Barth and God-talk


“This alone –– note, God’s Word alone –– is the answer that possesses genuine transcendence and thus has the power to solve the riddle of immanence…We must give this answer, but this very answer we cannot give.”[1]

In his essay “The Word of God as the Task of Theology,” Karl Barth attempts to put forth the task of the theologian. The task that is both the theologians plight and promise.[2] This task, the theologians plight and promise, is both the necessary and impossible task of speaking of God––the question of God. [3] For Barth, the question of God arises from human existence. This question comes to be from the human realization that her entire life stands in the shadow of death. Thus, this question that gives rise to the theologians task, the question of God, is the negativity of human existence.[4] “For [she herself], the human, is the question. Therefore the answer must be the question.”[5] It is out of this negativity of human existence that, for Barth, both the question and answer of the task of theology surfaces.[6] However, this task is an impossibility, according to Barth. The answer to this question, to the “human riddle”, is the Word of God; it is the event of God doing something new. It is the event that cannot be comprehended; it can only be revealed as the impossible becomes possible, as God becomes human.[7] Nevertheless, this question, which rises up in the need of the human, moves one to “ought” to speak of God. However, this ought does not imply can.[8] For Barth, “to speak of God would mean to speak that word which can only come from God [herself]: the Word, God becomes [human].”[9] It is only as God reveals Godself that the Word may be spoken. Where God enters into the negativity of our existence with Her fullness, it is only there that speaking of God may occur.[10] We humans cannot speak of God, but because God has become human, we may speak of God. However, we are to do so in a way where the answer is never dissolved into the question, nor vice versa; rather we are to speak “along this narrow ridge”[11] of answer and question, of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Thus we are to speak of the Word of God, “the living truth”, in awareness of the “unavoidable absence of this living truth”[12] in all our sayings. The task of the theologian is to say that which cannot be said, to speak of God. And in faith, the “plight is also the promise”. For in faith, “it might be possible that the Word –– the Word of God that we will never speak –– has taken our weakness and perversion, so that our word becomes capable of the Word of God precisely in its weakness and perversion.”[13] The question is the answer because we have faith that in the negativity of our existence, God, in God’s fullness, will speak the Word of God.

[1]  Barth, Karl. Word of God and Theology: “The Word of God as the Task of Theology, 1922,” 185-186.

[2] “Our plight is also our promise.” Ibid., 196

[3] Ibid., 195.

[4] Ibid., 177-8.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] For Barth, this question comes out of humanity’s cry for salvation. “The human does not cry for solutions, but for salvation; not for something human again, but for God as the Savior of his humanity.” Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 184.

[8] “…even in the precise moment of the divine calling and equipping, we still cannot speak of God.” Ibid., 185.

[9] Ibid., 185.

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid., 194.

[13] Ibid., 197.


12 thoughts on “Barth and God-talk

  1. This is a good and helpful summary, I think. I notice though, that for Barth, at least here, the question is in some sense prior to Christianity. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about the necessity of Christianity in Barth; clearly it falls under the No to some extent, but I wonder if we really *do* get the question, as he frames it, without Christianity?

    • Sean, it seems to me that Barth (at least the young Barth) would never want to confine revelation to Christianity nor the Church. However, Barth does stress the necessity and singularity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, as the historical point of God’s apocalyptic in-breaking of new creation and the putting an end to this evil world.

      • “Although I have touched upon the actual theme of my presentation a few times, I have not expressly named it. All of my thoughts circle around the one point which is called “Jesus Christ” in the New Testament. Whoever says “Jesus Christ” may not say, “It might be possible,” but, rather, must say, “It is.” Yet which one of us is in the position to say “Jesus Christ?” We must satisfy ourselves with the fact that “Jesus Christ” has been said by his first witnesses. Our task is to believe in their witness, to believe in the promise, and to be witnesses to their witness––to be theologians of Scripture.”

  2. Joey – Thanks for the great post. This book has been sitting in my Amazon cart for a while now. It’s definitely time to purchase it.

    My question has to do with what the early Barth (I guess particularly in this volume) has to say about obedience in relation to speech about God. When confronted with this event in which we can speak, what does speaking continually look like as it works itself out in the realm of human action? Later on, Barth critiques Bonhoeffer for focusing on the form of the command as it works itself out ethically in “mandates.” At this time in his career, did Barth have an ecclesial/ethical form of obedience to the command that goes beyond mere speech? If the Word confronts all aspects of our existence, what form does the speech take as the concreteness of our existence is continually embraced?

