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Karl Barth on Justification :: Summary and Conclusion

Justification, for Barth, is unconditional divine pardon. Because Barth’s doctrine of election reduced the total number of both all elect and reprobate persons down to one, Jesus Christ, the God-man is really the only one who is justified as well as condemned. Because Jesus Christ as the elect and reprobate one represents all of humanity, however, Christ’s history becomes the history of all people. In this way only are all people also derivatively both elect and reprobate. However, because God’s No in reprobation is ultimately just a subcategory or phase of his Yes in election, which Yes is more ultimate, “there is not one” who is not elect, justified, and ultimately pardoned.

In spite of this apparent universal soteriological framework, Barth denied that he ever taught universal salvation and emphasized that the freedom of God keeps us from presuming that God’s grace will ultimately pardon all. Differences of opinion are held on the question of whether his denial makes his views incoherent, or whether his denial is compatible with his theological position.

Although Barth places importance on the doctrine of justification, he does not believe it is the Word of the gospel per se, for it is one among many aspects of soteriology and should not have a monopoly in soteriologial frameworks. In the end, it is not the articulus stantis et cadentis acclesia. Although Barth emphasizes that faith is not God’s chosen instrument for “realizing” one’s justification because of any virtue that it’s nature entails (such as notitia, assensus or fiducia), he goes futher than the Reformers by denying that one’s justification is in any way dependant on this human response. Justification is realized by faith, not actualized.

Barth’s doctrine of justification has played a prominent role in discussions between Protestants and Catholics about areas of continuity between Protestant and Catholic doctrines of justification. This appropriation of Barth is largely due to the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng. Discussion surrounding Protestant and Catholic views of justification that were influenced by Küng’s approach to Barth’s doctrine have culminated in some of the most impressive ecumenical achievements this side of the Reformation, although such achievements are not appreciated by all.

Barth’s Christocentrism is a good example of why he finds appreciation among conservative Protestantism, yet his universalism is a good example of why conservative Protestants are also ambivalent toward his system as a whole. His willingness to engage scripture and traditional church dogma makes his writing intriguing to those who take the Bible seriously, yet his highly eccentric formulations make him difficult to understand, leave him vulnerable to the charge of incoherency, and for more conservative evangelicals who hold to classic doctrines of reprobation and hell, hard to believe.

::: The Sola Fide of Karl Barth ::: Justification by Faith Alone?

Nowhere does Barth sound more like a typical Western Protestant than in his forensic categories for justification (as we have already seen) and his insistence upon what he understands to be the meaning of justification sola fide, yet Barth differs from the Reformers in crucial ways in his understanding of justification.  Perhaps the biggest difference in Barth’s sola fide is that he does not consider the justification of man to be contingent upon faith but rather how man’s relationship to God’s redemption in the twofold divine sentence is “realized.”[1]  Nevertheless, his insistence that faith never be seen as the attainment of merit or the accomplishment of justifying righteousness pervades his discussion of what is meant by faith alone.  Barth makes this point countless times and appears to say it as many ways as he knows how.  He sees this as the point of Paul’s faith-works dichotomy and of Luther’s sola fide.[2] 

There is no instance of the combination δικ. δια την πιστιν. This means that from the standpoint of biblical theology the root is cut of all the later conceptions which tried to attribute to the faith of man a merit for the attainment of justification or co-operation in its fulfillment, or to identify faith, its rise and continuance and inward and outward work with justification. … As a human attitude and action faith stands over against the divine attitude and action described as δικαιουν, without competing with it, or preparing it, or anticipating it, or co-operating with it, let alone being identical with it.  … [Faith as a human work] corresponds on the human side, to his divine justification.  Not because of its intrinsic value.  Not because of its particular virtue, or any particular power of its own.  But because God accepts it as the human work which corresponds to His work … which corresponds to His righteousness.  God recognizes, not that by this action man fulfils a condition or attains something which makes him worthy of the divine pardon … It is the good pleasure of God which singles out from all others this particular human action. … As the doctrine of “justification by faith” (alone) this conception of Paul was rediscovered in the century of the Reformation, and as such it was both attacked and defended.  … “Justification by faith” cannot mean that instead of his customary evil works and in place of all kinds of supposed good works man chooses and accomplishes the work of faith, in this way pardoning and therefore justifying himself. … There is always something wrong and misleading when the faith of a man is referred to as his way of salvation in contrast to his way in wicked works.[3] 

