All posts in “barth in conversation”

Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1 (Review)

Book: Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1, 1959-1962 ed. by Eberhard Busch [Amazon link]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press [Publisher’s link]

Overview: A straight-forward, engaging collection of conversations, Q&As, and interviews, Barth in Conversation was a joy to read. This text is essential for students of Barth’s theology, whether you are new to it or already well acquainted with his work. Some of the most common questions asked about his theology receive direct, off-the-cuff answers, offering significant insight into his thought.


I’ve read a lot of books from Barth, but this one has earned a place among my favorites. I know I will be returning to it often.

This book collects interviews, conversations, and Q&A sessions which Barth gave between 1959-1962. This includes those from Barth’s visit to America. Notably, it records his Q&A sessions in Chicago and Princeton.

There is much to celebrate about this text, but I think its true value comes from the frank and direct answers Barth provides to some of the most common questions asked about his theology. These include answers to questions regarding universalism, hell, election, the Bible, communism, Billy Graham, Rudolf Bultmann, and the objective work of Christ.

To give you a taste, here are some notable quotes I enjoyed from the book:

[On Billy Graham:] I don’t think the Christian doctrine should be held like a pistol at man’s breast. Christian faith begins with joy and not with fear. Mr. Graham begins by making people afraid.

[On the Bible:] The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God.

[On the virgin birth:] I think I have good reasons not to discard Jesus’ virgin birth. But when someone is offended by it, I would not say, ‘You are, therefore, not a Christian.’

[On the experience of salvation:] I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel.

[On politics:] There is no possibility for a Christian to retreat from the political aspects of life.

[On military service and the bomb:] In the first three centuries it was impossible for a Christian to become a soldier. Today we are not yet that far again, but we are underway toward this goal. It must start with the fight against the atomic bomb.

[On the horrid conditions of American prisons:] These small cages were, for me, the sight of Dante’s Inferno on Earth.

[On his “unorthodox” reading of Calvin:] Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright.

[On existentialism and Bultmann:] If I had to choose between the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and that of Bultmann, I would, without hesitation, return to Schleiermacher. If liberalism at all, then let it be as Schleiermacher understood it! […] Existentialism is an arid affair.

[On alternative careers:] If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. […] And perhaps it wouldn’t be so far from what I am doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go.

And this was probably my favorite quote from the volume:

I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.

I also spent the last few weeks writing a series of blog articles which discuss quotes from the book. These include:

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall”

“The Bible is not Sinless”

As you can see, this volume is a treasure-trove of thought-provoking insights. The clarity and frankness of the text is also a great benefit for newcomers to Barth. The editors did a great job providing all the necessary background information, too. Overall, this book is a tremendous resource.


Conclusion: I highly recommend this volume. If you are at all interested in the theology of Karl Barth, then this book is an essential addition to your library. For an insightful look into Barth’s thought, but also for frank answers to some of the most common questions regarding his work, this is an incredibly valuable text. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Click here to purchase Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1

And keep an eye out for Volume 2, which is available for pre-order and out in September.

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

Like this article? Share it!

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

Like this article? Share it!

Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.