“You Are Opening the Doors to Every Demon” (Barth circa 1935)

Around 1935, Karl Barth developed a style of speaking and writing that cut through a lot of atmospheric confusion and obfuscation. He found this new tone of voice for two reasons:  first, it was 1935, and the crisis in Germany was becoming impossible for the world to keep ignoring. As a (Swiss) professor teaching in Germany until 1933, Barth had been sounding the alarm for some time. But by 1935 things got seriously Nazi, and the state church of Germany, nominally a Protestant organization, identified itself with the pro-Hitler “German Christian” movement and began taking action against dissident pastors.

But second, Barth found his new tone of voice because he heard the word of God straight from the Bible. Years before, he had set himself on the course of listening to Scripture with real attention, and he had made a lot of noise starting with his epochal Romans commentary. But as he approached age fifty, Barth had spent several years listening and teaching what he heard in Scripture, and it started to sound forth more strongly.

The two factors (content and context, manner and mystery) converged and made this a golden period for Barth’s style. These eventful years are also a bit of a dead spot between publishing of Church Dogmatics volumes: I/1 came out in 1932, and I/2 didn’t appear until 1939. But the stream of short writings and speeches from this time period includes some of my favorite of Barth’s works. When asked where a new reader should start in Barth, I emphasize that the real barthy Barth is in the Church Dogmatics, and readers should get there as soon as possible. But to warm up for those jumbo volumes, I recommend two works from this interim period. First is Credo, a daring little commentary on the Apostles’ Creed (a good sub-title would have been “Dogmatics According to the Apostles’ Creed”). Its dedication page is stark: “1935! To the Ministers Hans Asmussen, Hermann Hesse, Karl Immer, Martin Niemoller, Heinrich Vogel. In memory of all who stood, stand, and will stand.” Credo may be my favorite Barth book.

The second book from this period is God in Action, a lovely short work consisting of three lectures given in Paris in April 1934 and two given in Switzerland later that same year. “The Christian As a Witness” distill’s Barth’s view of church and theology about as well as anything I’ve ever seen (and doesn’t yet draw all the bibliological conclusions that he will draw, unfortunately in my view,  in I/2).

Both books have appendices with transcripts of question-and-answer sessions! The appendix to God in Action is remarkable in every way, as it captures the kind of questions pressed by audience members after Barth has just made the strongest statements.  An Englishman says Barth is right about much of what he says, but ought to give more credit to creatures, to humans as subjects rather than merely objects, to the fact that we are called “not only servants but also friends of God.”

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