in Basel, he spent his childhood years in Bern. From 1911 to 1921 he
served as pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton Argovia. Later
he was professor of theology in Germany. He had to leave Germany in
1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Barth went
back to Switzerland and became professor in Basel.
Barth is considered by some the greatest Protestant theologian of the
20th century and possibly the greatest since the Reformation. More than
anyone else, Barth inspired and led the renaissance of theology that
took place from about 1920 to 1950. The son of the Swiss Reformed minister
and New Testament scholar Fritz Barth, Karl Barth was born in Basel,
May 10, 1886, and was reared in Bern, where his father taught. From
1904 to 1909, he studied theology at the universities of Bern, Berlin,
Tübingen, and Marburg. In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffman; they had five
children. Barth became known as a radical critic both of the prevailing
liberal theology and of the social order. Liberal theology, Barth believed,
had accommodated Christianity to modern culture. The crisis of World
War I was in part a symptom of this unholy alliance. In his famous commentary
Epistle to the Romans (1919; trans. 1933), Barth stressed the discontinuity
between the Christian message and the world. He rejected the typical
liberal points of contact between God and humanity in feeling or consciousness
or rationality, as well as Catholic tendencies to trust in the church
Barth held professorships successively at Göttingen and Münster universities
from 1923 to 1930, when he was appointed professor of systematic theology
at the University of Bonn. He engaged in controversy with Adolf von
Harnack, holding that the latter's scientific theology is only a preliminary
to the true task of theology, which is identical with that of preaching.
He opposed the Hitler regime in Germany and supported church-sponsored
movements against National Socialism; he was the chief author of the
Barmen Declaration, six articles that defined Christian opposition to
National Socialist ideology and practice. In 1934 he was expelled from
Bonn and returned to Switzerland; from 1935 until his retirement in
1962 was professor at Basel, exercising a worldwide influence. During
this period he worked on his Church Dogmatics (1932-68), a multivolume
work of great richness that was unfinished at his death. He remained
in Basel until his death, December 10, 1968.
The principal emphasis in Barth's work, known as neoorthodoxy and crisis
theology, is on the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence,
and the human inability to know God except through revelation. His objective
was to lead theology away from the influence of modern religious philosophy
back to the principles of the Reformation and the prophetic teachings
of the Bible. He regarded the Bible, however, not as the actual revelation
of God but as only the record of that revelation. For Barth, God's sole
revelation of himself is in Jesus Christ. God is the "wholly other,"
totally unlike mankind, who are utterly dependent on an encounter with
the divine for any understanding of ultimate reality. Barth saw the
task of the church as that of proclaiming the "good word"
of God and as serving as the "place of encounter" between
God and mankind. Barth regarded all human activity as being under the
judgment of that encounter.
Barth's first attempt at dogmatics was a volume of a Christian Dogmatics,
published in 1927, which he judged to be a false start. Then in his
study of Anselm of Canterbury he found a catalyst leading to what he
called a breakthrough. He discovered in Anselm's "faith seeking
understanding" that theology did not have to justify itself by
some outside criterion; it has its own rationality and internal coherence
in the form of witness to the event of Jesus Christ. This gave him confidence
in his study of the gospel and in the fact that theology was a fully
rational procedure, and he began his Church Dogmatics.
The Church Dogmatics is in four "volumes," each comprising
between two and four large tomes. Volume I is on the doctrine of the
Word of God. Volume I/1 is about the three forms of the Word of God
(preached, written, and revealed) and the nature of the Trinity. Volume
I/2 treats the three forms in more detail -- the revealed form in the
incarnation of the Word of Jesus Christ, the written form in Scripture
and the preached form in church proclamation.
Volume II is on the doctrine of God. Volume II/1 treats the knowledge
of God, the main emphasis being on God's initiative in revealing himself.
Then Barth treats the reality of God. He describes God as "one
who loves in freedom," and there is an exposition of the "perfections
of the divine loving" (grace, holiness, mercy, righteousness, patience,
and wisdom), and the "perfections of the divine freedom" (unity,
omnipresence, constancy, omnipotence, eternity, and glory). Volume II/2
is on the election of God, Barth's term for predestination. Barth transforms
the doctrine of his own Calvinist tradition of double predestination
by centering rejection and election in Jesus Christ, who takes all rejection
on himself and also both elects all and is himself elected. Christ's
election leads to the election of the community of Israel and the church,
and only in that context is it right to talk about the election or rejection
of the individual.
