Barth, Credo – “I believe”

Though I utterly failed (at least so far) at my theological commentary on 1 John (sorry folks–I still want to do this, but just couldn’t find the time to give it that I wanted), I decided I would try something a bit more manageable this year.

My very good wife Maureen was able to work her “Ebay magic”  to get me three Barth books over the Christmas season that I did not yet own: 1) Credo (1935); 2) Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5 (1952); and 3) Homiletics (1966). The first book, Credo, is a series of reflections on the Apostles’ Creed, and reflects in many ways the emerging theology of the Church Dogmatics. As Robert McAfee Brown says in the Foreword to this edition:

[T]hemes that the Church Dogmatics spells out over hundreds of pages, confront use here in a paragraph, a page, a chapter, in such a way that we discover that for Barth the tasks of exegete and preacher, scholar and proclaimer, teacher and witness, are all combined in one vocation. (x-xi)

I’m jealous of McAffee’s line because it describes so pointedly one of the reasons I have been so long drawn to Barth: He brings together the concerns of exegesis, theology, preaching and ministry in a way I see so few able to do. So what I propose to do is to provide a summary of the important points for each chapter of Credo over the coming weeks and months–hopefully about one a week. While nothing can replace actually reading Barth, I hope that each of these “précis” will give insight into the basic shape of Barth’s theology, especially for beginning readers of Barth who are wanting some kind of overview. (Hopefully, some of the more advanced Barth readers out there can also benefit!) If you don’t have ready access to Credo yourself, I hope this will still be beneficial. But if you do have the book, I’d recommend reading the chapter ahead of reading my post. Then you can “test” whether I’ve been faithful to the text!

Page references to the text (in parentheses) are based on the following edition:

Barth, Karl. Credo. Foreword by Robert McAfee Brown. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962.

I will also follow the convention, as consistently as possible, of putting my own “theommentary” into square parentheses [ like these] to keep exposition of Barth and my own thoughts distinct.

Enough preliminaries! Here we go!


The dedication of Credo reads:



Hans Asmussen
Hermann Hesse
Karl Immer
Martin Niemöller
Heinrich Vogel

In Memory of all who
and will Stand

[One comment here on the “!”  after 1935. Though it is a matter of speculation about why Barth found it necessary to include the exclamation mark, we do well to remember that it was in 1934 that Barth was involved in writing the Barmen Declaration which was written in response to Hitler’s designs for the “national church” and that in 1935, Barth was forced to leave his post in Germany for failing to declare an unqualified oath to Hitler. Thus, Credo needs to be understood as being written in the midst of that crisis! I also think it is the one and only time that I’ve seen a date punctuated as such!]

Chapter 1 – Credo – I believe

Barth begins by explaining that the purpose of the book is “to state and to answer the ‘chief problems of Dogmatics'” with reference to the Apostles’ Creed (AC). Thus, he is not interested in the origin of the AC, nor in providing an historical analysis of the text. Rather, Barth is convinced that “the Credo is fitted to be the basis of a discussion of the chief problems of Dogmatics not only because it furnishes, as it were, a ground-plan of Dogmatics but above all because the meaning, aim and essence of Dogmatics and the meaning, aim and essence of the Credo, if they are not identical, yet stand in the closest connection” (1). In this regard, Barth provides six parallels between the Creed and the task of Dogmatics.

