Enfleshing a Phantom Figure: Timothy Gorringe’s Contextualised Barth


In the complex questions about the formation of personal identity one thing is relatively clear:  we all live in particular spaces (spaces that inevitably include temporality also).  We are born, live and die as beings circumscribed with certain identifiable places as our home (or rather homes since our temporal life-span often comprises the having dwelt in a multiplicity of abodes).

It would be an historical generalisation to assert that the history of philosophy has missed taking seriously in its accounts these forms of social, cultural and pedagogic locatedness.  But at least it is worth noting that an important and influential account perceives this to be the case.  Instances are cited from Plato’s philosophy of the Forms and all manner of other Idealisms (most notably Kant’s transcendental categories, and Hegel’s self-realising Geist), through to forms of Christian thought that have sought all manner of escape from the ‘confines’ of the human. 

Charges of borderings with types of Gnosticism (that which floats free from, or attempts to escape, the contingencies of being in the world) come freely to critics of much that attempts to pass for theology.  Barth, in contrast, at least in principle it must be said, intends to be “loyal to the earth” by being true to humanity’s permanent belonging-to-the-world and opposing both human conflicting with temporality’s flux and any attempt to escape one’s life-span’s definite temporal allottedness, which is ended by death [CD, III.2, 6].  He even attributes temporality to humanity’s eternal life [CD, III.2, 521].  So Kerr regards Barth as “celebrating our finitude”, thereby taking seriously Wittgenstein’s concern to acknowledge human limitation as non-affliction. 

The problem, however, with much of the secondary literature on Barth’s theology is that it falls foul of him at two cardinal points.  Firstly, it frequently fails to engage with a proper contextuality in its rendering of Barth’s theological schematics.  As one commentator claims when denying that “it is possible to ignore the political trauma that gave rise to his theology”, Barth’s theology was not written in ‘quiet times’.”  Secondly, it too casually bypasses what Barth believed himself to be up to in doing theology, with reference to the importance of ethics and, more specifically, politics.  As Barth makes clear in a later letter to T.A. Gill,

My thinking, writing and speaking developed from reacting to people, events and circumstances with which I was involved, with their questions and riddles. … I was, did and said it when the time had come. 

While in many respects it is certainly not unique in its aims, Gorringe’s important study, on the other hand, sets about attempting to rectify these largely misleading accounts.  Firstly, undermining the docetic image of Barth, he traces the developments of Barth’s thinking and locates these within the larger patterns of his various intellectual, social, and political interactions.  Secondly, and more specifically, these interactions are investigated primarily with an eye on the infusion of his thinking, living and acting in relation to the political spheres.  In doing these things, unsurprisingly Gorringe frequently explicitly, and more often implicitly, trains his sights on a certain approach to Barth-study.  Thomas F. Torrance’s writings, for example, despite their value in explicating certain important themes in Barth’s oeuvre (although Gorringe does not admit that), are good examples of this docetic approach. 

What is important about Gorringe’s reading is that it suggests that failing to read a thinker such as Barth contextually not only misses what he is up to, but also too readily anaesthetises the radicality of his message.  An earlier volume of 1988 shows how socially and politically damaging such a procedure can be, and how liberating any reclaiming of the politically disruptive in Barth can potentially be.  So much so that one contributor eulogises that

Reading Barth in South Africa today becomes for us an enormous challenge, indeed, a crisis for the church, in particular for the Dutch Reformed Church family. 

…And Then There Was Politics

Famous are two moments of Barthian political protest:  his formative reaction to the manifesto of the 96 German intellectuals in support of the Kaiser’s war policy, signed by several of Barth’s theological teachers; and his similarly vehement Nein also to the Nazi regime. 

However, not forgotten also are his claims that theology bans political revolution (second edition of his Römerbrief); and that theology should keep to its own concerns. 

These last two cited instances have, for a number of critics, served to qualify what occurred in the first two.  Mention of the critiques of two important thinkers illustrates the point.  Reinhold Niebuhr argued that Barth’s theology stood above the fray, isolated and even alienated from practical considerations and affairs.  That Barth occasionally engaged in practical political affairs was perceived to be testimony to an contradiction internal to his thinking.  There was little or nothing in his theological proposals that prepared him for, necessitated, generated or shaped such practical concerns. 

Emil Brunner’s main concern lay in Barth’s assertion in 1933 that theology needs to take stock exclusively of its own concerns.  This was understood to have been Barth’s admission of his isolating theology from practical and political arenas, neglecting these matters for the sake of ‘proclaiming’ (by which was simply understood ‘preaching’) the Gospel. 

