Karl Barth

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Karl Barth

Karl Barth (May 10, 1886December 10, 1968) (pronounced "bart") was a Swiss Reformed theologian whom critics hold to be among the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century; Pope Pius XII described him as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. [1] Beginning with his experience as a pastor, he rejected his training in the predominant liberal theology typical of 19th-century Protestantism,[2] especially German. Instead he embarked on a new theological path initially called dialectical theology (due to its stress on the paradoxical nature of divine truth - for instance, God is both grace and judgment)[3], but more accurately called a theology of the Word[4]. Critics have referred to Barth as the father of neo-orthodoxy[2] - a pejorative term emphatically rejected by Barth himself[5]. Barth's theological thought emphasized the sovereignty of God, particularly through his innovative doctrine of election. His theology has been enormously influential throughout Europe and America.


[edit] Early life and education

Born in Basel, 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 would have four sons and a daughter. 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 and played a large role in the writing of his epic the Church Dogmatics.[6] 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 (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 like Hermann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men like Christoph Blumhardt and Søren Kierkegaard, and the impact of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.

The most important catalyst was, however, his 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"[7] 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.

[edit] 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 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). Other members of the movement included Rudolf Bultmann, Eduard Thurneysen, Emil Brunner, and Friedrich Gogarten.

[edit] 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 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth was praised by U.S. theologian and newspaper writer S. Parkes Cadman in a New York Times article for his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance to Hitler. [8] 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.

[edit] 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, the Church Dogmatics represents the pinnacle of Barth's achievement as a theologian. Barth published the first part-volume of the Dogmatics in 1932 and continued working on it until his death in 1968, by which time it was 6 million words long in thirteen part-volumes. Highly contextual, the volumes are written chronologically, beginning with Vol. I/1, and address political issues (generally quite subtly) as well as questions raised by his students after lectures. (The material published as the Church Dogmatics was originally delivered in lecture format to students at Bonn and then Basel.) Barth explores the whole of Christian doctrine, where necessary challenging and reinterpreting it so that every part of it points to the radical challenge of Jesus Christ, and the impossibility of tying God to human cultures, achievements or possessions. It was translated into English under the editorial leadership of T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley.

[edit] 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, which was 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, this 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. In the 1950s, Barth sympathized with the peace movement and opposed German rearmament.

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 nor did he wish anyone to be forced to do so, but acknowledged a fundamental disagreement with most of those around him and wrote: "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."[9]

In 1962, Barth visited the USA, where he 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] (Karl Barth, a Theological Legacy, page 26). 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.

[edit] Theology

Barth tries 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 efforts.

[edit] Election

One of the most influential and controversial features of Barth's Dogmatics was his doctrine of election (Church Dogmatics II/2). One thread of the Reformed tradition, following one interpretation of its most influential thinker, John Calvin, had long argued for so-called double predestination: that God chose some humans for salvation through Christ and others for damnation. These groups were sometimes called the "elect" and "reprobate." This choice (or "election") was made by God and was the result of God's "absolute decree," a mysterious and fundamentally inscrutable decision which, though it was a decision of ultimate consequence for the individual human, was fundamentally inaccessible and unknowable to him or her. God chose each person to be saved or damned based on the divine will, and it was impossible to know why God chose some and not others or whether God had elected or rejected oneself.

Barth's doctrine of election involves a firm rejection of the notion of an absolute 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. With 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[10] on the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, critics, namely Brunner[11], have charged that Barth's view amounts to a lax universalism.

[edit] Barth, Liberals and Conservatives

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.[12] 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.[citation needed]

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.

In general, Barth stands in the heritage of the Reformation in his opposition to attempts to closely relate theology and philosophy. His approach in that respect is predominately Christocentric, and is thus termed "kerygmatic," as opposed to "apologetic."

