Henri Bouillard, S.J., and Karl Barth

Bouillard - Karl Barth

“In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda.”

— Karl Barth


Henri Bouillard (1908-1981) was a French Catholic theologian and professor of theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. Alongside his fellow Jesuits, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and his colleague in Paris, Louis Bouyer, Henri Bouillard was a leading figure within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement. During the early years of suspicion surrounding this movement, Bouillard was dismissed from la Faculté de Théologie de Lyon – Fourvière in 1950. The fruit of his first doctoral dissertation, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas D’Aquin, was published in 1944 and roused controversy from the then dominant neoscholastic theologians and influential prelates.

Bouillard, Henri, SJ

He moved to Paris, where he began work on a second doctorate, awarded by the Sorbonne. The result was the three volume Karl Barth, published in 1957 by Éditions Aubier-Montaigne in Paris. According to Grover Foley, this dissertation was “the first at the Sorbonne ever allowed to be written about a living author.” The oral defense was “the cultural and religious event of the year” according to the theology journal, Bijdragen, in a 1958 issue (see Foley, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth,” SJT, June 1961, 145).

Karl Barth was in attendance, having traveled with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr from Basel. Eberhard Busch recounts the event in his biography of Barth. The endnotes are in brackets:

In the middle of June 1956 Barth went with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frau Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr to Paris. There they were to take part in ‘the doctoral examination of a Jesuit’, Père Henri Bouillard, ‘who had written 1200 pages about me. He was cross-examined about me for five hours (at the Sorbonne), and then we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant’ [letter to Heinrich Vogel, 5 September 1956]. This viva-voce examination ‘was an extraordinary event, in that the “subject” of such a thesis should not really be still alive. That I was in fact very much alive and even there in person made the whole proceedings very tense, but also added a great deal of merriment’ [Charlotte von Kirschbaum to Karl Gerhard Steck, 5 July 1956]. Bouillard was another of those Catholics in whom Barth discovered a surprising affinity to his own thought…’In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda. Unlike Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, in this case it is not some holy little Thérèse or Elizabeth, but a transcendental ontologie de la foi, agreed criteria of a Kantian character. Still…there is much to suggest that I have another chance of becoming a kind of Catholic church father in partibus infidelium‘ [letter to his sons, 14 September 1953].

(Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 421)

I cannot imagine having Barth sitting in the audience while defending your thesis on Barth! Oscar Cullmann was one of the examiners.

Bouillard’s three volumes were never translated into English. However, you can find some translations of important sections. Parts from volume two and volume three were translated and published as an article for the spring issue of Cross Currents in 1968. The title of the article is “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology” by Henri Bouillard. This article combines the introduction for volume two and “Le problème de la théologie naturelle,” a section in chapter two of the third volume. Also, in 1967 Bouillard published portions of his Karl Barth in a single volume of less than 200 pages, Connaissance de Dieu, which was translated the following year and with the same title, The Knowledge of God. So, these are the two places where you can find some of Bouillard’s work on Barth in English.

Bouillard’s Critique of Barth

Barth refers to Bouillard’s transcendental “ontology of faith” and its “Kantian character.” Bouillard believes that the possibility of natural theology is necessary. As a possibility, this refers not to actual knowledge but, rather, to the “transcendental condition” necessary for any knowledge of God to happen at all. Without this transcendental condition, which corresponds to our being made in the image of God, our faith in God would be arbitrary. “It is not enough to appeal to a miracle of revelation or grace, which takes hold of our intellect and subdues it. Immediately the question rebounds: how can we know that our faith is the result of a miracle, that is to say of God’s action, and that it is not simply an arbitrary human act?” (“A Dialogue with Barth,” 218). Here is the final paragraph in the article:

As we have seen, if Vatican I judges it necessary to define the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, it is because this possibility constitutes the foundation of Christian faith. To be sure, the objective basis for the possibility of faith resides in divine revelation. But the subjective basis of this possibility resides necessarily in us; otherwise it would not be our certitude. The possibility of natural knowledge of God is the transcendental condition for the knowledge of faith. But, in strict terms, to identify a transcendental state is not to practice abstraction; rather it is to make a reflection. When Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of a natural knowledge of God as the beginning and end of all things, it does not really make an abstraction of God’s action, at the expense of His being in general and in abstracto. It separates, by an act of reflection, the radical condition that certain knowledge of this God is possible to us. It does not claim, as Barth seems to believe, that natural knowledge must necessarily temporally precede knowledge of faith; rather it maintains that natural knowledge of God is necessarily implied by virtue of man’s status as a rational being. By identifying this state and drawing our attention to it, Catholic doctrine is not creating an idol which it then identifies with the God of the Church; on the contrary, it makes explicit the internal condition by means of which one can find this “God” of the idols and acknowledge Him without lowering Him to the level of an idol.

