Karl Barth

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Karl Barth
Born(1886-05-10)May 10, 1886
Basel, Switzerland
DiedDecember 10, 1968(1968-12-10) (aged 82)
Basel, Switzerland
OccupationTheologian; Author
Notable work(s)The Epistle to the Romans; Church Dogmatics
Influenced byAthanasius of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Hermann Kutter, Christoph Blumhardt, Franz Overbeck, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Martin Heidegger, Wilhelm Herrmann, Hermann Cohen
InfluencedNeoorthodoxy, Barthianism, Thomas Torrance, Hans Wilhelm Frei, Eberhard Jüngel, Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder
Theological work
Tradition or movementReformed
Notable ideasDialectical theology
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Karl Barth
Born(1886-05-10)May 10, 1886
Basel, Switzerland
DiedDecember 10, 1968(1968-12-10) (aged 82)
Basel, Switzerland
OccupationTheologian; Author
Notable work(s)The Epistle to the Romans; Church Dogmatics
Influenced byAthanasius of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Hermann Kutter, Christoph Blumhardt, Franz Overbeck, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Martin Heidegger, Wilhelm Herrmann, Hermann Cohen
InfluencedNeoorthodoxy, Barthianism, Thomas Torrance, Hans Wilhelm Frei, Eberhard Jüngel, Jacques Ellul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder
Theological work
Tradition or movementReformed
Notable ideasDialectical theology

Karl Barth ((1886-05-10)May 10, 1886 – December 10, 1968(1968-12-10)) (pronounced "Bart") was a Swiss Reformed theologian whom many scholars hold to be among the most important thinkers of the 20th century; Pope Pius XII described him as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.[1] Barth's influence expanded well beyond the academic realm to mainstream culture, leading him to be featured on the cover of Time on April 20, 1962.[2]

Beginning with his experience as a pastor, he rejected his training in the predominant liberal theology typical of 19th-century European Protestantism.[3] 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).[4] Other critics have referred to Barth as the father of neo-orthodoxy[3] — a term emphatically rejected by Barth himself.[5] The most accurate description of his work might be "a theology of the Word."[6][7] Barth's 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.[8]


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.[9] 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"[10] 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. Many theologians and religious historians[who?] believe this work to be the most important theological treatise since Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.

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, Emil Brunner, and Friedrich Gogarten.

Barmen Declaration

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) which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity–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.

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

Church Dogmatics

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.[11][12][13]

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.[14]

Later 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.[15] In the 1950s, Barth sympathized with the peace movement and opposed German rearmament.

Karl Barth in 1956.

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."[16]

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].[17]

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.[18]


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[19] on the Augustinian-Calvinist doctrine of the predestination of individuals, critics, namely Brunner,[20] have charged that Barth's view amounts to a soft universalism.

Barth, liberals and fundamentalists

Karl Barth's desk with painting of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion scene.

Although Barth's theology rejected German Protestant liberalism, his theology has usually not found favour 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.[21] 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.

He opposes any attempts to closely relate theology and philosophy. His approach in that respect is predominantly Christocentric, and is thus termed "kerygmatic," as opposed to "apologetic".

Influence on Christian Ethics

Among many other areas, Barth has also had a profound influence on modern Christian ethics.[22][23][24][25] He has influenced the work of ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Jacques Ellul and Oliver O'Donovan.[26][22][27]

Relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Charlotte von Kirschbaum was Barth's secretary and theological assistant for more than three decades.[28] When Barth first met Charlotte von Kirschbaum in 1924 he had already been married for 12 years and in 1929, von Kirschbaum moved into the Barth family household which included Nelly and five children.[28] George Hunsinger summarizes the influence of von Kirschbaum on Barth's work: "As his unique student, critic, researcher, adviser, collaborator, companion, assistant, spokesperson, and confidant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum was indispensable to him. He could not have been what he was, or have done what he did, without her.[29]

German stamp depicting Barth.

The long-standing work relationship was not without its difficulties.[30] Which caused offense among some of Barth's friends, as well as his mother.[31] While Nelly supplied the household and the children, von Kirschbaum and Barth shared an academic relationship. The feminist scholar, Suzanne Selinger, in response to the failing of Von Kirshchbaum in receiving the credit she deserves for her work with Barth says "Part of any realistic response to the subject of Barth and von Kirschbaum must be anger." because she has been forgotten by Barthian scholars.[32] Barth lauds von Kirschbaum for her assistance in the preface of Church Dogmatics: Volume 3 - The Doctrine of Creation Part 3.[33]

In literature

In John Updike's Roger's Version, Roger Lambert is a professor of religion. Lambert is influenced by the works of Karl Barth. That is the primary reason that he rejects his student's attempt to use computational methods to understand God. Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven makes mentions of Barth's Church Dogmatics, as does David Markson's The Last Novel. In the case of Mulisch and Markson, it is the ambitious nature of the Church Dogmatics that seems to be of significance. In the case of Updike, it is the emphasis on the idea of God as "Wholly Other" that is emphasized.

In Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, the preacher John Ames reveres Barth's "Epistle to the Romans" and refers to it as his favorite book other than the Bible.

Whittaker Chambers cites Barth in nearly all his books: Witness (p. 507), Cold Friday (p. 194), and Odyssey of a Friend (pp. 201, 231).

