Christomonism in Karl Barth‘s Evaluation of the Non-Christian Religions

Knitter, Paul

One of the sharpest and most constant criticisms which Paul Althaus leveled against Karl Barth's views of the non-Christian world was that of Christomonism. Althaus felt that the basic lack and the abiding sin in Barth's evaluation of the religions was his narrow, restrictive, exclusive understanding of the reality of Christ, which bans all extra-Christian reality into the realm of meaninglessness and godlessness. Althaus, indeed, was not alone in such accusations. He voiced an objection which, he felt, every Christian theologian must make: because Barth's vision of Christ was too narrow, too "monistic", because he set undue limitations on Christ — he missed the breadth of God's plan of salvation and the religions' role in this plan. Barth's understanding of religion and the religions is christomonistic — and therefore to be rejected. Is such a diagnosis correct? Unfortunately, Althaus, like many of Barth's critics, never spelled out in detail just how Christomonism vitiated his views of the religions. Others, therefore, warn of oversimplifying or misinterpreting Barth's sweeping, harshly condemnatory statements on the religions. The "Theologischer Konvent Augsburgischen Bekenntnisses" in 1963 cautioned against making a "Popanz" of Barth's description of religions in the Kirchliche Dogmatik. And more recently C. S. Song in a doctoral dissertation for Union Theological Seminary sweepingly affirms that those who criticize Barth's doctrine on the religions for its narrowness, have misread its deeper content: Barth's last word on the religions is positive! Finally it must be remembered that Barth's "cruelty" towards the religions was also aimed at Christianity. Can his final verdict therefore be totally negative or the product of Christomonism? It is the purpose of this article to carry out and, in a sense, to test Althaus' diagnosis. We will examine Barth's most direct and succinct treatment of the religions — Paragraph 17 of his Kirchliche Dogmatik (to be referred to as KD 17) — for the presence of Christomonism. To do this properly, our analysis of KD 17 will be made in the light of Barth's early encounter with the religions in his Römerbrief (second edition — referred to as RB). Such a study will indicate that Althaus' diagnosis, though simply and somewhat rashly stated, seems to be valid: Christomonism does form the deepest roots of Barth's evaluation of the religions. It was also the factor which marked the development of Barth's thinking on the religions from RB to KD 17 and which made his final verdict all the more negative and harsh.



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Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosphie

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Union Theological Seminary
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April 19, 2012