Approaching Karl Barth

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in post-Reformation Protestant theology, perhaps even more so than Friedrich Schleiermacher a century before; and his importance reaches well beyond that tradition. In the context of nineteenth and twentieth-century theology, he - more than any other - restored Christian theology to strength. Although himself at first deeply immersed in the "modern theology" which had begun with the Enlightenment, Barth became the pivotal figure in the transformation of theology during the early twentieth century. He found a critical basis - the "theological object" - by which to respond to the previous era: ever-renewed engagement with this, and from it the building of a comprehensive account of Christian theology, became his main achievements.

His progress with the task advanced through several stages. At first, he issued a call for radical correction; and later he moved toward, and eventually provided, a remarkably full account of the scope of Christian belief which showed the marks of his continuing struggle for truth. Its sharpness on the one hand, and its comprehensiveness on the other, turned the tide of conviction about what Christian theology should now be.

Commensurate with its importance, Barth's theology has drawn wide comment, but often of such a kind as to content itself with interpreting him without moving far forward with the "further work which is needed today."1 In any case, as with the most valuable theology, it is better to read Barth's own writing. And it needs to be encountered with the utmost seriousness, as testing all aspects of belief and life. That is not to suggest that it cannot, or should not, be questioned: the reader needs also to reach through the particular notions and words used by Barth to recall us to the "theological object" which so much concerned him, the dynamic relation of the divine and the human, and to ask whether he has discerned this fully or appropriately. The very task of "finding the 'theological object'" presumes that Barth and his reader will test each other. What we will therefore attempt to provide here is an introduction to the most central aspects of Barth's theology in which this mutual testing needs to go on, together with suggestions as to where critical examination might lead.


Heir to two Reformed theological dynasties, Sartorius and Barth, Karl Barth was the first son of Johann Friedrich Barth, a pastor from the conservative wing of his church and lecturer at the ten-year-old College of Preachers in Basel, Switzerland, who three years later became professor in early and modern church history at the University of Berne. Raised and schooled in the strong affirmations of Christian faith, Barth studied philosophy and theology at the leading universities of Germany: deterred by his father from the pursuit of the liberal theology then prevalent, he began his studies at Berne, but soon went on to Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg, and studied under those most influential at the time: Adolf von Harnack, whose disciple Barth claimed to be at that point, Julius Kaftan, Hermann Gunkel, Wilhelm Herrmann, and Adolf Schlatter. Despite his father's commitment to "positive theology," the young Barth became a disciple of the "modern school" of theology that - like so many who followed the adaptation of Christianity to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, other idealists, and the modern preoccupation with history -correlated the history of Christian religion with the human experience of the divine. Under the shadow of von Harnack, this was an uneasy combination, which often made the truth of faith fully dependent on historical research; but Barth worked all his life with the tools of historical criticism, while wanting to surpass it by standing before "the mystery of the subject matter" not merely the mystery of the document. He followed the liberal Wilhelm Herrmann in considering the inward certainty of faith as normative for ethical life.

Following his final theological examinations in 1908, Barth was ordained a pastor in the Bern Münster church, and served briefly as a pastor in the Jura Mountains before staying with Martin Rade and working for two terms as his editorial assistant in Marburg for the influential Die Christliche Welt, then for two years an assistant pastor in Geneva, where he first met leaders of the ecumenical movement. It was in Geneva that he met his future wife, Nelly Hoffmann (they had one daughter and four sons). In July 1911, he became pastor of Safenwil, a farming and industrial area near Zurich, where he remained for ten years; his friend and theological partner Eduard Thurneysen was nearby.

Confronted there by the misery of working people, he found himself responsible for preaching the gospel to them, but his theology proved unequal to the task. Joining the religious Social Democratic Party (led by Ragaz and Kutter), much involved in the labor movement, and deeply disturbed, at the outbreak of World War I, to find that his teachers were among those supporting the Kaiser in making war, he found how bankrupt the theology he had learned was, and how close it was to the ideology of the "cultivated" Europe then tearing itself apart. As a result he broke with the theology in which he had been trained, and rejected any easy linking of social action with the Kingdom of God; now theologically realistic hope for the Kingdom of God became central to his thinking. Finding a new theological basis became a matter of urgency; and he sought to engage with historical criticism while yet looking through it and allowing the Word of God in scripture to come afresh to him, free - he hoped - of accommodation to the culture of the day.

The outward story of his next years is multifaceted but straightforward, though its significance is much debated. It had two decisive strands, the theological and the political, both of them important throughout his life, although we can only consider the theological here. His early public opposition to the prevailing theology, in lectures and papers,2 and also in a Commentary on Romans at first published in Berne (1919) but soon much more widely distributed by a prominent Munich publisher, brought him notoriety and an invitation to an honorary professorship of Reformed theology at Göttingen to begin in October 1921. A group sympathetic to the "dialectical theology" Barth advocated also founded a journal, Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times); it included Barth, Eduard Thurneysen, and Friedrich Gogarten, with Georg Merz (of Christian Kaiser Verlag) as editor.

When Barth went to Göttingen, without advanced study in theology, he was unprepared for his teaching responsibilities in Reformed confession, doctrine, and church life. He began a time of intensive research into figures he had barely read previously, concentrating on Calvin and Zwingli, Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, Anselm and Aquinas. The task was daunting, but as he faced it Barth began the extended series of engagements with theological tradition that was to be a hallmark of his subsequent theology, a "third party" in Barth's engagement with the Bible. It was in Göttingen that he also started explicitly dogmatic work, in his case a dialectical re-reading of the Reformed tradition; it began his steady effort to replace the defective theology he was dismantling with a better one.3

In 1925 he became professor of dogmatics and New Testament exegesis at Münster, where he was in close contact with philosophy and Catholicism. There, Barth set about writing what was to be a multi-volume Christian Dogmatics, but only the first volume appeared in 1927; and - closely linked - there were lectures on ethics in 1928.4 In 1930, as the West sank into recession, and amid a social and political crisis in Germany, he came to the chair of systematic theology at Bonn, immediately attracting crowds of students. Although he was distracted by intensifying disagreement with the others involved in Zwischen den Zeiten, which eventually brought about its discontinuance, his lecturing continued along the same lines as at Münster. When the full implications of Hitler's policies became apparent in the early 1930s, his trenchant stand on the predicament of theology, which was simultaneously a political stand, a plea for going "to the heart of the matter," was widely known; and Barth largely drafted the Theological Declaration of the "Confessing Church" declaring its opposition to the German Church assimilated to Hitler's policies. In the end, his refusal to take an oath of unconditional loyalty to Hitler resulted in disciplinary proceedings, dismissal, and an appeal after which he was "pensioned off"; further publications by him were banned in Germany. He was called to a chair at Basel, where he wrote his major multi-volume work Church Dogmatics, and from where he actively engaged with the world of theology and society. When in 1962 he retired from the teaching which had given him the contact with students through which all the previous material had been refined, that ended an "essential part of the impulse" of his work. He went on a tour of America, but afterward was hospitalized for some time. Furthermore, he was now without the assistance of the woman who had been his close collaborator through the whole project, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, herself seriously ill. Within the limits of his health, he remained active until his death in 1968.

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