“Karl Barth’s Theology of Mission for Today”


by John Drury


No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  (1 Cor. 12:3b-6)


When he delivered his paper “Theology and Mission in the Present Situation”[i] at the Brandenburg Mission Conference in 1932, Karl Barth imparted to missional theology a wealth of ideas that would yield rich theological reflection for years to come.  Here I aim to briefly summarize and assess these contributions.  First I will pinpoint the center of Barth’s theology of mission and follow it as he unfolds his argument.  Then I shall note a few problems and prospects regarding the validity of his thought for the church’s mission today.

Karl Barth on Theology and Mission

Jesus Christ is the center of Barth’s theology, both as a whole and as it relates to the church’s mission.  The truth of the statement that Jesus Christ is Lord binds together all other statements.  It is precisely Christ’s Lordship that occupies the limelight of this particular essay.  He is attempting to answer the question, “What does theology have to say to mission?”  His shorthand answer is “Jesus is Lord.”  Not only does he regard this statement as the content of the church’s missionary message (2), but the truth of this statement determines the respectful relationship between theology and mission as two modest forms of ecclesial obedience:

This is really what makes the life of the church and life in the church possible, that in all their members and functions they know themselves to be the earthly body of their heavenly Lord . . . Mission and theology receive space next to each other, each its own space, when both are aware of their common boundary in the divine justification that alone is sufficient (5).


            So what is mission for Barth?  Although he has the insight to see mission as calling of the church as a whole (11), Barth nevertheless identifies the particular work of mission as activity on foreign soil.  Mission is concerned with the communication of the Christian message to the heathen (6).  This it has in common with other activities of the church (6), for even the homeland church is full of heathens.  Yet at home the message is repeated, while in mission it is initiated (2).  Missionary endeavor is unique in that it communicates the message of Jesus Christ as Lord in the form of initiation.

            What, then, is theology?  Theology for Barth is critical reflection on the communicative activity of the church (3).  As a service of the church, it aims to place the church under the criticism of her Lord (8).  Theology, therefore, asks questions of mission (9).  Barth even goes as far as to say that theology is to “cripple” mission as the angel did Jacob (15).  Theology is not superior to mission, however, for Jesus Christ is the Lord of both of them (6).  They are both forms of ecclesial obedience to this same Lord (4).  Theology and mission are both called by him to their specific tasks (11).  They are to execute these tasks with mutual respect and modesty (10).

            What does theology have to say to mission?  Barth reflects on mission at four distinct points.  At each point, the Lordship of Jesus Christ guides his criticism.  First of all, what is the motive for mission?  Barth asserts that the motive for mission is found in the will of the “Lord of the Church” (9).  This divine will is not an arbitrary will, however, but grounded in God’s very being.  Barth therefore draws a connection between the mission of the church and the Trinitarian missions of the Son and Spirit from the Father.  This insight has come to be called the missio Dei.

            Secondly, what is the proper appeal for mission?  Simply put, the real appeal to mission is the recognition that the church is a “missionary community” (11).  This is what it is called to be.  Jesus Christ has called the church not to be for itself but for the world (3).  Thirdly, what is the task of mission?  Barth criticizes three strategies of mission (Pietist, Anglo-American, and Lutheran) as systems that fail to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  They are strategies that aim at one particular aspect of the gospel instead of proclaiming Christ as the Lord of all.  Mission is to “serve Christ himself, without wasting its energy in such a system” (12).

Finally, what is the mission sermon?  The issue at stake here is what sort of “translating” is proper.  On the one hand, Barth affirms attempts at “making things clear” to clarifying the truth of the message by means of analogies from life (14).  On the other hand, he says an unequivocal “No” to any theory about a point of contact between human religion and divine revelation.  The missionary does translate into the language and culture of the people, but this act of translating is not in itself what connects God to the people.  Since Jesus Christ is Lord, he will reveal himself. 


