Hints for Barth sample essay questions

Make sure that you have looked at the question and thought about it for yourself FIRST before you look at the hints.

Whenever you get a question you should do the following.

  1. Read the question more than once.
  2. Identify the topic (i.e which section of the course it is in).
  3. Identify the 'debate' (i.e. the two sides of the argument).
  4. Work out the main points that each side would make to support their case. Consider what evidence/reasoning they would use.
  5. Work out which side you agree with and why.
  6. Look back through your notes and find more material/details to include in an essay.
  7. Plan your essay.
  8. Write your essay.

Before you try to answer the Barth questions I suggest that you watch David Clough's 30 minute lecture on Barth. Part 1 is here and part 2 here. It gives you an excellent understanding of the development of his ideas.

'Barth's teachings about revelation and the Word make it is impossible for non-Christians to know God.' Discuss.

The 'debate'

Consider who would agree with the statement and who would disagree with the statement.

  • Yes: Barth says that general revelation is impossible and that God is revealed through the three-fold word of God (Living, Preached, Written).
  • No: Barth also says that God is free and can thus reveal himself through anything that he chooses - even a Russian flute concerto or a dead dog.

Go back to your notes:

Check that you can explain:

  • Why Barth rejects natural theology, general revelation and human attempts to know God.
  • What he says about God's self-revelation in Jesus (including the fact that any time he reveals himself to humans, he alsways does so as Jesus)
  • Why he describes the Bible as pregnant with revelation rather than is itself revelation. (Links to the weaknesses of human language).
  • What he says about God's freedom and the different ways that he might be revealed.
  • How/where the Barmen Declaration might be mentioned. (E.g. first point says Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God)
  • How this links to what he says about religion. 

Choose your 'side':

It does not matter which side you agree with, provided you can justify it. To justify the side you have picked you need to make it clear how/why you reject the points made by the other side!

Plan your essay:

Ideas in red are the ideas that I am arguing against. 

Introduction: Set up terms of debate and state line of argument.

  • Paragraph 1: Briefly explain what Barth does say about Word and Revelation.

You need to fully EXPLAIN these ideas. Use examples, scenarios, analogies, quotations and phrases like 'this means that',

  • Paragraph 2: It appears at first that Barth's theology is exclusivist because: General revelation is ruled out/God only ever reveals himself as Jesus - this is God's self-revelation/The three fold Word of God is found entirely in the Church.
  • Paragraph 3: However, God's desire to be known plus his freedom means that this cannot be so because this would be incompatible with the idea of God's freedom. Cannot 'domesticate' God/God's 'yes' to people. God can theoretically reveal himself though anything (flowering shrub, flute concerto, dead dog).

This is where your analysis and evaluation comes in. What was Barth really saying? Keep your analysis RELEVANT. It must relate to answering the question. General criticisms of Barth would not be relevant. The only relevant material is to do with whether or not his ideas leave room for non-Christians to know God. 

  • Paragraph 4: (Analysis) The point about God's freedom is convincing as is central to Barth's theology, thus he cannot rule out the possibility of non- Christian knowledge of God. The exclusivist readings of Bart (para 2) are not convincing because it is possible to take less exclusivist readings of Barth's teachings. E.g. although God is always revealed as Jesus he is not necessarily recognised as such (God may reveal himself as Jesus but the person experiencing the revelation may mis-identify him). Barmen declaration was written as a response to Christian support for Nazism, not about non-Christian religions.
  • Paragraph 5: Barth's insistence on God's unknowability implies that no one (Christian or otherwise) can know God. God as radically other/Limitation of knowledge/God's 'no' to human attempts at knowing him (link to his use of Kant).

You could quibble about whether this is knowledge or faith.

  • Paragraph 6: However there is a difference between knowing God fully and having some knowledge of God. Some knowledge is possible but God always remains mysterious.

Conclusion: It is theoretically possible for non-Christians to have some (limited) knowledge of God.

To what extent is Barth's understanding of religion incompatible with postmodernism?

Read the question:

Note that the question says INCOMPATIBLE and POSTMODERNISM (not compatible or modernism!)

The debate:

Identify the two main 'sides'.