John Webster’s valuable recent work has done much to suggest the need for rereading Barth, to reconsider this portrait of an ethically unconcerned theologian.  Suggesting the opposite, Webster discovers in the CD, although not only here, a Barth who does dogmatics with a firm eye on ethics – the Barth portrayed by the image of the figure with the bible on one hand and the newspaper on the other (although this image in itself needs to be qualified lest it suggest either that Barth conceived of church and state under the model of the two kingdoms, or that there was a symmetrical relation and interaction between these two spheres).  Barth’s dogmatics, it is argued, is an ethical dogmatics, a delineation of the constitutive and regulative framework that determines and shapes ethical endeavours, what Webster names a “moral ontology” or “moral space”.  Ethical thinking and acting do not arise from within a vacuum, but rather have to do with the agencies of those whose being is determined by the encounter of God with the world in Jesus Christ. 

Webster’s timely studies thereby appropriately undermine the sense of a Barth 1) who was theologically unconcerned with the affairs of practical living and acting; 2) whose ethical reflections are occasionalistic, actualistic, and lacking in the stuff that provides necessary criteria for the messy business of concrete ethical decision-making. 

What Webster’s contribution does not do, however, is trace the reasons that connect these negatively critical accounts.  As I have argued in more detail elsewhere, underlying the various treatments of Barth’s ethical occasionalism and theological complaints of a disengagement from ethical matters is a view of eschatology that asserts an eschatological actualism of the ‘Moment’. 

While bearing certain resemblances to Webster’s work (in that he argues that human agency was theologically important for Barth), Gorringe pushes this line a little further with reference to the contextuality (by which he primarily intends political) of Barth’s theological development. 

Barth’s ‘Carefully Circumscribed Progressive Politics’

Barth: the Radical ‘Political Theologian’

In 1972, Marquardt controversially advanced that Barth’s theology may be wholly genealogically accounted for by referring to his radical socialist politics.  Although, on the one hand, Marquardt had moved too far in anthropologically reducing Barth’s theology to his socialist politics, on the other, he had identified a vital element in Barth’s theological development.  For it was through his encounter with Religious Socialism, for example, that seeds of revolt against his liberal education were sown.  To read Barth a-historically, and particularly a-politically, is not only to miss something important in tracing the currents of his theological sensibility but also risks misunderstanding those sensibilities. 

Following in the general path paved by Marquardt, and the 1976 volume, Karl Barth and Radical Politics, edited by George Hunsinger, Gorringe sought to read Barth and trace his theological development through his social and political contexts.  Marquardt’s cardinal flaws, particularly in attempting to narrowly (and untheologically) provide an account of Barth’s theological genealogy, have been learnt and studiously avoided by Gorringe.  Gone is the highly contentious assertion that the relation between Barth’s dogmatics and his ethical/political practice is simply one-way (with the movement being from that of the latter to the former).  Instead, when reading Barth’s theology within and through his contexts Gorringe stops short of making any grandiose claims of this sort, as if one’s thinking can be wholly explained by one’s context and therefore reductively dismissed as a product of an arcane society.  In fact, a critical question that may be asked of this book may be that of what theological difference it makes to so contextualise a thinker, apart from in order to provide answers to interesting historical puzzles. 

Nevertheless, without expressing any ‘chicken-and-egg’ syndrome, Gorringe does not dismiss the possibility that Barth’s theology was determined, influenced, shaped, etc. by his context.  Indeed, he goes so far as suggest that

The rediscovery of God [or rather, a certain type of God] was not the result of philosophical labours but part of a movement of vehement social involvement [37]. 

However, is there a tension in the claim that Barth’s theology responded to political events in the sense that it was variously influenced by them and Barth’s idea that Christian ethics (and therefore politics) is to be theologically grounded?  In a review of Gorringe’s book, Randall E. Otto suggests that

As much as Barth read the Bible with his newspaper in hand, surely he intended the Bible to be the only source of revelation to mould his theology and proclamation to church and society.  The assumption that context significantly affected Barth’s construction might thus seem to contradict Barth’s own stated intentions, particularly his famous opposition to natural theology. 

Otto has here put his finger on a significant problem for thinkers who claim simple starting-points such as scripture alone, reason alone, etc., when blindly unaware of the various presuppositions (cultural, philosophical, ethical) that are being brought to bare on their scriptural hermeneutics and subsequent theological formulations.  It is not clear, however, that Barth was as guilty of this simple theological foundationalism as Otto implies.  While certainly wanting to understand the message of the scriptures better, he was aware that God’s voice may potentially be heard elsewhere (“through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog” [CD, I.1, 60f.]) in a way that shines a new light back upon the scriptures.  The Church Dogmatics, for example, is replete with instances of Barth’s use of non-theological elements as means of better appropriating what he considered to be theologically legitimate. 

