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Barth Quotes, with Interactions

It has been said that “it is almost always better to read Karl Barth than to read about him. He has a wonderful way of dispelling any caricatures that may have arisen at second hand.” (George Hunsinger, foreword in God Here and Now, vii). If this is true, I can give you no better gift than some words from Barth himself, so that you can make up your own mind on the man.

Below is a collection of quotes which I was required to assemble for my upcoming Barth class. For a more thorough and organized list of quotations (which apply more directly to Barth’s core theology, or Gospel) see here. For my final opinion on Karl Barth, see my paper, “The Gospel According to Barth.”


In the very fact that man is, and that he is man, he is as such chosen by God for salvation…// not because God owes it to him; not in virtue of any quality or capacity of his own being; completely without claim.[1]

Here Barth underlines the essential nature of humanity: man is a creature favored of God, and thereby destined for salvation. This naturally leads to the questions: 1) why is he favored? (the answer here given is simply free grace), 2) is this grace in spite of sin? 3) what will be the mechanism of man’s salvation? And 4) will all men be saved?

The riddle of the existence of Jesus Christ, // which is the point of reference for the Christian answer and Christian faith and confession, is thus the fact that in the humiliation of the Son of God there is actualized and revealed the exaltation of the Son of Man, and our own exaltation in Him as our Brother and Head.[2]

The subject-matter, origin and content of the message received and proclaimed by the Christian community is at its heart the free act of the faithfulness of God in which He takes the lost cause of man, who has denied Him as Creator and in so doing ruined himself as creature, and makes it His own in Jesus Christ, carrying it through to its goal and in that way maintaining and manifesting His own glory in the world.[3]

Because He is God, He has and exercises the power as this man to be His own partner in our place, the One who in free obedience accepts the ordination of man to salvation which we resist, and in that way satisfies us, i.e., achieves that which can positively satisfy us. That is the absolutely unique being, that attitude and activity of God to which the ‘God with us’ at the heart of the Christian message refers. It speaks of the peace which God Himself in this man has made between Himself and us.[4]

In these quotes we receive one answer to the above questions: it is in Christ, as the second Adam, that man is saved. This point is more fully explained elsewhere: as with Schleiermacher, Barth believes that Calvinism has placed too heavy of an emphasis on the “first Adam,” without allocating adequate attention to the “second Adam.” For Barth, the two work very similarly: in the same way that “in Adam all died,” in Christ, all will be made a live (Romans 5). Thus, God’s identification with the human race in Jesus is the mechanism of salvation for men.

If it is not indifferent, incidental or subordinate but ontologically decisive, that one man among all others is the man Jesus; if to be a man is to dwell with this man who is our true and absolute Counterpart; if to be a man is to be concretely confronted with this man who is like us for all that He is so unlike in the full majesty of God, then the fact that we are with God is not merely one of many determinations of our being derivative and mutable, but the basic determination, original and immutable.[5]

We have now to show the fact and extent that the ontological determination of man results from the fact that one man among all others is this creaturely being the man Jesus.[6]

I find these quotes confusing: don’t we receive our ontological determination primarily from the first human, Adam. Even Jesus is born “of a descendant of David [and thus of Adam] according to the flesh,” (Romans 1:3) and so the incarnate Jesus too owes the human aspect of his nature to the first human, Adam. Barth seems to be conflating the “second” Adam with the “first” Adam. Surely he isn’t deifying the first Adam, or equating him with Christ, is he? If all are in Christ, does “Adam” have any ontological significance at all?

I could not believe in the Church if in it and by it I did not find hope even for man as such. We could call this awareness of the destiny of man the Christian conception of humanity.[7]

At every corner, everywhere I turn, everybody is telling me not to proof-text Barth. With this quote, I am sorely tempted to violate this maxim!

