Karl Barth and a Theology of Mission

Karl Barth and a Theology of Mission

“The church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way which is full of promise.” (Karl Barth, The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life, 22).

Karl Barth’s theology, especially as articulated in his monumental work “Church Dogmatics,” has had significant implications for the theology of mission. Here’s an overview of crucial contributions:

1. Christocentric Focus: Barth emphasizes the centrality of Jesus Christ in all theological considerations, including mission. For Barth, mission is not primarily an endeavor initiated by the church but flows from God’s self-revelation in Christ. By rooting mission in the person and work of Christ, Barth moves the focus away from human agency and strategy, positioning Christ as the true Missionary. This emphasis redefines mission as a participation in Christ’s mission to reconcile the world to God, thereby setting a high theological standard for all missionary activities.

2. Missio Dei: Before Barth, mission was often perceived as an activity or project of the church. Barth helped shift this perspective by arguing that God is a missionary God and that the church’s role is to participate in God’s own mission (Missio Dei). Barth popularized this concept, which fundamentally reorients the church’s understanding of mission, making it an extension of God’s actions rather than a human-initiated effort.

3. Dialectical Theology: Barth’s dialectical approach challenges established norms and preconceived notions about God and mission. Dialectical theology encourages the church to engage in a continuous dialogue between faith and the world, constantly reassessing and revising its missiological methods and aims. This dialectic process, built on a dialogue between opposites, requires ongoing critical reflection, thereby preventing complacency and stagnation in missionary practice.

4. Universalism of God’s Election: Barth argues that God’s election in Christ is universal, meaning God has chosen humanity for salvation through Jesus Christ. This universal scope compels a mission that seeks to engage and reach every human being, thereby dismantling any exclusivist or particularist tendencies. It’s a theology that underscores the inclusivity of God’s love and grace, extending the church’s mission to all corners of the globe.

5. Trinitarian Framework: Barth expands on the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in understanding mission. He suggests that mission activities are not solely the work of one member of the Trinity but are Trinitarian in essence. This Trinitarian focus enriches the theology and practice of mission by balancing the roles of revelation, reconciliation, and empowerment, respectively, assigned to each person of the Trinity.

6. Rejection of Natural Theology: Barth rejects the idea that God can be known apart from divine revelation. This standpoint places great emphasis on the proclamation of the gospel in mission. Natural theology, according to Barth, risks idolatry and misunderstandings of God. In mission, this means that proper knowledge and relationship with God only occur through the proclamation and acceptance of the gospel message.

7. Holistic Mission: While Barth emphasizes the primacy of proclamation, his theology also considers the fullness of human existence. His work implies that the church’s mission isn’t just about saving souls but also about addressing physical, emotional, and social needs. In this sense, Christian mission becomes a comprehensive and holistic endeavor to embody God’s love in the world.

8. Critical of Christendom: Barth is skeptical of merging Western culture with Christianity, which he views as a form of cultural imperialism. His criticisms encourage a more nuanced, self-reflective approach to missions, urging churches to differentiate the gospel from any cultural or political agendas. This has been important in fostering a more cross-cultural and contextual approach to mission.

9. Eschatological Perspective: Barth’s theology encompasses an eschatological dimension that balances the “already but not yet” aspects of God’s kingdom. His eschatological focus means that mission is not just about present action but also anticipates the full realization of God’s kingdom, encouraging a hope-filled practice that looks forward to ultimate reconciliation.

10. Word and Sacrament: Barth sees preaching and the sacraments as vital to the church’s mission. For Barth, these are not just rituals but the means by which God’s grace is made tangible and accessible to humanity. This elevates the importance of local congregational life and worship in the context of global mission endeavors.

11. Theological Ethics: Barth’s theology has an implicit ethical component, calling Christians to engage in evangelistic endeavors and social and political actions. It broadens the understanding of mission to include the pursuit of justice, equality, and human rights as integral to the church’s mission.

12. Church as Witness: For Barth, the church’s primary role is to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This shifts the emphasis from a mission defined by numbers or territorial gains to a mission concerned with fidelity to the message of Christ. In this perspective, the church becomes less of an institution focused on self-preservation and more of a community that exists to bear witness to God’s redemptive work in the world.

By shaping the theological foundations in these ways, Barth has had a lasting influence on how mission is understood and practiced.

Rev. Dr Graham Hill is Mission Catalyst – New and Renewing Communities, for Uniting Mission and Education. This is an article from his blog. Visit the blogs on his website here.


1 thought on “Karl Barth and a Theology of Mission”

  1. I love this aspect of Barth’s writing about fidelity to Christ. Unfortunatrely, the UCA in NSW is still – despite howling denial – a colonial intitution focused on DOING mission to others rather than being in mission with others. We lack a deep personal and corporate spirituality that challenges our pride in who we are as the UCA. Personal holiness is disregarded and backbiting, unkindness and gossip simply brushed away as part of being human. Until we live in tne world as Christ all of our mission strategies and justice enterprises are merely the sound of a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”

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