  1. The opening word of the Latin creed, Credo (“I believe”) indicates, “quite simply the act of recognition–in the shape of definite cognitions won from God’s revelation–of the reality of God in its bearing upon man. Faith therefore is a decision–the exclusion of unbelief in, the overcoming of opposition to, this reality, the affirmation of its existence and validity” (2). Likewise, this is also the case for dogmatics (or what we more often now call systematic theology). As he puts it, “Dogmatics endeavours to take what is first said to it in the revelation of God’s reality, and to think it over again in human thoughts and to say it over again in human speech” (3).
    [Here we have the important principle that Barth returns to over and over and over again: That theology takes its cue from the self-revelation of God. While theology (and the Creed) are certainly human thoughts about God, they are not merely thoughts about God, but are responses to the reality of God. In this regard, Barth must be understood as a theological realist. That is, he asserts that theologians have no basis upon which to speak except that which he calls the “austere, yet healing sovereignty of the truth [of God]” (3).  (I love that phrase!) Dogmatics is the attempt, thus, to put into speech that which we believe: credo, ut intelligam (“I believe in order that I might understand.”)]
  2. When the Creed says, “I believe,” this is not to be understood as the act of an individual, not even a “well-disposed or gifted or even an especially enlightened individual as such.” Rather, “the act of the Credo is the act of confession. But the subject of confession is the Church(3). Likewise, dogmatics, while is not itself confession, “is allied with it as the action of definite individual members of the confessing Church; it is the elucidation of the current confession and the preparation of a new one” (4). Barth here indicates that both the act of confession and the task of the theologian is a “public and responsible recognition made by the Church” (4). Consequently, “the private character of the professor of Theology, his views and insights as such are matters of no interest” (4).
  3. [I’m not so sure I’d say it quite as baldly as Barth would here; certainly, in the patristic period, the private character, at least, if not the private views and insights would most certainly matter. Indeed, the distinction between private and public would not likely have been drawn at all. But Barth’s point is still well taken: the work of the theologian is on behalf of the Church and needs to be judged in the first instance on how well he or she serves the Church by drawing attention to God’s self-revelation.]
  4. The Creed speaks clearly in regard to the Church’s proclamation, on what it is that the Church is to teach and to preach. But the Creed is not so much a static, timeless statement of truth, but a concrete, historical “battle action of the Church” (5). Likewise, Dogmatics has as its “meaning and task” to explain the Creed in the face of “the errors of its time” and with “greater mobility and adaptation in relation to the situation of the moment” (5). This doesn’t deny those who do dogmatic work are exonerated just because their work is done in light of the present moment. On the contrary, dogmatic work is judged to be faithful only when done in the service of the Church by examining “the Church’s proclamation with regard to its genuineness” (6).

    [Though Barth does not put in such terms, I would say here that the work of the dogmatic theologian is thus comparative in nature, in that the theologian seeks to compare the present confession and proclamation of what the church teaches and preaches against the ancient Creed’s presentation of that confession and proclamation, and seeks to know whether they are “dynamically equivalent” in their testimony to the divine self-given revelation attested to in Scripture! Or in more technical terms, both Creed and Dogmatics are faithful inasmuch as they attest to the Sache {“subject matter} to which Scripture itself points.]

  5. The decisions of the Creed’s explicit “Yes’s” and implicit “No’s” to matters of faith are not arbitrarily derived, but are decisions based on what the Church “thought it heard as the judgment of the Holy Scripture in points of Church proclamation that had become doubtful. In the Credo the Church bows before that God Whom we did not seek and find–Who rather has sought and found us” (7). Dogmatics, too, “is preceded by Exegesis as [its] primary theological discipline.” Consequently, “the expert in Dogmatics [i.e., the systematic theologian] is not the judge of Church proclamation. . . . The real judge is the prophetic and apostolic witness to revelation, as that witness speaks through the Holy Spirit to our spirit” (7).

    [It is noteworthy, then, to remember that Barth’s last words to his students at Bonn before he left Germany was, “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!” It is also noteworthy to see here Barth’s “Scripture Principle” at work–a Scripture principle which says that it is not merely the words of Scripture, nor merely the illumination of the Spirit that matters, but the manner in which the living Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit in and through the words of Scripture. It is a Scripture principle of “Word and Spirit” for Barth.]

