Nearly 100 years ago, a book was published in Switzerland that, as one scholar put it, “landed like a bombshell on the playground of theologians.” That playground was inhabited by liberal theologians, and the bombshell was Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. His commentary on Romans catapulted Barth onto the scene and sent shockwaves through church and academy. In this commentary, despite its excesses, we first find themes that profoundly shaped Barth’s later theology.

More interesting to me is that the book contains themes that I believe are particularly relevant to evangelicalism today, one of which we’ll consider here: Barth saw in Romans a complete refutation of the human-centered religion of his day. Describing “the characteristic features of our relation to God,” he wrote:

Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say “God.” We assign to him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. . . . We press ourselves into proximity with him: and so, all unthinking, we make him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with him, we permit ourselves to reckon with him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as his companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. ...

Secretly we are the masters in this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust himself. . . . Our well-regulated, pleasurable life longs for some hours of devotion, some prolongation into infinity. And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In “believing” on him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves.

Or as he later summarized the problem: “For this theology, to think of God meant to think in scarcely veiled fashion about man, more exactly, the religious, the Christian religious man.”

Instead, Barth discovered in Romans “that the theme of the Bible . . . certainly could not be man’s religion and religious morality, nor his own sacred divinity. The Godness of God—that was the bedrock we came up against . . . God’s absolute unique existence, power and initiative, above all in his relationship to men.”

Barth pushed this idea to its limit. He argued that God as God could not be conceived of; he is beyond this world, wholly other, remote, alien, hidden. He drove home, in the words of Kierkegaard, “the infinite, qualitative distinction” between time and eternity, between humankind and God. Barth was desperate to demolish any notion that there is some preexisting connection between God and humankind, some natural capacity in human beings that gives them access to knowledge of God.

Article continues below

Those who do not know the unknown God have neither occasion nor possibility of lifting themselves up. So is it with those who know him; for they too are men; they too belong to the world of time. There is no human righteousness by which men can escape the wrath of God.

In short, he was toppling the liberal pillars of experience, ethics, and history, showing that, when it comes to knowing God, we bring absolutely nothing to the table. Not even tried-and-true analogies can bridge the gap between us and the God who is beyond all analogies. For example, we see power in nature, and we use that as a starting point to talk about God’s unlimited power. God’s power, we assume, must be like nature’s power, only God’s power is just much greater, greater to an infinite degree.

This is how the discussion of God’s attributes often begins. But the very category of power, like all human analogies, Barth said, is merely a human construct and therefore inadequate to talk about God. God is not just an extension to infinity of the idea of power. Our notions of power are utterly inadequate to grasp the nature of God’s power, which is beyond human imagination. God, in this respect, is completely unknowable and distinct from creation.

In some respects, Barth highlighted themes that Eastern Orthodoxy has been wrestling with for centuries. Theologians such as Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor talked about God’s transcendence by means of apophatic theology, which is an attempt to tell us what God is not like—God is not bound by space or time, for example. God cannot be known in himself, Gregory Palamas argued, but only in his energies. Such theologians say that it is not even proper to say that God exists, because to say he exists is to suggest that his reality shares something of the reality of everything else that exists. But God’s being is so radically different from ours that the word “exists” cannot do justice to his existence. Thus we cannot say that God “exists.”

Such ideas have also been explored by many Western theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, who balanced apophatic theology with cataphatic theology, that is, a theology that asserts positive things about God. But for Barth, none of this went far enough. God is not simply beyond existence; he’s beyond all our ideas about his being beyond existence!

Article continues below

If this is true, then how do these two realities—God and humankind—ever touch, for does not the Bible teach that they do in fact touch? Yes, says Barth, but not how we typically imagine it. There’s an engagement, but one initiated and completed by God. If we are to know God, he must make himself known. There is no innate human capacity or gift for religious insight, no natural contact point that humans exploit to work themselves up to a knowledge of God. An encounter with God is nothing less than a miracle, something God does from beginning to end. It is the “impossible possibility of faith—a possibility whose source lies in God alone.”

The connection is revealed in the very fact that the connection is impossible, that the gap between God and humankind is indeed unbridgeable:

Grace is the incomprehensible fact that God is well pleased with a man, and that a man can rejoice in God. Only when grace is recognized to be incomprehensible is it grace. ... Grace is the gift of Christ, who exposes the gulf which separates God and man, and, by exposing it, bridges it.

And later,

Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative distinction between God and man and God and the world; it is the affirmation of resurrection as the turning-point of the world; and therefore it is the affirmation of the divine “No” in Christ, of the shattering halt in the presence of God. ... The believer is the man who puts his trust in God, in God himself, and in God alone.

Barth is keen to remind his readers of the complete freedom of God. God is not bound to this world in any way. He is its judge. He can withdraw his divine favor at will. He is not a natural part of the created order who can be assumed to be there whenever and wherever we call upon him. We have no right to claim his presence, power, or love.

When God, at his discretion, does intersect the world, it is not in obvious ways. Barth compares it to “the way a tangent touches a circle, without touching it,” so that when the world, by God’s grace, recognizes that touch, the world sees that touch not as a confirmation and affirmation of its existence but as a sign that this existence is transcended. This is what happened in Jesus Christ, especially his resurrection, which in turn throws light on his crucifixion, revealing its meaning.

Article continues below

But even in these events, in which God is with humankind and united to human nature in the flesh, God remains distinct from creation for Barth. If he were not distinct, then everyone would recognize him for who he is. Instead, he veils himself in the humanity of Christ, remaining hidden, unknown to the world—until he chooses to reveal through faith who he is in Christ. Thus God’s revelation of himself in Christ is a revelation of his incomprehensibility, in fact, “the most complete veiling of his incomprehensibility.”

Thus God is not the opiate of the people, not one who merely makes them comfortable in their current existence, who makes their lives bearable, but one who upsets them, confronts them with a “crisis.” The crisis is in part God’s judgment on the pretension of human beings, who think they have God figured out. The crisis is also the knowledge that the God whom human beings thought they had figured out is utterly elusive, that he is not only beyond this world but beyond the beyond.

Barth’s Romans is, in some ways, one long commentary on the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” As Barth puts it simply, “Men are men, and God is God.” One way this works itself out is in how Barth interprets passages that we instinctively imagine are about us.

Take, for instance, Paul’s statement, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The temptation is to think Paul is speaking of peace as a feeling, as relief from the guilt of sin, or as an easing of the sense of alienation from God, or as a sense of God’s nearness. But to think of peace in these ways is to think about ourselves, about what’s happening to us inwardly. Barth doesn’t deny that something happens to us and that this might elicit feelings of peace. But he’s much more interested in what this peace represents objectively, that is, “Peace is the proper ordering of the relation between man as man and God as God”:

Peace with God is the peace concluded between man and God. It is effected by a God-given transformation ... through which the proper relation between the Creator and the creature is re-established, and by means of which also the only true and proper love towards God is brought into being.

Article continues below

Thus, even the way we read Scripture can become a monument to idolatry, a vehicle for thinking about ourselves, and then about God, and then only as he helps us with our religiosity. As some of these quotations already suggest, Barth’s unrelenting emphasis on divine transcendence, on the Godness of God, while they attack idolatry, also point to good news: “God himself propounds the problem of God—and answers it. He sets all men of all ranks always under one threat and under one promise. . . . But it is precisely this sternness of the gospel of Christ which constitutes its tenderness and gentleness and its power unto liberty. In his utter strangeness, God wills to make himself known and can make himself known.”

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today. Adapted from his newly released Karl Barth: A Biography for Evangelicals (Eerdmans, 2017).

Have something to say about this topic? Let us know here.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.