(Henri Bouillard, “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology,” trans. Gerard Farley, Cross Currents, Spring 1968, 226)

That is where the article ends, unfortunately, just when you are excited to read more! If you look at volume three, from which this excerpt is taken, Bouillard continues for several more pages.

Based on these translated portions alone, it is not clear exactly what Bouillard considers to be, as he writes earlier in the article, “the judicatory principle which would permit us to establish in truth the recognition of divine revelation in history” (218). Grover Foley likens it to Bultmann and Schleiermacher (Foley, ibid., 146-147). Bouillard is striving to articulate the way in which we know it is indeed God who we know in faith. This means that there must be some correspondence between God and ourselves, in our capacity to know that this is God who is being known. Any precondition of this sort is rejected by Barth.

That should spark your interest in Henri Bouillard.

Hans Küng in Paris

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Hans Küng was also in attendance at Bouillard’s defense. Küng recounts it in his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. Küng feels that he was slighted by Bouillard when they were both in Paris working on Barth’s theology and even claims that Bouillard was “jealous” of the younger student (p. 129). Henri de Lubac defended Bouillard against Küng’s criticisms (Dokumente 14 [1958], 448-454). Rudolf Voderholzer writes:

[Küng] had first accepted help from Bouillard while writing his 1957 doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but one year later he severely and a bit condescendingly criticized his mentor’s interpretation of Barth. In his study of Barth, which took a very favorable view of the Protestant theologian, Küng had tried to prove, from just a few passages, that Barth was advocating a position, in regard to the doctrine of justification, that is acceptable to Catholics. Bouillard’s perspective was more differentiated and skeptical, and of course Küng accused it of hampering the ecumenical movement.

(Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work, 81)

For what it’s worth, First Things had a scathing review of Küng’s memoirs: “At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening.” I have no idea if Küng’s grievances toward Bouillard are legitimate, but he is not successful at hiding his self-regard in recounting the events.


Here are a couple more images (click to enlarge):

Bouillard - Karl Barth, title page

Bouillard - Karl Barth, dedication

On the left is the nihil obstat and imprimatur. On the right is the dedication to Fr. Henri de Lubac “in gratitude and affection.”



  1. That’s interesting, tying the ‘transcendental’ aspect of natural theology to subjective certainty. Seems very existential.

    • Exactly, it is existential — so I’m curious at how he fleshes it out, especially as a Catholic. I ordered his book on Maurice Blondel, which was thankfully translated into English, and that should provide some insight. Until my French is strong enough, I won’t be able to adequately translate the relevant material in Bouillard’s volumes on Barth.

      • Yes, Rahner came to my mind as well. It must be a Jesuit thing. I wonder if Molnar knows French. He could translate Bouillard and tell us what’s up.

  2. I’m more curious with the notion of similitude as the necessary grounding for any concept of natural theology (or, on the otherhand, a theology of nature). How does Barth, or a Barthian or forms of Protestantism, really get over the question “how do you know God’s talking to you?” when you privilege revelation? Is this a part of the irrational rationality of any faith commitment?

    Anyone have thoughts on this?

    • Bouillard would say that Barth doesn’t have an answer to that question. I have long pondered this problem in Barth’s theology. Barth eschews the whole problem of pisteology (doctrine of faith), in stark contrast to his predecessors like Isaak Dorner and F. H. R. Frank. Frank wrote a whole volume on the problem — System of the Christian Certainty — and Dorner dedicates the first volume of his systematic theology to the doctrine of faith. It does seem to reduce to mere assertion of an arbitrary sort if you cannot say how you know it is indeed God speaking.

      • I think of that verse where Christ says that “my sheep will know my voice”, what does that mean? I think one ought to honestly examine the idea of Man as being “made in the image of God” to mean something. But for this to mean something…well how would we know?

        I appreciate Christ as the epistemological door into knowledge of God. There’s that sort of realization, like the Centurian, “This is the Son of God!” As if Christ, as per any of the gospel accounts, makes sense of all things without knowing what exactly lay underneath.

      • And thus why I love the Maximian idea that Christ is the incarnate Logos in whom all logoi dwell. Somehow His life, death, and resurrection, is the axle upon which all things revolve.

      • Right, those are the passages that — for Bouillard and Dorner and most theologians — require some explanation of how. How do the sheep know? It seems that for Barth you only need to say that they know. It’s just a fact. Miraculous. Without any cause, origin, or explanation other than the mercy of God alone.

        Bouillard is not satisfied, and so he (as far as I can tell) is defending a “logoi” (to use your Maximian terms) that is awakened and fulfilled by the Logos in coming to man in faith and love. That’s my best guess.

