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.

What would you add?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    “More theologians today need more exegesis and less pounding out of ideas on the basis of what other theologians have said.”
    There seems to be a struggle to balance the concept of doing one’s own exegesis yet also “standing on the shoulders” of earlier theologians.

  • David Wegener

    Was Barth a universalist? It seems to be the logical and only conclusion to which his theology leads. He seems to have kept himself back from it only by sheer will power, to use Packer’s words.

    His comment that the Bible is sullied with errors needs to be mentioned and this qualifies his commitment to exegesis.

    His treatment of homosexuality is still one of the best we have today.

    If I remember correctly, Barth didn’t just “participate” in the Barmen Declaration, but wrote the first draft of it, fortified by Brazilian cigars.

    I’m glad you mentioned Lollo. Frequently, admirers of Barth gloss over that very sore spot in his life, evidencing (as it does) near lifelong disobedience to his Lord.

    True, it’s a new day in the evangelical reassessment of Barth, but that may say more about evangelicalism than anything else. Could it be that evangelicalism is breaking apart and that “so-called” liberal or progressive evangelicals are really not that different from Barth and probably don’t fit comfortably into historic definitions of evangelicalism?

    Your comments comparing Barth and Bultmann are well made.

  • http://patrickfranklin.wordpress.com/ Patrick S. Franklin

    “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis,” it seems to me, is a crucial yet insufficient emphasis regarding what theology is about. Many foundationalist evangelical theologians would heartily agree and yet lack the depth of Barth. Yes, Barth would not be who he was without the Romans commentary. But Barth also would not be Barth without the church fathers, without Kierkegaard, and, yes, even (or especially?) without Schleiermacher.

  • AHH

    Do you have a recommendation of an introductory book for an amateur looking to become more familiar with Barth’s theology? Would Evangelical Theology be the place to start? Or (since I hear Barth is difficult to read) somebody else’s summary, like Barth for Armchair Theologians?

    By the way, Barth may not be quite the bogeyman for conservative evangelicals that he was 20 years ago, but I’d hardly say “those days are now over”. Try saying “listen for the word of God” next time you read Scripture at a conservative church and see how it goes. :-)

  • scotmcknight

    AHH, yes, that book by John Francke is the place to begin.

  • http://www.andyrowell.net/ Andy Rowell

    Good summary, Scot.

    On his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, those who are interested can read the 1998 book exploring their relationship: http://books.google.com/books?id=vIzEAaWbqT8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false But there is also a more recent report from 2009 review on newly released letters between them: http://karlbarth.unibas.ch/fileadmin/downloads/letter11/Letter11-Selinger.pdf

    RE: AHH what to read: I recommend God in Action–5 lectures from 1934 in the midst of the Nazi crisis. I think they give you a good taste for Barth and are accessible. Evangelical Theology is not easy though they were the public lectures he gave in 1962 on his only tour of the United States.

    RE: David Wegener regarding universalism, Roger Olsen has a long treatment of this issue: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/03/13/was-karl-barth-a-universalist-roger-olson/ Barth declines to affirm universalism. Here is a mature summary of Barth’s position on the issue:

    “To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawal of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an apokatastasis or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received only as a free gift . . . If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it, as though it were not supremely the work of God to which man can have no possible claim, we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it as we may do already on this side of this final possibility, i.e., to hope and pray cautiously and yet distinctly that, in spite of everything which may seem quite conclusively to proclaim the opposite, His compassion should not fail, and that in accordance with His mercy which is ‘new every morning’ He ‘will not cast off for ever’ (Lamentations 3:22, 31).” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.2, p.477-478).

  • Adam O

    John Webster’s “Barth (Outstanding Christian Thinkers)” was helpful to me.

  • Bill Crawford

    Several individual volumes of Church Dogmatics are for sale for $4.99 at christianbook .com

  • mightymary

    Will Willimon’s “Fourteen Early Sermons”.


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