Karl Barth
Postmodern Developments

Karl Barth's theology was a riposte against nineteenth century religious liberalism and its association with culture. It was also a response against the separation of academic theology and the undeerstandings in the church, where Barth tried to bring the Church and theologian together again. The Church comes under the biblical word of God.

The association with culture made academic theology incapable of seeing the rise of illiberalism even, and certainly the militarism of the First World War and the rise of Nazism which led to the Second World War.

Barth did not start with questions about human existence, or the world around us, but by the existence of an already given answer. This was kerygmatic theology, he stated, which is proclaimed.

This skirts around questions of philosophy, or is its own philosophy, which Barth saw as constructing a world view whereas later thinkers have looked at it as analysing language. It also opposes religion, and like Bonhoeffer and later followers of both, is proposing a religionless Christianity. It is also not particularly historical in terms of research process, though it retains the obvious point that revelation happened into history.

Barth was therefore not particularly interested in enquiries about the historical Jesus, and although he obviously knew about them but he skirted around credal details as histories. Rather he took the Chaledonian Definition (351 CE) as his starting point, where Jesus Christ is labelled as fully God and fully man. All theology is, in the end, Christology.

Christ as fully God and fully man was achieved by the self-emptying God on the cross, which for Barth was part of rather than a denying of full divinity. This was because God was primarily interested in humankind and is God's purpose. Christ's sufferings indicate the power and purpose of God. Humankind is, as it were, regenerated in Christ.

The problem with this theology is how we, as evolved and cultural beings, can relate this theology to the known and changing world. There is no relationship between this God and the way we order what we do. If knowledge is contained in the way we order things, either in that order or to be extracted from some depth within it, then there is no relationship between the potential for objective knowledge and this view of God and revelation.

It is rather like with the Calvinist. If you were saved, you were knowing and "in". If you were not, there was no knowledge at all. You were out of it, in fact it didn't even exist. Even if in, the world as it is has still no relationship. So there is no agreement, say, between high (or low) culture and this revelation.

This means that in terms of culture and knowledge, we can only see the enactment of this, without any basis of objective referencing.

The neo-Calvinism of this is that God takes the initiative through revelation, and any enquiry is a response.

This was different from other contemporary twentieth century theologians. Reinhold Niebuhr rejected social betterment as a substitute for the Kingdom of heaven. Niebuhr, in a complex approach, took up anxiety and sin (the fall) as human conditions and related them to the bible and eschatology. History and reality is important, and this includes the bible's (mixed) ethical impacts on history - he was opposed to idealism and romanticism. Bonheoffer mixed Barth and Niebuhr. Whilst he was christological too he also focussed using the historical Jesus on the condition of humanity in its social and political problems. He was not too impressed with Bultmann's effective individualism. Whilst Bultmann like Barth was not interested in the historical Jesus, Bultmann started with issues of human existence and thus developed a method of human faith in relationship with the biblical myth. Curiously this is called demythologisation, whreas it might be seen as remythologisation. Tillich started with human reason, questions and anthropology, in trying to relate faith and culture and the outsider to the faith. He is the closest to liberalism.

John Robinson in the 1960's generated a creative mixture of the three different theologians, the Bultmann who looked at existential faith, the Bonhoeffer with an almost historical Jesucentrism and Tillich's asking of basic questions and reworking of the language. Barth regarded John Robinson as minor and with some contempt. Robinson's theology was an English mishmash, but tackled the real problem of spacial metaphor in a secular world, and indeed the whole area of doubt about belief in modernity. Robinson showed that changing metaphors about God did change the character of God. Whilst he became more conservative, he was superseded by questions around doctrine versus the historical Jesus and the detachment of God in The Myth of God Incarnate (by very different English theologians). Robinson wanted to remain loyal to the incarnation as a given. After this came the various stages of Cupitt's God-departed postmodernism or John Hick's (English but in America) highest beyond categories theism or "real". Another of the writers, Michael Goulder, became purely secular whilst still teaching the Bible.

Despite such huge differences from Barth, there is something in the remoteness of Barth's God from ordinary comprehension, and about the absence of a quest for an historical Jesus, that leads to the high modernist and postmodernist theologians. Harvey Cox, Paul van Buren, William Altizer all followed on with secular Godless approaches. The most direct development is Hans Frei's non-objective biblical drama, claimed to be Barth's biblical method, and the Yale postliberalism regarding doctrine of George Lindbeck. The English theologians from Robinson on were far more liberal. It is called postliberalism because, like Barth's reaction against liberalism, it comes after theological individualism and rejects it in favour of the collective.

Why this shift back to non-objective postliberalism or dialogue-individualism takes place is because humans as linguistic characters do have to apply language, philosophy and culture to these schemes like Barth's. There is either some or no relationship with the given world. Altizer saw the death of God as an historical event, as if God really did die on the cross (a sort of lost into the human unitarianism) whereas say Cupitt has seen Christianity becoming a form of humanism because of its metaphor of God come down to earth into the human.