Moreover, Barth was attentive to the fact that readers inevitably bring their presuppositions to their readings of texts.  Barth declared it to be “comical” to imagine a presuppositionless reading [CD, I.2, 468]. 

Finally, Barth was aware of the danger of claiming too much or his own theology, conscious of the continual distorting influences of sin and of the eschatological proviso hanging over all attempts to think and act.  Human beings remain sinners even in the event of revelational-encounter, and therefore cannot wholly appropriate that which is being revealed [CD, I.1, 189f.].  In all human reflection, then, in its endless critical service of ‘pure doctrine’ for ecclesiastical proclamation, there can be no inerrant product or theological stabilisation.  That is why Barth speaks of the scriptural writers’ fallibility, their a capacity for and consequent possibility of error, although this is not to admit the actuality of errors, as Bromiley wrongly believes Barth is doing.  Accordingly, all human (and therefore even ecclesial) thought is located “between the times” [CD, I.1, 334].  It is necessarily fallible, fragile, broken, penultimate, and de-coloured by sin.  Theological language and meaning, as human constructs, occupy a space that is to be continually set in motion through fresh openness to the self-giving of the Word [e.g., CD, I.1, 12, 53, 258ff.].  Certainty and assurance cannot pertain to any human endeavours, but can only be obtained momentarily in fresh renewals of the revelatory event.  This is why Barth eschews all conceptual foreclosures or, what he calls ‘systematisation’.  Perhaps Barth may be faulted with not frequently lending his own presuppositions to examination.  But that he did not consider his theologising to be unmediated oracles is frequently displayed. 

The second underlying motif in Gorringe’s study has to do with how Barth was involved with his context theologically.  In other words, to cite one example of context-response,

What cannot be doubted is that Barth believed that, precisely as a theologian, he was making a contribution to the struggle against Hitler [20]. 

Therefore, the Barth whose magnum opus appears to be silent about ‘ordinary’ affairs of his day is understood to have been thoroughly responsive to the events of his day.  Gorringe suggests that Barth’s fundamental critiques are often unspoken (although he does not ask with any conviction why Barth follows such a style) [19].  After all, one could mention that the theological response to Rudolf Bultmann silently undergirds CD IV.1 in particular, and yet his opponent receives little in the way of explicit mention.  Hence in the same way Barth insists in 1932 that CD I.1 has political implications [KD, I.1, xii]. 

When at the end of WWII Brunner pressed Barth with regard to his comment about pursuing theology “as if nothing had happened”, Barth suggestively replied: 

It is a legend without foundation that in 1933 I recommended a ‘passive unconcern’ to the German people when I urged that preaching should go on ‘as if nothing had happened’, i.e. in face of the so called revelation in Adolf Hitler.  Had that advice been thoroughly pursued then, National Socialism would have come up against political opposition of the first order. 

In other words, Barth’s 1933 statements need to be carefully read in context.  In this pamphlet of 1933 Theologische Existenz Heute!) Barth was specifically pleading for the church to be true to its foundation in Jesus Christ, and to be obedient to him as its leader.  This existence was being imperilled, Barth felt, by certain contemporary ecclesial alliances with the National Socialist State and its pattern of leadership, and these churches were thus listening “to the voice of a stranger”.  In deliberate contrast to the rule of ‘German Christians’ that instructs the church to be “‘the Church of the German people,’ that is to say ‘of Christians of the Aryan race’”, he declared that

If the German Evangelical Church excludes Jewish-Christians, or treats them as of a lower grade, she ceases to be a Christian Church. 

Given this, the statements cited derogatorily by Brunner (that theology must keep to its subject matter) pertain not to a necessary division of church and State in any Lutheran fashion, but rather to Barth’s objections to the manner in which the particular relations between the German churches and this particular government were proceeding.  When in 1938 Barth expressed that the state’s power, belonging ultimately to God, is neutral as regards Truth in that it could go either way because of the non-neutrality of its members, he had already decided that the National Socialists were failing to fulfil the churches’ proper function and the latter were going the ‘demonic way’.  Instead, the church should preach the Gospel “in the Third Reich, but not under it, nor in its spirit”, and the State should return to its proper function of granting the Gospel and the church a free course, a rather minimalist conception to which Barth later added that “The essence of the State is … the establishment of justice (Recht)” through its power.  By contrast, the fascist state, Barth declared, had lost its right to exist and thereafter “cannot be condoned by the Christian …. Fascism is pure potentia”.  That is why, despite his own reservations about the Swiss government, “to protect Switzerland from National Socialism” Barth felt it necessary “to join the army and guard a bridge over the River Rhine”. 

