Who was Karl Barth?
Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) was a Swiss Reformed theologian. Barth is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. His influence expanded well beyond the academic realm to mainstream culture, leading him to be featured on the cover of Time on April 20, 1962.
Beginning with his experience as a pastor, he rejected his training in the predominant liberal theology typical of 19th-century European Protestantism. Instead he embarked on a new theological path initially called dialectical theology, due to its stress on the paradoxical nature of divine truth (e.g., God's relationship to humanity embodies both grace and judgment).
Other critics have referred to Barth as the father of neo-orthodoxy — a term emphatically rejected by Barth himself. The most accurate description of his work might be "a theology of the Word." The most prolific theologian of the twentieth century, his theological thought emphasized the sovereignty of God, particularly through his interpretation of the Calvinistic doctrine of election.
His most famous works are his The Epistle to the Romans, which marked a clear break from his earlier thinking; and his massive thirteen-volume work Church Dogmatics, one of the largest works of systematic theology ever written.
Early life and education
Born on 10 May 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich "Fritz" Barth and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth. Fritz Barth was a theology professor and pastor who would greatly influence his son’s life. In particular, Fritz Barth was fascinated by philosophy, especially the implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories on free will.
Barth spent his childhood years in Bern. From 1911 to 1921 he served as a Reformed pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton Aargau. In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffmann, a talented violinist. They had a daughter and four sons, one of whom was the New Testament scholar Markus Barth (6 October 1915 – 1 July 1994). Later he was professor of theology in Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930) and Bonn (1930–1935) (Germany).
While serving at Göttingen he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who became his long-time secretary and assistant; she played a large role in the writing of his epic, the Church Dogmatics. He had to leave Germany in 1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and went back to Switzerland and became a professor in Basel (1935–1962).
Barth was originally trained in German Protestant Liberalism under such teachers as Wilhelm Herrmann, but reacted against this theology at the time of the First World War. His reaction was fed by several factors, including his commitment to the German and Swiss Religious Socialist movement surrounding men such as Hermann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men such as Christoph Blumhardt and Søren Kierkegaard, and the effect of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.
The most important catalyst was, however, Barth's reaction to the support most of his liberal teachers had for German war aims. The 1914 "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World" carried the signature of his former teacher Adolf von Harnack.
Barth believed that his teachers had been misled by a theology which tied God too closely to the finest, deepest expressions and experiences of cultured human beings, into claiming divine support for a war which they believed was waged in support of that culture–the initial experience of which appeared to increase people's love of and commitment to that culture. Much of Barth's early theology can be seen as a reaction to the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
The Epistle to the Romans
In his commentary The Epistle to the Romans (Ger. Der Römerbrief), particularly in the thoroughly re-written second edition of 1922, Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.
In the decade following the First World War, Barth was linked with a number of other theologians–actually very diverse in outlook–who had reacted against their teachers' liberalism, in a movement known as "Dialectical Theology" (Ger. Dialektische Theologie). The members of the movement included Rudolf Bultmann, Eduard Thurneysen, Eberhard Grisebach, Emil Brunner, and Friedrich Gogarten.
In 1934, as the Protestant Church attempted to come to terms with the Third Reich, Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen declaration (Ger. Barmer Erklärung). This rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity by arguing that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as the German Führer, Adolf Hitler.
Barth mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church and Barth was elected a member of its leadership council, the Bruderrat.
He was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel.
In the course of his appointment he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defense. His answer was, "Yes, especially on the northern border!" In 1938 he wrote a letter to a Czech colleague, Josef Hromádka, in which he declared that soldiers who fought against the Third Reich were serving a Christian cause.
Barth's theology found its most sustained and compelling expression through his thirteen-volume magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics (Ger. "Kirchliche Dogmatik"). Widely regarded as one of the most important theological works of the century, if not ever, the Church Dogmatics represents the pinnacle of Barth's achievement as a theologian. Church dogmatics, which stands at over six million words and eight thousand pages in length, is one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written.
The Church Dogmatics address four major doctrines: Revelation, God, Creation, and Atonement or Reconciliation. Barth had initially also intended to complete his dogmatics addressing the doctrines of Redemption and eschatology, but decided not to complete the project in the later years of his life.
After the end of the Second World War, Barth became an important voice in support both of German penitence and of reconciliation with churches abroad. Together with Hans-Joachim Iwand, he authored the Darmstadt Statement in 1947–a more concrete statement of German guilt and responsibility for the Third Reich and Second World War than the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt of 1945.
