Is Barth’s Theology Necessarily Exclusivist?

Karl Barth’s theology of religions, with its Christocentrism, is often regarded as the archetype of particularism. Thus for example Surin can write “Karl Barth is the foremost modern exponent of the view that Jesus Christ is the decisive, unrepeatable and unsurpassable `locus’ of divine revelation, and that consequently it is only by following the way of Christ that we can possibly hope for the ultimate salvation of mankind” (Cited in Grenz, 2000: 253). Jesus is the self-revelation of the triune God and thus to know Jesus is to know God (Hart, 2000: 47). It will be the purpose of this paper to argue that given Barth’s non-foundationalism and doctrine of election one can construct a Barthian theology of religions that is thoroughly inclusivist in the mould of a Trinitarian inclusivism in contrast to the traditional reading of Barth. Crucial will be the recognition that Barth nowhere developed a theology of religions but only a theology of religion and thus a priori this places all faiths on the same level of soteriological impotence (Di Noia, 2000: 244). Di Noia likewise challenges the prevailing reading of Karl Barth, however, he has only centred on Barth’s treatment of religion per se and, as such, has not dealt with the other relevant aspects of Barth’s theological schema addressed here.

Religion – A Work of Law.

For Barth all religion, Christianity included, is a completely human work. Because religion is a human construction whereby humanity by its own efforts attempts to commune with the divine it is Unglaube; for Barth, (CD 1/2: 302-3) “religion is the contradiction of revelation. That which pleases God is not human religiosity but faith in response to divine revelation; revelation that proceeds only and directly from the triune God (Di Noia, 2000: 249-250). It is clear then why the work on religion is offered within the larger context of the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation. Thus even in his early theology one can see this reliance “As God reveals himself, he is knowable” (Barth, 1990: 328). Any independent attempt to speak of God is futile and doomed as Feurbach noted to the projection to natural desires to a supernatural realm (Hart, 1999: 17, 125-126). Crucial as a backdrop to Barth’s revelatory theology as it developed is the work of Immanuel Kant and especially the neo-Kantians he studied under at Marburg. For Kant the only basis for knowledge is the phenomena consequently God is not a suitable subject for epistemology relegated instead to the arena of faith (Ward, 1997: 115; Fisher, 1988: 7-122). Marrying this concept with the post-lapsarian noetic consequences, resulting in utter alienation from God, Barth was able to conclude that humanity is in an impossible predicament in that God is, humanly speaking, a thoroughly non-cognitive entity, and therefore, noumena. There is consequently no natural knowledge of God (Barth, CD1/2: 257; Hart, 2000: 42).

The only hope for reconciliation then, is naturally impossible viz. miraculous. Consequently, the only means by which one can be epistemically secure in relation to divine existence is by an act of the divine his/herself.  Revelation then, in Barth, is a dynamic event and not a natural phenomenon. Whilst in Barth this revelation is communicated in three primary mediums; Jesus Christ, Scripture and the proclamation of the ecclesia (Hart, 1999: 28-47) Barth does acknowledge that revelation cannot necessarily be confined to this and the whole of creation can bear witness to divine revelation viewed as dynamic event (Barth, 1946: 88; Hart, 1999: 170-172). This should not, however, be regarded as a `given’ general revelation finding its loci in the phenomenal realm but rather, if it ever occurs, must every time be a dynamic action on the part of the triune God. If then, revelation is not necessarily limited to this three-fold structure, the charge of an unrelenting exclusivism in Barth is erroneous; if God can conceivably self-reveal to all his/her creation unilaterally then an extra-ecclesial salvific work is possible. Therefore Hart, (1999: 171) can write: Barth does not deny the existence of a `point of contact’ between God and creation. He denies that such a point of contact exists naturally within the creature”. This potential extra-ecclesial salvific work cannot, of course, present itself as a objective religious pluralism of the inherent value of various religious institutions given the Feurbachian charge of idolatry. However, it is surely possible that those within such contexts may encounter the Spirit of Holiness and respond as God enables.

The Inscrutability of God: Barth’s Non-Foundationalism.