As a statement made in 1939 explains, “Wherever there is theological talk, it is always implicitly or explicitly political talk also.”  Hence, Gorringe’s contextual reading of Barth’s theology is correct to argue that

the great theme of his theology, from start to finish, is that the reality of God, and faith as response to that reality, is not a prop for the infirm, an opiate for the masses, nor an optional extra in the culture of contentment, but an essential aspect of human liberation, that without which human liberation cannot be achieved. 

The world’s life-styles are precisely the concern of theology.  Therefore,

Not just in 1933, though critically then, Barth believed that a Church obedient to the Word made a difference. 

Indeed, in chapter 3 Gorringe rightly indicates that even during decade frequently assumed to have been politically barren for Barth, and which the latter himself later admitted to have been so, the Swiss dogmatician was decidedly critical in his affirmation of culture, lectured approvingly on Calvin’s practical political concerns, and explicit in his closely relating eschatology and ethics. 

In his dogmatic work throughout the 1920s Barth was laying the foundations … [that would direct] the struggle against fascism which was to follow [114]. 

Gorringe argues that the reason Barth worked then in the way that he did was because he was attempting to put something better in the place of that which he had criticised in the second half of the 1910s, “to find a proper theological response to hegemony” [115]. 

[H]ence ten years spent largely on architectural sketches and foundations, digging to substantiate the insights already won through to.  ‘The concern of the Word of God is daily life.’  For Barth there could not be a divide between practical and dogmatic theology because there is nothing more practical, more vita; for every human concern, than the Word of God.  For this reason, the theology of this period is political theology. 

Central to such an account is the correlation between Barth’s early political development and his theological consciousness. 

The Making of a Liberating Theology of Freedom

Chapter 2 details the now familiar story of Barth’s theologico-political development prior to 1921, from Barth’s student days to his authorship of the second edition of Der Römerbrief

Gorringe describes how Barth, even in his student days Barth felt a tension between his appreciation of culture and the general radical anti-bourgeois critique, something becoming increasingly fashionable and something that he appeared to have been involved in, on the other.  This tension became somewhat resolved in the immediately succeeding years in the direction of socialist-style praxis, with the post-1911 ‘red pastor’ becoming actively involved in his parish’s social problems.  “[T]ouched for the first time by the real needs of life”, as he reflected later, Barth put into practice the political allegiances that he had sensitive to at least since his contributions to the Christian socialist journal, Neue Wege, and his 1906 talk to a Bern student association, ‘Zofinga and the Social Question’. 

It is worth mentioning to Gorringe, since it is unclear that this is the case from his study, that this move itself was an important contributor to Barth’s self-confessed turn away from liberal theology.  Barth’s teacher, for example, Wilhelm Herrmann, was politically conservative, and Barth himself had doubted that his theological education had appropriately trained him for the practical rigours of parish ministry.  In developing a more socialist theological ethic Barth was, to a great degree, beginning to move away from a certain liberal concentration on the individual’s Gotteserlebnis (experience of God), or what Hans Frei terms “relationalism”, and allowing his new found political ‘radicalism’ to interrogate existing affairs.  In other words, Barth’s ‘break’ was the culmination of several years of moving in a somewhat different direction, something on which Gorringe’s study does not appear to be clear.  After all, the way that the war affected Barth was not the way that it impacted on many others.  Gorringe certainly mentions, through Marquardt, that Barth was not an unquestioning member of the Religious Socialist movement.  However, this is not the same as admitting that Barth had become increasingly dissatisfied with theological liberalism by 1914. 

Rightly highlighted is the fact, and perhaps this moves some way towards supporting my suggestion, that this period witnessed Barth’s own growing uneasiness with socialism itself, and not merely with its religious wing.  This is suggested by a statement of 1915, reflecting his disillusionment with the failure of the Democratic Socialist Party to resist the war, “The religious socialist thing is out, taking God seriously begins.”  Encounter with Christoph Blumhardt in 1916, ‘discovery’ of the “Strange New World Within the Bible”, and disillusionment with the pattern of the Russian Revolution of 1919, all served to reinforce a feeling that eventually erupted into pronunciation of divine krisis over the nature of the claims of religious socialism as much as over theological liberalism, and idealism (the first edition of the Römerbrief, 1919), or religion, church and culture (the second edition of the Römerbrief, 1922). 

The strange new world, the eschatological irruption of God’s kingdom into time, shatters human delusions over the eternal significance of human achievements.  All identifications of human achievements with the kingdom of God are to be seen as idolatrous, something that provides the theological backdrop for Barth’s later critique of Nazism, which in its turn fuelled the passions of his rejection of the implicit natural theology that he detected in Brunner. 

The language of Gorringe’s reflections on the iconoclastic nature of the theology of revelation developed in the 1930s resonates with what Barth is doing at this stage: 

That God cannot be colonized is the implication of Barth’s language about the objectivity of revelation. … It is the dialectic of authority and freedom which is intended to prevent the obvious objection that what we end up calling the Word of God is simply our own invention [137f.]. 

