Introduction to Karl Barth (1886-1968)

[Bart pronunciation]

Charles Bellinger


Reno, p. 23, "an appreciative reader of Karl Barth ..."

If you think that there are only two alternatives in contemporary Christianity, to be a liberal or to be a fundamentalist, you are mistaken. There are, of course, many possibilities, and any simplistic dichotomy is false. At the very least we can say that there is an alternative to liberalism and fundamentalism that is sometimes called Neo-orthodoxy or Postliberalism. Karl Barth was the main architect of this approach to theology.


1    Introduction to the "early" Barth

      Karl Barth was born in 1886 in Basle, Switzerland

the first son of Johann Friedrich and Anna Katharina Barth. 

His father was a pastor whose theological perspective was relatively conservative. 

      When Barth entered the University of Berne in 1904, he set out to follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a pastor. 

      During his college and seminary years, he gradually came under the influence of the liberal theology to which his father was opposed. 

      Itinerant studies:

Adolf Harnack at Berlin 1906-1907

University of Berne again 1907

Tübingen 1907-1908

Wilhelm Herrmann at Marburg 1908-1909

Protestant liberalism

religious socialism

      Ordained Nov. 1908 in Berne, 1909-1911 assistant pastor in Geneva

       Safenwil 1911-1921, he became known as the "red pastor," because of his political leanings. 

      1913 marries Nelly Hoffmann; they eventually had five children

      Eduard Thurneysen, pastor in Leutwil, became close friend of Barth

       1914, the Great War breaks out and Barth was deeply affected 

The scope of the devastation and human tragedy led Barth to the conclusion that 19th century Protestant liberalism was a mistake of immense proportions.  He was dismayed when he saw his former professors, who had been teaching "human progress" and "the kingdom of God," become advocates of the German war effort. 

       Barth and Thurneysen began meeting regularly, with a view to the formulation of a different theology from that which they had been taught.  The first major result of their efforts was Barth's book: The Epistle to the Romans.  Barth began writing it in 1916; first published in 1918, and substantially revised in 1921.  This second edition, which showed the great influence upon Barth of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, became a sensation in the German-speaking theological world.  It was "a bombshell which landed on the playground of the theologians."  The work took the general form of a commentary, but it was really more like a fiery sermon which continued on for more than 500 pages.  Barth criticized the tradition of 19th century liberal theology at its roots, with strident criticisms which opened up a new chapter in the history of theology.  In a sense, Barth picked up and carried forward Kierkegaard's critique of the "established Church," with its "enlightened" theology, which actually amounted to a failure to practice true Christian discipleship. 

 Excerpts from Romans:

"When I am named 'Biblicist', all that can rightly be proved against me is that I am prejudiced in supposing the Bible to be a good book, and that I hold it to be profitable for readers to take its conceptions at least as seriously as they take their own." (12)

"The Gospel is not a truth among other truths.  Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truth. . . .  Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel—that is, Christian apologetics—is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome." (35)

"The righteousness of God is righteousness from the outside . . . for the Judge pronounces His verdict according to the standard of His righteousness only.  Unlike any other verdict, His verdict is creative: He pronounces us, His enemies, to be His friends." (93)

"The Love of God cannot be tangibly observed or concretely assessed either in individuals or in the generality of men.  The Love of God is not a 'property,' which men may achieve or inherit, or which inheres in them.  Rightly understood, there are no Christians: there is only the eternal opportunity of becoming Christians—an opportunity at once accessible and inaccessible to all men." (321)

"The more successfully the good and the right assume concrete form, the more they become evil and wrong [...].  Supposing the right were to take the form of theocracy, supposing, that is to say, superior spiritual attainment were concretized into an ideal Church and all the peoples of the earth were to put their trust in it; if, for example, the Church of Calvin were to be reformed and broadened out to be the Church of the League of Nations;—this doing of the supreme right would then become the supreme wrong-doing.  This theocratic dream comes abruptly to an end, of course, when we discover that it is the Devil who approaches Jesus and offers Him all the kingdoms of this world.  It ends also with Dostoevsky's picture of the Grand Inquisitor.  Men have no right to possess objective right against other men.  And so, the more they surround themselves with objectivity, the greater is the wrong they inflict upon others." (479)

      Barth's book made such a great impact on the theological scene, that he was immediately given a teaching position at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  Between 1925 and 1930 he taught at the University of Münster, and from 1930 to 1935 at the University of Bonn. 

2    Barth's involvement in the resistance to Hitler

Hitler came into power in 1933, having been elected Chancellor of Germany, a prime example of Kierkegaard's belief that the crowd is untruth.  Barth saw the National Socialist regime as a disaster in the making which must be resisted as forcefully as possible.  His thinking along these lines was not only political, but theological as well.  He described the Nazis as "the last, fullest, and worst monstrosity of neo-Protestantism." (Busch, 230)

      From 1933 to 1935 Barth became one of the main leaders of the "Confessing Church" in Germany.  The Confessing Church was made up of those Christians in Germany who saw the rise of Naziism and its attempt to coopt Christianity as a dangerous threat to the integrity of the Christian faith.  Barth was the primary drafter of the creedal statement of the Confessing Church, which is known as the Barmen Declaration (1934).  Another prominent leader of the Confessing Church was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945.