The presupposition of foundationalism can be regarded as the unwritten dictum of modern philosophical and theological thought (Wood, 1998: 77-104). Foundationalism holds that there are certain indubitable beliefs that “claims that the termini of justification are not themselves capable of justification” (Brink, 1989: 121-122). In the contemporary era the foundationalist presupposition has come under increasing attack with the onset of the post-modern paradigm. Barth’s non-foundationalism is, however, of a unique and pre-post-modern kind (Johnson, 1997: 184-185). It is not that there is no foundation as such supporting Barth’s theology but, rather, God is the foundation of theology but this God is an apothatic deity absolutely inscrutable to the human mind. God then, in Barth, is a se and, as such, cognitively impregnable (Barth, CD 1/2: 750; Barth, 1991: 9).[1] This, when coupled with the utter depravity of humanity discussed earlier means that any God-talk viz. theology is a futile venture; the natural state of humanity is one of a flailing blindly in the dark (Barth, CD I/2, 257.). God is naturally unknowable; there is no analogia entis. Any true knowledge and God-talk is complete miracle (Du Toit, 1999: 10-12).

Jesus: The Object and Subject of Election.

Barth’s doctrine of election is perhaps the most innovative proposal to be found in contemporary reformed theology. Barth re-invented the doctrine in line with his christocentrism so as to remain faithful to the language of the reformed tradition whilst removing the subjective and seemingly arbitrary election of individuals viz. reprobation of those remaining, such as is usual in reformed thought. Barth’s innovation was to locate both the elect and reprobate humanity in the historical God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In order to support this Barth relied on the collocation of Ephesians 1:4 with the Johannine prologue (Cunningham, 1995:21). [2]

 Jesus is, in this model, both the elected and the elector, the subject and object of divine election. Therefore the justification of all humanity is not to be found in the history of individual persons but in the history of the God-man, Jesus Christ (Hart, 1999: 59). It is not necessary here to directly address the implications for contemporary christological formulation and tradition if this interpretation were to be appropriated but rather what consequences proceed from Barth’s doctrine of election for individuals of any or no faith and thus not professing explicit faith in Christ.

As has been highlighted the loci of the divine elective work is not a seemingly arbitrary distinction between the elect and reprobate. In Christ all humanity is simultaneously the elect of God and the reprobate. Jesus, as not-God, in his life, death, and resurrection has fulfilled the full cost of the divine-human bifurcation and thus all humanity is in intellectu forensically justified before God. The term justified is used here in the sense of a forensic justification such as that advocated earlier by the reformer Philip Melanchthon whereby the believer is simil iustus et peccator, that is, at the same time both righteous and a sinner. At the moment of belief the sinner is imputed with righteousness and therefore, in a moment, declared justified before God (McGrath, 1999:121; Wengert, 1997: 177-185). This forensic justification, in its Barthian mode, however, goes significantly further than that advocated by Luther or Melancthon.

If Jesus is the one in whom all humanity finds their election then it is not just believers that are simil iustus et peccator but all humanity, even though epistemically ignorant, are in intellectu justified (Barth, CD 4/1, 516). The simil iustus et peccator should not be taken as does Küng, (1981: 237) as a imbalanced coexesistene of the iustus and peccator but rather humanity is simultaneously totus peccator in virtue of one’s past life and totus iustus because of the proleptic eschatological hope (Barth, CD 4/1: 595). Even for those professing faith in Christ because the proleptic while ontologically real is not experienced the believer the totus peccator is empirically more prevalent than the totus iustus (Barth, CD4/1: 552, 554; Hart, 1999: 55). Given this consequence a person’s peccable belief such as those of adherents of religions with no conception of sin in no way undermines the reality of their status as ontologically totus iustus. By way of analogy Barth, (CD 1/2: 326) also states that one can talk of Christianity as the one true religion only in the sense as one can talk of the justified sinner. By implication then, given the empirical rule of the totus peccator in the believer’s viz. church’s life one can conceive of this extra ecclesial justification as eminently possible. It is easy to see then why it is that many of Barth’s detractors have labelled him as an advocate of the doctrine of apokatastasis, advocating the ultimate reconciliation of all to God (See Grenz and Olson, 1992: 74-75); a charge that Barth, interestingly, never denied (Grenz and Olson, 1992:75).