Gorringe cites Marquardt to the effect that God’s new world entails the revolutionary overthrowing of existing middle class society.  While this is true in one sense, the sense that society and culture is shown to be sinful, in another sense it may mislead one to too closely and simplistically associate Barth with class-conflicts. 

Barth had come by the end of the second decade of the century to announce an eschatological proviso over religion (the arrogant human domestication of the divine, or rather, self-securing against the Divine), church (the particular cradle of the religion that Barth was pre-eminently criticising), and culture (the achievement of bourgeois aesthetics). 

This, of course, was not the end of the story for Barth, as Gorringe indicates by his treatment of the ethics of this period.  Yet, it was not the beginning of another story, as if Barth’s own suggestions escape the fall-out of the explosion of all human pretensions.  This is something that is frequently missed by critics (this misunderstanding had led Adolf Jülicher, for example, in 1920 to accuse Barth of gnosticism).  Gorringe’s narrative is not insensitive to the fallibalistic dialectical perspective of Barth’s early treatments of the nature of ethical agency. 

There is certainly much that can be learned about Barth’s writing in ‘strategies’ of reading Barth as having engaged in some kind of rhetoric of self-ironising (Stephen Webb), or deconstructive motion (Richard Roberts).  The problem, however, comes when these readers make Barth appear as doing little more than playfully performing without intending to speak of God, however difficult the latter may be.  After all, Barth relatively soon after famously revealed his main problem: 

As ministers we ought to speak of God.  We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God.  We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. 

There is much more to comparisons between Barth and certain ‘postmodern’ thinkers than this would suggest.  Nevertheless, what is often missed by certain, but not all, advocates and critics of ‘a postmodern reading’ alike is the eschatological nature of Barth’s theology, with its both negative and positive implications (the latter is often missed by readers of 2Ro).  The “giving God the glory” style of discourse belongs to categories of hope, a directed speaking that yet continually struggles with its tensive brokenness. 

This is why Barth’s ethics takes the form that it does, with the application of Barth’s iconoclastic eschatological motif (God’s krisis on all human endeavours) to conceptions of ethical agency (human acts are not God’s acts), and yet with a positive note being sounded (and that not faintly) in the midst of this destruction. 

Gorringe speaks in terms echoing Barth’s own division “of negative and positive possibilities” [64]. 

The positive possibility is agape rather than eros ….  Negative possibilities are those actions in which we find parables of the kingdom in weakness rather than strength, folly rather than wisdom. 

Little further reflection on these options, or their significance in the context of Barth studies is provided, however.  Of course, by precisely noticing that he grounds ethics in his eschatology one is already making several important discoveries about Barth’s project.  Firstly, that Barth was upsetting the Marxian portrait that Christian accounts of eschatology undermined liberating praxis.  Secondly, that eschatology was not, as Niebuhr argued, the place where Barth’s theology ‘lost touch’ with the public realm of politics.  Thirdly, that the audibly positive note undermines complaints that Barth’s anti-revolutionary mood, and his language of Christian “not-doing”, tend towards quietism.  Foreshadowing his later discussions of the relationship between dogmatics and ethics, Barth announces that the indicative of the divine activity contains a necessary imperative for human activity, and subsequently neither permits one to remain a spectator of God’s action, nor encourages any form of escapism from one’s responsibility.  In other words, the divine revolution causes a certain ‘overspill’ into the concrete daily life, actions and general affairs of human beings.  What Gorringe argues of the Barth of CD II is appropriate for the Barth of der Römerbrief

Political action is grounded in the hope which follows from the fact that God is our future, and it is this which makes the privatization of faith found in neo-Protestantism impossible [147]. 

Certainly, and here it is worth expanding on Gorringe’s study, Barth does not here outline any positive blueprint for ethics.  Indeed, he is suspicious of all idealistic ‘ethics’, as he terms it, which attempts to generate absolutist and universally binding ethical laws [2Ro, 462].  His, in contrast, is an actualistically conceived ethics of the situation, or “command of the moment”, which he calls “Christian exhortation” [1Ro, 485].  Nevertheless, this Christian exhortation is not altogether a stumbling around in the dark in lacking any concrete “norms”.  One’s journeying is partially lit by the directing light of the resurrection, albeit only in the immediacy of a concrete ethical situation [CPS, 296].  A certain affinity is admitted with Kant in that Barth aims for a theologically universalist ethic, with the ‘good’ being that of which God approves [2Ro, 468].  Barth’s eschatological discourse, then, functions as determinative and constitutive for a proper grounding and regulating of human hope’s activity.  His ethic of 2Ro thereby becomes an “ethic of witness”, as Ruschke describes it, being conceived from within the context of an appeal to analogy.  In other words, he provides a model of human activity asymmetrically following the pattern of the divine as a Gleichnis (parable) or sign pointing to the coming world, an appeal that stands in rudimentary continuity with the analogia fidei of the CD. 

