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Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions

Ensminger, Sven. Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), x + 262 pp. $114.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Nicholas Krause (March 05, 2019)



Turning to Karl Barth as a critical resource for a Christian theology of religions, as Sven Ensminger does in this text, seems, on the face of it, quite counterintuitive. Not only is Barth remembered by many as a great critic of religion, he has been generally dismissed by the field of comparative religion as an exclusionist hindrance to the understanding and appreciation of diverse religious traditions. Even among careful readers of Barth, who will no doubt scoff at John Hick’s description of Barth’s position as one of “sublime bigotry,” the subject of religion and non-Christian religions in Barth’s thought is mostly seen in negative terms. A handful of recent works in Barth studies, however, has taken to correct this misreading of Barth. Ensminger’s contribution belongs within this emerging conversation—along with Garrett Green and Gavin D’Costa amongst others—and contains probably the most comprehensive treatment to date of the question of Barth and other religions. Ensminger argues it is precisely those elements in Barth’s thought often seen as least conducive to thinking about other religions and Christian engagement with them—namely, his doctrine of revelation and his devastating critique of religion—that, rightly understood, offer the most promising resources for developing a theology of religions that is both confessional and open to real encounter with other faiths.

Ensminger develops his argument in three main parts. The first four chapters offer close readings of Barth’s writings on relevant topics in both the Church Dogmatics and other more pastoral and ecclesial writings, sermons, and conversations, in order to develop an account of Barth’s position on non-Christian religions within the context of his larger theological vision. The second part of the book further develops this account by placing it in conversation with two other prevalent approaches to mapping religious diversity: “inclusivism,” represented chiefly by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, and “pluralism,” championed most popularly by the philosopher of religion John Hick. After comparing and distinguishing Barth’s position from these other approaches, part three concludes the book with a single chapter sketching the contours of a Barthian theology of religions and how such an approach fits within the emerging fields of comparative theology and theology of religions.

In chapter 1, Ensminger takes up Barth’s doctrine of revelation, bringing to the fore two crucial components of Barth’s account: on the one hand, Barth’s relentless insistence on the centrality and universality of the revelation of Jesus Christ, and, on the other hand, his simultaneous contention that such revelation is not limited to the Church alone but may appear in “other words” and “other lights” in the world. The crucial point Ensminger develops in this chapter is that Barth’s openness to other “media” of revelation is grounded not in a natural theology, wherein other religions apprehend truth about God independent of revelation, but rather in the universality of the particular and exhaustive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For Barth, God’s radical freedom and sovereignty mean that God can “speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog,” not because knowledge of God is available outside of revelation but precisely because God may choose to reveal Godself through these things (28; CD I/1, 55).

In chapter 2, Ensminger considers the second crucial component of Barth’s thought having to do with the question of other religions: the notion of “religion” itself. Barth addresses the subject of religion most explicitly in CD 1/2 §17, titled “The Revelation of God as Aufhebung of Religion.” Ensminger details the history of poor translation and reception of this piece of the Dogmatics, especially in North America, as well as the recent efforts by Garrett Green, John Webster, and others to set matters straight. In short, whereas previous translations rendered Aufhebung as “abolition” and thus read Barth as naming the relation of revelation to religion in terms of complete negation, recent and more nuanced readings capture the more dialectical relation, wherein revelation “sublimates” religion, both “abrogating” and “affirming” it (51-52). Ensminger’s contribution to this development in readings of §17 is to bring even greater nuance and clarity to the dynamics of the revelation-religion relationship. The ultimate payoff of Ensminger’s work in this key chapter, however, is to center the Christian religion, rather than other religions, as the primary subject of Barth’s critique of religion, thus presenting a compelling argument against readings of §17 that see in it an exclusivist condemnation of other religions as forms of Unglaube or “unbelief,” against which Christianity appears as “true religion.” For Barth, Ensminger shows, the Christian religion is judged like all other religions, and only proven “true” insofar as it faithfully bears witness to God’s revelation.

