Where Barth went wrong

Emil Brunner has a provocative section in Truth as Encounter (2nd ed.) where he lays out precisely where Barth went wrong in the development of his dogmatic thinking. I don’t agree with Brunner here, but his assessment is highly stimulating for deeper reflection on the nature of authority in the matter of faith. Enjoy.

It was an event of the greatest significance when Karl Barth, soon after the end of the First World War, when the faith of the Reformers seemed about to be extinguished, had the courage in his Letter to the Romans once more to take the Biblical message seriously. In so doing he linked up with the Biblicism of the “Swabian fathers,” especially the two Blumhardts, Johann Christoph the father, and Christoph the Son, and in accomplishing this the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard, in its opposition to the idealism of Hegel, did him invaluable service.

These were the beginnings of his theology. At that time Karl Barth, adopting a word of Kierkegaard, used to speak of theology as “the little pinch of cinnamon,” and would have energetically repudiated all thought of a theological system. But soon there came a turning point in his thinking. This time, too, as in the age of Protestant orthodoxy, the thing happened quite imperceptibly through a change of emphasis in the understanding of faith. It began with the adoption of the ancient Catholic doctrine natus ex Maria Virgine. This myth plays an insignificant part in the New Testament witness to Christ. Neither Paul nor John nor any other of the apostolic writings proclaim the Son of God as one begotten in a supernatural manner. This substantialist understanding of the truth of God that encounters us in Jesus Christ is alien to them, and still more so the belief that in this “miracle” we apprehend the thing of decisive importance for faith in Jesus Christ. The truth of God that encounters us in Jesus the Christ has no relation to this, nor do the oldest Confessions of the Christian fellowship make any mention of the virgin birth. The truth that authenticates itself in our conscience has been replaced by a supernatural fact, which “must be believed” on the strength of authority. This was the point from which long ago the transformation of the confession of the ancient church took its departure. It was in the direction of this “faith” that the dogma of the church developed as the doctrine of the Triune God and of the two natures in Christ. It was this doctrine, summarized in the Creed, which Karl Barth from 1924 onward expounded in his Dogmatics as the subject of belief. The change showed itself in three symptoms.

a. His adherence to the orthodox teachers of the seventeenth century became continually more marked. Heppe’s Dogmatics of the Reformed Church, the well-known collection of quotations from the orthodox Reformed theology of that time, was made an integral part of his own system.

b. Like the old Scholastics, he found it necessary to draw ever finer distinctions to satisfy the requirements of the intellect, so that the volumes of his Church Dogmatics continually swelled in bulk, and became a gigantic work comparable in size to one of the medieval Summae.

c. He traveled ever farther from his starting point, the “Swabian fathers” of whom I have spoken, especially the two Blumhardts. The thing common to them was the fact that their faith did not rest upon doctrine, but upon the Word of God understood in its unity with Biblical history, and, secondly, that they saw in the God of the Bible the transforming power of life, and that because this transformation had come to a halt since apostolic times, they hoped above everything for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the promised consummation of the rule of God. There is hardly a trace of this hope left in Karl Barth. Just as significant is his increasing alienation from Kierkegaard’s existential and dynamic view of apostolic faith, and from his searing criticism of “Christianity.” For the Karl Barth of the Church Dogmatics, all this was pietism, a declension from pure doctrine.

[Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter, 2nd edition, The Westminster Press, 1964, pp. 41-43.]

This particular section of Truth as Encounter was entirely new to the second edition of Wahrheit als Begegnung, published in 1963 by Zwingli-Verlag in Zurich. So, these reflections on Barth’s development were written at the end of both Barth and Brunner’s careers.



  1. While this section is very interesting, it is – in my humble opinion – far more indicative of Brunner’s theology than it is of Barth.s

    • Yes, it does say a lot about Brunner — his historical reading of the Church’s constant temptation to substitute objective forms for the freedom of God. For Brunner, all of the historical-objective contingencies of the Christian faith must have a necessary connection to the personal encounter with the lordship of Christ. The virgin birth fails this test. Once again, I don’t agree entirely. I would want to argue for the existential contingencies of a substance-oriented Christology.

      As for Brunner’s reading of Barth, I think he’s correct to pinpoint a turn away from existentialism and toward orthodoxy/catholicism. This is basically the argument of von Bathlasar in his study of Barth’s theology, and I think it is largely correct as an assessment of Barth’s development. Of course, the early Barth was never a pure existentialist, rooted in the subjective, and the later Barth was never a pure scholastic, rooted in the objective. Instead, his actualist ontology (his existential side) remains constant but takes a more scholastic form in the CD. Brunner sees this scholastic form as a compromise and full of contradictions.

      • Although HUvB’s work is not the worst that has been done on Barth’s development, it has significant problems. I refer you to Bruce McCormack’s book, “Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology,” which is recognized as the standard account of Barth’s development.

        I also find it hard to recognize Barth’s actualism as a form of existentialism, but that’s a more idiosyncratic point.

      • Additionally, and just to be clear, do you want to map the existentialist/orthodoxy pairing/shift onto HUvB’s dialectical/analogical pairing/shift?

      • Yeah, I’m aware of McCormack’s thesis. Though I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on Barth like McCormack, I’m satisfied, for the time being, with Barth’s own sanctioning of the general correctness of von B’s analysis. I’m open to modifying my view, but I’ll need to do more studying.

        Yes, I think the dialectic/analogy conceptual categories are complementary to the existential/objecive categories.

  2. Am I misreading Brunner here? Is he suggesting that where Barth went wrong is in his affirmation of the virgin birth of Christ? And that Brunner honestly thinks this doctrine is not present in the New Testament and the confessions of the early church?