It is this idea of human agency that Barth develops later through his Christ-centred trinitarian perspective.  Humans act well when ‘corresponding to’ the prior divine action in Christ, and therein human activity can become a parable to the divine’s. 

The concept of parable goes beyond the eschatological proviso and shows that the Kingdom of God is not an individual and symbolic reality but presses us towards the realization of a brotherly human society filled in salvation in communion with God [168]. 

And yet, this concept of ‘correspondence’ also serves to limit all illusory claims and ambitions of human praxis to ultimacy without intending to put an end to all activity. 

Though we are alive to the limitation of our own work there will arise in us a will to do good, sound, finished work; for the spark might come from above, and the eternal be brought to light in the transitory [CPS, 308].  

As Gorringe argues elsewhere, Barth

Makes any idea of ‘progress’ or normal movement impossible.  Far from leading us into the fervid and privatized world of individualist decision, Barth refuses to identify eschatology with the lukewarm progressivism of Ebner’s republic.  He is arguing, as he did in the first edition, that Christianity is far more revolutionary than current ‘revolutionary’ programmes.  The cross casts a shadow on all ‘healthy’ humanity, where our most secure standing place is shattered, set ablaze and finally dissolved.  

While Barth comes to understand it ecclesially and eucharistically, this vision of society in Christ which regulates Christian behaviour for and on behalf of the world, has its roots in his earlier socialist praxis.  It involves a critical moment (the challenge of the status quo), what Jüngel names a “critical comparative” which functions to sustain the sense of eschatological reservation, and a transformative one (the building of communities in response to, and shaped by, God’s grace).  In other words, refusal of a world without God is only done in order to commit ourselves to a world with God [CPS, 300].  In a similar vein, the Barth of 1938 urges that

Christians would, in point of fact, become enemies of the State if, when the State threatens their freedom, they did not resist, or if they concealed their resistance – although this resistance would be very calm and dignified. … If the State has perverted its God-given authority, it cannot be honoured better than by this criticism which is due to it in all circumstances. 

What Barth’s developing of a christocentric (or better, trinitarian) perspective particularly (but not only) offers his accounts here is a way of following through the ‘transformative’ performance of Christian hope more ‘concretely’.  This leads to two further observations: 

·        The almost overwhelming impression witnessed to by commentators on the flavour of 2Ro is that it is pronouncedly negative and life-denying.  Gorringe shows well how that impression ignores other currents in this writing, and the sense of the period in general. 

·        Barth’s reflections in 2Ro on “the truly revolutionary activity of love” [66], reflecting somehow God’s love, is more adequately referred to the God whom Barth identifies through Christ as the trinitarian God who loves in freedom. 

Consequently, the christomorphicity of Barth’s later writings liberates hope to be practically engaged for present reality, with the divine ‘No’ flowing out of, rather than vice versa, this divine ‘Yes’.  The Barth of CD IV, no less than the Barth of 1911-1921, models his vision of the redeemed society, and the forms of ethical practice developed in its light, on broadly democratic socialist lines.  Out of love for their fellow-humanity, then, Barth declares, Christians are responsible

For the preservation and renewal, the deepening and extending, of the divinely ordained human safeguards of human rights, human freedom, and human peace on earth [CL, 205]. 

Is Barth’s Theology Liberating Enough?

Nevertheless, the question is whether Barth was systematic enough in his pushing through the implications of his theology of freedom.  Often cited is the nature of Barth’s placing of the female within his theological anthropology in CD III.  Gorringe expresses his disquiet with Barth’s treatment, but this disquiet is only briefly expressed on an issue that is a source of real concern for much contemporary reception of Barth.  Doing justice to this question is no mere aside, but a test case of how constrained the theology of freedom can be at its root. 

The question remains, is Barth sufficiently attentive to the various nuances of freedom, and therefore illegitimately retracts its application at one cardinal point?  Or does this reflect a more serious, and deep rooted, flaw in Barthian theology?  Gorringe appears to be taking the former line, and suggesting that in Barth’s theology as a whole there are enough resources for a liberating freedom to critically impact on his patriarchal practice.  In fact, there are resources within Barth’s writings to ‘correct’ his own anthropology at these points.  Perhaps one could, with Gorringe, cite Barth’s Evangelical Theology

Although theology is no enemy to mankind [and womankind], at its core it is a critical, in fact a revolutionary affair, because as long as it has not been shackled, its theme is the new man in the new cosmos. 