However, elsewhere Barth seems to propose a semi-Augustinian soteriology. Such a standpoint, which is probably more consistent with the thought of Augustine himself, is differentiated from a hard Augustinianism leading as this does to quasi-manichaen impotency of the human will and complete theocentrism. Semi-Augustinian soteriology in distinction proposes the absolute dependence on divine grace at all stages in the ordo salutes but nonetheless asserts a grace-filled potentiality in humanity to respond to God. It is when an individual responds affirmatively to this revelation enabled as she is by grace in both the revelation and the appropriation of this revelation that she is justified before God. Hart, (1999: 50) highlights that for Barth there is never any “cooperation or active involvement” in justification. Certainly any active cooperation would lead, of necessity to a kind of semi-pelagian soteriology. However, in the model offered above there is no activity at all, merely passivity. Humanity then, can resist the divine justifying work but can do nothing to instantiate it. Such a viewpoint is implicit given the doctrine of revelation Barth, (1991: 61) expounds:

Revelation means the knowledge of God through God and from God. It means the object becomes the subject. It is not our own work if we receive God’s address, if we know God in faith. It is God’s work in us.

 Justication then, in Barth, can be read as a gift universally given and yet not universally received. Salvific reception is enabled by God, it is not however, temporally given except by the response of an individual . What one is left with is what may be called a paradox of grace all are justified of God and yet justification is a response, albeit passive, this paradox is then miracle (Barth, CD 1/2: 278). Given these foregoing comments it would seem extremely unlikely that any apokatastasis would occur in re in spite of the in intellectu justification of all humanity.

The Synthesis of Nonfoundationalism and Barthian Election.

It will be the author’s present intent to delineate how these two significant themes in the Barthian theological schema can be collated with the addition of his doctrine of Trinity to produce a neo-orthodox Trinitarian inclusivism. As was earlier highlighted the doctrine of divine aseity ensues in humanity having absolutely no natural knowledge of God. Consequently, any knowledge of God, or indeed, any knowledge at true knowledge at all must be special revelation; this is special revelation, of course, reaches its climax in the Christ-event so that while epistemological issues are rarely discussed in Barth he can assert that all knowledge has its ontic and noetic grounding in Christ; that the incarnate Word is creation’s epistemological anchor (Hart, 1999: 127-128). What is important in this regard is that in Christ the noumenal and phenomenal realms are reconciled, for in the God-man the noumenal has become temporal and thus in Jesus one sees simultaneously both God and Not-God. It is only this distinction that differentiates the position advanced here from the epistemological relativist viz. religious pluralist such as John Hick seeking as he does to emphasise the need to demythologise the language of divine incarnation (Hick, 2001a: 25-36). In its place Hick posits that the Transcendent has no epistemological form but its universal presence in religious experience and thus to use the language of Barth this special revelation can never be solidified and so all religious truth claims are necessarily relativistic (Hick, 2001b: 110-111). In Barth, however, epistemology in not necessarily relativistic because of the incarnation alone as the ontic ground of all knowing (Hart: 1999: 128). Such a position has recently been explicated in a manner consistent with Barth’s theology in this area by Marshall, (1995: 93-117).

In Barth’s theological schema then the incarnation is of cosmic import. If it is accepted that all truth is grounded in the incarnate Son (Jn 14:6) then whether that truth is the principles of Pythagorus’ theorem or the salvific necessity of faith in Christ with the concept of Jesus as both the subject and object of divine election then one has a significant base for a inclusivist soteriology.  The former facet necessitates that if there is any worthy concept in any theistic or atheistic construction Jesus is the author while the latter means that everyone of whatever creed is in intellectu recipients of the new covenant of grace. The question here remains how the community of Christian faith with its particularist understanding of Christology can be related salvific work of God outside the perimeters of Christian faith. That this is a real problem of the model so far presented is clear because of the intricacies of Barth’s christological formulation. Jesus is always in Barth the logos ensarkos and must therefore always be conceived from eternity as the humanity of God and there is not therefore any christological economy of a transcendent Jesus above that historically perceived (Cunningham, 1995: 23-26). Jesus, as the eternal Not-God simply cannot be the cosmic Christ needed for mortality precludes omnitemporality.

A Pneumatic Epistemic Triangulation.

