Karl Barth (1886-1968)

"The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths."

Karl Barth

ANY history of twentieth century theology will be largely the story of the revolutionary work and influence of Karl Barth. Energetic pastor for ten years in a small Swiss village, courageous resistance leader of the church against Nazism, brilliant biblical interpreter, Christo-centric church theologian, lover of Mozart's music-his stature can be measured only by comparison with other theological giants like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.

Barth set a new agenda for theology, but he had no interest in founding a school of Barthianism. He considered every theology including his own-to be in need of continuous reform.

Karl Barth (pronounced ‘Bart’) was born in 1886 into a family who had strong links with a conservative group of Christians in the Reformed Church of Switzerland. Yet despite his reformed roots he ended up studying under the fathers of modern Liberal theology (Adolf Von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann) and learnt that human experience is the measure of God’s Word (the Bible). After being ordained into the Reformed Church, Barth eventually moved to a small pastorate in a village called Safenwil on the Swiss/German boarder and whilst there began a revolution in theology.

Despite his Liberal education Barth soon realised that his ‘arid’ and ‘lofty’ theological outlook was useless for trying to preach to ordinary people in Safenwil so he undertook to study ‘The strange new world in the Bible’. In doing so he began to move away from his Liberal teaching: ‘It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible but the right divine thoughts about men’. Barth also began to question the moral content of his Liberal education after he saw his theological lecturers marching in support of Kaiser Wilhelm’s War Policy (1941).

In 1919 Barth published Der Romerbrief which was a commentary on the book of Romans. It shook the theological world with its criticisms of Liberal theology. In it he also explored the radical ‘otherness’ (transcendence) of God above (which contrasted the Liberal ‘human-centred (immanent) theology.

In 1921 Barth was offered the position of Professor of Reformed Theology at the University of Gottingen in Germany. From there he continued to write articles and books expounding his belief that the Word of God must take priority over the word of humanity (one of his greatest concerns being that the radical otherness of God, and the gospel, was being watered down by human reason and religion). After 1925 he moved to the University of Munster and from there began to emphasise God’s “Yes” to humanity in Jesus Christ (as opposed to God’s “No!” to Liberal theology and religion). In 1931 he wrote Fides Quaruns Intellectum which was a study of Anselm’s theology. In it he argued that the correct way to understand Anselm’s Ontological Argument was from a position of faith. In his own writings Barth emphasised the need to do theology from the context of a life of faith in order to avoid contradicting the revealed Word of God found in the Bible. In doing so he refused to advocate a reductionist position which would attempt to explain away tensions in Christian Theology (E.g. the Trinity). 

Shortly after completing his book on Anslem Barth began his systematic theology the Church Dogmatics. The Dogmatics are notorious for bypassing philosophical arguments for the rationality of belief and choosing instead to focus solely on the exposition of God’s Word.

Barth’s emphasis on the revealed Word of God has three strands to it: Jesus Christ, Scripture and the Church’s proclamation of the gospel. Of primary importance to Barth is Jesus Christ who was the revealed Word of God in a living sense (revelation being always an ‘event’ for Barth). The Bible and the proclamation of the gospel only become God’s Word in a functional sense, that is, when they testify and proclaim to the living Word, Jesus Christ (’The Bible is only God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his Word, to the extent that he speaks through it’). In this way Barth breaks with the traditional doctrine of Scripture which sees the Bible as something fixed, given and inspired by God.

During the 1930’s Barth was actively involved with Deitrich Bonhoeffer in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church movement in Germany and was also dismissed from a teaching post in Bonn for refusing to salute or show loyalty to Hitler. He subsequently took up a position at the University of Basel (his home town) where he wrote, preached and lectured until he died in 1968.