Dialectical theology, foundational to the theological system known as neo-orthodoxy, is the idea that God is unknowable to human beings outside of His grace and direct revelation. According to dialectical theology, all attempts to know God through human reason are frustrated by insurmountable contradictions; thus, reason must give way to faith. Dialectical theologians focus upon God’s transcendence rather than attempt to explain God in human terms. The word dialectic refers to the logical discussion of ideas through opposing forces, such as using paradox to describe an abstract thought.
A German pastor named Karl Barth is credited with introducing dialectical theology in his work Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919. Alarmed at the liberal direction of the church following the First World War, Barth dove into Scripture and emphasized humanity’s sinful state under the judgment of God. His comparisons of God’s holiness vs. man’s depravity also earned his ideas the title “the theology of crisis” or “crisis theology”—the crisis being the danger the world was in due to the pending judgment of God.
Echoing some of the theological themes of the Reformation, dialectical theology sets up a contrast between “religion” and “faith.” Religion, according to dialectical theology, is the product of the human intellect and the keeping of formalities and ritual. Faith, on the other hand, is the product of unscheduled and surprising encounters with the transcendent God. Using the paradoxical style typical of dialectical theology, Barth wrote that God is the “utterly unobjectifiable source of the crisis of all objectivity, the judge, and the nonbeing of the world” (Der Romerbrief, p. 57).
In contrast to dialectical theology is natural theology, which states that knowledge of God can be gained through a combination of observing nature and reasoning. Barth rejected natural theology, seeing it as leading to religious syncretism.
Although liberal scholars rejected his message and many conservatives believed Barth carried his ideas to unnecessary extremes, Barth’s dialectical theology transformed Protestant thought and contributed to Barth’s reputation as being one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.