Karl Barth on “God is Love”

barth-god-is-loveAs those of you who follow me on either Facebook or Twitter know, I am currently reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics volume II/1 and posting some of my favorite quotes along the way with the hashtag #Barth21. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along so far through this magnificent book. I’m about 33% of the way through, so there are still plenty of great quotes to come.

I wanted to share an extended quote I read today in which Barth discusses the being of God as the One who loves. This is a beautiful section, containing many great insights. Enjoy!

(Quotes are from the Hendrickson Publishers 2010 edition. Italics are original; bold is mine.)

Karl Barth on “God is Love”

“God is He who, without having to do so, seeks and creates fellowship between Himself and us.” (273)

[God] wills to be ours, and He wills that we should be His. He wills to belong to us and He wills that we should belong to Him. He does not will to be without us, and He does not will that we should be without Him. He wills certainly to be God and He does not will that we should be God. But He does not will to be God for Himself nor as God to be alone with Himself. He wills as God to be for us and with us who are not God. …He does not will to be Himself in any other way than He is in this relationship. His life, that is, His life in Himself, which is originally and properly the one and only life, leans towards this unity with our life. The blessings of His Godhead are so great that they overflow as blessings to us, who are not God. This is God’s conduct towards us in virtue of His revelation.” (274)

I love this! God is so for the human race that God wills not only to be God in Himself, but, without having to do so, God becomes our God and makes us His people. This is the depths of God’s love for us. These statements come after Barth works through the concept of God’s being in God’s act, of God as the “self-moved” God. Accordingly, who God is towards us is who God is in Himself, God’s act is God’s being. God loving us is therefore not just a part of who God is or a part of what God has done for us, God loving us is who God is, God is this God, the God who wills not to be God without us, who wills us not to be human beings without Him.

From this Barth continues, explaining that God is this way in Himself, that God is not a solitary, or lonely being, but that God is a fellowship in Himself. In other words, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“As and before God seeks and creates fellowship with us, He wills and completes this fellowship in Himself. In Himself He does not will to exist for Himself, to exist alone. On the contrary, He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore alive in His unique being with and for and in another. The unbroken unity of His being, knowledge and will is at the same time an act of deliberation, decision and intercourse. He does not exist in solitude but in fellowship. Therefore what He seeks and creates between Himself and us is in fact nothing else but what He wills and completes and therefore is in Himself. It therefore follows that as He receives us through His Son into His fellowship with Himself, this is the one necessity, salvation, and blessing for us, than which there is no greater blessing—no greater, because God has nothing higher than this to give, namely Himself; because in giving us Himself, He has given us every blessing. We recognize and appreciate this blessing when we describe God’s being more specifically in the statement that He is the One who loves. That He is God—the Godhead of God—consists in the fact that He loves, and it is the expression of His loving that He seeks and creates fellowship with us. It is correct and important in this connexion to say emphatically His loving, i.e., His act as that of the One who loves.” (275)

It is because God is in Himself this fellowship, is in Himself the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that God creates fellowship with us. God’s blessing to us is His giving us the highest good: Himself. It’s because God is this God in Himself that God loves us and creates fellowship with us. God could not love us or have fellowship with us if God were not in Himself love and fellowship, thus God must be this Triune God in the loving fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A unitarian God, a solitary God, cannot love or be in fellowship with another. Only the Triune God can properly love out of His very being and nature. 1

From this Barth moves to an exegesis of that famous passage in 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” Barth brilliantly notes that the context of this verse gives far more meaning to it than the phrase is often given. We tend to shortchange the idea that God is love when we forget the context this statement comes in. Barth explains:

“The tempting definition that ‘God is love’ seems to have some possible support in 1 Jn. 4:8. But it is a forced exegesis to cite this sentence apart from its context and without the interpretation that is placed on it by its context, and to use it as the basis of a definition. We read in v. 9: ‘In this was manifested the love of God towards us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.’ Again we are told in v. 10 (with a remarkable similarity of prediction): ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’ And finally in v. 15: In this we have knowledge and faith in the love that God has for us, that we confess ‘that Jesus is the Son of God.’ The love of God, or God as love, is therefore interpreted in 1 Jn. 4 as the completed act of divine loving in sending Jesus Christ.” (275)

We tend to quote the phrase “God is love” and misuse it as a kind of abstract definition we can fulfill. We say God is love but then we define love ourselves, making God into whatever we’d like Him to be. But here Barth insists upon saying that this means, properly, that God has sent Jesus Christ for our sakes. John 3:16 also defines love in this way; that God loves means that God sends His Son for our sakes. God’s love is not an abstract definition we can fill with whatever we want to say, defining it by ourselves. God’s love is God’s definition, and only God can define it, and has, in sending Jesus Christ for our sakes.


In these quotes Barth has brilliantly and beautifully painted a picture of God as the One who loves, the One who wills not to be God without us. This may be one of my new favorite Barth quotes! I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well.

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  1. This is a point I bring up in the first chapter of my book, We Belong: Trinitarian Good News. Check it out for more.

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