Karl Barth, true or false prophet? (1) by Rev S de Marie


Karl Barth (1886-1968) is widely considered to be the most influential Christian theologian of the 20th century. Reformed writers have, in past decades, pointed to his unreformed ideas.

For example, while reformed people say that we live in a covenantal relationship with God, Barth says that believers cannot have such a continuous relationship with God but can only have momentary contacts with God and when God chooses to make such brief contacts with us He knocks aside our securities, such as our confessions or the preaching of the sermons. Such momentary self-revelations by God can only be spoken of in ecstasy, he says. Barth emptied the church’s confessions of any value and reinterpreted the Word of God on the basis of human will and desires. [i]

What a lot of modernists liked was that Barth denied the antithesis between believers and unbelievers, between church and world, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Consequently there was no need for separate Christian organisations, such as Christian schools. Instead, he posited an antithesis between God and his fallen creation.[ii]  According to Barth the Bible is not the Word of God and Jesus Christ does not reconcile man to God.

The following article by Rev S de Marie gives a broader insight into the teachings of this theologian and increasingly his appeal to some theologians in the GKN, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

J Numan

Karl Barth, true or false prophet? by S de Marie

Lately there has been a genuine revival at the Theological Universities of Kampen (TUK, GKN)[iii] and Apeldoorn (TUA, CGK)[iv], of the ideas of Dr Karl Barth (1886-1968). While previously our Reformed churches judged the doctrine of this theologian to be absolutely incompatible with Scripture and Confession, this has now completely changed.

Kampen and Barth

This conviction is not being kept hidden: Barth and his follower D. Bonhoeffer are often mentioned together to signal the beckoning perspective of renewal for theology and the church. In a partnership between the professors of dogmatics at TUK (Prof B. Kamphuis) and TUA (Prof GC den Hertog), a number of lectures dedicated to the two theologians were given during the past eighteen months throughout the country.

To restrict ourselves to Barth: this theologian, who many consider the greatest of the 20th century, is now being portrayed as a source of new insight into Christ and God’s grace. Prof Dr K. Schilder and Prof Dr C. Trimp, who sharply criticised Barth and Barthianism, are now considered to have misjudged him. They would in particular have had no eye for Barth’s later insights, which brought him much closer to Christ than his previous work. R. Barkema’s Masters’ thesis, published in 2008 under the title Nee tegen Barth? (No to Barth?), shows that Kampen’s change in direction with respect to the doctrine of Barth is not of recent date. In that book the doctrine of Barth is already judged as being compatible (‘not  mutually exclusive’) with Reformed doctrine.

Kamphuis and Barth

In an interview published in Reformatorisch Dagblad of January 4th 2014, Prof. B. Kamphuis expressed his great appreciation for Barth and Bonhoeffer. He stated:

Without adopting everything from them, I dare to say that these theologians had an understanding of the questions of their time. This led them to formulate penetrating answers, which we cannot ignore, out of the Gospel.

We are not dealing here with an innocent matter; these people have a genuine desire to be persuaded by Barth’s views.Prof. Kamphuis expressed this in one of his lectures held at the conference on ‘the hermeneutics of dogmatics’ at Hamilton in Canada on 14th January 2014. In other words: a conference on the method used to explain the teachings of the Bible.

Kamphuis came to the very remarkable statement that all biblical dogmas (doctrines) have a metaphorical character, because “everything we know about the gospel comes to us in the form of metaphors”.  Metaphors are symbolic, figurative language; imagery that is not to be understood literally.

According to Kamphuis, metaphors are words which are taken from one context and applied to another. This applies even to the facts of salvation, such as the ‘coming’ of the Lord Jesus to the earth, and to ‘deliverance’. These relate to inscrutable things, but:

That is how God reveals to us the mystery of Himself and his deeds. God’s revelation is always pure but never sufficient, because metaphors always whisper it is and it is not.

If we understand Kamphuis well, he says: God’s revelation is true and pure, but never sufficiently clear, never suitable for the chosen purpose. Metaphors, images, always whisper: it is and it is not. So the Bible reader never knows what is meant. In his speech Kamphuis applied this even to the coming of Christ into the world. It is always: ‘it is and it is not’, which is close to: ‘it is yes and it is no’.  Incredible as it may seem, we believe we are hearing here a typically Barthian (dialectical) sound: the sound of the paradox.