[edit] Relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum

Barth has also fallen victim to criticism for his relationship with his secretary and confidant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum. One critic has written: "Part of any realistic response to the subject of Barth and von Kirschbaum must be anger."[13] When they first met in 1924, Barth had already been married for 12 years to his wife, Nelly, with whom he had also had five children.[14] The precise nature of their relationship is unclear (in particular whether the two were ever sexually involved), but scholars agree their relationship went far beyond the bounds of the simply professional. In 1929, von Kirschbaum, with Barth's consent, moved into the Barth family household. This arrangement--described by one scholar as "convoluted, extremely painful for all concerned, yet not without integrity and joys"--lasted for 35 years.[15] 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."

[edit] Quotations

  • "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way."
  • "The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself."
  • "Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it."
  • "There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical." (Church Dogmatics 1:2, 469)
  • "The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us." (Church Dogmatics)
  • "Barth’s dedication to the sole authority and power of the Word of God was illustrated for us… while we were in Basel. Barth was engaged in a dispute over the stained glass windows in the Basel Münster. The windows had been removed during World War II for fear they would be destroyed by bombs, and Barth was resisting the attempt to restore them to the church. His contention was that the church did not need portrayals of the gospel story given by stained glass windows. The gospel came to the church only through the Word proclaimed. …the incident was typical of Barth’s sole dedication to the Word. " --Elizabeth Achtemeier
  • "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world."
  • "In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it." (Barth 1933, p. 30)
  • "What expressions we used — in part taken over and in part newly invented! — above all, the famous ‘wholly other’ breaking in upon us ‘perpendicularly from above,’ the not less famous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man, the vacuum, the mathematical point, and the tangent in which alone they must meet." (Barth 1960, p. 42)
  • "It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure."

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Church Dogmatics IV.1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004.
  2. ^ a b Issues in Science and Religion (1966), Ian Barbour, Prentice-Hall pages 116-119, 229, 292, 422-25, 456, 459
  3. ^ Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, pp.76-77
  4. ^ See T. F. Torrance. "Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology" as well as T. F. Torrance. "Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian"
  5. ^ See Church Dogmatics III/3, xii.
  6. ^ Church Dogmatics, ed. T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley (1932-67; ET Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956-75).
  7. ^ Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals, 1914.
  8. ^ S. Parkes Cadman (December 2, 1934). ""Barth is extolled for defying Nazis". The New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA081EFC3558177A93C0A91789D95F408385F9. Retrieved on 2007-12-18. 
  9. ^ "No Angels of Darkness and Light", The Christian Century, 20 January 1960, pp. 72 ff.
  10. ^ Campbell, Douglas, The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy(Ediburgh: T&T Clark, 2005), 42 ff24.
  11. ^ Brunner, Emil, The Christian Doctrine of God: Dogmatics: Volume 1, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950)
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ S. Seliger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth; quoted in K. Sonderegger's review.
  14. ^ George Hunsinger's review of S. Seliger, Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth: A Study in Biography and the History of Theology.
  15. ^ Hunsinger

[edit] Writings

  • The Epistle to the Romans ISBN 0-19-500294-6
  • Prayer and Preaching
  • Preaching Through the Christian Year ISBN 0-8028-1725-4
  • God Here and Now
  • Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme, John Knox (1960); reprinted by Pickwick Publications (1985) ISBN 0-915138-75-1
  • Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
  • Church and State
  • The Humanity of God, 1960, John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-0612-0
  • The Christian Life , posthumous lecture fragments, ISBN 0-567-09320-4, ISBN 0-8028-3523-6
  • The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. Edited by Kurt I. Johanson. Regent Publishing (Vancouver, BC, Canada): 2007
  • "No Angels of Darkness and Light", The Christian Century, 20 January 1960, p. 72 (reprinted in Contemporary Moral Issues, Second Edition, Harry K. Girvetz, editor. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1968)
  • The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, Vol 1: ISBN 0-8028-2421-8: Text of Barth's Lectures in Gottingen

[edit] The Church Dogmatics in English translation

[edit] Audio

[edit] Secondary bibliography

[edit] External links

NAME Barth, Karl
SHORT DESCRIPTION Swiss Reformed theologian
DATE OF BIRTH May 10, 1886
DATE OF DEATH December 10, 1968
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