In it, he made the point that the Church's willingness to side with anti-socialist and conservative forces had led to its susceptibility for National Socialist ideology. In the context of the developing Cold War, that controversial statement was rejected by anti-Communists in the West who supported the CDU course of re-militarization, as well as by East German dissidents, who believed that it did not sufficiently depict the dangers of Communism.
He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950. In the 1950s, Barth sympathized with the peace movement and opposed German rearmament.
Barth wrote a 1960 article for The Christian Century regarding the "East-West question", in which he denied any inclination toward Eastern communism and stated he did not wish to live under Communism or wish anyone to be forced to do so; he acknowledged a fundamental disagreement with most of those around him, writing: "I do not comprehend how either politics or Christianity require or even permit such a disinclination to lead to the conclusions which the West has drawn with increasing sharpness in the past 15 years. I regard anticommunism as a matter of principle an evil even greater than communism itself."
In 1962, Barth visited the United States and lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary, University of Chicago, Union Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary. He was invited to be a guest at the Second Vatican Council, after which he wrote a small volume, Ad Limina Apostolorum [At the Threshold of the Apostles].
Also in 1962, Barth was featured on the cover of the April 20 issue of Time, showing that his influence reached out of academic and ecclesiastical circles and into mainstream American religious culture.
The Theology of Karl Barth
One major objective of Barth is to recover the doctrine of the Trinity in theology from its putative loss in liberalism. His argument follows from the idea that God is the object of God’s own self-knowledge, and revelation in the Bible means the self-unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own intuition.
One of the most influential and controversial features of Barth's Dogmatics was his doctrine of election (Church Dogmatics II/2). Barth's theology entails a rejection of the idea that God chose each person to either be saved or damned based on purposes of the Divine will, and it was impossible to know why God chose some and not others.
Barth's doctrine of election involves a firm rejection of the notion of an eternal, hidden decree. In keeping with his Christo-centric methodology, Barth argues that to ascribe the salvation or damnation of humanity to an abstract absolute decree is to make some part of God more final and definitive than God's saving act in Jesus Christ.
God's absolute decree, if one may speak of such a thing, is God's gracious decision to be for humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Drawing from the earlier Reformed tradition, Barth retains the notion of double predestination but makes Jesus himself the object of both divine election and reprobation simultaneously; Jesus embodies both God's election of humanity and God's rejection of human sin.
While some regard this revision of the doctrine of election as an improvement on the Augustinian-Calvinist doctrine of the predestination of individuals, critics, namely Brunner, have charged that Barth's view amounts to a soft universalism.
Barth, liberals and fundamentalists
Although Barth's theology rejected German Protestant liberalism, his theology has usually not found favor with those at the other end of the theological spectrum: confessionalists and fundamentalists.
His doctrine of the Word of God, for instance, holds that Christ is the Word of God, and does not proceed by arguing or proclaiming that the Bible must be uniformly historically and scientifically accurate, and then establishing other theological claims on that foundation.
Some fundamentalist critics have joined liberal counterparts in referring to Barth as "neo-orthodox" because, while his theology retains most or all of the tenets of their understanding of Christianity, he is seen as rejecting the belief which is a linchpin of their theological system: biblical inerrancy.
Such critics believe the written text must be considered to be historically accurate and verifiable and see Barth's view as a separation of theological truth from historical truth. Barth could respond by saying that the claim that the foundation of theology is biblical inerrancy is to use a foundation other than Jesus Christ, and that our understanding of Scripture's accuracy and worth can only properly emerge from consideration of what it means for it to be a true witness to the incarnate Word, Jesus.
The relationship between Barth, liberalism, and fundamentalism goes far beyond the issue of inerrancy, however. From Barth's perspective, liberalism, as understood in the sense of the 19th century with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hegel as its leading exponents and not necessarily expressed in any particular political ideology, is the divinization of human thinking.
This, to him, inevitably leads one or more philosophical concepts to become the false God, thus attempting to block the true voice of the living God. This, in turn, leads to the captivity of theology by human ideology. In Barth's theology, he emphasizes again and again that human concepts of any kind, breadth or narrowness quite beside the point, can never be considered as identical to God's revelation.
In this aspect, Scripture is also written human language, which bears witness to the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Scripture cannot be considered as identical to God's self-revelation, which is properly only Jesus Christ.
However, in his freedom and love, God truly reveals himself through human language and concepts, with a view toward their necessity in reaching fallen humanity. Thus Barth claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church, echoing a stand expressed in his native Swiss Reformed Church's Helvetic Confession of the 16th century.
- "Karl Barth." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.