Karl Barth’s Letter Endorsing Hans Küng’s Justification
Hans Kung and Karl Barth

Hans Kung and Karl Barth
(source: KBarth.org)

Karl Barth responded to Hans Küng's book, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection. in the follow letter with this remarkable endorsement of Hans Küng's book! Karl Barth had written in his Church Dogmatics Vol. 4 that only a superficial Protestant would be able to accept the Canons of Trent that condemned Justification By Faith Alone (especially Canon 12.) Yet, in the following letter, Barth changes his position after reading Küng's Justification and declares that he approves of Küng's assessment of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification, and Trent was no longer a barrier for him in terms of reconciliation between the separated Churches.

Justification has tremendously influential over the last fifty years. Karl Rahner wrote about Justification in an essay in Theological Investigations Vol. IV, that Karl Barth's approval of Hans Küng's Justification should be accepted despite critics that believed that Barth's Church Dogmatics could not be harmonzedrather than those who say that Barth's Dogmatics is not correctly represented by Küng. Karl Rahner also provides an amazing endorsement of Hans Küng in Theological Investigations Vol. IV, when Rahner wrote, "One can be a Catholic and hold this doctrine of justification, which Karl Barth has declared to be the same as his own."

A Letter To The Author by Karl Barth

My dear Hans Küng,

You have asked me to put in writing something about that book of yours—more than once a subject of conversation between us. Why not? And if you really want to incorporate this note of mine into your book, then something novel, something unique, will have come about in theological literature; and why shouldn’t this happen, too? Starting things have taken place lately in this area of study—in what used to be called the “Theology of Controversy.” And as I reflect on these recent developments, I must confess that your book, dealing with my view of justification, is so especially startling that it would hardly add to the shock if I made a personal appearance in it with a few lines of my own. First, let me make three comments on the content of your book:

1. I here gladly, gratefully, and publicly testify not only that you have adequately covered all significant aspects of justification treated in the ten volumes of my Church Dogmatics published so far, and that you have fully and accurately reproduced my views as I myself understand them; but also that you have brought all this beautifully into focus through your brief yet precise presentation of details and your frequent references to the larger historical context. Furthermore, your readers may rest assured—until such time as they themselves might get to my books—that you have me say what I actually do say and that I mean it in the way you have me say it.

2. The positive conclusion of your critique is this: What I say about justification—making allowance for certain precarious yet not insupportable turns of phrase—does objectively concur on all points with the correctly understood teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. You can imagine my considerable amazement at this bit of news; and I suppose that many Roman Catholic readers will at first be no less amazed—at least they come to realize what a cloud of witnesses you have produced in support of your position. All I can say is this: If what you have presented in Part Two of this book is actually the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, then I must certainly admit that my view of justification agrees with the Roman Catholic view; if only for the reason that the Roman Catholic teaching would then be most strikingly in accord with mine! Of course, the problem is whether what you have presented here really represents the teaching of your Church. This you will have to take up and fight out with biblical, historical, and dogmatic experts among your coreligionists. I don’t have to assure you that I am keenly interested in discovering what reception your book will find among them. For my part, I can only acknowledge and reflect upon the fact that you have presented considerable evidence in support of this sort of understanding and interoperation of the teaching of your Church.

