Barth on Revelation and History


This is a rather technical theological discussion. You are forewarned.

In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In this commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). Barth recognizes, in the CD, that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.

In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.

And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:

I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]

You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:

Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]

In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.

But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.



  1. ‘We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.’

    I’d almost go a bit further than you – on your reading, it seems that not I my are theological claims determined/limited by history, but God himself is.

    • Yes, I had that in mind. As I read Barth, it was this placing of limits on God (in existential theology with its Idealist presups) that Barth later realized violated his own rule of theology: God, not us, determines the capacity of creation to receive him in the flesh and know him in the Spirit. In other words, it was Barth’s rejection of natural theology that, in fact, led to his break with existentialism and fellow dialectical theologians.

  2. Once you take seriously that God determines that capacity, I don’t really see how the existential reading remains a live option, at least as it stands. It becomes, like you said, a species of natural theology, cloaked in existential language of decision, event and confrontation.

      • You can almost see Barth as arguing for the analogy of being (tightly understood, not as he saw it abused) in that God ultimately breaks apart all our conceptions, analogies, etc, and shows how we can never ‘reach’ God with our concepts. I hear this is about how Balthasar thought of him, but I’m not well read there.

      • That sounds right to me. God establishes the analogy. That still leaves open the tricky question of how/whether the analogy exists as a constitutive part of creation, which I think it must. And this is where Balthasar pushes Barth on his view of the church, sacraments, and related matters. If the analogy only happens by fiat of God, ex post facto of creation, then that strikes me as very odd — a sort of Nominalism from God’s end! But my thoughts in this regard are still a bit hazy and needing further development and clarity.

        A good example is, somewhere in II.1, Barth talks about “father” as being true and real for God alone and only true for earthly fathers in a derivative sense! I need to find my notes on II.1, but that strikes me as highly relevant and an intriguing illustration of how Barth thinks about analogy in the CD.

    • Okay, now I have. It’s good.

      “But the resurrection is an event which is ‘unhistorical.’ By this, Barth did not mean that the resurrection occurred in some other realm than that of the space and time in which we live. The resurrection was already understood by him at that time as a ‘bodily, corporeal, personal’ event. That which happens to a body…happens in space and time. In stressing the ‘unhistorical’ character of that resurrection, then, what Barth meant to say was that it was not an event to be laid alongside other events. It was not an event produced by forces operative in history.” (McCormack, p. 29)

      But even this is not quite adequate, as McCormack continues, until Barth’s doctrine of the Incarnation is formulated, such that God “lived a life which did have extension on the plane of history” (p. 34).

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