Throughout Gollwitzer, I continually asked, “where does this great drive, this need to see all humanity redeemed come from?” Certainly it does not come from Scriptures, which ascribe glory to God equally for His justice as for His grace. From whence comes this positivism towards humanity? Barth here seems to be fairly admitting that external and previous to exegesis, he has a commitment to a human positivism: when pushed he would rather drop Christianity than give up on his “hope for all of humanity.”

Even to the sayings on the cross, the tradition likes to see Jesus speaking in direct or indirect quotations from the Old Testament, and it sets him generally in the confines, not merely of the world religion, but of the special religious promise given to His own people. [more examples from passages, then] …in the later search for the so-called “historical Jesus” the suggestion could be made that He might be reduced to the figure of a (very outstanding) representative of a reformed and deepened Judaism.[8]

I am stupefied by this quotation. Religion is a man-made invention. It is “from below, earthy,” not “from above, heavenly,” (John 8:23). How then can how can this be reconciled to the Christian idea that Jesus is from above, penetrating time and history, shocking in His revelation, opening mysteries hidden from ages past to the view of humanity? The two concepts are as dissimilar as hockey and skinny-dipping. I don’t’ see how any fusion or even a dialectical tension is possible.

But we have not yet mentioned the decisive point at which the man Jesus is the image and reflection of God Himself. …  We have been forestalling the opinion that what we have to call the decisive point is something that can be attained and conceived and controlled by men, and incorporated into the scale of known relationships of magnitude and value. … We do not know God at all if we do not know Him as the one who is absolutely opposed to our whole world which has fallen away from Him and is therefore self-estranged; as the Judge of our world; as the One whose will it is that it should be totally changed and renewed. If we think we know Him in any other way, what we really know (in a mild or wild transcendence) is only the world itself, ourselves, the old Adam. … we do not really know Jesus (the Jesus of the New Testament) if we do not know Him as this poor man, as this (if we may risk the dangerous word) partisan of the poor, and finally as this revolutionary.[9]

Relating to the tension I see above, I would like to put the question to Barth in this manner: from whence arises the similarity between Christ’s and the Father’s basic message? Did the Father place His stamp of approval on the Jew, operating within a Jewish religious worldview, the man, Jesus, thus making him the Christ? Or, conversely, did the Trinity penetrate and invade history in the incarnation with a message radically new to the world, but identical to the message within itself?

As I said above, the two concepts are antithetical and irresolvable.

 [sin is not worshipping as he should] This is the sin of man which is judged and forgiven in Jesus Christ, which God Himself has made good and cast behind man’s back.[10]

In the fact, revealed to us in God’s Word, that God is gracious to man in Jesus Christ, we do not see any of these views of man, either // confirmed or questioned, nor do we see any new view of man, but we see man himself, what and how he really is.[11]

 If this strange judgment had not taken place, there would be only a lost world and lost men. Since it has taken place, we can only recognize and believe and proclaim to the whole world and all men: Not lost. And since it did take place, what does it matter what may be said against the possibility of it? // But what did take place? At this point we can and must make the decisive statement: What took place is that the Son of God fulfilled the righteous judgment on us men by Himself taking our place as man in our place undergoing the judgment under which we has passed. That is why He came and was amongst us.[12]

 This grace of God decides and has already decided concerning our human existence.[13]

 Who is this Lord? He is the God of Israel who in Jesus Christ has loved man, and sought and found him in his lostness and drawn him to Himself, averting from him the suffering of His righteous judgment, and in grace giving him life with the promise of eternal reward.[14]

I had heard that Barth is often accused of being a universalist, but that this is an unfair caricature. Considering these quotes (and his message throughout), I do not know what is so “unfair” about calling him such.

 he creature [man] itself cannot decide either why it moves or whither it moves. This decision belongs to God who rules the creature. In His action which determines the world-process in its true and definitive form. …It is God who arranges for each creature its end and ends. Thus He subordinates all creatures to Himself. And under Himself He co-ordinates all the ends, and therefore all the activities and effects of all creatures into a totality. [which together tell the story of His redeeming love][15]

Within this quote Barth seems to be negating free will. In what sense, then, is God not responsible for sin? Perhaps Barth answers this elsewhere. At any rate, man’s fate is not determined by his own free volition, but by God’s absolute sovereignty, as He works in history to enact the great saga of His redeeming grace.