    I must concur with my esteemed colleagues — serious students of Barth should immediately recognize how false (even comically so) is this analysis of Barth and his relationship with orthodox tradition. It’s so ridiculous that if it didn’t come with a Brunner citation, I would have guessed Van Til wrote it.

    • T.F. Torrance, in “Incarnation”, speaks of the unity between the virgin womb and the virgin tomb. In both instances God does something completely new and outside all understanding. Immediately what I thought of when reading Bruner’s quote.

    • Darren,

      If you read the first two volumes of Brunner’s dogmatics, you’ll get a far better idea of why Brunner questioned the virgin birth. His reasoning — though I reject it — is rather sophisticated and well worth pondering. Brunner does believe that the NT teaches the virgin birth, but he sees this as a nascent catholicism which doesn’t belong to the core evangelical faith of the apostles. In other words, it’s speculative, not dogmatic.

      I’ll pretend that I never read you put Brunner with Van Til. 🙂

  3. The happening of Truth is not through the mind or via verbal argument. It is at the heart. Truth is not a proposition argued over against other propositions. Truth is self-evident, because the heart authenticates it in the moment of reception.

    Truth is an embrace, just as love is. You do not get argued into love. It is self-evidently right.

    One responds to truth as one does to love, simply through recognizing it. It is not about argument, not about the domain of mind, or of opposites.

  4. I find this discussion somewhat amusing in that I was told 35 years ago by several members of the theology dept. at [school name withheld] where I was preparing to write a thesis on Burnner’s Divine Human Encounter, that nobody read E. Brunner anymore and that neo-orthodoxy was dead, a historical curiosity. This was from the Dean of Students, a theology professor, the chair of the theology department and my first reader. In other words the entire full time faculty of theology were in agreement that I had wasted two years reading E. Brunner, and I should write a thesis on J. Calvin and J. Edwards which I ended up doing.

    • From what I’ve been told and read, the death of “Barthianism” was firmly pronounced in the 1970’s and it was not until the ’90’s and especially the ’00’s that Barth would receive a massive resurgence in scholarly interest. Brunner, however, has not received as much of a resurgence, because his existential-subjective orientation is largely out of favor among theologians, except the postmodern trajectory which has little to do with Brunner’s “individualistic” concerns. With the recent rebirth of scholasticism and natural law, I really don’t know if Brunner will ever receive a wide hearing again. That’s a shame, because he represented an exciting and unique third-way between Barth and Bultmann.

      • Kevin,

        Yes, a massive resurgence for Barth and zip for Brunner. I tried to read some Brunner a while back and could not understand what I was all excited about in seminary.

        In the 90s I was briefly engaged in face to face dialogue with two local PCUSA pastors and one layman at John Knox Church (south Seattle) who were into Barth big time. Both the pastors were PhDs who wrote dissertations on Barth. The layman was also a PhD but his focus was J.Derrida and Co. He was doing a synthesis of Barth and Derrida. I have no long term interest in Barth but I spend a number of hours engaged in dialogue with these men trying to discern what it was that made them so excited about Barth whom I find difficult to read.

        The last three decades my focus has linguistics and biblical languages, with a lot of reading in biblical studies. I still read theology but generally exegetical theology. Right now I am do a crash course in R. Bauckham. I have been reading him for a number of years but now I am really reading him.

        I’ll keep an eye on this blog. Thanks CSB

      • Brunner is exciting for those who think that the old dilemma of Kant — epistemic boundaries — is still of vital interest. Most scholars today feel that they’ve moved beyond this, in favor of detailing sociological modes of normalization (whether Wittgenstein’s linguistic nets or Foucault’s Panopticon et cetera). I think these newer trends are rather boring, which makes me born 100 years late.

    • No, probably not even half of what’s been translated. I’m currently working through the CD in chronological order — before that I had just read sections here and there, randomly. I’ve read a lot of the smaller works, e.g., commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Intro to Evangelical Theology, The Humanity of God, Mozart, and more. The first book I read of his was Der Romerbrief, which I read after taking a course on existentialism. The influence of Kierkegaard is very pronounced, and fairly depressing, in his Romerbrief. Once again, I think it’s clear that this early theme of crisis gave way to a more constructive theme of analogy. That was my impression even before I read von Balthasar’s take on Barth.

  5. Hey, I like your blog, and I have a random question for you. Someone gave me a picture of Emil Brunner with his autograph on the back, and it’s addressed to Beatrice. Any idea who Beatrice was, or what the picture is worth?

    • I wouldn’t have any idea who Beatrice is…probably just a random fan. I doubt there is much of a market for Brunner autographs, though I would appreciate it. Thanks for reading the blog.

  6. A student told me there is no interest in Barth in North America. I thought, I really am in a different place!

    • 🙂

      Yeah, it will take some getting used to. Though the student’s comment is an overstatement, I’m sure that no place in North America is as intensely Barthian as Aberdeen.

  7. Is Brunner criticising Barth for accepting the virgin birth? And is Brunner criticising this because the virgin birth wasn’t central to a personal existential encounter with Christ? By this logic it would have been wrong for Barth or anyone to accept that Christ was born in Bethlehem or grew up in Nazareth.

    • Brunner would say that the virginal conception of Christ is not essential to the apostolic proclamation, which is why it played no part in Paul or the pastoral epistles. Brunner is especially concerned that it points away from the full scope of the Son’s homoousion with fallen man, thus tending toward docetism. Brunner would never say that the historical contingencies of Christ are not important or completely unknown. Jesus’ real historical existence as a faithful Jew and Rabbi, along with his death and bodily resurrection, are essential to the apostolic proclamation. Without this historical factor, our faith is in vain; it would make Christianity little more than an Eastern speculative philosophy, which is what Brunner accused Bultmann and Tillich of doing.

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