Center for Barth Studies

Princeton Theological Seminary, where Barth lectured in 1962, houses the Center for Barth Studies, which is dedicated to supporting scholarship related to the work of Karl Barth. The center was established in 1997 and sponsors seminars, conferences, and other events. It also holds the Karl Barth Research Collection, which contains nearly all of Barth's works in English and German, several first editions of his works, and an original handwritten manuscript by Barth.[34]


See also


The Church Dogmatics in English translation


Secondary bibliography


  1. ^ Church Dogmatics IV.1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004.
  2. ^ Barth in Retirement. TIME (1963-05-31). Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  3. ^ a b Ian Barbour (1966), Issues in Science and Religion, Prentice-Hall pp. 116–119, 229, 292, 422–25, 456, 459
  4. ^ Donald K. McKim (1996). Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0-664-25511-4. http://books.google.com/books?id=UJ9PYdzKf90C&pg=PA76. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Church Dogmatics III/3, xii.
  6. ^ Thomas Forsyth Torrance (1 December 2000). Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910–1931. T & T Clark. ISBN 978-0-567-08762-1. http://books.google.com/books?id=fv6nQgAACAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Thomas Forsyth Torrance (1990). Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian. T & T Clark. ISBN 978-0-567-09572-5. http://books.google.com/books?id=eMtzQgAACAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  8. ^ Name (Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology). People.bu.edu. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  9. ^ Church Dogmatics, ed. T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley (1932–67; ET Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–75).
  10. ^ Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals, 1914.
  11. ^ The T & T Clark Blog: Church Dogmatics. Tandtclark.typepad.com. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  12. ^ Myers, Ben. (2005-11-27) Faith and Theology: Church Dogmatics in a week. Faith-theology.com. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  13. ^ Grau, H. G. (1973). "The Barth-Bultmann Correspondence". Theology Today 30 (2): 138. doi:10.1177/004057367303000205.  Archive.
  14. ^ Green, Garrett. "Introduction" to On Religion by Karl Barth, Trans. Garrett Green. (London: T&T Clark, 2006) p. 3
  15. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. http://www.amacad.org/publications/BookofMembers/ChapterB.pdf. Retrieved 19 May 2011. 
  16. ^ Barth, Karl. "No Angels of Darkness and Light", The Christian Century, 20 January 1960, pp. 72 ff.
  17. ^ Eberhard Jüngel (1986). Karl Barth, a Theological Legacy. Westminster Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-664-24031-8. http://books.google.com/books?id=tjAsAQAAMAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  18. ^ TIME Magazine Cover: Karl Barth – April 20, 1962 – Religion – Christianity. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  19. ^ Douglas Atchison Campbell (2005). The Quest For Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy. T & T Clark International. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-567-08332-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=7i53QgAACAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  20. ^ Brunner, Emil, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Volume 1, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950)
  21. ^ This was part of Cornelius Van Til's critique of Barth's doctrine of scripture. Van Til was one of Barth's earliest (American) conservative critics. See Van Til, Cornelius (May 1954). "Has Karl Barth Become Orthodox?". Westminster Theological Journal 16: 138ff. http://www.galaxie.com/article/14133/print. 
  22. ^ a b Parsons, Michael (1987). "Man Encountered by the Command of God: the Ethics of Karl Barth". Vox Evangelica 17: 48–65. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/vox/vol17/barth_parsons.pdf. 
  23. ^ Daniel L. Migliore (15 August 2010). Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth's Ethics. W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8028-6570-0. http://books.google.com/books?id=oQAfTdla3H0C. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  24. ^ Matthew J. Aragon-Bruce. Ethics in Crisis: Interpreting Barth’s Ethics (book review) Princeton Seminary Library. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  25. ^ Oxford University Press: The Hastening that Waits: Nigel Biggar. Oup.com. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  26. ^ Journal – The Influence of Karl Barth on Christian Ethics. www.kevintaylor.me (2011-04-07). Retrieved on 2012-07-15.
  27. ^ Choi Lim Ming, Andrew (2003). A Study on Jacques Ellul's Dialectical Approach to the Modern and Spiritual World. wordpress.com
  28. ^ a b Suzanne Selinger (1998). Charlotte Von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology. Penn State Press. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-271-01864-5. http://books.google.com/books?id=vIzEAaWbqT8C&pg=PA1. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  29. ^ George Hunsinger's review of S. Seliger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology.
  30. ^ Eberhard Busch (2005). Karl Barths Lebenslauf: Nach seinen Briefen und autobiografischen Texten. Theologischer Verlag Zürich. pp. 177 ff. ISBN 978-3-290-17304-3. http://books.google.com/books?id=Af5hPQAACAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  31. ^ Eberhard Busch; John Bowden, John (21 June 2005). Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Wipf & Stock. pp. 185–186. ISBN 978-1-59752-169-7. http://books.google.com/books?id=eOxIPgAACAAJ. Retrieved 15 July 2012. 
  32. ^ S. Seliger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth; quoted in K. Sonderegger's review.
  33. ^ Karl Barth (8 May 2004). Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Creation, Volume 3, Part 3: The Creator and His Creature. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-0-567-05099-1. http://books.google.com/books?id=bYsi-e8vLTcC&pg=PR12. Retrieved 24 September 2012. 
  34. ^ About the Barth Center. Princeton Seminary Library. Retrieved on 2012-07-15.

External links