4 Traits that Made Karl Barth a Great Theologian (According to T F Torrance)

bundesarchiv_bild_194-1283-23a_wuppertal_evangelische_gesellschaft_jahrestagungYesterday I began reading Thomas F Torrance’s book, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931I first read Barth because I had read and enjoyed Torrance, so it’s an understatement to say I’ve been excited to dive in and learn what Torrance has to say about Barth. (So far it’s been a great book.)

Torrance writes of four traits (personal characteristics) which made Barth a great theologian. Today I wanted to repeat these traits to you, as they are all great traits we can learn from. Enjoy!

#1 An Inquisitive Mind

Torrance writes, “Barth has the most searching, questioning mind I have ever known.” 1 This would be apparent to anyone who has ever read, for example, in the Church Dogmatics, the pages upon pages of questions Barth asked. Torrance estimates that if you were to put only the questions asked in the Dogmatics into a book it would fill “hundreds of hundreds of pages.” Barth asked a lot of questions!

But Barth’s ruthless questioning is not the same kind as the questioning other theologians have done, such as the questions found in Paul Tillich’s method of correlation. (More on Barth and Tillich here.) Barth’s questions are a ruthless criticism for the sake of letting the Word of God speak clearly and positively to us. These questions seek to self-critically clear the way for God’s Word to speak.

Torrance writes, “This questioning is forced upon us because face to face with God’s Word we know ourselves to be questioned down to the very roots of our being, and therefore in response to the impact of the Word we are thrown back upon self-criticism, upon a repentant questioning and rethinking of all that we have and are and claim to know.” 2 We ask questions because God’s Word has confronted us to the core of our being. We must ask questions to make a way for the Word of God to speak clearly and positively to us, to rightly hear the content of this Word. These questions seek to remove our presuppositions (or at least limit them).

We ask questions forcefully and ruthlessly, then, not because God is bound to our questions, but because God has confronted us and this demands us to question our reality and make room for the Word of God to speak. This is the sort of questioning which is rooted in a deep humility before the truth of God, a truth which lies beyond our grasp and which meets us only by grace.

#2 A Childlike Willingness to Learn and Listen

Torrance writes, “Barth has an uncanny ability to listen which is accompanied by an astonishing humility and childlikeness in which he is always ready to learn.” 3 Torrance calls this “the secret of Barth’s hermeneutics, whether he is interpreting Holy Scripture or interpreting the thought of another theologian.” 4

Barth listened and listened well to the great theologians of the church, and his critical appreciation of their work always came first and foremost from this place of listening. But this is not only how Barth read other theologians; this is Barth’s method for biblical exegesis.

Torrance notes, “Biblical exegesis takes place therefore in a strenuous disciplined attempt to lay ourselves open to hear the Word of God speaking to us, to read what the Word intends or denotes and to refrain from interrupting it or confusing it with our own speaking, for in faithful exegesis we have to let ourselves be told what we cannot tell ourselves.” 5

This is a lesson we can all apply for reading not only the bible and other theologians, but even Barth’s work, too. Critics like Van Til have always failed in this regard, they have failed to listen to Barth on his own terms. We will always fail to understand the bible, to understand what God is speaking to us in the Word of God, and we will always fail to understand Barth, when we fail to listen.

#3 Creativity

Torrance writes, “Another typical characteristic of Barth which we must give attention is his sheer creative power, his ability to produce something new.” 6 Torrance likens Barth to Beethoven. Beethoven is a shocking composer who often merged together various themes which, at first, seem contradictory, but which ultimately enrich the whole symphony with a multi-faceted kind of beauty. Barth might not like this analogy (he preferred Mozart), but it aptly applies to Barth’s ability to create something shocking and beautiful in his Dogmatics. It takes a creative genius to do what Barth has done in the Church Dogmatics, and I doubt anyone who reads it with the care it demands would fail to see its genius.

Interestingly, Torrance writes here what he considers to be Barth’s main theological theme: “From first to last Barth’s main theme has been the turning of God in utter grace in incredible condescension to man to be man’s God, so that what we are concerned with in the Gospel is the sovereign togetherness of God with man and the exaltation of man to share in the divine life and love.” 7

I like that a lot! If I had to summarize what I have learned the most from Barth, personally and theologically, I couldn’t find a better summary than this.

#4 Joy

Torrance writes, “There is one other aspect of Barth, both as a man and as a theologian, which we must select for mention: his joy and his humour.” 8 One of my favorite quotes from Barth sums up this point well: “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.”

Torrance gives two examples of Barth’s joy and humor. First, he mentions Barth’s love of Mozart, and his elevating him to the status of “church father.” And second, Torrance notes a humorous comment from CD III/2, which says, “What a pity that none of these apologists consider it worthy of mention that man is apparently the only being accustomed to laugh and to smoke.” 9

Beyond these two points, Torrance notes that Barth writes with joy not because he is necessarily a joyful person, but because God is a God of supreme joy. It’s Barth’s doctrine of God, his enjoyment of the beauty and glory of God, which most establishes his joy as a theologian. Torrance calls Barth an exemplary theologian of the frui Deo, of the enjoyment of God. Joy is at the center of his theology, and anyone reading his work will find themselves confronted with the God of infinite joy.


There are a lot of theological insights we can learn from Barth, but Torrance reminds us that we can also learn from from how Barth practically lived and worked out his theology. Barth was not afraid of asking difficult questions, because God has first met us, at the core of our being, and questioned us in Jesus Christ. Barth was humble before the truth, and therefore willing to listen carefully to the testimony of the scriptures and to learn from other theologians. Barth was a creative genius, who worked tirelessly at constructing a new and innovative theology. Barth was a joyful and humorous person, because God is a joyful and humorous God.

In the spirit of Barth’s humanity, joy, and of his love for Mozart, I’ll leave you to enjoy three hours of Mozart’s Sonatas (or however long you want to listen). Cheers!

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  1. Torrance, Karl Barth, 19
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 21
  4. Ibid., 22
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 22-23
  7. Ibid., 23
  8. Ibid.
  9. CD III/2, 83

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