  6. Credo and Dogmatics alike show that the Church is to be engaged in missionary work. How does Barth understand such work? The Church does missionary work simply “by confessing its faith, as far as possible in its fullness and yet in the shortest words, as free as possible from every ambiguity, as definite  as it is possible for faith to be, i.e. in its relation to the object from which it derives its life” (8). But what Dogmatics adds is the explanation of the Credo. “Dogmatics is the Credo speaking here and to-day, speaking exactly according to the needs of the moment. Be it understood: the missionary truth and apologetic power can even her be nothing else than faith, or the testimony to its object, or its object itself. Dogmatics has no means of throwing other bridges between Church and world than that of the Confession” (8)

    [I found it interesting that for Barth, the confession is “brief of words,” but the work of dogmatics “gives to the fact of faith a breadth, a distinctness and perspicuity {clarity} in which the Credo as such is lacking” (8). Barth was never short on words (understatement!), yet one is amazed when one compares the briefness, distinctness, and perspicuity of Barmen, of which Barth was the main author, with the lengthy Church Dogmatics! Apparently, his massive texts of dogmatics were not a product of his inability to shorten things up, but because he saw dogmatics as a providing a distinct function from short confessions themselves.]

    So what are the limits of Credo and Dogmatics? Neither Creed nor Dogmatics themselves can exhaust the life and proclamation of the Church. Rather, the Church’s proclamation is “decisively secured by God’s grace” in “three inevitable frontiers”:
    a) The Sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper “make visible the bounds between what can be said, understood and to that extent comprehended of God by man–and the incomprehensibility in which God in Himself and for us really is Who He is” (9). [Barth would likely retract his sacramental identification here later in life when he ended up seeing Jesus Christ alone as the one true sacrament, but I’m not sure he would necessarily retract the point itself that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are still visible proclamation or witness.]
    b) Actual human life, in both strength and weakness, confusion and clarity, certainly does speak. If only, Barth laments, we would realize that our words of confession and dogmatics “can do no more than serve the end that our actual life be placed under God’s judgment and grace” (10). [So Barth, in my opinion, would most certainly resist the dictum that “actions speak louder than words.” Rather, Barth (and here I agree) would say that our words speak loudest when we allow them to bring our actions under the judgment of God’s own Word.” It’s not as catchy, but it is truer!]
    c) The frontier which separates the coming Kingdom of God from the present age, the eschaton from the hic et nunc {‘here and now’}. Both Credo and Dogmatics stand under Paul’s word (1 Cor 13:8) that our knowledge and prophecies “are in like manner in part and will be done away.” As he puts it, “[T]he meaning, essence and task of the Credo and of Dogmatics are based on conditions which, when God is all in all, will undoubtedly no longer prevail” (10).
    Thus, it these three “frontiers” or “limits” which constitute “the chief problem of Dogmatics.” As Barth concludes, “Where you have limit, there you have also relationship and contact. Credo and Dogmatics stand facing the Sacrament, facing human life, facing the coming age, distinguished from them, but facing them! Perhaps in the way which Moses in his death faced the land of Canaan, perhaps as John the Baptist faced Jesus Christ. Could anything more significant be said of them that this, their limitation?” (10)

    [In other words, Barth is a dialectical theologian! That is, both Credo and Dogmatics are meaningless apart from that which they face. It is only in the dialectical confrontation between their words, and the object of those words, that makes the words potentially significant, meaningful, and fruitful.]

3 thoughts on “Barth, Credo – “I believe”

  1. Cool. I just finished reading at the very end of Church Dogmatics IV.1 where Barth, after insisting again that there is no private Christianity, retains and defends and explains the use of the “I” in “I Believe”. It is a confession made implicitly in and through the Church, but is made by real persons, individuals, or else everything labelled “community” remains a mere abstraction.

    Anyway, I look forward to this series, though I am still coming to grips with the loss of the 1 John theomentary!

  2. Thanks, Jon. Interesting note from CD IV.1…

    I hope still to carry on the 1 John theommentary…I just wanted to admit that not everything worked out as hoped!

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