20th Century’s Great Theologian: Barth

There is, so far as I can tell, no theologian living today of the magnitude that Karl Barth was in the 20th Century. Someone today will perhaps become that person. When theologians write today they write after or alongside Karl Barth, Switzerland’s embattled but relentless theologian (1886-1968). The biography of Barth is written by Eberhard Busch, his last assistant, and is called Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. The text is so richly quotatious of this most writerly of theologians that the biography is a kind of autobiography. Some observations:

1. Barth began his theological career as a pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland, and it was that preaching context that awakened Barth to a theology that propelled him into decades of ecclesial theology. His first volume of Church Dogmatics was about the Word of God and preaching is at the heart of his entire theology of the Word.

2. Barth taught at four schools: Göttingen, Münster, and Bonn in Germany, and then once Hitler kicked him out of Germany’s academic system when he seized control, Barth returned to Switzerland to teach the rest of his career in Basel.

3. Barth was a courageous theologian, far more courageous (in my view) than Bultmann. He had an electric quickness, matched perhaps only by the younger theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in spotting the awful evil at work in Germany’s National Socialism and in particular in Hitler’s rise to power. The threat was to the First Commandment. He spoke into, about, and against National Socialism fearlessly enough that he was in trouble in Switzerland because of the power of his pen during the War. But after the War he continued to offer political theology proposals, including his much-criticized refusal to denounce communists. Politics in the First World War awakened him to see how weak and superficial liberal theology had become because it did not permit his much-prized theologians to do anything but capitulate to the powers. The solution was to recognize God as God. All of this prompted his participation in the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church.

4. Barth opposed liberal theology with what is now often called neo-orthodoxy, which focused on the Word of God, christology, and Scripture. His entire career can be mapped as the embrace of liberalism (study of Harnack and Hermann), the repudiation of liberalism in his fresh discovery of dialectical and neo-orthodox theologies, and then a life of struggling with Schleiermacher and what he saw as his successor ideas, including natural theology (hence his fight with Brunner), Bultmann’s existentialism, and most especially political theologies too out of touch with church and God and too obsessed with science and what humans can discern.

5. The heart of Barth, in my view, is a commitment to the God of Scripture, the God revealed in and through Scripture, and that revelation is centered in Jesus Christ. What I like about Barth is that here is a theologian who regularly gave lectures on Bible books and for whom the essence of theology was exegesis, exegesis, exegesis. More theologians today need more exegesis and less pounding out of ideas on the basis of what other theologians have said. Barth cut through the morass of theology and established himself as a Titan because of his relentless commitment to the God of Scripture, which he had along with his lifelong friend Eduard Thurneysen. In fact, Barth became Barth because of his commentary on Romans, which was quickly revised into a 2d edition … but it was a commentary on Romans that made Barth.

6. If exegesis forms the basis the hermeneutic, if I may use a term I’m not so sure he’d like to be used at this point, of Barth. His theology is christocentric — the Bible is about Jesus and can only be read well when it is read toward him; God is about Christ, so that in Christ we see God (this is being developed today by numbers in various ways, including Moltmann, Wright, Bauckham, and Gorman). In other words, in Barth one finds a thoroughly gospelized theologian. Grünewald’s famous painting of the Isenheim altarpiece hung above Barth’s writing desk. This kind of neo-orthodoxy shaped Barth and converted Bonhoeffer toward a kind of Barthian theology.

7. Barth’s relationship with his wife was fractured, leading to tensions with his children (one of whom, Markus, was a NT scholar in the USA). He fell in love with a woman when he was young; his parents would not have it; he married Nelly and that was his lifelong wife. But Barth, as many know, met a young woman, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who was what might be called his “soul mate.” Barth asked for a divorce, his wife did not reciprocate, Barth stuck with Charlotte (whom he called “Lollo”), and she eventually moved into the family home. Charlotte was the note-taker and assistant to Barth most of his life and apart from her it is likely his Church Dogmatics would never have seen the light of day. She was a bit of a theologian herself. She eventually succumbed to illness, was hospitalized and Barth and Nelly resumed their relationship toward the end of Barth’s life. Barth’s family, friends and colleagues tossed the curtain of secrecy over all of this, in spite of the rather obvious reality that Charlotte often traveled with Barth.

8. Barth wrote his Church Dogmatics as lectures, Charlotte listened in and edited and then revised and Barth edited and then off they went to the publisher … for years and years and years. He published a number of smaller versions of his theology, some early in his career and one later, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.

9. Barth became a dirty word among conservative evangelicals because of the influence of Cornelius van Til and Carl F.H. Henry. Those days are now over and Barth has been adopted and adapted by many evangelical theologians today, and the leading edge of the acceptance of Barth was Donald Bloesch.

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