Finishing Well: A Tattered Note-book & The Long Road Through Karl Barth’s Dogmatics

Karl Barth's CD II 1 2016 GVLWith the time constraints and work outside my study of theology and political philosophy, I’ve managed to complete Barth’s Church Dogmatics II:1[i]. This leaves me thinking about the remaining nine.  Will they be as great a learning experience? Will the journey ahead be as arduous and beneficial as the one before it?

The task now is II:2,  the most recommended starting point for Barth’s work in this 13 book series[ii].Beginning with IV:4 then I:1 and I:2, I’ve deliberately taken the long road to get to it.

To mark a finish line and starting point, I’m adding a few of my thoughts and notes from the remaining pages of II:1. There is a large amount of worthy mentions. However, I’m aiming for brevity. So tattered note-book in hand, here’s the most significant.

What does it mean for theology to say that God is beautiful?

Although Barth considers it dangerous for theology to speak of God’s beauty because “only God can speak of God.” Barth provides a way for theology to speak of God’s beauty without it falling into idolatry. Theology should first acknowledge that good does not come from beauty. Beauty comes from that which is good.  Our idea of beauty mustn’t derive from its secular definition (p.651, clarified further on p.656) The reason for this is that God is much more. God is free. God is love and His love is ‘majestic, holy and righteous.’ (p.651)

 ‘…if we allowed aestheticism to have and keep the last word it would inevitably be as a false and unChrisitian dynamism or vitalism or logism or intellectualism or moralism which might try to slip into the doctrine of God. For all that, it is as well to realise that aestheticism which threatens here is no worse than the other “isms” or any “ism.” They are all dangerous.’ (p.652)

What is God’s glory?

According to Barth in II:1, God’s glory is

‘His active grace, mercy, patience and love[iii] […] the revelation of Jesus Christ par excellence […] the Son is the prototype of God’s glory.’ (pp.653, 661, 667)

Glory is to be viewed in the same light as dignity. Here Barth writes,

it is a glory that awakens joy […] God’s glory radiates it […] because it is God who Himself radiates joy […] His glory is radiant, and what it radiates is joy. It attracts and therefore it conquers.’ (pp.655, 654, 661)

What of theology as a science?

Within his discussion on God’s glory and beauty, Barth stops to make a few side remarks about theology as a science. He notes,

‘…theology as a whole is the most beautiful of all the sciences. To find the sciences distasteful is the mark of a philistine. It is an extreme form of Philistinism to find, or to be able to find, theology distasteful. The theologian who has no joy in his [or her] work is not a theologian. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons to be one of the seven sins of the monk – taedium {tedious or boring}’ (p.656)

What is the human response to God to be?

Two of the pillars of Barth’s theology are prayer and gratitude. What does God require in response to grace[iv]? Prayer and radical gratitude.

Grateful obedience (p.229)
‘To believe in Jesus Christ means to be thankful. This is to be understood as radically as it must be in the context.’ (p.669)

To be in Christ, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthian church[v], means to be a new creation. Barth tells us that be a new creation,

‘is not merely  a change of temper or sentiment or conduct and action. It is a change of the being of man before God, brought about by the fact that God has altered His attitude toward humanity. It is the change from ingratitude to gratitude, full of hope. Gratitude is to be understood not only as a quality and an activity but as the very being and essence of this creature. It is not merely grateful. It is gratitude itself.’ (p.669)

Further along, Barth adds,

‘The Holy Spirit begets the man [or woman] in Jesus Christ whose existence is thanksgiving (p.670) […] it is only by a heart’s willingness and readiness to live unto God that God can be honoured, thanked and served.’ (p.674)

Why is eschatology important to the Church?

In a rather large side note Barth breaks to discuss his early theology and rejection of Liberal Neo-Protestantism, writing without hiding it’s political overtones,

Back then, ‘I even dared to say that: “Hope that is visible is not hope.’ Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor.4:18) What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgement and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men [and women] of hope?” Well roared, lion! There is nothing absolutely false in these bold words. I still think I was right ten times over and against those who then passed judgement on them and resisted them.’ (pp. 634-635)

II:1 displays some of Barth’s best work. In it his theology bursts to life.  Each chapter is deep and well thought out. Barth is consistent. He’s bold and doesn’t cease to be. That he carefully speaks his mind has only strengthened my opinion of him as a theologian.Reading Church Dogmatics is a spiritual discipline. I don’t see how a careful reading of Barth should be done in any other way.

In our divided world the division between left and right once again threatens to claim or reject theology as a buttress for ideology. Once again it threatens to subdue theology into propping up, in absolute agreement, the pretensions of humanity. And, once again as his words point us towards the holiness, grace and freedom of God in Jesus Christ, Barth’s “roar” finds relevance and commands attention.



[i] Barth, K. 1940 Church Dogmatics, II:1 The Doctrine of God, Hendrickson Publishers

[ii] Excluding the index

[iii] ‘God’s glory is God’s love’ (p.645)

[iv] Barth: ‘Grace/charity (caris) calls forth thanksgiving (eucaristia). But thanksgiving is itself the substance of the creature’s participation in the divine grace/charity.’ (p.670. See also p.216)

[v] 2 Cor. 5:17

Related CD II:I posts:

Barth: ‘God Does Not Will To Be Without Us’
Anger, Angst, Amps & An “Appetite” For Definition (God is not a species)
Revelation Over Religion: God’s Mind Is Not For Rent
A Dose Of Dodgem: Dads
Karl Barth: God Is The One Who Loves In Freedom
Directing Light Under The Shadow Of Real Hate
Gnade: The Importance Of Karl Barth’s Non-Separation Of God’s Holiness & Grace
Every Genuine Proclamation Of The Christian Faith Is Destructive To The Advance Of Religion
Barth’s Impossible Possibility: It’s Not That We Can Fall From Grace, It’s That Grace Can Be & Is Rejected
George Orwell & Karl Barth: On The Irruption Of a Third Reich Of Madness
May God’s Omnipotence Be With You


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