Karl Barth


BARTH, KARL (1886–1968)

Swiss theologian; one of the most influential Protestant leaders of the twentieth century
Barth was born in Basel and was the son of Fritz and Anna Sartorius Barth. His father was a pastor and professor of New Testament and church history in a school related to the Swiss Reformed Church. Karl Barth’s brother Peter edited a critical edition of John Calvin’s Reformation works; another brother, Heinrich, taught philosophy at the University of Basel. In 1913 Barth married Nelly Hoffmann, and they eventually had five sons, one of whom, Markus, became internationally known for biblical and theological scholarship.
Barth received his early schooling in Bern, where he showed an interest in military affairs, history, and drama. Following European custom, he studied at several universities: Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg. At Bern he was introduced to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology and, in time, went on to study with the leading neo–Kantian theologian, Wilhelm Herrmann of Marburg. Barth first studied at Berlin, however, where he was influenced by church historian Adolf von Harnack. To honor his father’s wishes, Barth then went to Tübingen to study with a conservative New Testament theologian, Adolf Schlatter. Finally, in 1908, Barth went to Marburg. He later considered Herrmann’s teaching the greatest single influence of his student days.
Barth’s training was typical of early twentieth–century German theology. Its anthropocentric philosophy of religion emphasized human understanding of God, human history as the outworking of God’s purposes, and human capacity to develop a society in which God’s purposes and human intelligence collaborated in ever–increasing progress.
Barth was ordained in the Swiss Reformed Church in 1909. He served one pastorate for two years in Geneva, and a second for ten years in the small town of Safenwil (canton Aargau).
In Safenwil, Barth renewed acquaintance with a fellow student from Marburg, Eduard Thurneysen, who had become pastor of another small church nearby. Together they struggled throughout the years of World War I to teach their congregations how to apply the Bible’s message in complex modern life. Initially they rejected a conservative emphasis on personal salvation in favor of a liberal stress on social change. Barth went so far in that emphasis that, contrary to ministerial custom, he joined a socialist political party.
In August 1914 the Western world was on the edge of total war, with Barth’s respected teachers supporting their nation’s military aims. Barth saw this is as a failure of German liberal theology to answer crucial modern questions. Turning to a fresh study of the Bible, Barth and Thurneysen found a whole new world. That new world was the “word of God” within the Bible that explains how God, solely in grace, seeks to redeem humankind. In 1917 the two published a book of sermons titled Seek God and You Shall Live.
Barth studied the apostle Paul’s letters, preparing manuscripts on Romans, Ephesians, and 2 Corinthians. In 1918 Barth’s commentary on Romans was published in an edition of one thousand copies. That early commentary marked the beginning of Barth’s departure from his liberal theological training. With a completely revised second edition of the commentary in 1921, his break with liberalism was complete. He then challenged contemporary theology by emphasizing God’s utter difference from humanity (that is, God’s transcendence). Because of that transcendence, Barth maintained, people need a revelation from God if he is to be known and obeyed. Barth was awesomely impressed by the fact that God has spoken his “word” to people, which became a fundamental idea in his theology.
Barth gradually refined his thought, developing a total theological system. In it he emphasized God’s holiness, his incomprehensibility to the human mind, and his sovereign grace. Barth’s early expressions of his “new orthodoxy” were strongly influenced by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski (1821–1881), as well as by a rediscovery of the Reformation emphasis on God’s grace.
Barth and Thurneysen were joined in their theological explorations by a number of other young theologians, including Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten. Barth eventually differed with his early companions on various issues, but their “new beginning” completely reshaped twentieth–century biblical interpretation. Barth spent over forty years teaching his new theology at several European universities: Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930), Bonn (1930–1935), and Basel (1935–1962).
When Adolf Hitler and National Socialism (Nazism) came to power in Germany in 1933, Barth and Thurneysen published a series of pamphlets entitled Theological Existence Today to oppose Hitler’s cultural perversion of the Christian faith. By 1934 Barth was a leader in the German movement known as the Confessing Church. He was the major framer of its statement of faith, the Barmen Declaration. Such activities forced him to flee in 1935 to Basel where, in addition to his new teaching responsibilities, he served in the Swiss army as a border guard. At the war’s end, Barth advocated Allied openness to helping the German people, a seeming turnaround that brought him sharp criticism from some of his colleagues.
