Human-Centred ‘Christian’ Theology and Karl Barth’s Dialectical Christian Theology

RLST 270, 2nd Paper, Vered Arnon

Karl Barth wrote The Word of God and the Word of Man to reconcile Christianity with the devastation of the first World War. In part, his work was also an indictment of the liberal human-centred theological tradition in Christianity dating back to Schleiermacher. To begin with, I will outline the nature of the liberal theological paradigm using examples from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion and What Is Christianity? by Alfred von Harnack. Then I will discuss the nature of Barth’s critique of these human-centred approaches to Christian theology. Finally, I will present my own critical evaluation of Barth’s position.

The liberal theological paradigm that dates back to Schleiermacher is fundamentally human-centred. Jesus is regarded as an historical figure, a man, and his personal relationship with God is the example Christians are to follow in their own relationship with God.(1) Schleiermacher was responding to the traditional view that humanity was base and sinful while God was infinitely merciful and good and gave grace to creatures that were not capable on their own merit of deserving it. He wrote about God being infinite love and the essence of Christianity being a personal unification with God’s infinite love. Since Schleiermacher was advocating a new and controversial position, he focused a great deal on justifying it and explaining this new perspective on the nature of the human soul. He claimed that religion itself was evidence that the human soul was essentially good and of the same substance as God, but he made this claim in a subtle way, in the process of defending his view that religion and spiritual impulses originated from within individuals themselves. “In spiritual things the original cannot be brought forth for you, except when you beget it through an original creation in yourselves,”(2) he writes.

Schleiermacher claims that God is infinite, and the whole universe and every part of it is part of the infinity. Human souls are part of this infinity. The objective of Christianity, he believes, is to recognise and accept this relationship. “In order to intuit the world and to have religion, man must first have found humanity, and he finds it only in love and through love.”(3) Here one can clearly see what is meant when Schleiermacher is said to have begun a tradition of ‘human-centred theology’. Following in his footsteps, Adolf von Harnack asserts, “It is to man that religion pertains.”(4) With section headings such as “God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul”(5), his continuation of the human-centred theology that Schleiermacher began is quite straightforward and does not need much explanation. He thinks that Christianity must be understood historically to be understood properly, and that includes understanding that Jesus was an historical man who had a specific relationship with God.(6) Harnack believes understanding Jesus’ message is the key to understanding Christianity. “The whole of Jesus’ message may be reduced to these two heads— God as the Father, and the human soul so ennobled that it can and does unite with him.”(7) Harnack writes that the human soul is infinitely valuable, and a Christian must understand that in order to have the proper relationship with God.

 The man who can say “My Father” to the Being who rules heaven and earth, is thereby raised above heaven and earth, and himself has a value which is higher than all the fabric of this world.(8)

In summation, the liberal human-centred theological paradigm was focused on the positive value of the human soul, the infinite presence and lovingness of God, and the goal of joining of the finite human soul with the infinity of God.

Karl Barth proposes a radically different theological paradigm. In the beginning of chapter six of his book The Word of God and the Word of Man, he states,

 As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.(9)

He believes that humans feel a need to speak of God. Humans ask questions, and are themselves an existential question, and so they thirst for answers. They turn to religion for answers. Barth believes that religion cannot give them answers. “Man cannot escape his humanity, and humanity means limitation, finitude, creaturehood, and separation from God.”(10) He absolutely disagrees with the notion of human-centred theology. “Man is made to serve God and not God to serve man,”(11) he writes, and also “He does not cry for… something human, but for God, for God as his Saviour from humanity.”(12) He stresses at great lengths how utterly separate God is from humanity. God is not the intuitive expression of the infinite universe, God is infinite but the universe is finite, and as man is part of the finite universe, humans cannot even really speak of God, let alone join in unity with his infinitude.

