g., Croce and Gentile)



The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York, 1957).

The Epistle to the Romans (London, 1933).

Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (London, 1960).

The German Church Conflict (London, 1965).

Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh, 1936-69).

Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (London 1952, 1972).

God Here and Now (New York, 1964).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Grand Rapids, MI, 1986).


Busch, Eberhard, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (London, 1976).

Ford, David F., Barth and God's Story (Frankfurt, 1981).

Hunsinger, George, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York, 1991).

Jehle, Frank, Ever Against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968 (Grand Rapids, MI, 2002).

Jenson, Robert W., God After God (New York, 1969).

Jüngel, Eberhard, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Philadelphia, PA, 1986).

McCormack, Bruce L., Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development (Oxford, 1995).

Torrance, Thomas F., Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh, 1990).

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