The majority of Barth’s life was spent teaching and writing, with some public lecturing and preaching. His major writings include the commentary on Romans, Church Dogmatics (a multi–volume systematic theology of nearly seventy–five hundred pages, 1932–1967), The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928), Evangelical Theology (1963), and The Humanity of God (1960). In 1937 he gave the Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (Scotland), and in 1962 he lectured in America at Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago. During the decade before his retirement in 1962, Barth often preached to inmates in Basel’s prison.
Barth’s devotion to the gospel was shown by the topic he chose for his final lecture at Basel: divine love seeking humankind in Jesus Christ. For Barth, theology was a “particularly beautiful science” and a joyful task. He had a probing intellect, a sense of humor, and a humble spirit. Like Martin Luther, with whom he is often compared, Barth enjoyed music. He especially appreciated the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose portrait hung near that of John Calvin in Barth’s study.
Barth’s greatest influence was theological, with his emphasis on God’s sovereignty placing him firmly in the Reformed (Calvinistic) tradition. He differed radically from the mainstream of continental European theology, rejecting both its subjective emphasis on religious experience and the prevalent idea that Christian doctrine is subject to, or limited by, its historical origins. By reaffirming what Kierkegaard had called an “infinite qualitative difference” between God and humankind, Barth rescued theology from captivity to anthropology—that is, he reasserted God’s reality and sovereignty over human knowledge or imagination.
Three major themes characterize Barthian theology. First, Barth saw no justification for the idea of “natural theology.” In a crucial debate with his friend Emil Brunner (published in 1934), he contended that all human efforts to define God by means of natural observation end in idolatry. Against Brunner’s attempts to defend theology based on God’s revelation in nature, Barth stressed the crippling effect of sin on human reason. To Barth, people are innately sinful and unable to receive or comprehend God’s message apart from his redeeming grace. People will come to God only through faith in God’s self–revelation.
A second focus of Barth’s theology was the way God makes his revelation known. Human knowledge of God comes only as he discloses himself in his Word—manifested in Jesus Christ, in the Bible, and in Christian preaching.
Because Barth accepted certain higher critical views of Scripture, he refused to equate the words of the Bible and God’s inspired Word. Inspiration, for Barth, had more to do with the Bible reader than with either the Bible itself or its writers. The words of the Bible convey the Word of God as the Holy Spirit speaks through them to the reader. Perhaps more than any other aspect of Barth’s theology, his doctrine of Scripture created serious misgivings among many evangelical theologians.
Third, following Calvin, Barth insisted that true knowledge of God comes in obedience to God. Barth’s approach to theology was Christ centered. Jesus’ devotion to doing God’s will and his call to discipleship provided the model of obedient service.
Barth’s neoorthodox theology strengthened many Christian leaders in Europe, giving them a basis for standing against persecution. But its lack of objective criteria for judgment in theological matters created severe problems for its adherents. Some of the “death of God” theologians in the 1960s began as followers of Barth. Near the end of his career, Barth considered the “humanity of God” a corrective balance to his earlier radical stress on God’s transcendence. For all the shifts of emphasis in his later theology, however, he continued to defend the earlier position as being appropriate to the crisis in which it first appeared. H.Jacobsen

J. D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who’s Who in Christian History, Illustrated Lining Papers. (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997, c1992).

This Biographical Sketch comes from…

Who’s Who in Christian History

Who's Who in Christian HistoryAuthor: Douglas, J. D.; Comfort, Philip Wesley.; Mitchell, Donald
Publisher: Tyndale House |
Publication Date: 1997, c1992.

With over 1,500 biographical entries, this bibliographical dictionary is a comprehensive resource, spanning the first through the twentieth centuries-from Jesus and the apostles to Billy Graham and Mother Teresa. Any reader will be fascinated and inspired by the lives of men and women-well known and obscure-who were influential in Christian history. This one volume biographical dictionary is also a perfect resource for pastors, Bible teachers, Sunday school teachers, Bible students, and seminarians.

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