Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Throughout The Epistle to the Romans, Barth emphasizes the distinctive differences between the Deity and humankind. He states that those differences cannot even be calculated by human beings and are best expressed in a dialectic that approximates radical divergence. To Barth, the divine cannot be understood by anyone living in this fallen world. God is separate from humans and beyond any cultural or religious attempt to discover him. Barth saw in the tragedy of the German church during Hitler’s time that a theology that sought to ally Christianity with cultural movements was doomed to fail. It was not simply that Hitler was an extreme example. No man-made endeavor in a fallen world could be assumed to be God-inspired.

The tremendous disparity between God and his creation requires faith to overcome. The Gospel reveals the truth to a fallen people and offers an everlasting alternative. Faith alone allows those fallen persons to participate in this new life. In Barth’s view, readers of the Word are to be passive. The text demands no natural abilities such as intellect but only faith, and even that is created within the reader by an inscrutable God. The role of the reader is to listen, not to probe, compare, or analyze. To Barth, although the Word is infallible, the Bible is not. He acknowledges that God has selected the Bible as a means to communicate with humans, but he argues that a human-created source is not infallible like the God-authority of Christ himself.

Grace, according to Barth, enables humanity to see another world but not to live in it. It is an indication that God is pleased with the recipient, but it cannot be appropriated, relied on, or made to serve human convenience. A transforming gift, grace is more likely to destabilize a person’s life than to conform to it. Like God, it is “other.” Barth objects to pietism: that is, a preoccupation with soul-searching characterized by an attitude of fear and trembling. Such a posture lacks grace. The proper attitude of a Christian is joy. In the old world when humans were under the law rather than under grace, they were constantly asking what to do and how to act. The law reminded them of the distance between themselves and God. Grace, however, is a promise of the future, and it requires only faith in response.