Neo-Orthodoxy: Karl Barth
"THE GOSPEL is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths.” Karl Barth (pronounced “bart") not only said this, he spent his life setting question marks, in the name of Christ, against all manner of “truths.” In the process, he did nothing less than alter the course of modern theology.
He started out life conventionally enough: he was born in 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, the son of Fritz Barth (a professor of New Testament and early church history at Bern) and Anna Sartorius. He studied at the best universities: Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg. At Berlin he sat under the famous liberals of the day (like historian Adolf Harnack), most of whom taught an optimistic Christianity that focused not so much on Jesus Christ and the Cross as the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.
After serving a Geneva church from 1909 to 1911, Barth was appointed to a working-class parish in Switzerland. In 1913 he married Nell Hoffman, a talented violinist (they eventually had one daughter and four sons).
As he pastored, he noted with alarm that not only was Switzerland’s close neighbor, Germany, becoming increasingly militaristic, but his former professors there were fully supportive of the development. Dismayed with the moral weakness of liberal theology, Barth plunged into a study of the Bible, especially Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, to see what insights it could offer. He also visited Moravian preacher Christoph Blumhardt and came away overwhelmingly convinced of the victorious reality of Christ’s resurrection.
Out of this search emerged his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1918). He sounded themes that had been muted in liberal theology. For example, liberal theology had domesticated God into the patron saint of human institutions and values. Instead, Barth wrote of the “crisis,” that is, God’s judgment under which all the world stood; he taught God’s absolute sovereignty and complete freedom in initiating his revelation in Jesus Christ.
He spoke dialectically, in paradox, to shock readers into seeing the radical nature of the gospel: “Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative difference between God and man and God and the world.”
The first of six heavily revised editions of the commentary followed in 1922. It rocked the theological community. Liberal theologians gasped in horror and attacked Barth furiously, for in this and later works, he assaulted their easy optimism.
In response to their amiable view of humankind, Barth wrote, “Men have never been good, they are not good, they will never be good.”
Against the liberal tendency to treat Jesus as a teacher of religion, Barth said, “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way.”
In 1921 Barth was appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen, and later to chairs at Münster (1925) and Bonn (1930). He published works critiquing nineteenth-century Protestant theology and produced a celebrated study of Anselm.
In 1931 he began the first book of his massive The Church Dogmatics. It grew year by year out of his class lectures; though incomplete, it eventually filled four volumes in 12 parts, each densely printed with 500 to 700 pages each. Many pastors in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, desperate for an antidote to liberalism, eagerly awaited the publication of each book.
His theology came to be known as “dialectical theology,” or “the theology of crisis"; it blossomed into a school of theology known as neo-orthodoxy, which influenced theology for decades and included thinkers like Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr. Many Catholic theologians (like Hans Küng) and evangelical theologians (like Donald Bloesch) have acknowledged Barth’s key influence on them.
Not that everyone fell at his feet. On the one hand, liberals mocked him as a Bible—thumping fundamentalist; on the other, conservatives wondered about Barth’s orthodoxy because he refused to consider the Bible to be “infallible” (he believed, instead, that only Jesus is infallible). Others thought Barth’s theology overemphasized God’s transcendence, making God seem utterly distant, and others still argued that God, in fact, did show signs of his presence in nature and history (something the early Barth vehemently denied).
All in all, Barth was surprised at the waves he caused. Late in life he wrote, “As I look back upon my course, I seem to myself as one who, ascending the dark staircase of a church tower and trying to steady himself, reached for the banister, but got hold of the bell rope instead. To his horror he had then to listen to what the great bell had sounded over him and not over him alone.”
Barth fought not just with liberals but also with allies who challenged some of his extreme conclusions. When Brunner proposed that God revealed himself not just in the Bible but in nature as well (though not in a saving way), Barth replied in 1934 with an article titled, “No! An Answer to Emil Brunner.” Barth believed that such a “natural theology” was the root of the religious syncretism and anti-Semitism of the “German Christians"—those who supported Hitler’s national socialism. (Later in life, he moderated his views and reconciled with Brunner).
