Karl Barth on Christmas

The Christmas message is beautifully simple, yet wonderfully profound. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The simplicity of this good news can be grasped by a child. And yet its profound meaning and significance stagger the imagination. “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; He who was manifested in the flesh…” (1 Tim. 3:16). The profound significance of the incarnation is briefly put by Paul: “but when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).

Scripture explains Christmas in terms of God’s incomprehensible love demonstrated in the sending of his only-begotten Son to save his people from their sins. He who became incarnate and was born of the virgin Mary after conception by the Holy Spirit, was the second person of the blessed Trinity, the eternal Son. As had been revealed previously, this incarnation of God’s eternal Son had for its purpose the atonement for man’s guilt by satisfying the wrath of a righteous God through Christ’s substitutionary death on Calvary’s cross. Hence the good news of this unique event, which displays the magnitude of God’s love in providing for man’s redemption, always includes an urgent command for men to repent of their sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

A visit down-town convinces one that the tinsel, glitter, and blare of commercialism have perverted the Christmas gospel into a silly simplicity. But the commercial world is not alone in distorting the meaning of Christmas. More serious is the perversion that comes from some pulpits, churches, and theologians. Liberal theologians, we know, emptied Christmas of all its profound significance. They denied the supernatural, redemptive meaning of Christmas.

But what about the neo-orthodox theologians of today? Have they regained the basic ingredients of the gospel which enable them to set forth the biblical meaning of Christmas?

Karl Barth has written a little book entitled Christmas. I It consists of nine brief essays which were originally published in German newspapers during 1926–1933. During these years Hitler gradually usurped dictatorial power in Germany, and it must have taken some courage to voice even the veiled protest which Barth put into his Christmas essays. The Bavarian newspaper which published the early articles was not free to publish the final three. And later Barth was actually ousted from Germany because of his opposition to the Hitler regime.

Barth’s aim is laudable, for in these essays he desires to set forth the biblical significance of Christmas. One can also appreciate his protest against the pagan ritualism that had invaded many German Christmas celebrations, even as the frivolous carnivals reminiscent of paganism precede the German Lenten season. In the context of his exposition, Barth also tries to apply the Christmas message to the social and political situation of his day, although he does it in a very strange way.

At the outset Barth disavows any intention to set forth some private religious or philosophical speculation. His aim is simply to present “the special and central message of Christmas” (p. 9). Most of the essays involve commentary upon a Christmas passage of Scripture. One reads much about John 1 and Luke 2. Barth emphasizes the joy and gladness of Christmas to readers filled with the tension of dictatorship and impending war. It is reported that numerous German readers of the early Hitler era regarded these essays as heart-warming messages from the Christmas Angel. Not only Protestants but also Roman Catholics and even Jews—it is said, especially Jews -read these essays gladly as they faced Nazi persecution.

One is struck by the report that many Jews were strengthened by Barth’s Christmas messages. Were they Christian Jews? did they perhaps become Christians by means of these messages? Did political situation lead to a united response of protest from oppressed minorities? Or was the nature of Barth’s Christmas messages such that diverse groups were able to read them and understand them in their own thought context?

The essays are brief and rather general in content. They are written in a popular style, and by their nature do not involve a specific and detailed elaboration of the viewpoint expressed. The possibility of reading them in terms of one’s own perspective is not excluded. It seems many do that today with Barth’s more popular writings. This possibility is not so real in the more scientific writings such as the Church Dogmatics. However, the careful reader will observe that Barth explains the Christmas message in these popular essays in a way quite different from evangelical, Reformed writers. Nor can it be claimed that the exposition set forth in these articles has been abandoned by Barth in his Church Dogmatics. In the preface to the second German edition of these Weihnacht essays in 1957, Barth states that he is happy that he does not need to retract or restate anything they contain.


In a few summarizing statements Barth gives us the gist of what he understands by Christmas. The Christmas story he calls “the outer garb of an incomprehensible but real encounter between God and man” (p. 43). Christmas means “God’s presence in our world, His presence as man among men and therefore God’s revelation to men. It means man’s reconciliation with God. That this happened and still happens, is the substance of the Christmas message” (p. 17). Or again, “this is the secret of Christmas: that God in Christ lived our life, bore its chain, suffered its grief, and died its death, so that all things that must be done to us are already done by Him…all is done already” (p. 52). But we must ask whether these summaries as explained in their contexts warrant the enthusiasm of the translator when he says “the message conveyed here is for all times and for all nations, the message of true Christmas over against disbelief, wavering, and sheer sentimentality” (p. 5).