In the discussion that followed his lecture, Kamphuis also confirmed that connection with Barth. There he answered questions from Prof A.J. De Visscher (Canada) about the alleged lack of clarity of Scripture. In his critique, De Visscher had pointed to Kamphuis’s own inaugural speech of 1988 titled Klare taal (Clear language) which dealt especially with the clarity of Scripture. In his reply [to De Visser] Kamphuis actually distanced himself openly from that speech. He stressed: We do not see ‘clear language’ in Scripture, because there are many difficult things in it and many misunderstandings about them.

In explaining his changed thinking, Kamphuis pointed to newer insights through further study about Karl Barth and others. Apparently he even learned very important things from him, including what Barth said about ‘the suffering of God’. [v] Schilder says about this:

Nothing in creation can make God suffer. Barth teaches: You begin to understand more of God’s grace when you see how much it cost Christ to restore the break between God and man.

In this article we will briefly mention what Barth taught. Were Schilder and Trimp wrong about him? Do we still have to adjust our view on the Scriptures and God’s grace in accordance with Barth’s teachings?

For now we will restrict ourselves to his view on Scripture and his vision on the atonement. This can be done only briefly; it is not feasible to discuss the background against which Barth developed his ideas.

Barth on Scripture

According to Karl Barth, God is so infinitely great and exalted that He will never reveal Himself sufficiently clearly to us. It is always yes and no. If you think you know the truth, there is always something that points to the opposite. And we also have only part of God’s revelation in the Bible. The Bible itself is not the Truth. In Barth’s eyes it is only a human book. But what you have read can still become truth within its context. You cannot say that the Bible is God’s Word; it is a testimony of what others (e.g. Paul or Peter) in their time and context understood of the Truth. When we read that testimony, it can again become truth if we also understand it for our time, in our context.

According to Barth, we may never say: This is exactly how it is, because that is how God’s Word says it; this is the Truth. Barth says it will always be ‘yes and no’, because God is the Wholly Other [vi] who does not readily reveal Himself to creatures.

Barth does not simply want to regard even Christ’s deeds of salvation as historical facts but as events (‘Geschichte’, not to be confused with ‘Historie’) suggested by the words used. And in his eyes this is still happening repeatedly.

Meanwhile, we already recognise much barthian thought in the description Prof B. Kamphuis gave in his lecture on the language of metaphors that are not literal and always remain unclear:  ‘it is and it is not’. They appear in a certain context that is not ours. They are not well suited (adequate) for us to know God. Hence they must always be translated.

However, this stands in direct conflict with what the Bible teaches and the Reformed Confessions summarise. Our Belgic Confession says about the ‘suitability’ of the Scripture in Article 2:

God makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.

In Article 5:

For, even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.

In Article 7:

We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein.

Also the reformers Luther and Calvin always spoke in accordance with Scripture about the clarity or transparency (Ps 119: 105, 130; Rom 10: 8; 2 Pet. 1: 9, 19), the sufficiency or completeness (Gal 1: 8), and the necessity of God’s Word. The Scripture is therefore seen as its own interpreter, also in difficult passages.

The point at issue, however, is our own darkened mind; hence the necessary prayer for illumination of our mind and eyes (Eph 1:18). A refusal to accept Scripture as it is written actually makes us incapable of understanding it (1 Cor 2: 14; Matt 13: 11).

It is, regrettably, significant that Prof Kamphuis anno 2014 rejects his own speech of 1988 (widely cited in Brief Reformed Dogmatics by J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema, 1992[vii]). It means no less than a farewell to the Reformed, Scriptural teaching on God’s revelation and His Word.

(to be continued)


[i]Klaas Schilder, “De theologie van Karl Barth” in Cursus bij kaarslicht by Prof D. Deddens, Woord en Wereld, Bedum, 1997.

[ii]Rudolf van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, translation by Theodore Plantinga, Inheritance Publications, Neerlandia, 1990, p. 38.

[iii]GKN Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Reformed churches of the Netherlands – our Dutch sister churches)

[iv] Theological University of Apeldoorn operated by the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (Christian Reformed Churches with whom our Dutch sister churches have combined church services in various places).

[v] This is the (disputed) doctrine of theopaschitism – God’s suffering in Christ

[vi] Barth’s definition: ‘der Ganz Andere’

[vii] Available in English as Concise Reformed Dogmatics, Presb. and Ref., 2008.