  • It is incompatible: Barth's theology is based on the idea that Christianity has access to Truth and is thus a metanarrative for everyone.
  • It is not incompatible: Postmodernism leaves room for the possibility of spiritual/religious truth and is more open to the possibility of revelation than modernism was.

Go back to your notes:

Check that you know the key features of postmodernism (suspicion of metanarratives, truth is plural and subjective, rejection of the idea that science can answer every question)

Remind yourself of the key features of Barth's thought (religion, election, revelation etc) and compare each to Postmodernism to see if they are compatible. 

Pick a side:

You might want to argue that certain features are compatible whilst others are not. You cannot just write 'it all depends' but you can sit on the fence in a nuanced way!

Plan you essay:


  • Whether his ideas on revelation are compatible
  • Whether his ideas about the Word are compatible
  • Whether his ideas about religion are compatible.

With this question you MAY want to do it themeatically (see box to the right) and go through each main area of Barth's thought evaluating it against Postmodern ideas.

Or, you may want to do it in the thesis/antithesis appraoch.

Both are fine (there is no one way to write an essay) provided you clearly create and argument that answers the question.

Introduction: Set up terms of debate and outline argument.

  • Paragraph 1: Explain the key features of postmodernism.
  • Paragraphy 2: To a certain extent Postmodernism seems to leave more room than modernism for religion. (Different types of truth/limits of scientific knowledge). Thus it is more open to the idea of revelation being possible (Explain Barth's views on revelation and how a modernist would approach it vs a postmodernist).
  • Paragraph 3: However, Barth believed that Christianity was the one true religion which seems to be at odds with Postmodernism's rejection of truth.
  • Paragraph 4: It would be possible to argue that Barth recognises that all human expressions of truth are subjective (and thus not ultimately true) because human language is limited and our experiences are subjective (use of Kant).
  • Paragraph 5: However, this ignores the fact that ultimately Barth (unlike Postmodernists) still did believed that Truth exists (just people get it wrong sometimes). Not all beliefs/religions were equally valid to him. Postmodernism = nonfoundationalist. Bart = foundationalist.

Conclusion: Barth does share some ideas in common with postmodernism (e.g. his emphasis on the limitations of human knowledge) but he is ultimately incompatible.

'Barth's exclusivist theology offers no way for Christianity and non-Christian religions to be reconciled.' Discuss

Read the question:

Work out what 'reconciled' means. Consider how/why Christianity needs to be reconciled to other religions. What problems are there in terms of reconciling them? 

The debate: 

Identify the two sides: 

  • It does not: it is exclusivist and says that Christianity has access to truth but non-Christian religions do not.
  • It does: He recognises that all religions are trying to do the same thing and he encourages Chrsitians to take a humble attitude towards non-Christians. Arguably he is a universalist not an exclusivist anyway.

Go back to your notes:

What does Barth say about the nature of religion? About predestination? About revelation?

Are there any other people you have studied who you might like to use to contrast/evaluate?

Plan your essay:

There are other approaches to this depending on what you think is necessary for 'reconciliation'.  

Introduction: Set up the terms of the debate.

  • Paragraph 1: Explain the problem. How/why does Christianity need to be reconciled to non-Christian religions. What problems does exclusivism present?
  • Paragraph 2: Initially it seems that Barth's theology cannot help reconcile Christianity with non-Christian religions. Based on claim of superiority, incarnation, the Word etc.
  • Paragraph 3: However, Barth would argue that it does allow Christians to be reconciled to non-Christians. He recognises that all religions, Christianity included are a human construct - thus encourages a humble attitude.
  • Paragraph 4: Yet this does not change the fact that he still does think that Christianity is superior. Still results in Christians believing they are right and others are wrong. No possibility of learning from others.
  • Paragraph 5: One might argue that Barth's version of election and predestination does at least allow the possibility for non-Christians to be saved.
  • Pararaph 6: Yet this is still being saved on Christian terms.
  • Paragraph 7: Barth would respond that Christianity cannot recognises other religions as equally valid. Thus his solution is the only Christian one.
  • Paragraph 8: But as Hick points out it is impossible to be certain of who is right. Non-Christians cannot accept Christian claims of superiority. Barth's views will not lead to a happy multi-cultural society.

Conclusions: Barth tries hard to create a version of Christianity which does encourage a positive attitude to non-Christians, but ultimately he fails.