      • Well, the upswing for Barth is that you avoid having to bring in any question of metaphysics. So even if underneath everything there is really nothing, as per Kantians, God makes the impossible possible.

        But avoiding metaphysics is like the sheepish guy who just doesn’t want to risk being wrong. I think Torrance is a helpful corrective, even if he’s a little overstated and misreads some of the Fathers.

      • That is indeed the upswing for Barth, and it is the reason why Barth is routinely popular among disillusioned Protestants, especially of an evangelical provenance. This is my story. It is the story of every Barthian I know. Barth = freedom. In the midst of all of the challenges from the Enlightenment, secularism, pluralism, capitalism, individualism, etc., Barth provides the security and confidence that only God can provide. That is, at least, one half of the dialectic, and it is the half that continues to attract new students to Barth.

        Yet, I am now less of a Barthian, at least in its current dominant form. This is, in part, because “avoiding metaphysics is like the sheepish guy who just doesn’t want to risk being wrong.” That is well stated. Torrance is indeed a helpful corrective, as is Balthasar.

      • Kevin wrote:

        That is indeed the upswing for Barth, and it is the reason why Barth is routinely popular among disillusioned Protestants, especially of an evangelical provenance. This is my story. It is the story of every Barthian I know. Barth = freedom. In the midst of all of the challenges from the Enlightenment, secularism, pluralism, capitalism, individualism, etc., Barth provides the security and confidence that only God can provide. That is, at least, one half of the dialectic, and it is the half that continues to attract new students to Barth.

        This is the reason I was ever attracted to Barth, as an evangelical too. I found in Barth all the evangelical impulses that I was raised with, but with a critical dogmatic frame and thrust. This is still why I am so attracted to Barth, and would imagine will be. And I agree with you Kevin, as well, I’m not really a huge fan of what “Barthians” has come to mean, but Molnar and Hunsinger I think (esp Molnar) are helpful advocates for reading Barth as Barth. That said, there are some constructive threads in McCormack and others (Tom Greggs, Darren Sumner et al) that I find really edifying and helpful as well.

        As far as what you and Joshua were talking about, Keven, Hart has a good article on the analogia entis that I think is helpful and in a way could be appropriated in a Barthian type of way — I think. Here is the essay:


      • Thanks, Bobby. I’ve downloaded the Hart article and will be sure to read it soon.

  3. What does appropriate in a Barthian way mean, in your words? I’m curious, given my above question on Bouillard.

    • I can’t speak for Bobby, but I assume that he is thinking of how the “analogy of faith” allows for creation and anthropology within an overarching christology. That opens a can of worms, but it’s a starting point at least.

      • Cal, yes, loosely what Kevin says is what I would be thinking. That the “being” in an analogy of being is Christ’s, and so the analogy of faith could be the aspect that allows for an analogy of being if in fact we think that christologically.

      • Bobby & Kevin:

        Thanks, that was helpful and food for thought. So it’s sort of like the difference between Natural Theology and a Theology of Nature?

      • Cal, yeah, “theology of nature” is right. For example, there’s Barth’s exegesis of the nature psalms in II.1, “little lights” extra ecclesium in IV.3.1, and gender in III.4. In all of these cases, the knowledge of God in nature is illumined by grace — the true Light, Jesus Christ.

  4. Sorry. I pressed send too early. The book is Joshua Furnal’s Catholic Theology After Kierkegaard. I haven’t found any reviews yet but I feel like this book is long overdue. Many Catholic theologians of the first half of the 20th century were influenced by him, by way of phenomenology and dialectical theology, both emphasizing the subject.

    Of course there were other influences as well. I mention Kierkegaard because there is such a stigma associated with him in Catholic circles despite his influence. The philosophies of the early 20th century were much less interested in good and evil as abstract concepts or “objective truth” and more interested in understanding how people interact with truth. And if truth is a person (Jesus Christ) what does that mean? Ratzinger was clearly influenced by these philosophical movements. In Introduction to Christianity, he defines the Being of God (“He who is” in the Septuagint) as Jesus Christ.

    • Thanks, Fariba, I had not seen that book yet. Since it was recently published this year, it will probably be a little while (or long while) until journals start to publish reviews for it. I hope they do.

      Yes, I see Ratzinger as being very much influenced by similar currents on the Protestant side. Nearly everyone in the 20th century, both Catholic and Protestant, is keen to investigate and define all categories (for God and man) in accord with the disclosure of true God and true man in Jesus Christ.

  5. My translation of some passages of Henri Bouillard’s study of Barth is part of a larger translation I have made from this work. It is posted on the internet. Type in Bouillard/Farley.

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