A brilliant aphorism on doubt:

“[Doubt] is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihil — the power of destruction — where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.”

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans 1992), p. 131.


  1. There’s a difference between “doubt” and “wonder.” Zechariah doubted when the angel Gabriel announced his son John. Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18.) God answered that question–by striking him dumb for nine months.

    Mary, by contrast, WONDERED. She asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34.) Gabriel answered her question, too–with a mystery. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” There’s more to the story, of course, but we know how it ends up–Mary is the handmaiden of the Lord, the mother of Jesus, and (in the Catholic view) the Bride of the Holy Spirit.

    That’s the difference between doubt and wonder. There is much to wonder about–and often the answer is a mystery–but let us cling to faith and fight doubt!

  2. Good thoughts, Scott.

    Kepha, I was thinking of your situation, and this is what I concluded: In his genuinely evangelical theology, the content of faith is reducible, for Barth, to God’s covenanting purpose fulfilled in Christ. So, doubt operates vis-a-vis this and this alone. To doubt is to doubt God is this providential God. So, the peculiar sort of Catholic problems — of whether papal infallibility or Mary’s bodily assumption can be inferences from scripture — are not in play. Even peculiar evangelical problems of scriptural inerrancy are done away with in Barth; he relativizes the doctrine, letting the object of the witness stand alone as the absolute authority.

  3. Ha! Contra Tillich indeed!

    Arni, I am not sure what work in particular Barth is referring to (if any). Barth may have been referring to Tillich’s thought in general. In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich flat out says that doubt is a necessary part of faith, because faith entails uncertainty. Where there is uncertainty, there is doubt. At the end of the chapter on faith and doubt in Dynamics of Faith, Tillich writes:

    The insight into this structure of faith and doubt is of tremendous practical importance. Many Christians, as well as members of other religious groups, feel anxiety, guilt and despair about what they call “loss of faith.” But serious doubt is a confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character…

    When reading the above, I can’t help but think of Kierkegaard’s description of faith in Fear and Trembling. This is a very logical position, and in a sense very true; but it is also troubling. Tillich, it must be remembered, defines faith as one’s “ultimate concern.” He does not define faith as belief in the truth or what we believe to be true. He almost seems to deny dogma itself, or he at least redefines the term. (Someone more read in Tillich can correct me if I am wrong). Given this, he can narrow his use of the word doubt to only the uncertainty that accompanies faith. His definition of faith negates doubt meaning a doubt about something that is true or believed to be true, which is how most of us take it because we believe faith and doubt are at odds. He would not make such a dichotomy.

  4. The integration of doubt into faith (as explained by Mark) runs throughout Tillich’s work, especially Dynamics of Faith. Because Christ is subsumed under the category of “ultimate concern,” doubt is no longer problematic, because our doubt reveals our ultimate concern. This is a novel understanding of faith. Barth stands with the classical tradition which saw faith as a full assent of the mind, without reservation; thus, faith is a form of certitude, admitting of no error. That’s why Barth uses the word, “certitude,” for faith at various points in his works, but Tillich never does.

  5. Interesting. I wasn’t going to comment on this quote, but seeing the discussion I felt I should add a quote that I’ve been wondering at lately (to build on Scott’s eloquent distinction above):

    “Instead no, certainty of faith generates certainty of hope, but the manner in which this certainty of hope is drawn out in us leaves a kind of disorientation, leave a kind of tribulation, a kind of doubt that isn’t doubt, that is uncertainty, because you aren’t able to imagine, to delineate in any way what this future will be like.” (Luigi Giussani, Is it Possible to Live This Way vol 2: Hope, p28).

  6. I was going to make the point about a legitimate “doubt” in not knowing the ways of God, but I couldn’t think of how to express it. The Giussani quote expresses it nicely.

  7. This is an interesting theological discussion. But i wonder if doubt in theoretical terms and doubt in practical terms are two different things. Theoretically we might contend that any form of doubt is not-faith and therefore heresy, but practically, we certainly do doubt. We live in a materialist-scientific world that reduces our sense of life to what we can control. Quite a bit different from the biblical account. Therefore, practically, we often live as if there were no God (Hauerwas) even though theoretically we affirm a strong rationalistic affirmation of faith.
    I like the nuance of Fred’s quote above. but more, we simply doubt at times. Is this sin? I admire the honesty of “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

  8. James,

    I prefer to go with John Henry Newman and use our terms a little more precisely. Thus, “doubt” is a positive assent to the contrary proposition (of the faith statement). “Difficulties” are those “doubts” about how our faith jives with reality but does not entail formal doubt (rejection of the object of faith). Thus, “a thousand difficulties do not make a doubt” (Newman).

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