Martineau is little known but his theology was the universality of God of far greater relevance and application than a particular expression of it in Jesus Christ, whatever the teaching status of Jesus in one historical moment. It is in a different sense from Barth that Martineau's God is high and dry. There is also, in effect, a focus on the spirituality of language. This God relates to the human imagination and human longing, the humankind which seeks the one God in the universal. Christianity is a vehicle of expression, not a revelation of a self-giving God, although this illustrates an aspect of God - revelation is always changing. The only sure guide to the revelation of God is not the Bible but the individual conscience.

This is an idealised and romantic God and has some relationship with Transcendentalism, without the breakaway into a nature religion. But Martineau's God so linked with individual conscience loses its objective root in a collective world, and its truth claim is dissipated. It also uses as a cultural inheritance but is not dogmatically Christian. At the most, as revelation, it is but one if important insight. Thus it leads on to postmodernism, just as Cupitt's 1979 high and dry God became a collapse and broadening into Christian humanism and a relationship with other faiths (particularly the Buddhist) where Christ and humanity is decentred.

In a broader understanding, we see that God to exist has to have a relationship with culture, language (communication) and humankind's activities (or better still the rest of nature). What has happened is the decoupling of God and these elements from the revelation end, or a soft disappearance from the liberal end where cutlural relativity has absorbed this God and contained it within language, expression, imagination and understandings of the cosmos.

Debating points (one way)

What follows below is some edited (for comprehension, sense, removal of names and removal of repetition) emails sent out in a debate on Karl Barth particularly in response to a Unitarian who supports Barthian theology (including the Trinity). Some square brackets are afterthoughts.

Karl Barth produced a theology so remote from humankind that he moderated his stance towards the end of his life. [This is a little sweeping - because it was a theology which said God's focus and involvement is humanity, however one way is the direction or culture-distant the source.]

His God was so remote that it disappeared. Cast as revelation only, humankind could do nothing for itself.

Religion was rejected, and so was any human means to objective proof. This is why Karl Barth leads directly to the biblical position of Hans Frei, that there is nothing but immersion in the biblical text in a postmodern, postliberal way, for there is no objective truth. George Lindbeck produced the same outlook for doctrine - there is no proof, only immersion in a collective community.

Thus there is a direct link between Barth, postmodernism and indeed the secular Christianity of Harvey Cox's The Secular City, which was Barth and Bonhoeffer in inspiration, and indeed the death of God theologians, as any God that might be there simply is out of the loop of everyday living and one may as well say he died into writing (Mark C. Taylor).

The Unitarian tradition, as exemplified by James Martineau, turns this on its head. For Martineau, the biblical event was but one example of the divine interacting with the world, and this divine was universal. The way to postmodernism here is that Martineau's God was high and dry, if poetic, and towards the pantheistic, and interfaith (which he rejected, but his followers didn't), and the purely cultural.

My view is that we need to generate religious rituals as means within culture to reassess our lives and where we go. Although I came via secular Christianity (Robinson, Cox, etc.), and that earthbound Jesus route, to a radical theological position (like Don Cupitt, Mark Taylor), the route then becomes a kind of postmodern Martineau because we realise that we are bound in culture and religious expression is bound in our expressions. I'm a poststructuralist.

So Barth, in his desperation to produce a pure Christianity in his neo-Calvinism, shot his own foot, as he probably realised, and contradicted himself. The future is postmodern, whether from Barth or Martineau.

Adrian Worsfold

The group (postliberal position) becomes oppressive, just like revelation is oppressive. The sociologist, the religionist, the culturalist just cannot take Barth seriously in the moral implications of obeying revelation, as the biblical texts are contradictory and need human interpretation by those in or seeking power; and so the need is to put ethics first, to apply a critical eye and be one's own interpreter in dialogue with others. Liberalism has to succeed over postliberalism.

Adrian Worsfold

Even worse is the Christendom of John Milbank who again runs a universe of meaning compatible with being unable to objectively justify his realm of belief and practice.

As for Calvin being a model of Christian practice, he was something of a religious thug, no doubt enthused with religious belief. He also trapped the anti-trinitarian Servetus and had him burnt alive.

If there is anything in the postliberal argument regarding Unitarianism (and I have argued recently that it is going this way - collective identity being written and performed without external anchoring) then the Unitarian tradition is a defence of the liberal tradition, an evolution which overturned Calvinism (from where Unitarianism came), for which Barth is one of its opponents.

An Anglican priest doing a Ph.D on Barth in the end came to the view that Barth's view of humanity was inadequate, and there are good comments about Barthian obsessive characteristics from John Bowden, which should set ethical alarm bells ringing . Barth treats Mozart like he treats Christ, singular and excluding all others, and it is ridiculous. In the end Barth has no superior insight; he, like the rest of us, is limited to time and place and the limitations of language. He is a dangerous theologian.