Volume III is on the doctrine of creation. Volume III/1 is on God's
work of creation, its goodness and the relation of creation to God's
covenant. Volume III/2 is on human being. Jesus Christ is the "real"
human being and the criterion for true humanity. Volume III/3 covers
providence, evil as an "impossible possibility" which has
no future, and heaven, angels, and demons. Volume III/4 treats the ethical
side of the doctrine of creation. God gives the freedom to live in gratitude
before God, with other people, in respect for life and in limitation.
Barth completed the first three parts of Volume IV and partially completed
part 4. Considering the doctrine of reconciliation, in Volume IV he
interweaves the themes of Christology, sin, soteriology, pneumatology,
ecclesiology, justification, sanctification, and vocation. Christ is
the servant, the judge who is judged in our place and who empties himself,
the royal man who is raised up by God; He is the true witness, the victor
over all that opposes him, and the light of life. Specific aspects of
sin are exposed by each aspect of Christ -- pride resists accepting
what God become man does for us; sloth refuses to take an active part
in the new life given by Christ; falsehood resists and distorts the
witness of Christ. The way of human salvation is justification by faith
through which the Christian community is gathered, sancification in
love through which the community is built up, and vocation in hope,
which sends the community out as witnesses in word and life. Barth did
not live to write any of the projected final Volume V on eschatology.
Although Barth's uncompromising positions were a great strength during
the period of Nazi power, his views were increasingly subjected to criticism
in the following decades. Some argue that he was too negative in his
estimate of mankind and its reasoning powers and too narrow in limiting
revelation to the biblical tradition, thus excluding the non-Christian
religions. He gives such radical priority to God's activity that some
critics find human activity and freedom devalued. Barth sees revelation
and salvation as given by God and valid quite apart from the subjective
responses of human beings, and this is questioned as regards how far
it takes account of the importance of human response to God. Barth's
realism apparently aroused controversy; Barth takes a middle way between
literalism (a one-to-one correspondence between our language and God)
and pure symbolism or expressivism (no real preference at all). He takes
a similar position on the historicity of the Gospel narratives; they
are not necessarily literal history, nor are they myth or fiction.
Among Barth's other better known works are The Word of God and the Word
of Man (1924; trans. 1928), Credo (1935; trans. 1936), and Evangelical
Theology, an Introduction (1962; trans. 1963). His works have influenced
many theologians positively and negatively, including Rudolf Bultmann,
Paul Tillich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart
Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel, and many theologians from beyond continental
Barth is widely regarded as one of the most influential Christian theologians.
He is often acknowledged as the greatest Protestant theologian of this
century. His major contribution was a radical change in the direction
of theology from a 19th-century orientation toward progress to an orthodoxy
that had to cope with the grim realities of the 20th century. His rejection
of liberal theology led to an emphasis on the eschatological and supernatural
in Christianity. He refused any synthesis between the church and culture,
and emphasized the radical disjunction between God and human being.
Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland, on May 10, 1886. He was raised
in Bern where his father Fritz Barth, a Swiss Reformed minister and
professor of New Testament and early church history, taught. From 1904
to 1909, Barth studied theology in Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg.
At Berlin he took part in the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack's
seminar, and at Marburg he came under the influence of Wilhelm Herrmann
and became interested in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
went into the parish ministry from 1911 to 1921 (first an assistant
pastor in Geneva, then pastor to the working-class parish of Safenwil).
In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffman, a talented violinist; they had five
children. The 10 years in Safenwill were the formative period of his
life. Here Barth experienced conversion from culture Christianity. Barth
quickly noticed that he often preached to no more than a dozen parishioners.