Christian tradition has, however, always affirmed God as the triune God. The author will argue then that a sufficient pneumatology with the perichoresis in the Divine life as is found in Barth provides an adequate foundation for an extra-ecclesial aspect to the divine soteriological work. The role of pneumatology in developing an inclusivist soteriology has, of late, has experience an evangelical resurgence (See Pinnock, 1996: 185-214; Yong, 2000). Based on the axioms of universal divine salvific will and the Spirit as the executor of grace these theologians have been able to delineate a soteriology that while still focussing on the eternal work of Christ’s reconciliation does not need explicit affirmation of such (Pinnock, 1992: 49; See also Sanders, 1991: 25-30, 257-264). Such an interpretation is particularly appropriate within the Barthian framework given the previous explication of Jesus as the eternal Not-God. As Hunsinger, (2000:179) rightly points out in Barth the Holy Spirit is the mediator of communion. Crucially the Spirit is not only the mediator of Jesus’ salvific work to those elect in Him but also mediator in the act of incarnation itself communing in Christ’s deity and humanity meaning that all in some sense share in the divine mystery as a direct, and miraculous, action of the Spirit. Such a position is explicated to superb effect by Hunsinger, (2000: 179 Emphasis added):

The mediation of the Spirit thus moves in two directions at once: from the eternal Trinity through Jesus Christ to humankind, and from humankind through Jesus Christ to the eternal Trinity. It is a mediation of communion – of love in knowledge, and of knowledge in love – as the origin and goal of all things, made possible by the saving work of Christ.

What one has here then is a model upholds the christocentrism as it relates to humanity’s recognition of salvation-history and yet avoids the Christomonism some readings of Barth result in because of the thoroughly Trinitarian aspect of this divine work. In this the aversions of some such as Strange that such approaches “contextualise Christology within Pneumatology” are unwarranted for while true Pneumatology also becomes contextualised within Christology (Strange, 2000: 247). The work of the Spirit is not then seen in antithesis to that of the Resurrected Lord, indeed, the only content of Spirit is Jesus (Barth, CD 1V/2: 654; Peters, 1993: 88). It is only by the Spirit that one can enjoy relationship with the Father, thus the Spirit is always in our day the mediator of revelation as creator, redeemer and reconcilar (Barth, CD I/2: 257, 203-79;  Barth, 1993). This participation in Trinity can be considered a synonym for what Hart, (2000: 47) has called Barth’s `epistemic triangulation’ in which God reveals to that which is impotent in capacity for knowledge of God (Barth, CD 1/1: 165-166, 227-47 and Barth, 1991: 165; Marshall, 2000: 180-216). This emphasis on the epistemic character of the Spirit’s operation is one with which Barth, (1982: 276, 278) himself considered and even considered a possible convergence between his and the often critiqued theology of Schleiermacher.


To conclude, it has been the author’s intention to argue that in contrast to the prevailing interpretation of Barth as one of the most significant advocates of exclusivism to argue that there are ample resources within the Barthian schema to construct an inclusivist soteriology. Given the aseity of God and Barth’s rejection of modern foundationalism one is a priori committed to the an inscrutable God wholly reliant on the miraculous operation of the Spirit in what may be termed a revelatory epistemology. Thus Hart, (1999: 130) can write of Barth that “the doctrines of election and the Holy Spirit serve to underwrite something very close to a committed pluralism”. Consequently, while one may be sure of their own convictions as true it is simply not verifiable apart from a divine work. This, in turn, leads to a recognition that knowledge of God may indeed extend further than that of one particular religious grouping. Secondly, Barth’s doctrine of election means that far from an exclusivism concludes that all humanity regardless of creed is actually justified before God and it is only the bi-polar aspect of revelation that prevents this descending into a pluralistic universalism. Finally, the emphasis in Barth on Humanity’s gracious participation in divine life through the Trinitarian life of God opens up the possibility that while not cognitively asserting faith in God through the reconciling work of Christ one can still respond to special revelation through the Spirit’s omnitemporal operation.


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End Notes

[1] However, the term inscrutable has been used here to indicate the epistemic ambiguity humanity a priori must face given this divine aseity. Humanity does have multi-faceted theistic beliefs, it has no means, however, to distinguish between those held on the basis of revelation and thus corresponding to the noumenal reality and those developed from foundationless conjecture and therefore erroneous.

[2] It may seem strange given the preceding discussion of the linguistic and epistemic impotency of any God-talk (=theology) that Barth can attempt to found any doctrine on an appeal to scripture. However, such a foundation is possible in Barth’s thought solely because of the ongoing providential, and revelatory operation of God his/herself rather than any actual intrinsic linguistic property. Therefore, scripture is a potential conduit of divine revelation that is always, in fact, actualised. Thus Barth arrives at a very similar use of scripture as found in propositionalists such as Carl F H Henry, (1999: iii. 455-482) God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), iii. 455-482 yet from an entirely different trajectory and, of course, a different understanding of its revelatory status. For Henry scripture is a `given’ revelation for Barth it most emphatically is not serving at most as a functional `given’.

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