By this time, Barth was immersed in the German church struggle. He was a founder of the so-called Confessing Church, which was repulsed by the ideology of “blood and soil” and the Nazis’ attempt to create a “German Christian” church. The 1934 Barmen Declaration, largely based on Barth’s initial draft, pitted the revelation of Jesus Christ against the “truth” of Hitler and national socialism:
"Jesus Christ . . . is the one Word of God. . . . We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and beside this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”
When Barth refused to take the oath of unconditional allegiance to the Führer, he lost his position at Bonn. His native Basel offered him a chair in theology and from there he continued to champion the causes of the Confessing Church, the Jews, and oppressed people everywhere.
After the war, Barth engaged in controversies about baptism (though a Reformed theologian, he rejected infant baptism), hermeneutics, and the demythologizing program of Rudolf Bultmann (who denied the historical nature of Scripture, instead believing it a myth whose meaning could heal spiritual anxiety).
Barth also made regular visits to the Basel prison, and his sermons to prisoners, Deliverance to the Captives, reveal a combination of evangelical passion and social concern that characterized his whole life.
Though his later years were relatively quiet, Barth remains the most important theologian of the twentieth century. When it looked as if a moralistic and humanistic theology had won over Christendom, Barth showed Christians—mainline, evangelical, and Catholic—how to continue to take the Bible seriously.
1886 Karl Barth born in Basel, Switzerland
1901 Adolf Harnack publishes What Is Christianity? a succinct expression of liberal theology
1911 Barth begins pastoring a village church in Safenwil (Aargau)
1914–1918 World War I
1918 First edition of Barth’s Romans
1921 Barth becomes a professor at Göttingen, then Münster (1925), then Bonn (1930)
1932 Publishes first volume in The Church Dogmatics, on which he will work continuously the rest of his life
1934 Instrumental in writing the Barmen Declaration
1935 Fired for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler; becomes professor at Basel
1946 Rudolf Bultmann publishes Jesus Christ and Mythology
1948 First meeting of the World Council of Churches
1962 Barth visits the United States
1968 Barth dies
1977 Last volume of The Church Dogmatics published
You Are There
In 1933, Karl Barth wrote his discouraged colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, disgusted with the German Christian response to Hitler, fled Germany to pastor a German-speaking parish in England:
What is all this about “going away,” and “quietness of pastoral work,” etc., at a moment when you are wanted in Germany? You, who know as well as I do that the opposition in Berlin and the opposition of the church in Germany as a whole stands inwardly on such weak feet! . . . Why aren’t you always there where so much could depend on there being a couple of game people on the watch at every occasion, great or small, and trying to save what there is to be saved? . . .
I think that I can see from your letter that you, like all of us—yes, all of us!—are suffering under the quite common difficulty of taking “certain steps” in the present chaos. But should it not dawn on you that there is no reason for withdrawing from this chaos, that we are rather required in and with our uncertainty, even if we should stumble or go wrong ten times or a hundred times, to do our bit? . . .
One simply cannot become weary now. Still less can one go to England! What in all the world would you want to do there? . . . You must now leave go of all these intellectual flourishes and special considerations, however interesting they may be, and think of only one thing, that you are a German, that the house of your church is on fire, that you know enough to be able to help and that you must return to your post by the next ship.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany 16 months later, after Barth had been exiled to Switzerland.
For more information on this topic, see:
A Karl Barth Home page (Barth Society at Memphis Theological Seminary)
By Mark Galli
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #65 in 2000]Mark Galli is editor of Christian History.
Roman Catholic Reform: John XXIII
Elected to be a caretaker pope, he decided instead to revolutionize Catholicism.Elesha Coffman
Martin Luther King, Jr.
No Christian played a more prominent role in the 20th century’s most significant social justice movement.Russel Moldovan
Third World: Rumblings to the South
In Africa and elsewhere, third-world Christians are shaking society.Derek Peterson
Survey Results: What Do You Think?
How our scholars and general readers voted in the Most Influential Christians of the Century survey.the Editors
Subscribe to magazine
Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basisSubscribe
Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministryDonate