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International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 5 Number 1 March 2003

In Defence of Karl Barths Doctrine of the


Abstract: Two common complaints against Barths doctrine of the Trinity are
here addressed. First it is argued that Barths adoption of the term Seinsweise,
or mode of being to refer to the trinitarian persons is not in any way a
departure from the traditional doctrine. Second, the suggestion that Barths
doctrine shifts over the course of the Dogmatics is examined and refuted.

I begin with a quotation from Barths personal papers from shortly after his arrival
in Munster in 1925:
Day and night [I sit here] trying to give the Dogmatics its new form, so
intensively that at night I dream . . . of these mysterious three persons with their
hypostatic character ad intra and ad extra, and all of the things that have to
be weighed carefully and argued out on the safe Nicene line between
monarchianism and subordinationism.1
This article is an exercise in historical theology. Its aim is to trace the development
of Barths treatment of the Trinity and thereby to refute two common
misapprehensions that are often used to discredit his treatment of the triune God
in the first part-volume of his Church Dogmatics. Yet in view of the popularity of
these misreadings, what is offered throughout is an implicit contribution to
contemporary systematic theology that should be obvious nonetheless. It could be
said that the following presentation is repetitive and boring, because it will often
just say the same thing again and again. But since it will be argued here that Barths
discussion of the divine triunity is at root straightforward and consistent against
claims that it is mystifying and inconsistent, predictability will be the necessary
price for showing that the alleged mystifications are more apparent than real.
The first misapprehension is that in adopting the term Seinsweise or mode of
being to describe the threeness within God, Barth rejected the classical statement of
orthodox theology that in the one God there are three persons. In response it will be
* 30 Butler Close, Oxford, OX2 6JG, UK.
1 E. Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (London: SCM
Press, 1976), p. 172.
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Iain Taylor

shown that throughout his theology Barth always intended the classical notion of
person. The second is that although Barths doctrine of the Trinity may be formally
deficient in giving a less than fully trinitarian picture of God in the discussion in
CD I/1, nevertheless it is acceptable materially, since when Barths doctrine of the
Trinity is put to use in other volumes of Church Dogmatics, it satisfactorily
manages to avoid the difficulties which have supposedly been detected in the
treatment of the doctrine proper. In reply, it will be demonstrated that such
distinctions between the doctrine and its use, or between Barths later and earlier
doctrine cannot be supported by careful reading of Barths theology in context.
The root of the refutation presented here of both these readings is to be found
in that diary entry quoted above. Two observations are especially instructive. First,
the terminology, in that Barth specifically employs the term persons. Second, the
date, about late 1925, which lies roughly between the writing of Barths Gottingen
lectures on dogmatics and the series given at Munster, the material which in a later
form would make up Church Dogmatics. The specific contribution of this article
will be to trace the development of Karl Barths trinitarian thinking up to and
including his treatment of the doctrine in CD I/1. Whereas many readings do not
investigate Barths trinitarian thought before Church Dogmatics, we shall see that
this is to miss out on some key insights into Barths project. In the light of this piece
of intellectual biography we shall examine the two criticisms of his doctrine of the
Trinity I have mentioned. We shall see that they fail, being deficient readings of
Barths theology in its proper context.

The development of Barths doctrine of the Trinity

So, first of all, we shall examine the development of Barths doctrine of the Trinity
during the 1920s to see what light it sheds on the issue of his notion of personhood.
A common objection is that Barths trinitarian thought has its Achilles heel by
rejecting orthodox notions of divine threeness denoted by the term person in
favour of the term mode of being which tends towards a more unitarian theology.
As we have seen, however, he freely uses person language in late 1925/early
1926. What explains the different terminologies? A comparison of his cycles of
lectures will be our guide to the process of Barths thinking.

The 1924 Gottingen Dogmatics

Barths first series of lectures was given at Gottingen in 19241925.2 In his
discussion of the identity of the God that we discover in revelation, Barth concludes
2 The first part of these lectures is now translated in K. Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics:
Instruction in the Christian Religion, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark,
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with what in the light of how he puts it in 1932 are startling remarks. He says in his
section on the Trinity:
Three subjects of revelation, then? Yes indeed, one cannot avoid working out
and establishing in this thought . . . three subjects of revelation, three persons,
prosopa or hypostases of the one divine substance, ousia or essentia. (p. 100)
This is because in Gods revelation we see him as irreducibly the God of Jesus
Christ as witnessed to by scripture, as the context of these remarks makes clear.
Both formally and materially, in the event of Jesus Christ we have God revealing
himself by himself, that is one God of three consubstantial persons Father, Son and
The use of person language in his correspondence was not a slip of Barths pen
but represented his settled way of expressing the matter in these years. It is true,
too, that Barth would also call the one God person and subject in this lecture
cycle, but it is nonetheless the case that they are unequivocally used of the divine
threeness as well. There is no talk of three modes of being rather than persons.
But how and why did the change come to using mode of being? Now we move on
to Barths second lecture cycle.

The 1927 Munster Dogmatics

Barths second series of lectures was given in Munster in 1926, and was
subsequently published as the 1927 Die Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf.4 By this
point Barth has given up person language to denote the divine threeness in favour
of his more familiar terminology. So the heading for the section on Gods triunity
God reveals Himself as the one who is Lord in three modes [Weisen] which
belong inseparably together just as they are irreducibly different: God the
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Precisely in his revelation he shows and confirms
himself as the Thou who confronts man as indissoluble subject and just so and
therein is his God. (p. 149)
Not persons, then, but modes, and in the rest of the section it is the term mode of
being that is both employed and advocated.

3 If anything the tone that commentators have termed dialectical or existential, (which
might perhaps more precisely be described as an uneasiness with certain understandings
of the incarnation that might imply an identification or confusion of the divine and the
creaturely) is stronger here than in other of Barths dogmatic cycles. But such
tendencies in Barth, even here at their strongest, sit side by side with creedal notions of
4 K. Barth, Die Christliche Dogmatic im Entwurf (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1927). All
references in this section unless otherwise stated are from this work.
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Iain Taylor

Two questions arise. First, what stimulated this change? And second, is there
any substantial difference to Barths theology as a result?
As for the first question, I have no direct evidence, but all the indirect evidence
points to the effect on Barth of reading Isaak August Dorner at some point between
the Gottingen and Munster dogmatics. There are no references to him in the earlier
lecture cycle, for instance, and the material reliance is obvious in the second lecture
cycle but not the first. In all probability it would have been in this period that Barth
gave Dorners trinitarian thought serious consideration.
One can understand why Barth would have been attracted to Dorner, even
going so far as to say he was one of the few modern theologians with whom at
times he could feel himself theologically at home (p. vi). He could see in him a
concern for the very things he himself had been passionate about in the Gottingen
Dogmatics. For instance, Barth would have found in him a shared concern for the
centrality of a trinitarian account of God, a robust account of the immanent
trinitarian life of God as necessary for any of our talk or experience of God to have
significance, and a critique of trends, especially in Lutheranism since Melanchthon,
to focus on Christian experience at the expense of divine being.
In particular, Barth seems to have adopted three elements of Dorners doctrine
of the Trinity into his own presentation. The first, which is not so directly relevant
to our concerns, is the reading of the tradition. The second is Dorners worry that
there is a problem with employing person language in the modern context. Dorner
writes, for instance, we must stay far away from the tritheism which makes out of
the trinitarian distinctions three individuals, for whom God is the mere generic
concept, thus denying personality to the one God.5
The third is Dorners advocacy of another patristic precedent which better suits
a modern statement of the doctrine. For Dorner, We can only say with John of
Damascus: the one divine personality has three tropous hyparxeos [modes of being]
and is in these in a threefold way.6
Several suggestions have been given for why Barth should have preferred the
term mode of being. They include his debt to idealism, his notion of subjectivity
and his alleged one-sided preoccupation with epistemological concerns. Whether or
not Barth may be guilty of any or all of these, however, his reading of Dorner seems
to be a compelling and sufficient reason. Barth wanted to state again the classical
doctrine of the Trinity for the modern age, and finding a comrade of sorts in
Dorner, simply took on board the clarifications he had advocated for a
contemporary presentation of the doctrine free from misunderstanding. Indeed, to
search for a more complex reason in Barths unacknowledged reliance on the
heritage of German idealism loses much of its force, since in the lecture cycle
which has the most traces of what one might call existentialism or dialectic, that is
5 I. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, in C. Welch, ed., God and Incarnation in
Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965),
p. 214.
6 Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, p. 214.
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the 1924 lectures in Gottingen, it is three persons and three subjects that are
The second question to answer is whether this change in terminology makes
any substantial difference? It has been demonstrated by the most recent and
detailed treatments of this period that what is perhaps especially noteworthy about
Barths lecture cycles in the 1920s and 1930s is their fundamental continuity.7 But
despite the validity of this general observation, might this nevertheless be an
instance of a rather significant alteration of detail that Barth introduced into his
dogmatic presentation? It is difficult on any detailed reading to see how.
For one thing Barth says he is maintaining the very doctrine of the creeds in his
new formulation, the very same as in 1924. And no less than in the 1924 lectures
Barth is anchoring his discussion not in pre-trinitarian notions of subjectivity or
such like, but solely in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ according to the
witness of scripture, as the heading for paragraph 10 has made clear.
Nor has Barth gone back on asserting a real and profound distinction between
the three. Indeed, as he puts it,
There is a differentiation, distinctio or discretio, and order, dispositio or
oeconomia in the very being of God, which does not call His unity into
question, but rather confirms it as the unity of God far more, since it
distinguishes it from all other singularity or individuation. Because of this
distinctio or discretio there are three persons in God. (pp. 1589)
And later on even more support for this reading can be found in Barths insistence
here, as in CD I/1, that the irreducible differentiation and particularities within God
are eternally expressed in the relations of origin (pp. 1601).
With these clarifications in place, then, Barth goes on to ask, What does
person mean here? There follows a discussion of the history of how theologians
have got to grips with the divine threeness. Throughout this section he
painstakingly demonstrates his continuity in this matter with the theological
tradition, Augustine and Calvin in particular. Calvin too, he notes, wanted to make
clear that any talk of Gods three persons or subsistences, was to be distinguished
sharply from any thought of him being trois marmousets, three chaps (p. 160).
What Barth does is to build on the foregoing discussion which mirrors that of 1924,
but includes his further thoughts into the nature and applicability of person
language that have been stimulated by his interaction with Dorner.
It is difficult to think how Barth could have made the point more clearly than
he does in these words:
7 As Bruce McCormack puts it in what must be the key study of this topic, The truth is
that a synchronic comparison, section by section, of all three versions of the
prolegomena (the Goettingen and Muenster versions together with Church Dogmatics I/
1 and I/2) makes evident the extent to which the fundamental dogmatic decisions which
control even Church Dogmatics I/1 and I/2 were already made in 1924/5 in Goettingen:
Karl Barths Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development
19091936 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 291.
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Iain Taylor
The I, the self-conscious subject, the individuality that thinks and wills for
itself, personality persona in the doctrine of the Trinity can not mean that:
non tres Domini, sed unus Dominus. The personal God is God . . . as the
Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And were all three persons in reality
personal in the same sense in which they are the one, entire essence of God
(and personality is nothing other than the one constitutive moment of Gods
essence). (p. 162)

It is, then, not the creedal notion of person which Barth wishes to avoid. Rather he
is at pains to make clear that it is this very notion of trinitarian personhood, that is,
the one he earlier felt he could unproblematically name three persons, which he
now feels compelled to maintain by distinguishing it from a misleading modern
notion of person with the help of the term mode of being. That is, in truth, what
he actually says. He writes:
If one wants to avoid [tritheism], without falling into the Sabellian trap, in
which one finally knows nothing more of a real Trinity, then consequently one
has to say with catholic dogmatics that by person is meant something other
than what is usually meant nowadays outside theological circles . . . so [it is]
not one person, but one of the three modes. (p. 163)
There is no substantial difference, therefore, between the doctrine of the Trinity
Barth advocated in Gottingen from that of Munster, at any rate not in terms of
Barths understanding of the divine threeness. Nor, as we shall see, is there any in
the course of his Church Dogmatics either.

How two common criticisms fare in the light of the development of

Barths doctrine of the Trinity
Now, in the light of our investigation of Barths earlier work on the doctrine of the
Trinity, let us examine the two critical readings of Barths treatment in Church

Criticism 1
The first, as you will remember, is that in adopting the term Seinsweise or mode of
being to describe the threeness within God, Barth rejected the classical statement
of orthodox theology that in the one God there are three persons. The allegedly
offending passages in the 1932 first part-volume of Church Dogmatics8 are perhaps
most clearly exemplified in the thesis that heads paragraph 9 on The Triunity of
8 K. Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1976).
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The God who reveals Himself according to Scripture is One in three distinctive
modes of being subsisting in their mutual relations: Father, Son and Holy
Spirit. It is thus that He is the Lord, i.e., the Thou who meets mans I and unites
Himself to this I as the indissoluble Subject and thereby and therein reveals
Himself to him as his God. (CD I/1, p. 348)
The objections raised have to do with several of the phrases Barth employs. He is a
Thou and a Subject, although there is here no talk of three Thous or three
Subjects. Underlying this there is the deep-seated worry that this is of a piece with
the preferred, almost modalist sounding, term mode of being, instead of the
classical term person. It is along these lines that other of Barths comments such
as God being the thrice-repeated I or as one thinking and willing I raise the
suspicions of some of his commentators.
Given what we have observed in Barths treatment of the doctrine of the
Trinity, however, we can only validate this criticism if there is substantial change
from the Christian Dogmatics at this point. It should not surprise us, if we find that,
despite a different idiom, Barth has in mind all along the teaching of the creeds and
the very same doctrine he can unselfconsciously describe as the one God of three
persons and three subjects.
If anything, Barth may use the term person less often in CD I/1 than he had
done in 1927, although any difference is negligible not just in statistical terms but
also because in his own mind there is no difference. By 1932, then, mode of being
had become Barths settled way of expressing the divine threeness.
But for this to mean, as some have taken it, that what Barth ends up with is a
less than fully trinitarian notion of mode of being rather than the traditional
person, will only work if it can be shown that there has been significant change
since the Christian Dogmatics where mode of being was just the way to express
the classical notion of person. In particular, it would have to show: (1) that Barth
intends a doctrine of the Trinity which is different from the one of classical
orthodoxy; (2) that Barth explains this revision of trinitarian terminology for
reasons other than the need to articulate the substance of the orthodox language of
persona and hypostasis in a way that would avoid misunderstanding; and (3) that
Barth denies or omits a relationality within the Godhead, which, it is claimed,
persons allow but modes do not.
Just as in 1927, none of these applies. First of all, it is the case throughout
the discussion that Barth intends the classical doctrine of one God of three
persons. Of course there are nuances that mark out Barths treatment, such as the
particular relationship between the event of revelation and Gods trinitarian
nature. Barths is not a slavish repetition of orthodoxy. Yet he is clear in his own
mind that it is nothing other than the doctrine of the creeds that he is explicating.
He writes, We do not use the term person but rather mode of being, our
intention being to express by this term, not absolutely, but relatively better and
more simply and clearly the same thing as is meant by person (CD I/1, p.
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Second, Barth is clear that the revision of terminology arises for the purpose of
faithful presentation of the same doctrine in the modern age. The reason, as Barth
often reiterates in this section, is that the injection of the modern concept of
personality into the debate has achieved nothing but fresh confusion (CD I/1, p.
355). As he notes, one can follow the path of Gunther and Grutzmacher who
applied modern notions of self-conscious personality to the divine threeness and
fall into tritheism, one can avoid these problems by seeking refuge in Sabellianism
as did Schleiermacher, or with Roman Catholic theology one can still speak of
three persons as though the modern concept of personality did not exist (CD I/1, pp.
3578). Barth chose instead, with the thoughts inspired by Dorner, to articulate the
substance of the classical faith in contemporary language.
And third, Barth at no point denies or omits any idea of relationality within the
one Godhead. Not only does he retain from Christian Dogmatics a robust account
of the relations of origin internal to the Godhead, but he also describes God as
alius-alius-alius. And would a trinitarian doctrine that omitted talk of intradivine
relationality ever include a question like this: How could Jesus be more
emphatically separated and distinguished from Him who is properly called God
[that is, the Father] than by putting on his lips the doubly disconcerting: Eloi, Eloi,
lama sabachthani? (CD I/1, p. 385).
Finally, to end this argument for Barths fundamental continuity with the
orthodox notion of the divine threeness, one last quotation will suffice, which
brings together these strands of argument that show Barths conscious continuity
with person language, his own included. Barth takes the Roman Catholic
dogmatician Matthias Scheeben to task for what is in Barths opinion a meaningless
reaffirmation of the term person, because Scheeben says that the name person in
itself does not express relativity in God. In contrast Barth states his deep-seated
agreement with the classical meaning of the term, especially that of relationship
within God. He writes:
It is obvious . . . that the ancient concept of person, which is the only
possible one here, has now become obsolete . . . Thus at the point where
earlier dogmatics and even modern Roman Catholic dogmatics speak of
persons we prefer to call the Father, Son and Spirit in God the three
distinctive modes of being of the one God subsisting in their relationships
one with another. (CD I/1, p. 366)
It could be argued, then, that in Barths treatment of The Triune God in
Church Dogmatics one lacks the frequency of person language for the divine
threeness that one finds in the Gottingen lectures or even in the Christian
Dogmatics, but it is hard to see how one could argue for any more serious
discontinuity. It is the very same doctrine which in a different context would
unashamedly be expressed in terms of one God of three persons or of three
subjects. Now let us move on.

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Criticism 2
The second standard criticism is that although Barths doctrine of the Trinity may be
formally deficient in giving a less than fully trinitarian picture of God in the
discussion in CD I/1, nevertheless it is acceptable materially, since when Barths
doctrine of the Trinity is put to use in other volumes of Church Dogmatics, it
satisfactorily manages to avoid the difficulties which have supposedly been detected
in the treatment of the doctrine proper. This criticism allows for greater
sophistication and nuance than the first, and has been adopted by those who are
generally sympathetic to many aspects of Barths theology but who feel nevertheless
that the treatment in the first part-volume as it stands remains unsatisfactory.
The problem with this criticism in our view is that it gives too much ground to
the criticism we have refuted above, that is, for all its praise for the treatment in the
later volumes there is still this conviction that the treatment in CD I/1 just has to be
wrong. Careful reading both of Barths development in the years leading up to the
discussion in CD I/1 as well as the discussion itself has taken away the linchpin of
the argument. That is, Barth never denied earlier what he practised later.
Nevertheless let us investigate the matter further. The argument certainly fails as it
stands, but notwithstanding this may there yet be a significant difference between
the later treatments and the earlier one read properly in context?
In particular volume 49 is often adduced in support of the later Barth over
against the earlier volume 1. Rowan Williams,10 for instance, is favourable to the
latter treatment while critical of the former. A typical passage in the fourth volume
he cites includes the following:
It . . . pleased God . . . for the redemption of the world, not to alter Himself, but
to deny the immutability of His being, . . . to be in discontinuity with Himself,
to be against Himself . . . His identity with Himself consisted strictly in His
determination to be God, our God, the reconciler of the world, in this inner and
outer antithesis to Himself. (p. 184)
Furthermore Williams notes the distinctions Barth traces within the divine life.
There is an above and below, prius et posterius, command and obedience in
the life of God. Williams therefore concludes that there are in fact two accounts.
The whole movement of 4/1, he says, is towards a very much more pluralist
conception of the Trinity than is allowed for in 1/1. He then goes on to state that
the attempt to harmonize the two models . . . produces one of the most unhelpful
bits of hermetic mystification in the whole of the Dogmatics.11 Yet far from being
an unhelpful example of hermetic mystification, the attempt to read the earlier
9 K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, trans. T.F. Torrance and G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh:
T. & T. Clark, 1956).
10 We refer to his discussion Barth on the Triune God, in S.W. Sykes, ed., Karl Barth:
Studies of his Theological Method (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), pp. 14793.
11 Williams, Barth on the Triune God, p. 175.
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formal account of the doctrine of the Trinity in harmony with the later material one
is surely the right one.12
In terms of phraseology there is little, if any change from CD I/1. There are
some passages where the divine threeness is referred to as mode of being or
person, but the vast majority have only mode of being and I am yet to detect any
that employ the term person on its own without quotation marks.
Nor is there any difference between the two as far as Barth is concerned,
indeed he explicitly recalls the earlier treatment without qualification, of which the
discussion in volume 4 is just part of its explication. He writes:
For the basis and development and explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity in
its own context and in all its details, and for an understanding of its exegetical
implications, we must refer back to CD I/1 pars. 812. We have here
approached this first and final Christian truth from a special standpoint, and in
this context we can speak of it only briefly, selectively, and in a limited way.
(CD IV/1, p. 204)
And when Barth goes on to expound part of the underlying doctrine, he does this in
familiar terms:
By Father, Son and Spirit, we do not mean what is commonly suggested by the
word persons. . . . It was never intended to imply at any rate in the main
stream of theological tradition that there are in God three different
personalities, three self-existent individuals with their own special selfconsciousness, cognition, volition, activity, effects, revelation and name.
He continues to make clear that the threefold name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit
is the one personality of God, the one active and speaking divine Ego . . .
Otherwise, he says, we should obviously have to speak of three gods (CD IV/1,
pp. 2045).
Even the distinction between the hypostases being modes of being and not
centres of volition,13 which Williams thinks has yet defied successful explanation,
can be straightforwardly explicated in Barths own context. In the passage above
Barth has not denied that the persons are centres of volition in any and every sense,
just in the sense of modern notions of personality that would jeopardize the divine


One could say that Barths targets might be different from CD I/1 in what he wanted
both to assert and to deny. He is especially insistent in this section of volume 4 to assert
that Jesus obedience and humiliation is no less divine than the command and glory of
the Father against ideas of God for which the humiliation and suffering of Jesus would
be less than suitably fitting. One of the main emphases of CD I/1 on the other hand (as
well as the Gottingen and Munster lectures) was that the doctrine of the Trinity is the
explication of Gods free lordship in every point of revelation, against notions of God as
in any way identified or confused with the creature. As Barths own remarks make
clear, however, it is the same doctrine of the Trinity at work in both sections, with the
discussion in volume 4 explicating part of the content of volume 1.
Williams, Barth on the Triune God, p. 175.
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unity. In the following quote from CD IV/1, however, Barth does affirm the modes
of being as centres of volition, but in a qualified sense as befits a doctrine worked
out along the safe Nicene line between monarchianism and subordinationism. He
According to the New Testament, it is the case that the humility of this man is
an act of obedience, not a capricious choice of lowliness, suffering and dying,
not an autonomous decision this way, not an accidental swing of the pendulum
in this direction, but a free choice made in recognition of an appointed order, in
execution of a will which imposed itself authoritatively upon Him, which was
intended to be obeyed. (CD IV/1, p. 193)
The assumption underlying the treatments of Williams and others is that by mode
of being Barth must obviously mean something different from creedal notions of
personhood, so when commentators are surprised to read accounts of divine
threeness the conclusion is that there is inconsistency on his part rather than
misunderstanding on theirs. Is it really the case, for instance, that when Barth draws
the astounding deduction that in equal Godhead the one God is, in fact, the One
and also Another (CD IV/1, p. 202), this is so very different from describing God
as alius-alius-alius, as he did repeatedly in volume 1?
One need not go on, but let me finish with a final piece of evidence for the
defence. The untenability of this distinction some of Barths commentators give
between his doctrine of the Trinity proper and how it is used, or between the early
Barth and the later Barth is shown in even clearer light when we look at the
evidence of the volumes themselves. Let us take as an example CD II/1,14 the first
part-volume on the doctrine of God, published in 1940 at the chronological midpoint between I/1 and IV/1.15
This volume demonstrates very clearly the free and easy co-existence of the
elements of Barths trinitarian thinking that others would insist on separating. There
are parts where the polemic against person language is even stronger than the
passages in CD I/1. At some points Barth goes on almost ad nauseam about how
personality must be ascribed to the one God.16 For instance he writes, The
definition of a person that is, a knowing, willing, acting I can have meaning
only of a confession of the person of God declared in his revelation [that is, the one
God], of the One who loves and who as such . . . is the person (CD II/1, p. 284).
Again, there are parts where the use of person conceptuality is even more
pronounced than in volume 4. Certainly the trinitarian doctrine when put to use is
one in which the one deity contains relationships of reciprocity, as he states in his
treatment of our knowledge of God. Barth writes:
14 K. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, trans. T.F. Torrance and G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh:
T. & T. Clark, 1957).
15 CD I/1 was originally published in 1932, and CD IV/1 in 1953.
16 It would seem that Barths predominant concern in these passages is to maintain the
traditional notion that God is personal against some modern trends to reduce all Godtalk to impersonal statements.
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God stands before Himself; the Father before the Son, the Son before the
Father . . . God knows himself: the Father knows the Son and the Son the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This occurrence in God himself is the essence
and strength of our knowledge of God. (CD II/1, p. 49)

Even more strikingly, however, there are at least two occasions where Barth
actually uses the term persons on its own and without quotation marks
straightforwardly and unselfconsciously of the divine threeness. On page 445, for
instance, he writes, At no time or place . . . is [God] divided or divisible. He is one
even in the distinctions of the divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And on page 639 discussing Gods pre-, supra- and post-temporality he states,
There is just as little place for this rivalry here as between the three persons of the
The solution to this is to be found elsewhere in the volume. To conclude one of
his long and detailed defences of ascribing personality to the one God, Barth writes,
In this context everything depends on the statement that God is the one who loves.
But nothing at all depends on the statement that He is or has personality. He goes
on, The concept of personality is much too colourless to form a necessary basis for
our description of this absolutely indispensable moment in the nature of God.
Rather, we can and must . . . concede that we can do without it so long as what is
intended in it is assured and accepted. Barth also makes a second point here, which
demonstrates again that, whatever the term used, what is meant by traditional talk
of the trinitarian persons is retained. He writes:
If we accept the concept of the personality of God, we must be conscious of a
certain lack of clarity arising from the fact that right up to modern times most
people have spoken of divine persons in relation to the doctrine of the divine
Trinity . . . In our treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity we took the view that
the concept person should be dropped in the description of this matter,
because in all classical theology it has never in fact been understood and
interpreted in the sense in which we are accustomed to think of the term today.
The Christian church has never taught that there are in God three persons and
therefore three personalities in the sense of a threefold Ego, a threefold subject.
This would be tritheism, which the concept persona . . . is in fact meant to
avoid. (CD II/1, pp. 2967)

The German for both, by the way, is Personen. I have not yet detected any other
instances of such use of persons in Church Dogmatics, that is, without any quotation
marks or in a phrase like persons or modes of being. That is not to say, however, that
further investigation would not unearth some more. They are very well camouflaged,
coming as they do in the middle of mode of being language, and hark back to a world
where the terminological discussion in CD I/1 need never have happened. A possible
explanation is that they were just unintentional exceptions from his usual expressions.
But that they are easy to miss or to pass by without ado, even for Barth the writer and
proof-reader, might suggest that talk of divine persons used correctly he found so
unremarkable that it might pass him by unnoticed. Frankly, I do not know and am
doubtful whether it matters much.
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Barth on the Trinity