Because the eternal divine predestination is identical with the election of Jesus Christ, its twofold content is that God wills to lose in order that man may gain. There is a sure and certain salvation for man, and a sure and certain risk for God.[16]

Perhaps Barth is more “neo-Calvinist” than “neo-orthodox.” Calvin’s system is left basically intact: the one element which is changed is the portion of Calvin which was always the weakest and most suspect anyways: the Barth replaces Calvin’s God who elects some to damnation with a more beneficent deity who elects all to salvation in Christ. Makes sense: if God really does have all the power which Calvin ascribes to Him, why would He not elect all to salvation, since he really takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23, 32, 33:11), and desires all to come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9)?

Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s redemption of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. …  And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him. He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and who se truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word.[17]

God with us means… that God has made Himself the One who fulfils His redemptive will.[18]

When we say ‘man’ we have to remember above all that there is one man among many who is this Word, and in respect of the many that it is in their sphere that this Word is to be found – the Word which is for them, which is the Word of their hope, and which in defiance of every threat promises them freedom, security and life.[19]

It is only in the Church or from the Church that there has ever been a free, strong, truly open and confident expectation in regard to the natural man, a quiet and joyful hope that he will be my neighbor, a conception of humanity which is based on ultimate certainty.[20]

I would like to know how Barth deals with all of the wrath passages, all of the passages dealing with hell, and of God’s wrath falling on “sinners” (plural). Also, in assuming Calvin’s system, he has inherited all of the problems therein, especially all of the passages which call to repentance, predicated on free-will. I wonder if he has engaged the Ante-Nicene Father’s continual championing of free-will as over against Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and (by extensions) Augustinianism?

[Barth is commentating on the disciples, alone and without Christ in the boat during the storm, before Christ met them. He draws a parallel with the church:] The church of Jesus Christ in the world – oh, what is it, this church? Must we not continually acknowledge that it is no different than any of those many other more or less good and hopeful human ventures? But especially full of sin and especially threatened because people are attempting something especially bold here: to proclaim the truth about the true God, to serve and worship this God! How could humankind in all its dubiousness and all its defenselessness emerge any more clearly than it does here? And how could this venture not continually be met by difficulties from the inside and from without? And how could this venture not secretly be afflicted, and in a particularly intense and sever way at certain moments in time such as the one in which we are now living? What remains of the church then? Where should it turn? What is to become of Jesus’ disciples when they find themselves in exactly the same boat as the rest of humanity? They are no better off or stronger than the rest, no less lost and helpless than the world as a whole: indeed, more lost and helpless, perhaps, than all the rest. “The wind was contrary.” What do they have of Jesus to hold on to now? Surely only a memory? The memory of his word and the expectation of his help. But how weak our memory often is, and how weak this expectation! What else can we do, then, but cling to what has been given us, cling to the word, and, in spite of our weak attempts tat remembering and hoping, to be obedient as far as our ability and understanding allow.[21]

This quotation seems to me completely consistent with Barth’s larger system. He has elsewhere gone to great lengths to bring non-Christians into the “boat” of salvation: here he puts the church into the same “boat” as the world. Since he has amplified Calvinism to the exclusion of free will, there can be no genuine decision and thus no repentance – the essence of the division between Christian and non.