Taking this protestant stance on justification, Barth scathes any understanding that justification is “by” faith precisely because of the particular good qualities of it (even as the gift of God)—faith as notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent of the will) or even fiducia (the heart’s trust) is not what justifies man.[4]  This humble and free despair is what is most important for Barth about faith as it relates to justification. 

There is as little praise of man on the basis of his faith as on that of his works. … For there is as little justification of man “by”—that is to say, by means of—the faith produced by him, by his treading the way of faith, by his achievement of the emotions and thoughts and acts of faith, by his whole consciousness of faith and life of faith, as there is a justification “by” any other works. … If it tried to be this, if man tried to believe with this purpose and intention and claim, then even if his faith was not a “dead” faith, even if it was a most “hearty” faith, even if it was a fiduciary faith most active in love, it would be there supreme and most proper form of his sin as the sin of pride.[5]

For this reason, Barth is not even comfortable speaking of “justifying faith.”[6]  In order to prevent a misunderstanding of faith as contributing anything to man’s justification, Barth attempts to place the importance of faith elsewhere than on notitia, assensus, and fiducia.  Barth would rather speak of faith as consisting “wholly and utterly” in humility because “it is the abdication of vain-glorious man from his vain-glory,” or rather a “radical and total distaste for it.”[7]  Faith is a “despairing of self,” a joyful “humility of obedience,” a “free decision,” and “a comforted despair.”[8]  Because of his denial that man’s justification is dependant upon any human response and is “realized” (not actualized) through faith, Barth’s sola fide is very different from that of any of the Magisterial Reformers.  Even when he is attempting to echo the Reformers teaching that justification is not “by faith alone” because only faith contains the virtuous qualities necessary for being considered just in the eyes of God, he prefers to argue that faith is God’s chosen instrument for “realizing” one’s justification because it is a humble despair of self, not on account of its notitia, assensus, and fiducia. 


[1] Ibid., 615.  Carl F. H. Henry includes Barth in a list of modern theologians who deprived faith of it’s cognitive content, thus perverting the doctrine of justification by faith.  Although he admits that later Barth did try to rescue justification by faith from this dilemma, he complains that it was too little too late.  Carl F. H. Henry, “Justification by Ignorance: A Neo-Protestant Motif?” Jounral of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol 13 no 1 (1970): 3-4.  

[2] “Luther’s sola fide: the opposition of faith to all and every work; the two statements (1) that no human work as such either is or includes man’s justification (not even the work of faith as such), but (2) that the believer is actually the man justified by God. … The works to which they referred in this context are the thoughts and words and achievements of sinful man, including the works which he is able and willing and ready to do and produce as such in relation to the revelation of God and in obedience to His Law. … The sola fide does not actually occur in the Pauline texts.  Yet it was not an importation into the texts, but a genuine interpretation of what Paul himself said without using the word sola, when Luther translated Rom 3:28. … [For] if he is not justified by the works of the holy Law of God, but by faith, then obviously he is justified only by faith, by faith alone, sola fide.”  Ibid., 621-22.  Barth marvels that “even Augustine, the only name we can consider, did not understand him as the Reformers did.  He did not understand the principle underlying the Pauline distinction of faith and works. … How could Augustine—and in his wake all Catholic exegesis and dogmatics—possibly have understood justification as a process which is fulfilled in the human subject, allowing it simply to begin with faith and to be completed with the infused grace of love, if he had had before him the contrast of Galatians as it revealed itself afresh to Luther.” Ibid., 623. 

[3] Ibid., 615. 

[4] Barth believes himself to be following the sharp distinction of John Calvin on this point. 

[5] Ibid., 616. 

[6] Ibid., 618. 

[7] Ibid., 618-19.

[8] Ibid., 619.

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