The History of Interpretation of Karl Barth’s Ecclesiology from 1927 to 2015

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This dissertation investigates the interpretation of Karl Barth’s ecclesiology from 1927 through 2015. The history of interpretation of Karl Barth’s ecclesiology has never been attempted in such a comprehensive way as what is attempted in this dissertation. That is its basic contribution.

The primary argument of the dissertation is that Barth’s ecclesiology has been mischaracterized in five different ways. The investigation reveals that Karl Barth’s ecclesiology has thrilled and puzzled interpreters. They end up characterizing Barth in a largely appreciative way or dismissive way but in whatever way, it is reductive. When all the secondary literature is investigated it is revealed that Sacramental interpreters applaud the fierceness with which he defends the importance of the church in the midst of a confused world but are disturbed by what they perceive to be his lack of attention to the institutional church. Free Church interpreters gloat in his denunciation of infant baptism and his preference for congregational polity but wonder why he is not even more firmly congregationalist. Architectonic interpreters bask in the genius of his Trinitarian and Christological descriptions of the church but then criticize him when he does not hew to their elegant explanations. Actualistic interpreters, disenchanted with the institutional church, relish his attacks on religion in his early commentaries on Romans but ignore that he calls his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics. Missionary interpreters trumpet his emphasis on witness but play down his obsessive denunciation of syncretism. When all of this is seen, it becomes clear that Barth’s ecclesiology defies easy characterization. The specific evidence for different characterizations are identified and analyzed in light of what Barth really said. Sometimes the characterizations are due to a misreading of what Barth was saying. Other times Barth’s interpreters have identified an isolated statement that Barth developed elsewhere more adequately. The great advantage of this close analysis is to convey the complexity and nuance of ecclesiology. Someone who generally shares Barth’s approach to ecclesiology may learn what objections may be posed by other church traditions. For people critical of Barth’s ecclesiology, they can more adequately weigh whether indeed their critiques are well-founded.

The secondary argument of the dissertation, impossible to prove, is that Karl Barth’s ecclesiology is reasonably solid ecclesiology. The dissertation seeks to take seriously the major accusations hurled at his ecclesiology and they are found wanting. The dissertation concludes with what Barth wanted the church to be—over against the five schools of interpretation—practicing, local, catholic, confessing, and witnessing.


Doctor of Theology




Rowell, Andrew Dale (2016). The History of Interpretation of Karl Barth’s Ecclesiology from 1927 to 2015. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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