The Holy Spirit is the coming of the man Jesus, who is the Son of God, to other men who are not this but with whom He still associates. And the witness of the Holy Spirit is the disclosure to these men, and therefore their discovery, of the fact that because they are associated with Him they can be called what they are certainly not called of themselves, and be what they can certainly never become or be of themselves – children of God, children of light who in the midst of death are freed from the fear of death because as sinners they are freed from the curse of sin, and as such messengers to all those who, because they do not see the light, are still in darkness, but are not to // remain in this darkness.[22]

In this quote, Barth seems to contradict the previous quote. If the Spirit is present in the Church, how could the Church be understood as being “in the same boat as the World?” Wouldn’t her ventures – however also characterized by sin and ambition – also contain this fundamental difference from other human ventures, namely that they are touched by the leading and empowering Spirit of Truth?

 Yet there were others – and it is here that the word [discipleship] acquires its pregnant meaning – who are called by Jesus and follow him in the sense that they accompany him wholeheartedly and constantly, sharing his life and destiny at the expense of all other engagements and commitments, attaching themselves to him, placing themselves in his service, and thus showing that they are qualified to be his disciples; not as though the messianic salvation is ascribed only to them, or even to them in particular, but as those who particularly attest and proclaim it. Their qualification as disciples, and therefore for discipleship, n this pregnant sense, is a gift, a “being fit” for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62), a capacity with which they are endowed. Normally the fact that they are endowed in this way means also that they accompany him. Yet here are some qualified disciples who do not do so, and on the other hand there are others who accompany him but are not qualified disciples in this sense.[23]

To me, the phrase “ “the messianic salvation is [not] ascribed only to them” stands out in a harsh antithesis to the rest of this passage. Again, Barth seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. Is the Savior’s the call to discipleship a harsh one, a steep one, an all-consuming one? Then it must necessarily be exclusive: those who reject this call are excluded. If salvation is available to non-disciples, then discipleship is optional to salvation. If so, is there some two-tiered “Romanish”[24] division between priesthood (who heed the call) and the laity (who do not, but are saved notwithstanding)?

 That a person should come to him is the one complete work that one is called to do. We say, therefore, that in practice the command to follow Jesus is identical with the command to believe in him. It demands that a person who is as such brings no other presuppositions that than one is entangled like all other people in the general sloth of humanity, and has to suffer the consequences, should put one’s trust in God as the God who is faithful to the unfaithful, who in spite of their own forgetfulness has not forgotten them, who without any cooperation or merit on their part wills that they should life and not die. In the call of Jesus one is met by the fulfilled promise of God as valid for her or him. In and with the command of Jesus, solid ground is placed under their feet when they are on the point of falling into the abyss. What the command requires of them is simply, but comprehensively, that in practice as well as in theory they should regard it as able to bear him, and stand on it, and no longer leave it.[25]

Honestly, I have a hard time getting excited about telling somebody they are “already saved.” This doesn’t sound like being an “agent of reconciliation,” but a mailman, announcing a reconciliation which has already occurred. True, a few people may have a marginally better life, but then also some will have a harder road in Christ – and ultimately, “so what?” If they’re saved, they’ll find out eventually anyways. Why sacrifice my life, and the lives of my family for that? A straight job sounds very appealing right about now…

If along the third main line of the texts in question we have to do with the overcoming, proclaimed with the incursion of the kingdom of God, of the false separation between man and man revealed in the friend-foe relationship and concretely expressing itself in the exercise of force along a fourth line we have, conversely, the dissolution of self-evident attachments between one person and another.[26]

In this passage, and the surrounding texts, Barth seems dangerously close to pacifism. The connection would be logical, since Harnack and other Liberals leaned towards pacifism at times, and also because Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. So far as I could tell, he never concretely stated his position in this text: I wonder what his stance was?

 As a medium, what is historical, the human word of the witness to revelation, demands our total, concentrated, and serious attention. But only as a medium, not for its own sake and not to be understood in terms of itself, but as witness which itself needs witness and expects witness – the witness that its subject must give. This giving is an event, an action, the action of God in the strictest sense of the term. The point of our own action as hearers and expositors of the gospel stands or falls with God’s action through the instrument with which we have to do.[27]

If I hear him correctly, Barth is saying that Scriptures require the Holy Spirit to be interpreted. This is true and valid up to a point. For example, the non-Christian scholar Harnack was able to read Jesus and understand certain things about his message. Even when the Spirit comes, He opens our minds to learn real truth not merely (although this in itself would be no small thing) to present us with the person of Jesus.

