Karl Barth’s Dialectical Christology

Central Arguments: David Brondos and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

Allow me to first consider the argument David Brondos makes in Salvation and the Cross. When Brondos assesses Karl Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation, he predicates that assessment on an understanding of the functional or practical problems inherent in Barth’s conception of Christology. What Brondos considers as the most serious problem is that, for Barth, “human salvation and reconciliation appear to be automatic and mechanical.”[1] This leads Brondos to further argue that Barth’s idea of human salvation is something that is accomplished only by God –from the situatedness of God’s transcendence and Otherness –in Christ to the extent that Barth, as Brondos surmises, “reduces humanity virtually to nothingness.”[2] In this sense, then, Brondos suggests that, in Barth’s view of Christology and the parameters of human salvation, “human beings are totally passive in their salvation and do not even have a say in it.”[3]

Now, in moving on to Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Christology: A Global Introduction, Kärkkäinen’s argument begins by outlining Barth’s theoretical framework about God as God being “totally Other.”[4] This is a very important starting point for Kärkkäinen, since it is here that Kärkkäinen is able to assert the following about Barth’s conception of God and the human-God dialectic: “there is no contact point between humankind and God apart from that which God has created, that is, the person of Jesus Christ.”[5] As such, this dialectic that Kärkkäinen describes is one where God “stands over and against humanity and everything human”[6] and, subsequently, situates God’s existence, in relation to human existence, as a “wholly other God.”[7] Like Brondos, Kärkkäinen has identified Barth’s God as a transcendent God. Because of this, Kärkkäinen argues that Barth’s theology is Christ-centered,[8] since the role of Christ is one as “mediator between the transcendent God and humankind [which] comes to focus in Christ’s dual role as the agent of revelation and of reconciliation.”[9] Christ’s “dual role” particularly comes to bear in how Barth conceives of election –his Doctrine of Election, that is –where, as Kärkkäinen describes, “all God’s elective actions are centered on Christ and Christ only.”[10]

Critical Analysis

Brondos and Kärkkäinen’s view of Barth’s God as being “wholly Other” seems to suggest, I would argue, that God is existentially encased in ideality, where the infinitude of God’s existence embodies a meaning that, ultimately, transcends finite human understanding. In this sense, because of God’s ideality, God’s Otherness is “wholly” in itself apart from humanity. I find that this is particularly important to note because this notion of “Otherness” has an exoticism to it –it denotes not just a kind of Orientalism, or “foreign-ness,” argued by Edward Said, but also a kind of distancing effect of the “Other,” as theorized by Gilles Deleuze. This also leads me to assess the “Other” in another way: I find that the “Other” puts forth the possibility that, as Hegel notes in Phenomenology of Spirit, the nature of self-consciousness is formed reflectively. In the former case, I am thinking particularly of post-modernism and post-colonial theory: the sense that the “Other” is something “wholly” apart from the mainstream of “sameness” that the “Other’s otherness” is misunderstood, marginalized, compartmentalized, and deemed as “meta-human.” Now, in the latter sense, the presence of the “Other,” through the Hegelian perspective, allows for humanity to conceptualize their self-consciousness through a “human-Other” dialectic –this is precisely what Hegel argues with his “lordship-bondsman” dialectical analogy.

So, if understanding what the “Other” is and how the “Other” exudes an “otherness,” it becomes clear about Barth’s God as being “wholly Other.” For Barth, “…God in His deity is human…”[11] This is a key to understanding Barth’s conception of God. By humanizing God, Barth is, essentially, suggesting that God’s “Otherness” is so distanced from humanity that humanity has no direct access to God. In my view, Barth is channeling Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” But, Barth is, of course, going a step further than Plato and the Forms, in order to suggest that the only way humanity has access to God, as an object of understanding, is through Jesus Christ. The “human-God” dialectic, as Brondos and Kärkkäinen describe, is not necessarily “dialectical” in the traditional sense of the term –perhaps, this is precisely why Barth was never comfortable with the term being applied to his theology. Instead, I would deem Barth’s dialectical Christology as a kind of tripartite relationship, where Christ embodies an equalizing force. For Barth, then, Christ is the “bracketing” force within the “phenomenological epoche” of Husserlian thought –Christ allows the human finite mind to “bracket” a “wholly Other” God that exists in ideality.


[1] David A. Brondos, Salvation and the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 140.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 112.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 115.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 117.

[11] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, Translated by John Newton Thomas and Thomas Wieser (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press,1960), 55.

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