This, as Gorringe has so carefully and sustainedly argued, is the Gospel of freedom. 


The volume of material being published on the work of Karl Barth certainly suggests the appropriateness of eulogies to the effect that this man stands with the most exalted of company in the history of Christian theology.  Sustained treatments of Barth’s ethics and politics are important, albeit still relatively recent, additions to this secondary corpus. 

What sets Gorringe’s study apart from those precursors that run roughly parallel to his is the breadth of his analysis.  Not only has the political dimension, and that a radical one, been promoted as necessary to an adequate grasp of Barth’s theological development and theological project, thereby castigating ahistorical discussions, but also here is a piece of work that traces this theme through the entire span of Barth’s life and work. 

Strongly accented is the political significance of Barth’s theology of divine freedom, a responsible freedom to be-for-others in contrast to the notion of freedom as neutral choice, that which is suggested by the image of Hercules at the crossroads.  This is the liberating freedom of the God “who loves in freedom [and who] can and does ground all life-giving action” [144].  In other words,

far from leading to an alienation of the natural order the Christological grounding of Barth’s theology is in fact the most detailed and profound reworking  of Aquinas’s famous assertion that grace does not destroy but perfects nature [145]. 

Certainly, as the discussion above has suggested, the book does have its limitations, especially in terms of providing no critical theological interaction with Barth, or explicit dealings with several popular criticisms of Barth’s theology (which may have political import).  The detailing is, of course, selective and hence one will not discover any the intellectual background to Barth’s stance on revelation, from the fathers, Calvin, and Hegel, for example.  Finally, the theological importance of Barth’s hearing of Pierre Maury’s 1936 lecture on election, working itself out vitally in CD II.2, is not accorded its proper weight in the assessment of the development of Barth’ theology. 

Nevertheless, for this study, recommendable as essential secondary reading for Barth students, Gorringe should be highly commended.

[1] Timothy J. Gorringe, Karl Barth:  Against Hegemony (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999), x + 313pp. hb. £40.00. ISBN 0-19-875246-6.

Fergus Kerr, Immortal Longings:  Versions of Transcending Humanity (London: SPCK, 1997), 24; cf. viif., 23. 

[3] Charles Villa-Vicencio, ‘Karl Barth’s “Revolution of God”:  Quietism or Anarchy?’, in Charles Villa-Vincencio (ed.), On Reading Karl Barth in South Africa (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988), 45-58 (46). 

[4] Barth, letter to T.A. Gill, 10 August 1957, cited in Gorringe, Karl Barth, 16.  Cf. Barth, Briefweschel Karl Barth-Eduard Thurneysen, 1913-1921, vol. I, 30, cited in Martin Kitchen (1991), ‘Karl Barth and the Weimar Republic’, Downside Review vol. 109, 183-201 (186). 

[5]  Dirkie Smit, ‘Paradigms of Radical Grace’, in Charles Villa-Vincencio, 17-43. 

[6]  My thanks go to Alex Edwards for suggesting this phrase. 

[7] Reinhold Niebuhr, Essays in Applied Christianity (Meridian Living Age Books, 1959), especially 184ff. 

[8] See John Webster, Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995); and Barth’s Moral Theology:  Human Action in Barth’s Thought (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1998). 

[9]  See John C. McDowell, Hope in Barth’s Eschatology:  Interrogations and Transformations Beyond Tragedy (Ashgate, 2000), chapter 2. 

[10]  My thanks are due to M.A. Higton for pointing me to this term of Hans Frei [‘“A Carefully Circumscribed Progressive Politics”:  Hans Frei’s Political Theology’, Modern Theology 15 (1999), 55-83]. 

[11]  Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Theologie und Sozialismus.  Das Beispiel Karl Barths (München:  Kaiser, 1972). 

[12]  Randall E. Otto, ‘Review of Timothy Gorringe’s Karl Barth Against Hegemony’, Reviews in Religion and Theology 7.2 (2000), 189-191 (190). 

[13] Perhaps one could also mention the infinite richness of the God beyond conceptualising at this point, mentioned by Barth in, for example, Evangelical Theology:  An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (London:  Collins, 1963). 

[14]  Bromiley, 1986, 291; see, e.g., CD, I.2, 509.  Barth speaks of the humanity of scripture [e.g., CD, I.2, 513] and dogma [e.g., CD, I.2, 513; 474, 636]. 

[15]  Temporality is eschatologically conceived as a time of:  “not yet”, “between times”, “interim period” [CD, I.1, 51; I.2, 408, 421, 423, 430f., 643; C, 114; R, 81]; interval between the ascension and second coming [CD, I.2, 676ff., 692f.]; human standing in the midst of conflict and tension [GD, 208, 216; CD, I.2, 269, 363, 431].  Nevertheless, it is a time “which is determined by the Word of God in the prophetic and apostolic witness” [CD, I.2, 693], a time of authentic joy [R, 81]. 

