Karl Barth and the Strange New World of the Bible

Jason Micheli —  February 27, 2013 — 3 Comments


“I like Barth. He’s not afraid to throw the furniture around.”

– Flannery O’Connor

“The presumption of many scholars at the time was that the task of theology was to make the language of the faith amenable to standards set by the world. This could be done by subtraction:  ‘Of course you do not have to believe X or Y’; or, by translation, ‘When we say X or Y we really mean…’  I thought the crucial question was not whether Christianity could be made amenable to the world, but could the world be made amenable to what Christians believe?

I am not sure why I thought like this, but I suspect it had something to do with being a bricklayer. I simply did not believe in ‘cutting corners.’ I was attracted to Barth because he never cut any of the corners. He never tried to ‘explain.’ Rather, he tried to show how the language works by showing how the language works. There is a ‘no bullshit’ quality to Barth’s thought that appealed to a bricklayer from Texas and that seemed to me the kind of straightforwardness Christian claims require.”

– Stanley Hauerwas

Roughly 30 of you have responded positively to my invitation to read Karl Barth with me over the next two years. You live in different countries and evidently come from many different walks of life, faith and tradition. One of you is in seminary at Duke, reading Barth for a class. Another of you is at Wesley Seminary and thus learning everything Barth was against 🙂 Another of you is an Orthodox priest and still someone else actually got to hear Barth lecture during his one lone visit to the States before his death.

Tomorrow, I will post some reflections from Section 1 of CD 1.1.

Today, I thought it might be helpful to offer a little background on Barth and some tips for how to read him.


Barth grew up during the height of the modern period, thus receiving a ‘liberal’ university education. The term ‘liberal’ can have a variety of meanings in different contexts.

Understood religiously and theologically, ‘liberal’ refers to the Church’s attempt to make Christianity amenable and translatable to the standards of secular, social science disciplines.

In other words, ‘liberal’ names the Church’s effort to justify the Christian faith on the basis of rational, universally accepted premises. Not surprisingly, this is the same time period, then, when ‘supernatural’ doctrines such as the virgin birth are disavowed and downplayed in favor of readings that emphasize Jesus as a sage of universal teachings. This is also the period when the historical-critical method is brought to bear upon scripture like it would be upon any other ancient document in an a history or anthropology department. No longer is scripture a revealed text; it’s one that bears all the markings of human editorship and error.

For an explanation of how ‘liberal’ names traditions we think of as both liberal and conservative in this country, click here.

Barth was schooled in liberalism and then went to pastor a small church in Switzerland in the early 20th century. Two developments completely changed his worldview and led to the CD.

One, Barth discovered the liberal Christianity he’d learned in school simply wouldn’t ‘preach’ in his parish. His hearers didn’t care for historical-critical insights or scripture-informed social action. They did respond to scripture proclaimed as scripture, straight up.

Two, at the advent of World War 1 all of Barth’s former university teachers signed a petition supporting the Kaiser’s war effort. To Barth, that all his mentors would uncritically support the unjustified violence of the State was more than bad politics. To Barth this was an indictment of the entire liberal method in which he’d been schooled. The capitulation of the liberal academy to the State showed Barth that secular, social science- despite its presumptions to the contrary- is never impartial. Every discipline and every point of view involves issues of power; supposedly ‘objective’ human reason is always in danger of falling into the service of power (for obvious examples, think: the eugenics movement or the development of the atomic bomb).

WW 1 demonstrated to Barth that, in trying to make itself amenable and translatable to the modern, secular world, Christianity had given away the farm. Or, if not the farm, God.

By translating the faith according to the terms of modern secularism Christianity had forgotten that God is fundamentally mysterious and unknowable.

This rejection of liberalism is what lies behind Barth’s work.

Accordingly, a prominent feature of Barth’s early writing is the dialectical method.

That is, Barth frequently speaks paradoxically: As creatures, we must speak of God. As creatures, we cannot speak of God. This dialectical tension is Barth’s way of holding firm to God’s mysteriousness and thus giving God glory. It’s also Barth’s way of reminding us that faith is always grace. Anything we say about God- ironically, whether its right or wrong- is given to us as gift. 

This mysteriousness and absolutely other quality to God is what lies behind Barth’s essay ‘The Strange New World of the Bible.’ The Bible isn’t a book like other books, containing obvious principles and teachings, because God is completely alien to our concepts: Strange+New+World

So then, against liberalism (which tries to use human disciplines to arrive at a concept of god) Barth argued that only God can speak about God, and God has spoken/speaks definitively in Jesus Christ. This is why all 9K+ pages of the CD are so radically Christo-centric.

Only God can reveal God. We can only know God because God has revealed God’s self to us. We can’t think our way to God, reason our way to God, study our way to God, or have an emotional experience that leads us to God. 

God alone reveals God and God has done so in Jesus. Everything we do and say as Christians therefore coheres around Jesus. Appropriately, it was this insistence on Jesus that enabled Barth to articulate his defiance of Nazism in the next war.

Tips for Reading:

1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in a given week.

2. Barth uses the term ‘being’ a lot. It’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as ‘character.’

3. Whenever Barth speaks of the ‘Word of God’ he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.

4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.



Jason Micheli


3 responses to Karl Barth and the Strange New World of the Bible

  1. i just happened on your page and was wondering when you had started your 2-year stint of reading Church Dogmatics. can i join in?

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  1. Peace 1914-2014 | Kerry's loft - December 7, 2014

    […] for Christian belief. Profoundly impacted by the horror of the war, many writers (e.g., Karl Barth, Tolkien and Lewis) grappled their way to an escape from despair, imaginatively creating a vision […]

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