Karl Barth and Radical Politics

Second Edition

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George Hunsinger
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Students of Karl Barth’s thought will likely know that even as a young parish minister he was known as the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil. As a student Barth was shaped in the forge of socialist politics, working as an editorial assistant for Martin Rade’s journal, Die Christliche Welt. He brought these commitments to the small industrial village in Switzerland where he championed worker’s rights both in and out of the pulpit. In 1915, Barth joined the Social Democrats (while remaining critical of them). The socialists in his small congregation were among the most avid listeners of his sermons, “not because I preached socialism, but because they knew I was the same man who was also attempting to help them” (xiv-xv). When in 1921 Barth moved on to a university career, his politics remained close at hand to his work as a Christian theologian.

The revised and expanded edition of George Hunsinger’s 1976 volume Karl Barth and Radical Politics (Westminster Press) offers a valuable resource not only in Barth studies but more broadly with respect to theology’s political orientation. The importance of theology to political dialogue, and to political action, means that the politician cannot tell pastor and pope to leave politics to the politicians. In ten essays the young Barth’s 1911 lecture “Jesus Christ and the Movement for Social Justice” is collected together with more recent reflections (most penned in the early 1970s) by the likes of Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Helmut Gollwitzer, and others. To the 1976 collection Hunsinger adds three of his own more recent essays on Karl Barth and human rights, liberation theology, and nonviolence (all previously published).

The sum is a volume that is eclectic, but suitably so, since its primary concern is not with a particular time in Barth’s life, nor with the collision of ideologies in pre-war Europe, but rather with the nature of the Christian gospel as inherently political (and the place that this conviction held in Barth’s thought). Jesus’s own message, the authors seem to affirm with some unanimity, may be many things—but it is not apolitical, and it is not one that sides with the keepers of power.

Barth’s essay takes the form of an address to the local Aargau labor union. Neither sermon nor theological treatise, the lecture weaves elements of both as Barth seeks to demonstrate in measured terms that the cause of socialism is the cause of Jesus. Barth properly treats both socialism and Christianity in their ideal forms, and from this vantage point concludes that the church as it ought to be is directed toward the same goals as what socialism wants (if not always the actions its members take to achieve those ends). And that is because Jesus is concerned not merely with inward and spiritual transformation, but with the external betterment of persons: “Thy kingdom come.”

Socialists are right to criticize the church’s inactivity in this regard—inactivity that Barth does not hesitate to call “her apostasy from Christ” (7). While cultivating spiritual piety the church has implicitly sanctioned social misery. “Jesus knows and recognizes only the kingdom of heaven that is within us,” Barth says. “But the kingdom must obtain dominion over the external—over actual life—otherwise it does not deserve the name” (8).

Among the standouts in the rest of the volume is an essay by Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, who a generation ago drew the attention of Barth scholars to the fact that Barth’s radical politics were not a fancy of youth but a touchstone of the way he read the gospel throughout his life. It is Marquardt’s thesis that Barth was a socialist and that this fact bore theological consequences. Barth indeed turned to theology in order to find “the organic connection between the Bible and the newspaper, the new world and the collapsing bourgeois order” (24). Thus, Marquardt avers, Barth’s movement is decisively from praxis to theoria, and not the other way around. So too the concept “God” must be grasped in relation to social realities, such as class structure, and cannot be grasped without it (41). Though this thesis rightly finds no shortage of critics, it remains a substratum with which Barth’s readers continue to reckon.

In the first edition of the book Hunsinger provided an exceedingly useful short chronology of Barth’s journey from liberal theology to a “radical” theology, then on to dialectical theology, and finally a recovery of certain radical impulses within that (now christologically-oriented) context. The editor’s new additions to the book are perhaps more tenuous in their respective connection to the main theme. Written in different decades since 1976, these essays are more ad hoc, “for further reading,” approaching the character of appendices rather than additions in kind to the original volume.

Thus, for example, “Karl Barth and Human Rights” briefly probes the issue of torture (among other moral matters) from the vantage point of Reformation theology, but attends only briefly to Barth. “Karl Barth and Liberation Theology” engages with Gustavo Gutiérrez but appears to have been written in the 1980s and thus might appear dated to those working in this field today. And the insightful engagement with René Girard and Barth with regard to nonviolence is wonderfully instructive, but its connections to (or implications for) the socialist question are left unexplained. Perhaps the volume would be better served by a new essay written intentionally for it, reflecting upon the 1976 debate (as Hunsinger does in a new preface) from the vantage point of the second decade of the 21st century. The growing cultural currency of certain kinds of socialist politics in America today would make this still more welcome in 2018.

Although Barth regarded the gospel of Jesus Christ as having an inherently political message, he also remained ever cautious not to permit theology to be reduced to mere politics. One is no replacement for the other; rather, theology and politics are related as theory is related to praxis (x). Politics (or political action) is the consequence of Christian ethics; yet theology must remain theology, lest it lose its voice. This conviction will never lose its relevance. Where the social and economic winds change and the perceived threats to civilization go by different names, the Christian community does not depart from its responsibility to prophesy against injustice and to take the cause of victims as its own cause.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darren O. Sumner is Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Northwest.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George Hunsinger is Hazel Thompson McCord professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He was director of the seminary’s Center for Karl Barth Studies, 1997–2001. His books include How to Read Karl Barth (1991); Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (2001); For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology (2004); Evangelical, Catholic, and Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (2015); and Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (2015). He is also editor of Thy Word Is Truth: Barth on Scripture (2012), as well as the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth (2 vols.).


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