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). In his first essay Barth is concerned with the Word (Logos) of this text. While Faust in Goethe’s classic finally settled upon Logos as thought, power, or deed, Barth insists that it means Word. “As the whole context shows, the evangelist undoubtedly understood by ‘Word’ (wherever he may have picked up the curious Logos conception ), a factual and concrete message which is addressed to all men who live in this world, a message which he himself received” (p. 9). Barth interprets John 1:14 to mean simply that God has spoken and still speaks. This incomparable Word “is an event which happened and which is still happening” (p. 10).

In such explanations it is evident that Barth does not view Christmas as the actual incarnation of God’s eternal Son. Christmas does not mean the birth of God’s Son.

Scripture presents the incarnation as a single event, it happened just once in history, though as a result the Son continues to have a genuine human nature. Barth’s incarnation event, on the other hand, is really the event of God’s revelation reaching man. It is an event that happens, and is still happening. Thus when Barth speaks of the conception by the Holy Spirit and of the virgin birth, he gives these classic phrases new meaning. Conception by the Holy Spirit means that this revelation event is always one in which God takes the initiative. Only God can conceive the revelatory word that is to be spoken. And the virgin birth which Barth defends is no more orthodox a view than is its rejection by liberals. Born of the virgin Mary, according to Barth, means that man is passive in the event of revelation. He is receptive, and is even made receptive by God. But according to Barth Christmas does not really involve the birth of a babe—God’s Son incarnate—from Mary.

When Barth considers the words of Luke 2:12, he views them figuratively. The swaddling clothes of the babe lying in a manger are taken to mean that divine revelation is always hidden and concealed. In this instance Barth appeals to Luther who also spoke of the swaddling clothes in a figurative way, although Luther clearly held to an orthodox view of Christmas. But Barth’s modalistic view of the Trinity involves him in insurmountable difficulty in understanding Christmas. Thus he speaks of the swaddling clothes as indication that God’s “revelation never has a recognisable form. To be divine it must be concealed” (p. 56). All that Christmas really means then is that God was pleased to be finite, that is, “a definite, personal, speaking and acting God” (p. 61). Barth conceives of the Christmas story as a picture of God’s mode of revelation. He has misconstrued completely the nature of the unique, great redemptive event necessary in preparation for the atoning death and resurrection of God’s only begotten Son.


Mention was made earlier that Barth seeks to apply the message of Christmas to the social and political situation. In recent years Barth’s response to Communism has been regarded as a peculiar one. It is well known that he courageously opposed Nazism. These Christmas essays indicate, however, that Barth’s actual application of the message to the contemporary situation was also unusual.

A correct understanding of Christmas is, of course, the presupposition of a correct application. We have seen that BaI1h has not set forth the real meaning of Christmas. His view is a sad distortion of the gospel. And this distortion is also evident in the application. In contemplating the event of Christmas, Barth states that God has done the most unprincipled thing imaginable. He has become finite, he has. become man. This constantly repeated event can not be made a part of a system. Then Barth turns to this strange application. The Germans ought therefore to abandon their principles, their ideologies, and their convictions. He does not state that these Nazi principles are wrong and in conflict with the Christmas message. All he suggests is that they should abandon these principles and bestow the same reverence, love, and trust upon Christ. If God had wanted to deal with men according to his principle, he would never have become man, says Barth. Therefore the Germans should abandon their principles too. And as Barth emphasizes the joy and gladness of Christmas, he does so in a universalistic sense without the urgent appeal to repent and believe. It need hardly be added that the joy and gladness of Christmas as Barth presents them have no biblical basis.


Barth’s Christmas essays have a hollow and empty ring. Reading through them is as disappointing as a walk down Main Street in the Christmas season. In Barth’s essays one does not hear the biblical message of God’s great love in sending his own eternal Son in order to become incarnate and as the incarnate one to bear the guilt of our sins and by his death to make atonement unto the Father. Barth has interestingly adapted himself to familiar words, but he has woven these words into a new fabric. The sound of familiar words may lead some hasty readers of these essays to take Barth in a more orthodox way. But to do so is to miss the point of what Barth is actually meaning to say.

Christmas is a time of great joy and gladness! Although Barth has failed to set forth the true meaning of Christmas, he can not alter the event of the Son’s genuine incarnation. Nor can he alter the true meaning and significance of our Lord’s birth. His own explanation fails to present the true meaning, however. Barth is not a trustworthy guide. As a theologian he has failed to reproduce the message of the Word of God. He has lost the beautiful simplicity of Christmas. And in the profundity of his own thinking, he has lost the wonderful profundity of the Christmas message. For God did send forth his Son “born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).