Karl Barth and Paul Tillich: Responding to Theological Liberalism

Two quite different responses to theological liberalism are represented in the theologies of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.

In his protest against theological liberalism, Barth seeks to re-emphasize the lost emphases on man the sinner and God the Judge . In his article, “Liberal protestantism, Liberal Theology, Liberalism” in A. Richardson (editor), A Dicitonary of Christian Theology, (London, 1969), J. Richmond points out that Barth “has stressed the centrality and the kerygmatic character of the biblical writings, the radical discontinuity between God and human nature, and has made much of the concepts of crisis, judgment and grace” (p. 193).

In his attempt to overcome the defects of theological liberalism, Tillich advocates a symbolic reinterpretation of the Christian message. Richmond maintains that the theology of Tillich (and Bultmann) is “partly continuous with the liberal tradition” (p. 193). together with Bultmann, Tillich has “tried to avoid the excesses into which the older liberalism fell; but … their critics frequently bring against them the criticisms which were brought against their theological predecessors in the second decade of the twentieth century” (p. 194). The theologies of Barth and Tillich are governed by two contrasting forms of ontic thinking which threaten to relativize the urgency of the call to sinners to respond to God. Barth tends to approach man via a consideration of the divine transcendence. Tillich tends to move in the direction of the divine immanence via a consideration of man.

Barth’s theology stand over against liberalism in a way that the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann do not. A few weeks before his death, in a conversation with T. F. Torrance, Barth affirmed his faith in the “bodily resurrection” (T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, (Grand Rapids, 1976), p. xi). While Barth’s theology is very different from the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann, there is still some force in the cautious words of A. P. F. Sell concerning Barth’s theology as well as the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann: “Sadly, such theologians as Barth , Bultmann and Tillich have been in danger of disengaging the gospel from history in all its ambiguity and messiness” (God our Father, (Edinburgh, 1980), p. 14). The point at which the difficulty in relating Barth’s view of the divine transcendence to historical reality is most observable is the point where he seeks to speak adequately of the urgency of the decision between faith and unbelief. Barth’s ontological conclusions – the ontological inevitability of faith and the ontological impossibility of unbelief – tend to weaken his protest against theological liberalism. Despite Barth’s rejection of a priori universalism, it should be observed that these ontological conclusions do suggest that Barth has propounded “a natural theology of his own” by presenting “a form of universalism highly palatable to modern man” (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, (London, 1967, pp. 12, 137, emphases mine).

From the perspective of his doctrine of God as Being, Tillich may be viewed as heavily accenting the transcendencemethodologies used by Barth and Tillich. Broadly speaking, this is the contrast between the ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ approaches. Tillich’s ontological analysis of being, through which man’s being is presented as grounded in God as the Ground of Being tends to lead in the direction of an uncritical affirmation of modern man (as an illustration of this tendency, Brown (p. 78, n.3) refers the reader to Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (Harmondsworth, 1962), pp. 63 ff.). Despite his rejection of rationalism, Tillich’s theology is highly appealing to rationalistic man. J. H. Thomas maintains that “(t)he liberal roots of Tillich’s theology are very evident” (Paul Tillich, (London, 1965), p. 5). Tillich’s interpretation of Christian truth is highly appealing to rationalistic man who does not take the Biblical witness to Jesus Christ particularly seriously. The weakness of the opposition of Barth and Tillich to theological liberalism lies not in the mere fact that both theologies, each in its own distinctive way, have a considerable appeal to modern man. rather, it lies in their failure to do justice to important aspects of the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel.

Tillich has failed to do justice to the historical revelation of the Gospel (B. J. R. Cameron, “The Historical Problem in Paul Tillich’s Christology”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 1965, pp. 257-272). Barth has failed to do justice to the human response to the Gospel. In highlighting Barth’s emphasis on divine transcendence, i am not overlooking the fact that Barth has written perceptively on The Humanity of God, (Atlanta, 1960) in which he write, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude but includes His humanity” (p. 48, emphasis original). It should be noted Barth’s use of the expression, “the humanity of God” does not carry with it any suggestion that “Barth’s theology is humanistic” (J. Macquarrie, “Barth, Karl” in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, p. 30). Barth’s concern is to emphasize that the doctrine of God is not to be approached from the vantage-point of an abstract conception of deity. Rather, it is to be approached from the standpoint of the incarnation. This emphasis on the incarnation is essential if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is to be clearly distinguished from the God of natural theology. The particular way in which Barth relates his whole theology to the incarnation does, nevertheless, raise the question of the adequacy of his treatment of the human response to the Gospel.

Both Barth and Tillch have allowed the structure of their theological systems to determine which aspects of new testament teaching are to be emphasized and which are to be virtually ignored (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, pp. 12, 152; K. Hamilton, “Paul Tillich”, in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids, 1969), p. 473). Thus, neither is fully able to overcome the tendency of theological liberalism to allow reason to become predominant over revelation. The simple fact that both theologies proceed on the basis of divine revelation does not diminish the fact that, in the course of interpreting the revelation, the interests of the theological system have not lent themselves to a proper understanding of the entire Biblical proclamation of the Gospel. Christian theology must take care to avoid emphasizing a particular Biblical truth in such a way that other aspects of Biblical truth, equally important for a clearer understanding of the Gospel, tend to be misrepresented.

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