What might at first seem to be exegetically very remote in the passage from Augustine is in fact typically Johannine. There is said in it by way of introduction something which has to be said by way of introduction to the exposition of all biblical books as such: the great Yes and No with which these books call us to themselves only to point us to the Lord, as the Baptist pointed his disciples. This is the radical procedure of the Gospel, or at least a distinctive example of it.[28]

This passage is, I believe, a summary of Barth’s hermeneutical system. I am still just struggling to know: 1) how can the witnesses be trustworthy if they are fallible? 2) how can the witnesses lead us to a relationship if they reveal no propositional information? 3) if propositional revelation is not contained in Scriptures, then where does Barth get his propositional information about, for example, the Trinity?

He [Jesus] did not represent or defend or champion any programme – whether political, economic, moral or religious, whether conservative or progressive. He was equally suspected and disliked by the representatives of all such programmes, although he did not particularly attack any of them. …he enjoyed and displayed…a remarkable freedom which again we can only describe as royal // …He simply revealed the limit and frontier of all these things – the freedom of the kingdom of God. He simply existed in this freedom, and summoned others to it.

Freedom is a statement of negation. It is meaningless without a captor to which to be enslaved: therefore, isn’t making “freedom” a fundamental attribute of Jesus dangerously close to a relationship of necessity? Without humanity, this attribute would be meaningless.

The statement “he did not particularly attack any of them” is surprising – certainly the Pharisees felt singled out!

“He did not represent or defend or champion any programme” – really? What was he doing in the statements, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…”?


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. trans. T & T Clark inc. ed. Helmut Gollwitzer, Church

Dogmatics: A Selection with Introduction. Louisville, LD: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Barth, Karl. “The Bremen Sermon,” in Two Sermons by Karl Barth. Edited by Kurt I.

Johanson. Translated by Christopher Asprey. Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2007.

Barth, Karl. The Call to Discipleship, Translated by G. W. Bromiley. Edited by K. C.

Hanson. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. [kindle book] available from

Barth, Karl. Witness to the World: A Commentary on John I. Edited by Walther Furst.

Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers,


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. T & T Clark inc. ed. Helmut Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics: A Selection with Introduction, (Louisville, LD: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 151-152.

[2] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 132-133.

[3] Ibid, 110.

[4] Ibid, 112.

[5] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 170.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Gollwitzer, 171.

[8] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 100.

[9] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 110

[10] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 164.

[11] Ibid, 165-166.

[12] Ibid, 126-127.

[13] Ibid, 166.

[14] Ibid, 152.

[15] Gollwitzer, 153.

[16] Gollwitzer, 121.

[17] Gollwitzer, Church Dogmatics, 110-111.

[18] Ibid, 111.

[19] Ibid, 117.

[20] Ibid, 172.

[21] Karl Barth, “The Bremen Sermon,” in Two Sermons by Karl Barth, ed. Kurt I. Johanson, trans. Christopher Asprey, (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2007), 48-49.

[23] Karl Barth, The Call to Discipleship, trans. G. W. Bromiley, ed. K. C. Hanson, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press) [kindle book] section 62 of 545. [Note to Guretzki: kindle books don’t have page numbers, they have “sections”]

[24] When in Barth, do as the Barthians do! 🙂

[25] Barth, The Call to Discipleship, sec. 111.

[26] Barth, The Call to Discipleship, sec. 433.

[27] Karl Barth, Witness to the World: A Commentary on John I, ed. Walther Furst, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986), 7.

[28] Karl Barth, Witness to the World, 18.

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