One day he visited a sick, elderly man in the parish. When Barth asked
him to which church he belonged, the man responded resentfully: "Pastor,
I've always been an honest man. I've never been to church, and I've
never been in trouble with the police." Barth recognized that this
man was representative of majority of people in that society with the
same basic pattern of scant attendance at worship services and disinterest
in church religion. In this context Barth was convinced to reconsider
the "culture Christianity" represented by the liberal theology
in which he had been trained.
was in Safenwil during World War I that Barth reviewed his theology
along with a neighboring pastor and student-friend, Eduard Thurneysen,
who was experiencing a similar crisis. Barth was shocked at the conduct
of his liberal teachers when they were confronted with the social and
political situation of wartime Europe. He read the "Declaration
of German Intellectuals," calling for loyalty to Kaiser and Vaterland.
How could this happen? It happened, he argued, because of a fatal alliance
between Christian faith and cultural experience.
began working through the problems posed by the war and the failure
of liberal theology to account for such a dark episode in human history.
He initiated a radical change in theology, stressing the "wholly
otherness of God" over the anthropocentrism of 19th-century liberal
theology. He questioned the liberal theology of his German teachers
and its dependence on the rationalist, historicist, and dualist thought
that stemmed from the Enlightenment. Barth believed that liberal theology
had accommodated Christianity to modern culture, and it had to be changed.
aware that the theology which he had been taught gave him little to
say to his congregation, Barth reviewed his philosophy and theology.
Thus started a period of theological study, particularly of the Bible.
He discovered in the Bible a "strange new world": the Bible
was not about our religion or morality or history, but about the Kingdom
of God. This biblical reality can be understood only by inhabiting it.
1916 Barth began a careful study of Paul's Letter to the Romans. The
result of these efforts was his first major work, The Epistle to the
Romans (First published in 1919 and then completely rewritten in 1922.),
in which he contradicted the liberal theologians who considered Scripture
little more than an account of human religious experience and who were
concerned only with the historic personality of Christ. According to
Paul, argues Barth, God condemns all human undertakings and saves only
those people who trust not in themselves but solely in God. Barth argued
that in Scripture we find "divine thoughts about men, not human
thoughts about God." God is God and he has wrought our salvation.
is a huge, breathless, exciting sermon rather than commentary. In it
Barth reflect on what he would later call "the Godness of God."
What God thinks about people is more important than what they thing
about God. Human knowledge can lead us to a void, a longing and a dissatisfaction.
God, the living God, had come to deliver confused, self-contradictory
human beings like himself from their sin. In this book Barth stressed
the discontinuity between the Christian message and the world. God is
the wholly other, and known only in revelation. Human task is to reshape
himself or herself to God's design, rather than the other way around.
study brought him to the attention of theologians everywhere. The book
divided the theological world of Germany and Switzerland into advocates
and bitter detractors. This book initiated the revival of orthodox Protestantism
based on the Bible. There were numerous younger theologians who saw
in Barth's Romans an expression of their own theological program. Among
those were Emil Brunner, Bultmann, George Merz and Friedrich Gogarten.
In the fall of 1922, Barth, Thurneysen, Gogarten, and Merz started a
journal entitled Zwischen den Zeiten (Between the Times) which was to
be the organ of the new "theology of crisis". This journal
played an important role in shaping German theology for the next decade,
until it was discontinued in 1933.
main characteristic of Barth's work, known as neoorthodoxy and crisis
theology, is on the sinfulness of humanity, God's absolute transcendence,
and the human inability to know God except through revelation. The critical
nature of his theology came to be known as "dialectical theology,"
or "the theology of crisis". This initiated a trend toward
neoorthodoxy in Protestant theology. The neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth
reacted strongly against liberal Protestant neglect of historical revelation.
He wanted to lead theology away from the influence of modern religious
philosophy, with its emphasis on feeling and humanism, and back to the
principles of the Reformation and the teachings of the Bible. He viewed
the Bible, however, not as the actual revelation of God but as only
the record of that revelation. God's single revelation occurred in Jesus
Christ. In short, Barth rejected two main lines of interest in Protestant
theology of that time: historical criticism of the Bible and attempt
to find justification for religious experience from philosophy and other
sources. Barth saw in historical criticism great value on its own level,
but it often led Christians to lessen the significance of the testimony
of the apostolic community to Jesus as being based on faith and not
on history. Theology which uses philosophy is always on the defensive
and more anxious to accommodate the Christian faith to others than to
pay attention to what the Bible really says.
the basis of the publication of Romans (he had never earned a doctorate),
Barth was appointed professor at the universities of Göttingen, Münster,
and Bonn, successively. In Göttingen he did an exhaustive study of the
great Protestant scholastic theologians. In 1927 he wrote his first
attempt at dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to
Church Dogmatics, in which he addressed the Word of God, divine revelation,
the Trinity, Incarnation, and the Holy Spirit. It turned out to be a
"false start." His engagement with epistemological issues
made him dissatisfied with what he had done. He became aware that he
was still working within a liberal, anthropocentric framework. When
he moved to Bonn he war forced to rethink his whole theological method
in order to avoid grounding his theology in an existential anthropology.