Adrian Worsfold

Barth was critical of the rest: for example Brunner was inadequate because there was some "bottom up" as well as Barth's "top down"; Bultmann had an approach of demythologising the bible (aspects of which Barth skated over in rhetoric) [and an existentialist whose focus is about human existence], Niebuhr was a Christian socialist [he had a stronger relationship with tackling culture] (Barth was a socialist), and Tillich can be counted in his existentialism (and socialism) as giving a restated groundwork for liberal theology.

Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly gained noble status against the corruption of the German Church: Bonhoeffer paying with his life and Barth opposing out of reach from Switzerland. But Bonhoeffer is as much famous for his secularising of theology, and his opposition to theism equivalent with Barth. But we also remember the brave if less known Czech Unitarian response to Nazism, in the protection given to Jews and adaptation of rituals so that they could be accommodated (the origin of the Flower Communion). Theology was variable in the opposition to oppression. The Roman Catholic Church as a whole can be condemned, that Church which found Barth worthy of approval as a Protestant.

Theologians cannot be taken in isolation, otherwise they just become idolised. They all come and go; all have relevance and lose it. In the wake of the First World War and Second, Barth and Bonhoeffer were seen as having great relevance, and Barth's relevance in the 1960's was in secular theology. Now Barth's relevance is only in terms either again of the secular - but this has waned because of pluralism -and postliberalism. But this is seen as small because of the shrinking of Western Christianity.

Martineau would well have been seen as over optimistic in the face of twentieth century history, but if better known he would be associated with the romantics and the attempt to attach language to the spiritual. He was a big fish in too small a pond. His secular sister has been far more relevant particularly to feminists, a small fish in a big pond. His relevance today would be in people who use and even write again and again language that helps in the orientation of their ethical lives. I find Martineau's words too olde worlde, and they express a theology quite dead, but just as he was writing in relationship to some pretty clapped out doctrinaire Unitarians, so Martineau can be understood for what he was doing in context. The line of Martineau, a Tory with liberal theology, has relevance now in our context, particularly as a person who wanted to break out of denominational walls.

The followers of writers are very significant because they show the relevance and adaptation of a message. This is what Paul did, otherwise Christianity would have been a law over faith early Jewish Church. That was right for an area until it was destroyed. The followers of Barth are secular theolgians and postliberal. There was a lot of Barth in Bishop David Jenkins, for example, who sounded so liberal to the press but was quite orthodox in key areas. His God was Barth's, who acted in history and where the biblical drama is key.

The central tasks today are tolerance and engaging with wide plurality and diversity, and engaging against the rise of the right, nationalism, neo-fascism and religious fanaticism within established faiths. For these tasks Barth and his legacy are utterly inadequate. You cannot simply emerse yourself in one drama and let that be sufficient. Pluralism has to be active with conversation across religions and some of the obvious causal truths of the secular. Instead there needs to be a combination of liberalism and discussion with the other, of individual conscience put to public test. There needs to be dialogue and listening rather than Barthian rhetoric and rant.

Adrian Worsfold

It was Barth's argument that revelation had to be pure and uncontaminated. Those who were more liberal still also had revelation elements. Whilst the more balanced and mixed theologians, in terms of revelation and natural religion, have continued on with more or less objective compromises, both the purest liberals and the purest in revelation have led on to non-objective (or non-realist, postmodern, postliberal) systems.

Hans Frei is the theologian who particularly examined and developed Barth's biblical method and directly produced a postliberal position where objectivity is unavailable, and a pure liberal individual conscience or creedless group position is relative without an objective test available and therefore becomes postmodern. The former follows a preset text (singular) interpreted, and the latter finds texts (plural) in debate and listens. In both results, however, God has died into text or texts because God, the source of objectivity, is no more, and we are left as the readers and performers of the religious and other dramas.

Adrian Worsfold

We should always try to read a passage in terms of its own text, but we will never know quite what the author meant, nor see it away from where we are. And where we are is here, and where he (Barth) was was there.

Adrian Worsfold

I suppose the answer about why anyone might read any theology is this, that if there are sources, traditions and texts that inspire or motivate, then we might read on as to why they motivate (some people), based on the texts, and then we find that they too generate their own traditions. Clearly, the more "inside" a tradition, the less impact it is going to have (like Barth and his inside constituency), whereas the impact of the transcendentalists (and the Romantics in Britain), who broke away from a restrictive Puritan shadowed Unitarianism, has been far wider, because they wrote about the kind of nature that anyone can experience. Postmodernism enters itself into the realm of the novel and drama in terms of not having to be objective, and so is about the regeneration of experience through identity with the text.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful


Bibliographical areas

Barth, K., Church Dogmatics, T. and T. Clark.
Barth, K., Deliverance to the Captives, SCM Press.
Bonhoeffer, D., Christology, Collins.
Bonhoeffer, D., Ethics, SCM Press.
Bonhoeffer, D., Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press.
Bultmann, R., Theology of the New Testament, SCM Press.
Niebuhr, R. Beyond Tragedy, James Nisbet and Company.
Niebuhr, R. The Nature and Destinty of Man, James Nisbet and Company.