Karl Barth: "Prophet" to the Church

Swiss theologian Karl Barth has been called “the most outstanding and consistently evangelical theologian that the world has seen in modern times.” Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) called Barth the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. By any measure, Karl Barth has had a profound influence on modern Christian leaders and scholars across a wide variety of traditions.

Student days and faith crisis

Barth was born in 1886, at the height of liberal theology’s influence in Europe. He was a student-disciple of Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922), a leading proponent of what was described as self-authenticating religious experience in German Protestant thought. Barth wrote of him, “Herrmann was the theological teacher of my student years.” In these early years, Barth also followed the liberal teachings of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). “I was inclined to believe him blindly,” he wrote.

Barth served as pastor for the Reformed congregation of Safenwil, Switzerland, between 1911 and 1921. In August 1914 his liberal Christian belief system “was shaken to the foundations” by a manifesto signed by 93 German intellectuals in support of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s military aspirations. The liberal theology professors Barth venerated were among the group. “I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history,” he said.

Barth believed his teachers had betrayed the Christian faith. “When the Christian gospel was changed into a statement, a religion, about Christian self-awareness, the God was lost sight of who in His sovereignty confronts man, calling him to account, and dealing with him as Lord.”

Eduard Thurneysen (1888-1974), pastor from a nearby village and Barth’s close friend from their student days, experienced a similar faith crisis. One day, Thurneysen whispered to Barth, “What we need for preaching, instruction and pastoral care is a ‘wholly other’ theological foundation.”

Together they struggled to find a new basis for Christian theology. “We tried to learn our theological ABC all over again…by reading and interpreting the writing of the Old and New Testaments, more thoughtfully than before” and “they began to speak to us.” A return to gospel basics was needed. “We must begin all over again with a new inner orientation,” he concluded, “recognizing God once more as God.”

Romans and Church Dogmatics

Barth’s ground-breaking commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, first appeared in 1919 and was completely rewritten for a 1922 edition. His reworked Romans introduced a bold new theological system “concerned quite simply with God in his independent sovereignty over against man, and especially the religious man.”

Barth found a “new world” in Paul’s letter to the Romans and in other scriptures that spoke “not the right human thoughts about God but the right divine thoughts about men.” He declared God as “the wholly other” — beyond our comprehension, hidden from us, alien to our sensibilities — knowable only in Christ. Barth said “God’s very deity, rightly understood, includes his humanity,” and should be thought of as “a doctrine of God and man.”

In 1921 Barth was appointed to the position of professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen, where he taught until 1925. There he lectured on dogmatics, which he described as “reflection on the Word of God as revelation, holy scripture and Christian preaching…as it is actually given.”

Barth became professor of dogmatics and New Testament exegesis at the University of Münster in July 1925 and five years later was appointed to the chair of systematic theology at Bonn, a position he held until 1935. In 1932, Barth published the first section of his Church Dogmatics. The new work grew year by year out of his class lectures.

The Dogmatics has four “volumes,” each in two or more part-volumes or sections and consists of 13 separate books in English, in 8,000 pages and 6 million words. Barth planned five volumes, one for each of the major doctrines of the faith: Revelation or the Word of God (CD I), God (CD II), Creation (CD III), Reconciliation (CD IV), and Redemption (CD V). He was unable to complete the Reconciliation volume, and the Redemption volume remained unwritten at his death.

Thomas F. Torrance described Barth’s Dogmatics as “far and away the most original and remarkable contribution to systematic theology that the modern age has seen.” He called CD II, parts 1 and 2 “the high point of Barth’s Dogmatics,” especially “his doctrine of God as being-in-his-act and act-in-his-being.” Torrance believed CD IV to be “the most powerful work on the doctrine of atoning reconciliation ever written.”

Christ: elected one and elector

Barth challenged the full range of Christian doctrine, reinterpreting existing theology in the light of the Incarnation. He said: “My new task was to rethink everything that I had said before…as a theology of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Barth sought to position Christian preaching as an activity that proclaims “the mighty acts of God” rather it being “a proclamation of the acts and words of man.”

Christ is the center of the Dogmatics from beginning to end. “Karl Barth was a Christian theologian, one concerned above all with the uniqueness and centrality of Christ and his Gospel,” according to Torrance. Barth said, “If one goes wrong here, one is wrong all along the line.” This starting point in Christ kept him free from entrapment in “natural theology,” the idea that man “has a legitimate authority of his own over the message and the form of the church.”

Barth insisted that Christ is the revealing and reconciling address of God to man, and as Thomas Torrance explained, “the place where we know the Father.” “God is known only through God,” Barth would say. True talk about God exists “when it conforms to Jesus Christ.” Barth insisted that “between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two.” For Barth, it is in Christ that “God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God.”

Barth declared “the divine predestination” to be “the election of Jesus Christ” with “a double reference — to the elector and to the elected.” Jesus Christ is “the electing God” and “also elected man.” Election, then, has to do wholly with Jesus Christ, in whose election we are elected by him to share. “In the light of the election of the man Jesus, all election can be described only as free grace,” Barth concluded.

Before and after World War II

Barth’s teaching years at Bonn coincided with Adolph Hitler’s rise to national power. The Protestant church in Germany, the “German Christians,” supported Hitler, believing the Führer was sent by God to rescue the nation. In April 1933 the “Evangelical Church of the German Nation” was created on the idea that the German ethos “about race, blood, soil, people, state” was a second basis and source of revelation for the church. In response, the Confessing Church was formed, utterly rejecting this nationalist, human-based ideology, with Barth as one of its leaders.

The church produced the May 1934 Barmen Declaration, mostly written by Barth and echoing his Christ-centered theology. The Declaration in six statements called on the church to give faithful allegiance to Jesus Christ rather than to human powers and authorities. As Barth would say, “There is no different source of church proclamation from this one Word of God.”

Barth was suspended from teaching at Bonn in November 1934 for refusing to sign an unqualified oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler. Formally dismissed from his position in June 1935, he was immediately offered the chair of theology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, a post he held until his retirement in 1962.

Barth was invited back to Bonn in post-war 1946, where he delivered a series of lectures published the following year as Dogmatics in Outline. The book, using the Apostles’ Creed as a framework, discussed themes he had developed in his massive Church Dogmatics.

In 1962, Barth visited the USA, lecturing at Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago. According to church lore, during his trip he was asked to summarize the theological meaning of the millions of words in the Church Dogmatics. Barth thought for a moment and said: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Whether or not he actually said this, it is the way Barth would often answer a question. It undergirds his understanding that at its heart the gospel is a simple message pointing to Christ as our Savior who loves us with a perfect, godly love.

Barth did not consider his revolutionary Dogmatics as the last word in theology, but “as the opening of a new conversation.” He mused about the ultimate importance of this work: “I shall be able to dump even the Church Dogmatics…on some heavenly floor as a pile of waste paper.” He concluded in his last lectures that his theological insights would require rethinking in the future because the Church “is directed every day, indeed every hour, to begin again at the beginning.” Karl Barth died in Basel on December 10, 1968 at the age of 82.

Sources used

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960).

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. I.1, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (T&T Clark, 1975).

Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (William B. Eerdmans, 1975).

Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (T&T Clark, 1991).

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