The exact same doctrine, then, as volume 1 and volume 4, not to mention the earlier
This second criticism of Barths trinitarian theology has enjoyed its fair share
of adherents, and one can understand why, since it has an attraction in seeking to
retain the best of Barths insights, and with even a relatively detailed knowledge of
Church Dogmatics seems plausible. It will not do for a very detailed reading,
however. Despite its initial lustre, the reading that there are two different doctrines
of the Trinity at work in Church Dogmatics does in the end boil down to the claim
that Barth is a theological schizophrenic. There may be some very fine nuances
where the later material does indeed revise the earlier material rather than merely
explicate it. I am yet to detect any. Barth may have set his sights on a different
opponent and employed different emphases to meet the situation, but if one is
looking for material differences between the early and the later Barth in this area,
they will be only marginal at best. Indeed, the evidence so far suggests there are
It is not, therefore, unhelpful or mystifying to harmonize the mode of being
conceptuality and the person conceptuality to denote the divine threeness, for in
Barth they are one and the same. What Barth has joined we should not separate. As
we have observed, in the first part of his doctrine of God they co-exist without
trouble, just as in the rest of Church Dogmatics as well as in his earlier work they
are different but synonymous terms for the threeness within God. It is just that from
about 1926 mode of being became his settled, standard way of expressing the

What is the result of our investigation thus far into the alleged unitarian tendencies
underlying Barths preference in volume 1 of Church Dogmatics for the term
mode of being over that of person? It is perhaps understandable that certain of
Barths expressions in the first part-volume of Church Dogmatics might give rise to
concern, in particular ones like, we are speaking not of three divine Is, but thrice
of the one divine I (CD I/1, p. 351). Yet closer investigation allays these fears. It is
his understanding of the contemporary situation he got from reading Dorner that led
him to alter his expression, while maintaing in substance the very doctrine he could
otherwise express as God as three persons or three subjects. And is this not the very
thing he says he is doing in CD I/1 itself, trying, that is, to state the proper meaning
of the terms hypostasis and persona to an age with its own different idea of
personality? The discussion is in truth nothing more sinister than the very doctrine
of Augustine and Calvin.
Instead of saying that Barths preference for the term mode of being over that
of person is his Achilles heel, perhaps it might be fairer to say that it is rather the
Achilles heel of Barths interpreters. Barths terminology might not provide
immediate help to the interpreter, and to that extent the misreadings are
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Iain Taylor

understandable. Nevertheless, it is the most straightforward reading of his treatment

of the triune God in Church Dogmatics as it stands and takes account of a context to
which other readings have not paid attention. Who knows? Maybe if Barth had
never read Dorner, much less ink would have needed to have been spilled on this
There is much that has not been covered in this article. Critics of Barths
doctrine of the Trinity have at their disposal more arguments than the two we have
been discussing here. In Rowan Williams critique alone, for instance, he raises the
issues of theological language, the structure of revelation, the one-sided
preoccupation with issues of epistemology, an inadequate treatment of the created
realm, a view of grace that so overwhelms the human recipient that there is
insufficient room for genuine human action, and a rather thin pneumatology.
Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, there is the issue of whether the classical
Western doctrine of the Trinity, of which Barths treatment properly understood is
an eloquent example, fares ill when compared to its Eastern rival, if in fact rival it
be. It may be that this and other studies of reading Barth in the context of his less
well known work may answer some or all of these misgivings, but one would surely
hope that what criticisms there are may be made with due sophistication and
attention to Barths doctrine as it really is, rather than to a cliched version.
There presently exist several attempts to correct or to go beyond Barth by those
who feel that the basis of their misgivings lies in the sorts of criticisms we have
been dealing with in this article. At the risk of generalization one might say that
many of them try to find what might be at fault elsewhere in Barths theology,
since, as they claim, he is obviously inadequate here. The question must be put to
them, however, whether what they find inadequate is a position that Barth never
actually held. To what extent other elements of their critique survive in the light of
this is not our topic here. Those who make their case against Barth may still find
that some of the charges laid against him do in fact still stick, but provisionally we
might conclude that Barths defence has in the 1920s lectures, especially the
Gottingen cycle, some major evidence in its favour. His detractors might even
maintain a doctrine of the Trinity that is different not merely from the misreadings
investigated here, but also from his doctrine as it really is. That is another matter,
and we ought not to prejudge their case as others have done Barths. But for now at
least the case is not finished and the discussion goes on.

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