Barth on “serious” theologians


This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:

Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?

Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.

[pp. 16-17]

Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950’s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.



  1. In other words, some folks like to make the narrative more dramatic by emphasizing the superiority of the villain, so that the hero must overcome what feels like the insurmountable. And as often, we do that in stories in which the hero still has to overcome it, in order to heighten the suspense. We are then obliged to keep the adversaries around, propping them up, instilling the fear of them, as though by so doing we were maintaining and even magnifying the glory of God. And that’s true in the pulps, in comics and other serials in which the “good guy” has no actual character. But why should we think of God, much less Jesus Christ, as such a pulp action hero? When a job is done, why should we not say so, rejoice, and get on with living in the aftermath of victory?

    • Yes, I think Barth would give a hearty Amen. I must confess that I was drawn toward the dramatic conflict after I saw The Exorcist for the first time! Mea Culpa!

  2. The Blumhardts are a good place to rest any working example of Barth’s theological response (who, as far as I know was influenced by the Blumhardts). Even though they (Johann) was clearly engaged in a documented and ‘serious’ conflict with evil, he pushed to maintain that Jesus is Lord (aka Victor) – not that he didn’t struggle with his own responses. In them we see Johann, a Pastor and theologian making an effort to not take evil as seriously as Christ/’s victory it. I think that this also helps to understand how Barth framed his theological response here.

    Then again the students question is not an old question.Despite the subject. Being too serious, not being serious enough, being taken seriously and not being taken too seriously, is, I’d say, a real challenge for theologians-in-community today.

    • I would like to study more about the Blumhardt influence, as I have read similar parallels with Barth who was indeed influenced by them.

  3. Barth seems to saying: The victory of Jesus Christ and the reality of the continuing existence of evil are not symmetrical, so don’t do your theology as if they are. And I say Amen! to that.

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