Karl Barth (1886-1955) was a Swiss Reformed theologian whose paradigm-shifting critique of theological liberalism made him perhaps the most influential theologian of the 20th century. In the course of his critique Barth introduced a novel conception of time that made a valuable contribution to discussions of the relationship between time and the God of Christian faith. Though Barth’s ideas about time evolved throughout his career, this entry concentrates on his mature thought as spelled out most explicitly in Church Dogmatics II.1 and III.2.
To understand Barth’s position on any topic one must remember three convictions that undergirded his work: (1) All attempts to discern truth must begin with God; (2) knowledge of God is properly derived only from God’s self-revelation; and (3) God has revealed himself most definitively in Jesus Christ. These convictions are operative in how Barth did and did not talk about time. For instance, Barth did not begin with an analysis of the scientific community’s latest insights about the origin of the universe or the human race. Though Barth was neither ignorant of, nor inimical to, such theories as evolution, he regarded them of no use to theology because they begin with human observation, not divine revelation. This should not be taken, however, as a naive rejection of science on Barth’s part. Rather, Barth refused to pit science against theology out of his conviction that these fields of inquiry had such disparate objects that any comparison would be futile.
Because Barth refused to discuss the nature of time independent of God, his discussion of divine eternity served as a convenient entry point. Though Barth affirmed the classical Christian conviction that God is eternal, he warned against trying to define eternity by beginning from purely human terms, whether positive or negative. He was particularly averse to formulations that equate eternity with timelessness, tie eternity to the world’s process of becoming, or infinitely extend time forward and backward. Instead, he rooted divine eternity in, and compared it to, God’s Trinitarian nature. According to Barth, as the three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) constitute one being manifest in three modes that are held together by a perpetual interrelationship of love, so divine eternality is the mutual interrelationship of three distinct but not separate temporal forms (past, present, and future) that comprise one undivided duration.
Thus, in his limitless eternity, God also experiences temporality, but in a categorically distinct way that is beyond human comprehension. To the extent that humans experience time as lack of unity, constancy, and simplicity, God can have nothing to do with it. Yet God’s unique temporality serves as the basis of his free choice to enter limited human time on behalf of humanity. Through Jesus, God has taken temporal time into his own eternal being and brought about its healing and renewal. By becoming contemporary with humans, Jesus opened the possibility that humans may enjoy fellowship with him and share in the new time inaugurated when he reconciled the world to himself. Barth’s view of time—like his view of most topics— ultimately points to God’s free decision to save humanity through Christ.