Contemporary European Views of God (1): Karl Barth on the Trinity


When discussing Karl Barth’s doctrine of God, one would be remiss if the Trinity wasn’t mentioned.  Here again, Barth was a revolutionary, due more to his reviving of the most ancient of understandings of God, rather than by introducing a theological novelty.  As Veli-Mattie Karkkainen (hereafter his name will be abbreviated as VMK) puts it “Barth can be hailed as the pioneer of the revival of trinitarian theology for the 20th century (127).”

Although the idea of the Trinity wasn’t new, the place Barth put it was a new idea.  Barth changed the way scholars looked at systematic theology by placing the Trinity at the forefront of his magnum opus Church Dogmatics.  In addition to the placement of the doctrine, he also made it foundational to his whole project.  This is found in his famous formula “God reveals himself.  He reveals himself through himself.  He reveals himself (CD 1/1: 296).”  Thus as VMK points out, “for Barth God’s revelation and God’s being are identical.  God is who God is revealed to be.”  That being the case, it is after the Trinity that concepts that usually precede it are discussed.  Barth’s ingenuity is found in the fact that while historically God’s oneness was the starting place for the theological enterprise, he instead began with God’s triunity (127).

Concerning Barth’s particular conception of the trinity, there is much controversy.  Barth is frequently charged with adhering to a heresy called modalism.  Barth often is accused of this because of his disdain for the use of the term “person” when discussing the trinity.  Barth believed that such usage in the modern world was at odds with its earlier intent when used.  In the modern world, Barth argued, person implies three members of the trinity with their own wills and minds.  To Barth, this is tritheism, which is heresy.  Thus, since God is one, Barth preferred the term “mode of being (German: Seinsweise).”  It is easy to see how using a term so close to a previously condemned heresy would put Barth in hot water here (127).

So was Barth a heretic?  VMK thinks not, although he does grant that if all we had were the 1st part of his dogmatics, that criticism might hold to a degree.  However, in his later volumes Barth more than puts this suspicion to rest.  In his last volume of the dogmatics before his passing, Barth “introduces historicity into the Triune God and in doing so ‘revolutionizes so-called classical Christian theism (127-128).”  In his famous (infamous?) section in the CD (IV/1), entitled “The Way of the Son into a Far Country,” He brings the Economic Trinity and the Imminent Trinity together by describing the Prodigal’s journey as the Son’s own journey into a far land.  However, since the Son is also God himself, it follows from this that “the Son’s journey is God’s own journey and that the Son’s self-humiliation is an expression of God’s own transcendance.”  It is clear from this that for Barth that the Triune God has stepped into history and also marks clear distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (128). 

Of course, for some like myself, Barth historicizing God, so to speak, answers the modalism question but open several new cans of worms.  What, more precisely, was Barth’s view of God’s relationship to time?  It seems like he would be a little more nuanced than to simply say that God is “in” time.  Would He be sypathetic to Open Theism?  How does God actually being intertwined with human history through the incarnation affect our understanding of anthropomorphisms?  How about metaphors as well?  

Let me close by saying that this was a very hard post for me.  It took me quite a while to feel like i was grasping it, and honestly i feel a little confused on some of this still.  However, i throw this out there for all to read, and hope that people more comfortable with Barth can help elucidate this central theme of his for everyone else better.   

2 responses to “Contemporary European Views of God (1): Karl Barth on the Trinity

    There was this King who ruled his kingdom for many years. His every desire was satisfied, but still he felt there must be more to life than just satisfying ones instincts. He wanted to experience God – know who he was.
    He asked his courtiers to find God for him, but none of them could help him. He had heard about a shepherd boy named David who seemed content with his lot. He called him to his palace and asked him, “Where is God, I want to experience, God”. David took him out to the fields and asked the King could he see God. The king said, “No, where is God”?
    David said that he is up in the air, all around him. But still the King could not understand or experience, God. David took him to a well and said that God was in the well. The King looked at David and said, “In the well, God is in the well!!” David asked the King to look in the well and the King obliged. He then said, “All I can see is water and my image”! David said to the King, “You have found God”! You and I are the image of God.
    Can you see God when you look in a mirror? The kingdom of God is within you!!
    Neither shall they say, Lo here! Or, lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you [Luke 17: 21].

    Peace Be With You

  2. Nice post. I certainly do not think that Barth is a modalist.

    For my thoughts on Barth and how God relates to time, see my post:

    See also David Congdon’s entry on Hegel in the Barth Blog Conference:

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