3. The negative conclusion of your critique is this: Due to my erroneous (because unhistorical) evaluation of the definitions and declarations collected in Denzinger and of the statements of the Church’s magisterium in general, I have been guilty of a thoroughgoing misunderstanding and, consequently, of a thoroughgoing injustice regarding the teaching of your Church, especially that of the Fathers of Trent. Quid dicemus ad haec? If the things you cite from Scripture, from older and more recent Roman Catholic theology, from Denzinger and hence from the Tridentine text, do actually represent the teaching of your Church and are establishable as such (Perhaps this single book of yours will be enough to create a consensus!), then, having twice gone to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trent to commune with the genius loci, I may very well have to hasten there are third time to make a contrite confession—“Fathers, I have sinned.” But taking the statements of that Sixth Session as we now have them before us—statements correctly or incorrectly formulated for reasons then considered compelling—don’t you agree that I should be permitted to plead mitigating circumstances for the considerable difficulty I had trying to discover in that text what you have found to be true Catholic teaching? Imagine! So unexpected a view of freedom, of grace, of juridico-real justification and its realization and foundation in Christ’s death, of the formulae simul justus et peccator and sola fide, and so on! How do you explain the fact that all this could hidden so long, and from so many, both outside and inside the Church? And now for my own salvation, may I just whisper a question (a very confidential question, but one not liable to detract from your book in the mind of any serious reader): Did you yourself discover all this before you so carefully read my Church Dogmatics or was it while you were reading it afterward?

And now I come at last to the most important point, that is, to tell you what great pleasure I have derived from your book.

This is, first of all, simply because of the open-minded and resolute way you seem to have addressed yourself at the Germanicum in Rome to Roman Catholic exegesis and to history of dogma and theology, and then proceeded, like an undaunted son of Switzerland, to study my books as well and to come to rips with the theological phenomena you encountered in them. Then too, I admire and applaud the skill and sound German of your argument. Regardless of the problems touched on above, and regardless of the reception and success your book may have, it is a very noteworthy achievement; and the work you have done will not be wasted so far as your priestly and scholarly future is concerned. Moreover, I do not hesitate to tell you that, so far as your while attitude is concerned, I feel that I may regard you as a true Israelite, in whom there is no guile.

So then, like Noah I look forth from the window of my ark and salute your book as another clear omen that the flood tide of those days when Catholic and Protestant theologians would talk only against one another polemically or with one another in a spirit of noncommittal pacifism, but preferably not at all—that flood tide is, if not entirely abated, at least definitely receding. “Divided in faith?” It is true, as you yourself know and insist, that the problem seen from either side is beset with such difficulties, that the hour, humanly speaking, would seem still a long way off when both sides no longer would be forced to admit that, yes, unfortunately, we are divided in faith. The idea that I might be a crypto-Catholic or you a crypto-Protestant—let us hope that neither of these foolish nations will occur to any of your readers. Yet it is true, isn’t it, that today a few on both sides, you and I among them, are coming to realize that, while we are divided in faith, we are divided within the same faith—the same, because and insofar as we and you can believe in the self-same Lord. Those who begin to see this may and must talk to one another, but with a new approach; they should proceed from points on which they are united to discuss what separates them; and discuss what separates them with an eye to what unites them. And how else can this happen, as you say so well in your Introduction, but by our holding u to each other the mirror of the gospel of Jesus Christ?—not forgetting that on both sides the “converts” will be those who turn to examine their own countenance ever more carefully in that mirror. And what will be the effect of such a mutual use of this mirror, at least initially, but that people will try, as you have tried in your book, to view one another in the best possible light? These are small and perhaps even problematical steps forward, but in any event better than none at all. Involved as you are with a subject so crucial as justification, you have taken a rather sizable step; how feasible a step remains to be seen. When and if this step proves to have been well taken, many others will have to follow. DO not content yourself with the fine beginning you have made in this important search. It will certainly take quite an effort, once (as we hope) the central area has been cleared, to make somewhat plausible to us matters like Transubstantiation, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Mary, and the infallible papacy, and the other thing with which we are confronted—pardon me, I could not resist picking up Denzinger again—in the Tridentine profession of faith. But these are for the future to worry about. Significant and sufficiently rewarding for the day is this, that the view in both directions (in this division within in the self-same faith between people who believe otherwise but in no Other!) will open up and brighten up again. For this, we on both sides can give thanks. For the rest—Veni Creator Spiritus!

Now then, may God bless you.

Cordially yours,

Karl Barth Basel,

31 January, 1957

Hans Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, pg lxvii-lxix.


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