His theology represented a significant break with his earlier dialectical
thinking. In 1931 he produced his celebrated study of St. Anselm, Fides
the following year he published the first part of his Church Dogmatics.
During this time Barth also wrote several small commentaries, expositions
of the Apostles' Creed, and the Heidelberg and Geneva catechisms.
was not only Protestantism's preeminent theologian, but a public figure.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933, Barth emerged as a leader
of the church opposition, expressed in the Barmen Declaration of 1934.
In April of 1933 the "Evangelical Church of the German Nation"
was created and published the following guiding principles: "We
see in race, folk and nation, orders of existence granted and entrusted
to us by God. God's law for us is that we look to the preservation of
these orders....In the mission to the Jews we perceive a grave danger
to our nationality. It is the entrance gate for alien blood into our
body politic....In particular, marriage between Germans and Jews is
to be forbidden. We want an evangelical Church that is rooted in our
nationhood." (Cited in Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church's Confession
Under Hitler. Philadelphia, 1962, pp. 222-223)
was one of the founders of the so-called Confessing church, which rejected
Nazi nationalist ideology of "blood and soil" and the attempt
to set up a "German Christian" church. In May of 1934 representatives
of the Confessing church met at Barmen and out of that meeting came
the Barmen Declaration, largely based on a draft that Barth had prepared.
It expressed his conviction that the only way to resist the collapse
of the church in Nazi Germany was to hold fast to true Christian doctrine,
i.e., to affirm the sovereignty of the Word of God in Christ over against
all idolatrous political ideologies. "Jesus Christ, as he is attested
to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear,
and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the
false doctrine that the church could and should recognize as a source
of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other
events, powers, historic figures, and truths as God's revelation…
We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in
which we would belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas
in which we would not need justification and sanctification through
refused to take the oath of unconditional allegiance to Hitler which
cost him his chair in Bonn in 1935. Barth's refusal to comply with an
instruction by the rector of the University of Bonn to end each lecture
with the German salute put a provisional end to Barth's professional
career in Germany. Barth himself described why he refused to comply:
"I have begun my lecture (in summer at seven o'clock, in winter
at eight o'clock) for the past two and one-half years with a brief devotion
consisting of the reading of two Bible verses and the singing of two
or three verses of a hymn by all present. The introduction of the Hitler
salute in this context would be out of place and diversionary."
(Prolingheuer, Der Fall Karl Barth, 240: Letter to Rust 16 December
returned to his native Basel where he remained until his death, December
10, 1968 at the age of 82. He continued to champion the cause of the
Confessing Church, of the Jews, until the end of the war. After the
war, Barth was invited back to Bonn, where he delivered the series of
lectures published in 1947 as Dogmatics in Outline. He spoke at the
opening meeting of the Conference of the World Council of Churches in
Amsterdam in 1948. Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he
visited Rome, a visit of which he wrote in Ad limina apostolorum. He
was regular visitor to the prison in Basel (Deliverance to the Captives,
1932 to 1967 he worked on his Church Dogmatics, a multivolume work that
was unfinished at his death. It consists of 13 parts in four volumes,
running altogether to more than 9,000 pages. Although he changed some
of his early positions, he continued to maintain that the task of theology
is to unfold the revealed word attested in the Bible, and that there
is no place for natural theology or the influence of non-Christian religions.
His theology depended on a distinction between the Word (i.e., God's
self-revelation as concretely manifested in Christ) and religion. Religion,
according to Barth, is human attempt to grasp at God and is opposed
to revelation, in which God has come to humans through Christ. "Religion
is the enemy of faith." "Religion is human's attempt to enter
into communion with God on his own terms."