Tuesday, 5 April 2016

On Dead Dogs, Mozart’s Disparagers, and Creation’s Existence: The Quotable Karl Barth

Not quite a dead dog . . .
The best theologians are eminently quotable. And so, as one of the very best theologians, Karl Barth, too, is eminently quotable. Here are the three quotations which tend to ping around my cranium, none of which is likely to be obscure to those already familiar with Barth’s writings.

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, p. 55. First edition 1936. Originally published in German 1932.

It’s the imagery here that makes this quotation a firm favourite of mine; it appeals to my sense of humour. Of course, Barth isn’t saying that God definitely does speak to us through these things; his point is that such divine communication cannot be done independently of the Church’s proclamation, which is preaching and the sacraments. God is not trapped within the Church’s proclamation; but God commissions the Church to proclaim God in these ways.

The second quotation is longer but shows Barth’s self-deprecating sense of humour:

That the Neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are not among my well-wishers is something that I have been forced to recognise at all stages of my path so far. Let us not blame them for this, nor for accusing me of being a ‘monist,’ which they have recently proceeded to do. But it is going too far that in their attacks, obviously to offend me the more, they so far forget themselves as to use unrepeatable terms in disparagement of W. A. Mozart. In so doing they have, of course, shown themselves to be men of stupid, cold and stony hearts to whom we need not listen.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, p. xiii. Originally published in German 1951.

I do not know what ‘unrepeatable terms’ Barth’s Neo-Calvinist critics used; and I suspect that Barth would find my heart ‘stupid, cold and stony’, because I’d rather listen to deadmau5 than to Mozart; but this is such a great quotation.

The third and final quotation is one that has had a significant impact on my own theology, especially in connection with my reading of Hebrews 1:3 (see my essays here and here):

Because God has become man, the existence of creation can no longer be doubted.

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1949), translated by G.T. Thomson, p. 44. Originally published in German 1947.

There are many religions, philosophies, and other belief systems that deny the reality of the world—and granted, there are theories in modern physics that reveal the world of matter to be far stranger than previously thought. But at the heart of Christianity is the conviction that God took this strange, created matter to Godself in the man Jesus of Nazareth—and the very fact that God did do this is enough to affirm both the reality of the world and God’s desire for it to exist as a reality distinct from God. Barth’s quotation sums all this up eloquently in one short sentence.


  1. But what happens when The Radiant Transcendental Being takes the form of a living-breathing-feeling human form in New York in that that fateful year of 1939. And describes in great detail the Process of his fully-human Incarnation via this remarkable book:

    And what is the nature of the world anyhow?
    And of Reality too.
    Is it a definable separate "objective" thing, or is it an indefinable realm arising in Consciousness
    And is there a separate definable self.

    1. I've got to ask: Why do you post so many links? What's your aim?

  2. That last quote is quite breathtaking.

  3. Rather listen to Deadmau5 than Mozart? Terry, I have lost all hope for your eternal salvation.

    To be honest, I've never been a big Mozart fan, though I can see objectively that he's a musical genius. But then I recently unwisely undertook to sing the tenor line in his Requiem and I've seen the light. It was amazing.

    And I must give Barth a proper try one of these days... I think I feel about him a little the way you feel about Mozart... I'd rather read Harry Potter ;)