    • Thanks, Michael. The early Barth is attempting to move beyond the German tradition’s (Luther) emphasis on personal relationship with God. Barth does not understand this move and he pushes, along with Zwingli and Calvin, for a more grounded and concrete transformation of society. In his essay “Jesus Christ and the Movement for Social Justice (1911)”, Barth wants to re-image Jesus to show how already in the first century Jesus was living the social movement. What he means by social movement is the transforming of private property of production into public property of production. So, in short, Barth would argue that what Jesus was working for in the first century is something very similar to what the social movement (social democracy) is attempting to work for. Thus, response to the Word, for the young Barth, is to follow Jesus and the work he has initiated (the reign of God); incidentally, as my comment to Sean explained, this does not necessarily mean to follow the church. In fact, it is the social movement, according to the young Barth, that is bearing witness to the force of Jesus in his contemporary. He believed that God is working in history––in movements like social democracy––and to be obedient to God is to get on board.

      I hope that answered your question and was not too convoluted.

      • What I am struggling with is how the freedom of God in revelation and the concreteness of the subject being acted upon coalesce. Perhaps I am just thinking too much along the lines of the later Barth, but does he speak to divine freedom in these early essays?

      • Michael,
        Here is a paragraph from a paper I wrote on Barth’s *Epistle to the Romans*, I think it might have something to say to your questions. I hope it helps:

        “The Gospel message is not a word that overpowers or negotiates; it is proclaimed and if not received it withdraws. “‘Faith directs itself towards the things that are invisible. Indeed, only when that which is believed on is hidden, can it provide an opportunity for faith.” This is the analogia fidei (analogy of faith), and it is “an inherently dialectical concept.” The analogy of faith seems to be founded in the ‘dialectic of veiling and unveiling’. The analogy of faith is concerned with the “concrete event: the event of revelation.” Being grounded in the dialectic, the analogy of faith undoes the notion of human possibility and analogy of being. “There is nothing in the being or knowing of the human subject which helps to bring this event about––no capacity or pre-understanding which might be seen as a necessary precondition to its occurrence. The only capacity needed for analogy is one which God Himself graciously provides in the event itself as a gift, namely faith.” The analogy of faith works from ‘above to below’; Human knowledge is conformed to God’s Self-knowledge. “Thus, the ‘analogy of faith’, once realized, does not pass over into human control. It must continue to be effected moment by moment by the sovereign action of the divine freedom if it to be effected at all.” In fact, Barth contends, it is within the hidden, and that which contradicts experience, that the opportunity of faith irrupts. Faith occurs only as one is confronted with the Gospel that contradicts all that we are. However, faith does not attempt to find security in the acceptance of this contradiction, but moves within such contradiction. Faith is a shattering of oneself without the possibility of resting amongst the shards. Faith is an openness to the contradiction of the “divine incognito;” it is openness to the resurrection; it is openness to the all embracing ‘No’ of God; ultimately, it is openness to the God who meets this faithless world with a faithful: “‘Nevertheless’ and ‘In spite of this’.” The power of the Gospel confronts us with the faithfulness of God that contradicts this world and ourselves and requires us to choose to wait in expectancy––to live into the new world amidst the old. Faith contradicts our pietistic attempts to get at God, for faith comes only as a gift, and ruptures us.”

  3. The presumption here, it seems, is that “immanence” and “existence” are “riddles” or “problems” that need to be “solved,” or something. “Transcendence” is posited as that which is desirable (even if perhaps unreachable). There seem to be some echoes of Kant’s transcendentalism, here, albeit using different terminology.

    That is, this goal of transcending immanence seems to be a central goal of the modernist project, and not one that I find to be incredibly helpful or desirable. Is there more at work here? Is it helpful to transcend immanence (or even try)?

    • Alan, I think you are totally right about Kant, there seems to be more than just some echoes of him in Barth.

      However, I am not sure I can answer this question from the perspective of Barth so I will give you my own take.

      I think transcendence is to be thought paradoxically. It is a way within immanence in which one lives and loves beyond the ways in which one is to be determined––this is to live into the event of God’s transcendence. I think a quote from Dr. Cone explains this better than I ever could:

      “How could powerless blacks endure and resist the brutality of white supremacy in nearly every aspect of their lives and still keep their sanity? I concluded that an immanent presence of a transcendent revelation, confirming for blacks that they were more than what whites said about them, gave them an inner spiritual strength to cope with anything that came their way.” Cone, *The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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