Karl Barth on What Makes Us Human

Trust is a resource in limited supply today, not least of all in Christian quarters, where culture wars and toxic partisanship have made us prone to viewing outsiders as our enemies. Our longstanding theological traditions have too often been complicit in fostering distrust of the outsider.

Within my own Reformed heritage there is a minor refrain of distrust toward the unbelieving other—suspicion regarding her judgments, her works, and what she holds dear. Whatever apparent goodness she exhibits is strongly suspected of being counterfeit goods. At the same time, some of the austere pictures of God that come down to us from this same tradition beggar our trust in the God who is other, whose inscrutable judgments we are commanded to abide. I find it refreshing when Anglican bishop Rowan Williams, in his short work Tokens of Trust, expounds upon the Christian story as a series of signs to convince us that the God who self-reveals in the gospel is one whom we can trust.

Without taking up the idiom of trust, Karl Barth’s doctrine of the human person is a resource for restoring our trust—trust in our neighbors as those, like us, shaped by God for covenantal friendship, and trust in the God who not only commands us to live in covenant, but who creates us to recognize the goodness of God’s commands.

Barth’s theology has become synonymous with the alterity (otherness) of the Word of God, so much so that little attention has been paid to his doctrine of creation as an account of our particular familiarity with the Word. But it is this familiarity that shows us our unavoidable reliance upon our neighbor in order to respond to God’s Word as it meets us. That is to say, this is a doctrine in which tokens of trust abound.

Dependency and Determinacy

In his doctrine of humanity, Barth considers what it means to be human in light of Jesus’ humanity. To be human is to be befriended by God in the person of Jesus Christ. Even before any direct encounter with the good news, Barth surmises, we must be creatures who are “fit” for this encounter with God in Jesus Christ.

Barth locates this fitness in our human sociality, what he calls “the basic form of humanity” (Church Dogmatics III/2, §45.2). We are most fully ourselves as we live with and for our neighbors.

Here, Barth offers a sustained criticism of portraits of the human being that obscure our co-humanity by beginning with characteristics of the individual in isolation from her relatedness to others. In particular, Barth aims his criticism at a trajectory within German idealism (a philosophical movement to which Barth himself was profoundly indebted), which saw reason itself as the sole basis for the moral law. According to Barth, the idealist account of human being, by viewing our freedom as merely adherence to the dictates of reason unfolding from our private subjectivity, remains entirely formal, leaving us indifferent to the material truth of our being, our fellow-humanity. Barth names this idealist portrait of humanity the “empty subject.”

Barth denies that humanity can be described in abstract of “any outward reality which might call it into question” (CD III/2, 103). It is no use extrapolating outward from the loftiest human faculties of reason and self-determination to arrive at our humanity. These cannot tell us what we care about. It is precisely in the limits imposed on us by our God and by our neighbors that we find our true life. Our identity is filled out by our commitments to those outside, who are not us. Barth insists, “The I is not pure, absolute or self-sufficient. But this means that it is not empty” (166).

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection give us the portrait of one whose mission from God for the world was identical with his being. He was from the very beginning what he was for others. So our basic form of humanity, the form in which God created us, comprises the many ways, both great and miniscule, that my neighbor’s life impinges on mine, and mine on hers. Barth gathers these ways into four categories: looking one another in the eye, mutual speech and hearing, mutual assistance, and gladness.

With his notion of human gladness, Barth rules out the possibility that you and I might at bottom be indifferent toward one another, awaiting some external factor to decide whether we might matter to one another. Seeing ourselves in light of Jesus gives the lie to any notion of original neutrality between us. The fact that my true being and, therefore, my true freedom is bound up with the being and freedom of my neighbor means that her claim upon me can never be an alien or burdensome imposition on me, provided that I see myself as I truly am. God’s claim on us, then, envisions not self-sufficient creatures, independent of God or neighbor, but interdependent creatures, who rely on one another to be the creatures we are called to be.

Furthermore, Barth characterizes this glad fellowship with the neighbor as the command of God my Creator and, at the same time, my own command to myself (268-69). Put differently, precisely because God has created us for mutuality with our neighbors, God’s command that we live with and for one another aptly “interprets” our lives and is no alien law. In this, Barth re-approaches his idealist roots, showing how, once we understand ourselves as fundamentally in relationship with God and neighbor, then we can recognize a kind of God-ordained human self-determination at work in our choice for these relationships.  

A Shared Humanity

Where does this leave us? If we accept Barth’s account of our common humanity as oriented toward fellowship all the way down, then we should not be surprised to discover shared commitments with those who believe differently than we do. Such moments will not be restricted to momentary flashes of the Holy Spirit’s work, but ordinary evidences of our created likeness to Jesus Christ. While sin troubles these relationships, it has not destroyed the basic form of our humanity, this interdependence on the other. 

This recognition does not call into question Barth’s rejection of natural theology, the construction of a doctrine of God from the givenness of the world. However, it does tell us that this rejection can never be taken as warrant for a purely disjunctive understanding of Christ and culture. In a long excursus following Barth’s portrait of the basic form of humanity, Barth says precisely this: Christian preachers err when they paint unbelievers all in black, causing outsiders not to be able to see themselves in the portrait of themselves given in the church and leading them to conclude that the gospel has nothing to offer them (276-279).

We do our gospel witness no harm when we extend trust to those outside or on the margins of our religious circles. After all, it is precisely these with whom Jesus shared his life and from whom he refused to be estranged.

Contributor: Cambria Kaltwasser


Cambria Kaltwasser is assistant professor of theology at Northwestern College, Iowa, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She earned both her M.Div. and her Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary, where her research focused on Karl Barth's account of human agency as responsibility before God and neighbor. Her broader interests include theological anthropology, covenant, sanctification, and Christian hope. She is a fellow of the Barth Translator's Seminar through the Center for Barth Studies. Kaltwasser lives in a farmhouse in Orange City, Iowa, with her husband Jared, and two children, Asher and Adrian.