Barth covered considerable ground for such a small essay.  I will therefore point out only three areas of weakness I foresee as one tries to bring Barth’s thought to bear on a contemporary theology of mission.  The first issue is a simple situational change from the 1930s to today.  No longer can the church’s mission in the form of initiation be located on foreign soil.  Barth’s distinction between repetition and initiation still holds, but we can no longer take for granted that our neighbors in the West have heard the message of Jesus Christ.

The second issue is methodological.  Barth relates theology to mission in such a way that the practical concerns of missional activity are not permitted to shape one’s theological reflection. He states, “As with any proper discipline, theological work wants to be carried out for its own sake, without reference to its practical scope and the usefulness of its results” (8).  I can appreciate Barth’s protection of theology from a tyrannical control of the practical.  But to avoid the practical for the sake of the integrity of the discipline is to fall short of the goal of theological reflection.  Barth is right that theology must begin again at the beginning, but he is not always faithful to carry it through to the end.[ii]

            The third problem is doctrinal.  Barth’s “No” to natural theology hides from sight the prevenience (“going-before”) of God’s grace.[iii]  I agree with Barth that a systematic point of contact between the human and the divine is not only fallacious but idolatrous.  There is no natural capacity of a human to “meet God half-way.”  But this does not necessarily preclude any gracious working of God the Spirit in a place where the name of Christ has yet to be preached.[iv]  The name of Christ must still be preached there, but we must remember that we are following Christ there.[v]


The prospects in Barth’s essay for a contemporary missional theology far outweigh the problems.  His central focus on Jesus Christ as Lord carries over for today with high yield.  I can only cite a few of the positive results here.  First, his essay as a whole fosters an attitude of modesty.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of the church.  Mission and theology are his servants.  This attitude of modesty toward one another and toward our Lord must be heard again and again.  It is needed ever more today when mission is often cast in light of its “success” or “growth” instead of its “obedience” or “faithfulness.”

The second prospect is Barth’s methodological application of the Protestant doctrine of justification to the activities of the church.  God’s grace is sufficient to justify the tasks of both theology and mission (5).  Mission may and must “grasp that it ultimately cannot justify itself at all but must place its hope in its being justified as an act of obedience” (9).  This is refreshing to hear in an age of pluralism.  The right of the church to evangelize is challenged constantly from within and from without.  But we do not have to justify our ecclesial obedience to ourselves or to the world.  God alone is the judge.

The final and most significant contribution of Barth’s essay to the contemporary understanding of the church’s mission is the missio Dei doctrine.  Barth connects the sending of the Son and the Spirit into the world with the sending of the church into the world (10).  This innovative connection roots the church’s mission to the very being of God.  Therefore, our missional motive is not just a matter of necessity, possibility, or desire.  It is a matter of the divine being in action through us in the world.  Our participation in God means our participation in mission.  To be saved is to be called.  May the two never again be separated!

[i] Karl Barth, “Die Theologie und die Mission in der Gegenwart,” Theologische Fragen und Antworten, Zollikon, 1957.  All citations come from Dr. Guder’s translation and pagination.

[ii] One could remain consistent with Barth’s theology while foregrounding more practical concerns and pragmatic criterions, because (1) he eventually turns to practical questions at the end of this essay, as well as at the end of each volume of his Church Dogmatics, and (2) his anti-pragmatic statements may be regarded as reactionary to both the overemphasis on the practical by his missionary audience and the pragmatist leanings of his liberal zeitgeist.

[iii] One could argue that Barth believes in a Christological prevenience of grace: Jesus Chirst’s work is once-for-all, and therefore accomplished “before” it is heard.  Hence, in this essay Barth can say concerning the heathens, “Christ has died and was raised for them precisely as such people” (6).

[iv] I am indebted to my own Wesleyan tradition for an interest in the doctrine of Prevenient Grace.  Leslie Newbigin’s work on the Prevenience of the Spirit in The Open Secret helps flesh this doctrine out in a more Barthian vein.

[v] It is worth noting that missional theology tends to focus on the imagery of “being sent,” but we must not forget the biblical imagery of “following.”