      In June 1935 Barth was dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Bonn for his refusal to make the pledge of allegiance to Hitler which was required of all professors at state institutions.

      At that point he was expelled from Germany by the Nazis, and he returned to Basel Switzerland, where he was immediately given a teaching position at the University.  He remained there until his death in 1968.  His magnum opus during these three decades was the Church Dogmatics. During these years his writings established him as, arguably, the most important Christian theologian in the 20th century.  He is often included in the "short list" of the greatest theologians of Christian history, which includes Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher. 

3    Overview of the Church Dogmatics

      His central work, written between 1932 and 1968, is the Church Dogmatics.  This work contains 8000 pages of text published in twelve part-volumes.  In it Barth weaves together biblical interpretation, comments on the history of Western theology and philosophy, and his own systematic theology.  The Church Dogmatics is divided into four main parts, which Barth called "volumes": The Doctrine of the Word of God, The Doctrine of God, The Doctrine of Creation, and The Doctrine of Reconciliation.  Originally, Barth had planned to write a fifth volume, on The Doctrine of Redemption, but he had not finished the fourth volume at the time of his death. 

      One way of summarizing the message of the Church Dogmatics is to say that Barth was attempting to reaffirm the central teachings of the Protestant Reformation, in the wake of the Enlightenment and the development of historical criticism of the Bible.  Barth's theology is not "fundamentalist" but "neo-orthodox," which is to say that he rearticulates the central doctrines believed by Christians down through the centuries, but in a way which is responsive to the currents of modern thought and life, rather than merely dismissive of them. 

quote from Frei on prolixity:

Why the prolixity of the Church Dogmatics ?  Why its peculiar character of being at once accessible and yet so difficult to do justice to in exposition and commentary?  . . .

      Barth was about the business of conceptual description: He took the classical themes of communal Christian language molded by the Bible, tradition and constant usage in worship, practice, instruction and controversy, and restated or redescribed them, rather than evolving arguments on their behalf.  It was of the utmost importance to him that this communal language, especially its biblical fons et origo [sources], which, as we have noted, he saw as indirectly one with the Word of God, had an integrity of its own: It was irreducible.  But in that case its lengthy, even leisurely unfolding was equally indispensable.  For he was restating or re-using a language that had once been accustomed talk, both .. in ordinary or real life, and in ... theological reflection, but had now for a long time, perhaps more than 250 years, been receding from natural familiarity, certainly in theological discourse.   So Barth had as it were to recreate a universe of discourse, and he had to put the reader in the middle of that world, instructing him in the use of that language by showing him how—extensively, and not only by stating the rules or principles of the discourse. [comparison with Middle Earth]

 Hans Frei, "An Afterword: Eberhard Busch's Biography of Karl Barth," 110-111, in Karl Barth in Re-view: Posthumous Works Reviewed and Assessed, ed. H.-Martin Rumscheidt (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1981).

        In addition to the Church Dogmatics, Barth wrote many other books, which include the following: The Word of God and the Word of Man (1924), The Resurrection of the Dead (1924), The Epistle to the Philippians (1927), Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum (1931), The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1938), The Faith of the Church (1940), Protestant Theology in the 19th Century (1947), Christ and Adam (1952), The Humanity of God (1956), W. A. Mozart, 1756-1791 (1956), Deliverance to the Captives (1959), Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (1962).

4. Barth's Ethics

Barth has sometimes been accused of being a proponent of the idea of universal salvation. This is a bad thing in the eyes of those more traditional Christians who believe that it is important to believe in a hell where the lost suffer eternally. Barth never said "I am a universalist," or "universal salvation is the correct doctrine to believe in." Nevertheless, he did maintain a reverent silence before the possibility that in the end God's grace will overcome all human rebellion against it. Theologian Emil Brunner once described Barth's theology in this way: People think that they are drowning in the deep ocean; but if they would just stand up they would realize that they are in four feet of water. In other words, people just need to realize that God is gracious toward them and accept that grace; then they will feel secure instead of floundering around in their attempts to save themselves.

This is a good perspective from which to understand Barth's approach to Christian ethics. Barth's understanding of conversion is based on the formula: forgiveness, repentance, command. God's grace and forgiveness is free and sovereign; it always precedes us and surrounds us. When we accept God's forgiveness, then we are able to repent, to turn around and move away from our attempts to justify ourselves. When we truly repent, then we are in the position to hear God's command for the first time as a liberating word. God commands us to be free; God's command is a permission. In other words, when we are living in obedience to God we are truly free. Freedom and obedience are not opposing concepts for Barth because disobedience to God means various forms of slavery and ultimately the dissolution of selfhood. It is through obedience to God's command to us to live in grace that we truly find ourselves and find right relations with our neighbors. Barth's theology is not as directly political as that of Reinhold Niebuhr, but Barth was always very interested in politics and his theology has subtle themes which have been developed in the direction of liberation theology. An example of this is seen in the book On Reading Karl Barth in South Africa, edited by Charles Villa-Vicencio.