Barth directly attacks Schleiermacher and explicitly points out that while he traces his own perspective back through various philosophers and prophets all the way back to characters in the Old Testament, Schleiermacher is not at all part of the same lineage.(13) He accuses Schleiermacher of overlooking the fact that “man as man is not only in need but beyond all hope of saving himself… one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”(14) As for the historicism of the human-centred paradigm, Barth claims that it is better to be dogmatic than to focus on the historical people and events of the Gospels, because in dogmatism at least one can dispense with unnecessary human-centred notions that delude man into thinking he can overcome his humanity; and while one still cannot find answers to the eternal questions, one can at least quell the questioning and content oneself with a pragmatic ‘working faith’.(15)

While the human-centred paradigm seeks to compare man with God and bring humans up to the level of God, Barth believes that God and man are polemically contrasting, to the point that even to get closer to God is as impossible as the liberals’ notion of unity. “God stands in contrast to man as the impossible in contrast to the possible, as death in contrast to life, as eternity in contrast to time.”(16) Man as man cannot know God and cannot even speak of God, because “to speak of God would be to speak God’s word,”(17) and God alone can speak God’s word. When people say the words ‘God becomes man’, they are attempting to make an assertion, but it is impossible for humans to really assert the meaning behind the words, because it is inaccessible to them. The only way that man and God could ever get ‘closer’ would require either for man to die as man, surrender and relinquish all humanity entirely— but then ‘man’ would be no closer to God because ‘man’ would be negated and thus no closer than before.

In summation, Barth believes that the only position a Christian minister or theologian can validly take concerning God is a dialectical position of ambiguity and indirect statements. If one properly understands Christianity then one understands that one cannot know or even say anything about God, yet humans have an inherent need to ask for answers, so one must state that one cannot speak of God while recognising the paradox within that statement. Schleiermacher and the liberals, he would seem to be saying, are making empty ‘assertions’ about things which they cannot know anything about, but have deluded themselves into this line of thought because of their desperation (as is the human condition) to find answers.

While Barth’s position seems extreme and complicated, and maybe even difficult to understand, his logic is sound and his arguments are valid. If God is infinite, while the universe and man in it are finite, then indeed they are ‘worlds apart’ and cannot meet. If man cannot know God at all, then indeed, man cannot speak of God, but can only assert that he cannot speak, and should be aware that his assertion is one of personal confession rather than external truth. This is counterintuitive, since human nature inclines us rather obsessively to ask questions and seek answers and make assertions and truth claims for the sake of creating an illusion of order in the midst of chaos.

To challenge Barth, one would have to challenge the first premise of his argument, namely that God is infinite while humans are finite. But this cannot be successfully challenged, due to simple linguistics. If man were infinite rather than finite, then man would be able to know God, because man would be God. But if man were to be God, then man would not be man, and the problem is not solved. Similarly, if God were human (finite) rather than infinite, man could know God but man would really just be knowing man, and the problem still remains unsolved. The human-centred paradigm attempts to posit man as God and God as man alternately, without logic or consistency. I feel that blurring the boundaries of the finite and the infinite diminishes the meaning of each. The liberal paradigm seems, to me, to undermine the significance of Jesus, but Jesus and the Crucifixion are central to the Christian faith. If humans are just like God and God is just like humans, then the resurrection becomes unnecessary and the paradoxical mystery of Jesus as ‘God become man’ becomes meaningless.

Either Karl Barth’s criticism must be addressed, or the liberal Christian theological paradigm must be recognised at not actually Christian. It is a variation on the theme of Christianity, of course, but, if Barth is correct, it lacks the most significant elements that differentiate Christianity from many other religions.


 Barth, Karl. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by Douglas Horton. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957.

von Harnack, Adolf. What Is Christianity? Translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Schleiermacher, Freidrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translated and edited by Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

1 Adolf von Harnack’s later lectures in What Is Christianity? focus on this extensively. I will not go into detail because he writes a lot of indepth Christology, and I think it suffices to say that Karl Barth is as opposed to this sort of Christology just as much as he is opposed to the rest of the liberal paradigm, seeing it as an unnecessary focus on something not really relevant to the message of Christianity as he views it.
2 Schleiermacher, On Religion
3 ibid
4 Harnack, What Is Christianity?
5 ibid
6 I have already mentioned Harnack’s view that Jesus is to be understood as an historical man. I do not find it necessary to give examples, as I am merely presenting an outline of the theological paradigm, and not attempting to give an indepth description.
7 Harnack, What Is Christianity?
8 ibid
9 Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man
10 – 17 ibid

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