While chapters 1 and 2 provide the critical material for Barth’s theology of religions, chapters 3 and 4 go on to locate this approach within Barth’s larger theological vision. Attending to Barth’s anthropology and doctrine of sin, and then to his doctrine of election and the question of universalism, Ensminger demonstrates how Barth’s position on non-Christian religions is situated within a commitment to both the human person as covenant partner with God and the universal reconciliation of Jesus Christ. Barth’s great contribution to a Christian theology of religions on this point, Ensminger believes, is the way he locates a radical openness to non-Christian others, not in a general theory of religion but in the particular and unique work of God in Jesus Christ.

In the following two chapters on Rahner and Hick, which constitute the second part of the book, Ensminger demonstrates the difficulty of placing Barth within the usual “exclusivist, inclusivist, pluralist” typology of theology of religions. Barth, Ensminger shows, shares much with Rahner’s inclusivism, including a deep commitment to the universality of the revelation of Christ, a reluctance to consider Christianity in itself a superior form of religious expression, and an openness to the universal salvation of humankind paired with an insistence on the “impossible possibility” of eternal loss. Nevertheless, two basic features mark Barth’s divergence from Rahner: a far less optimistic attitude toward the possibility of natural knowledge of God and a greater reluctance to thematize human action in salvation. In short, Barth’s emphasis on revelation positions him uncomfortably within either an exclusivist or inclusivist framework. Barth shares much less in common with pluralists like Hick, yet Ensminger argues in chapter 6 that Barth provides important resources for addressing some of pluralism’s key criticisms of confessional theology. For instance, Ensminger shows how Barth’s criticism of religion offers an important form of self-criticism absent in both exclusivists and even pluralist thinkers like Hick.

Ensminger’s book offers much in the way of contributions to both Barth studies as a whole and the emerging conversation around Barth, religion, and non-Christian religions, in particular. Ensminger is at his best when offering close, nuanced readings of key passages in Barth’s writing. His careful exposition of §17, as well as its context and unfolding logic, is one of the book’s highlights. Additionally, Ensminger’s discussion of Barth’s “theory of lights” (Lichterlehre) to explain the relation of the one Light of Christ to secular “other lights” and his account of Barth’s various “media of revelation” offers an important analysis to these somewhat neglected parts of Barth’s corpus. Ensminger’s careful work of distinguishing these two concepts in Barth’s thought—that is, “secular parables” and “other lights”—and showing the differing purposes they serve will be of great interest to readers of Barth on the subject of revelation. Finally, one feature of Ensminger’s text that establishes it as unique in the emerging body of scholarship on Barth and religion is Ensminger’s attention to Barth as a decidedly pastoral theologian, thus locating Barth’s thinking about religion amongst pastoral, rather than purely dogmatic, concerns.

One general question this reader of Ensminger’s book is left with concerns the possible difficulties and limits engendered by attempting a theology of religions, and an account of interreligious encounter in particular, alongside an emphatic denial of the possibility of the natural knowledge of God. If the truth which Christians hear in a secular word or the voice of a non-Christian other is always only an echo or repetition of something previously disclosed in the one revelation of Christ, what reasons do Christians have for pursuing genuine encounter with non-Christian others? In other words, what specifically is to be gained by engaging otherness when one can always return to the particular divine disclosure in Jesus Christ and those sources most directly concerned with testimony to it, namely Scripture and Christian proclamation? What is unique to the encounter with the non-Christian other that demands Christian engagement and attentiveness? These questions concern not so much Ensminger’s particular argument in this book, but the adequacy of Barth’s theology for an account of interreligious engagement. I am confident a compelling answer to these questions can be given on Barth’s own terms and suspect it would look something like a Barthian theology of otherness and divine encounter. Such questions merely point to the room available in this emerging area of Barth studies for further constructive work.

Nicholas Krause, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Religion, Baylor University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.