[16]  Theological Existence Today, cited in Gorringe, 21. 

[17] Karl Barth, Theological Existence Today!  A Plea for Theological Freedom, trans. R. Birch Hoyle (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1933), 27. 

[18] Ibid., 49, 52. 

[19] See Barth (1939), Church and State, trans. G. Ronald Howe, SCM Press, London, 15. 

[20] Barth (1969), How I Changed My Mind, ed. and trans. John Godsey, St. Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 164; Barth (1963), Karl Barth’s Table Talk, ed. John D. Godsey, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh and London, 75. 

[21] Barth, 1963, 81. 

[22] Cited in Eberhard Busch (1976), Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden, SCM Press, London, 240. 

[23] Gorringe, ixf., 22. 

[24] Barth cited in Gorringe, 30. 

[25] Hans Frei, ‘The Doctrine of Revelation in the Thought of Karl Barth, 1909-1922’, unpublished doctoral thesis (Yale University, 1956), 27. 

[26] Barth cited in Gorringe, 34. 

[27] This was the title of a lecture of 1916 [The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (London:  Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1928), 28-50].  Gorringe is on good grounds, given Barth’s earlier broad appreciation of religious socialism, and his reaction to the politics of the Kriegstheologie in arguing that “The rediscovery of God [or rather, a certain type of God] was not the result of philosophical labours but part of a movement of vehement social involvement” [37]. 

[28] It is questionable that Gorringe has developed Barth’s reaction to this event adequately enough. 

[29]  On Barth’s struggle with the Nazis, see chapter 4.

[30]  Gorringe briefly mentions Marx’s critique of religion in this context [61]. 

[31] Karl Barth, ‘The Task of the Ministry’ (1922), in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1928), 183-217 (186). 

[32] It is in this context that Barth rejects the revolutionary option for Christians, since it Promethianly tends to forget its own hubris [see 2Ro, 507].  By contrast, the ‘real’ Revolution is solely God’s eschatological action in Christ [2Ro, 481].  Barth, after all, was writing in the shadow of immense disappointment over the direction that the Russian revolution took.  Gorringe makes the important point here that rather than advocating quietism, Barth has actually set up “the principle of permanent revolution” [65].  It is also instructive to note that despite his later problems with National Socialism Barth refused both to demonise Hitler, and to associate the Allied cause with the causa Dei. 

[33] See Marquardt, 1972, 142.  When the contradiction between divine and human agency is drawn in such radical terms, there appears to be not only no room for the relative continuity supposedly present in religious socialist principles and the nebulous dreams of Liberalism, but also for any ethical and political activity whatsoever. 

[34] CPS, 296; 2Ro, 316, 318, 320. 

[35] On this see, for example, Trevor Hart, Regarding Karl Barth:  Essays Toward a Reading of His Theology (Carlisle:  Paternoster Press, 1999), ch. 4; McDowell, 191-211. 

[36] See McCormack, 1995, 278.  In this “between the times” Barth conceives ‘the good’ as not wholly natural to us, but actualistically in the sense of needing to be realised anew in each moment. 

[37] See CPS, 290, 296, 308, 311f.; RD, 149. 

[38] Citation from McCormack, 1995 275.  See 2Ro, 435.  Gorringe, unfortunately, does not provide an index entry for Barth’s important concept of ‘parables’. 

[39] Gorringe, ‘Eschatology and Political Radicalism.  The Example of Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann’, in God Will Be All in All:  The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Richard Bauckham (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1997), 87-114 (97). 

[40] Eberhard Jüngel, Theological Essays, Volume 1, trans. J.B. Webster (Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1989), 183. 

[41] Barth, 1939, 69. 

[42] CD II.2 marks an important stage in this development [see McDowell, chapter 4].  However, Gorringe does not make enough of this. 

[43] See McDowell, 83f., 95f. 

[44] Cf. CD, II.1, §28, 30; Gorringe, 145. 

[45] See Katherine Sonderegger, ‘Barth and Feminism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge:  CUP, 2000), 258-273. 

[46] Cf. Paul S. Fiddes, ‘The Status of Woman in the Thought of Karl Barth’, in After Eve:  Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition, ed. Janet Martin Soskice (London:  Collins, 1990), 138-155. 

[47] Here the gender specific term my be appropriately retained in order to specify the eschatological human being, Jesus Christ. 

[48] Barth, Evangelical Theology, 119, cited by Gorringe, 289f. 

[49] It is mentioned on 148.  On this see John C. McDowell, ‘Learning Where to Place One’s Hope:  The Eschatological Significance of Election in Barth’, SJT 53 (2000), 316-338. 

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