Barth on Faith

Faith is conversion: it is the radically new disposition of the man who stands naked before God that he may procure the pearl of great price; it is the attitude of the man who for the sake of Jesus has lost his own soul. Faith is the faithfulness of God, ever secreted in and beyond all human ideas and affirmations about Him, and beyond every positive religious achievement. There is no such thing as mature and assured possession of faith: regarded psychologically, it is always a leap into the darkness of the unknown, a flight into empty air. Faith is not revealed to us by flesh and blood…: no one can communicate it to himself or to any one else. What I heard yesterday I must hear again to-day; and if I am to hear it afresh to-morrow, it must be revealed by the Father of Jesus, who is in heaven, and by Him only. The revelation which is in Jesus, because it is the revelation of the righteousness of God, must be the most complete veiling of His incomprehensibility. In Jesus, God becomes veritably a secret: He is made known as the Unknown, speaking in eternal silence; He protects himself from every intimate companionship and from all the impertinence of religion. He becomes a scandal to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness. In Jesus the communication of God begins with a rebuff, with the exposure of a vast chasm, with the clear revelation of a great stumbling-block. “Remove from the Christian Religion, as Christendom has done, its ability to shock, and Christianity, by becoming direct communication, is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them; by discovering an unreal and merely human compassion, it forgets the qualitative distinction between man and God” (Kierkegaard). Faith in Jesus, like its theme, the righteousness of God, is the radical “Nevertheless”. Faith in Jesus is to feel and comprehend the unheard of “love-less” love of God, to do the ever scandalous and outrageous will of God, to call upon God in His incomprehensibility and hiddenness. -Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 98-9.

*A Footnote:

(1) When Barth compares faith to one’s losing his/her soul to Christ, he is not using the same language as Jesus in Matt. 16:26 (“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Jesus asks). Indeed, Barth claims that in relinquishing one’s soul to Christ’s care (i.e. losing his/her soul to Christ), one is given the gift of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ: a reality into which one must choose to live, as Barth reminds us throughout The Epistle to the Romans.

(2) Throughout most of this passage, Barth expounds upon the mystery that is salvation by grace through faith in Christ. He warns primarily against, for lack of a better phrase, “having it all figured out.” If we neglect our stewardship of the profound mysteries of God (I Cor. 4:1-5), if we say that we completely understand his ways and his dispensation to us, then we will be hardened against the scandalon that is the grace of Jesus Christ. Such an attitude may well lead to a lack of recognition that we need grace to cover even our misunderstandings of God’s truth and his mysteries.

4 Replies to “Barth on Faith”

  1. Well, Sam, I know this man is held in high esteem among Christian scholars. I have not read any of his works. But I find myself not agreeing with a bit of this quote. Just to take a couple in the 1st part: he equates faith with one losing his own soul. But Christ said,”What does it profit a man if he loses his soul.” On the contrary, through faith in Christ one’s soul is saved, not lost. The 2nd quote I disagree with is where he says faith is leaping into thin air, which sounds too much like blind faith. Again, what did Christ say? He told John the Baptist’s disciples, when sent by John to ask if He really was the Messiah, to go back and tell John that He was making the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, the blind to see, etc. and the gospel was being preached to the poor. God and Christ do not expect blind faith but faith supported by evidence. It is true when we take our step of faith we don’t know what all God will do with us, but we trust it will all be good because He is good. We leap into faith because He showed His love for us on the cross, because He is the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the Living Water, His yoke is easy, because He came to give us life and that more abundantly. Maybe, likely I am just missing Barth’s point. Is there a wonderful mystery about salvation by grace through faith in God’s provision through Christ? YES. I just prefer for the truth to be plainly stated.

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    1. Here’s what I think Barth means in each of these particular passages you mention.

      (1) When Barth says that one “loses his soul,” he means that man’s soul, when he entrusts himself to Jesus Christ, is no longer in his own control, but under the control of Christ. Thus losing one’s soul that Christ may overtake it is, for Barth, the best possible state of affairs for the Christian believer.

      (2) I think you might have answered your own concern on the second point. Barth would certainly not say that we have no reason, no impetus to believe in the objective reality that is God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, and thereby begin the journey of working out our salvation with fear and trembling. However, it seems that Barth IS saying that there is a great deal about which we will be unsure during our walk with Christ, hence our need for an ever stronger faith in Christ’s ability to work in us the mystery of salvation (an ability which is, itself, a mystery). I think Barth, here, is being a good steward to the mysteries of God.

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  2. Who is Barth’s audience – the excerpt doesn’t say? But, whoever it is he should avoid using language that contradicts scripture or, at best, clouds truth. His words show he has passion for his faith, but in sharing passion one has to be careful not to cause confusion for the unbeliever or struggling believer. One of my pastors actually said this from the pulpit, “Believing in Jesus Christ does not save you.” – contradicting literally John 3:16. In his explanation it came out he was preaching against easy believism. But, he was not careful with his choice of words. Stating something that contradicts clear and even well known scripture causes the listener to discount outright the truth one is trying to impart, and he loses his audience.

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    1. I’m glad that you bring up the concern of Barth’s audience. He’s writing in 1918, right after the end of WWI, a conflict in which many German Christians had essentially put their faith in the German Empire. These German Christians were looking for a kind of political salvation that they thought the state could offer them. This, of course, did not turn out to be the case. So, for those who had, in effect, entrusted their hearts and souls to a national effort, Barth is saying that the only good option is to hand their souls over (i.e. to lose their souls) to the care of Christ alone.
      In regard to Barth’s comment regarding the “veritable secret” of Jesus: I imagine that Barth is here beckoning German Christians to plunge deeper into the mystery that is salvation. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone becomes less mysterious when we begin to find it falsely in other places and from other sources. It seems that Barth is saying that many of these German Christians’ walks of faith were characterized by a lack of respect for mystery because they placed their hope in a kind of political salvation that served as a mirage for true salvation in Christ. The state’s “salvation” had de-mystified true salvation.

      It helps to know Barth’s audience, because you’re right to say that some of his language in this particular passage might confound the heart of his point. I realize that it’s always somewhat risky to quote excerpts. Thanks for bringing these points to light and asking for clarification. In fact, I’m going to add a footnote.

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