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Karl Barth

Karl Barth

The Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), a giant in the history of Christian thought, initiated what became the dominant movement in Protestant theology up to the present day.

Karl Barth was born on May 10, 1886, in Basel, the eldest son of a Swiss Reformed minister. Raised in an atmosphere of evangelical piety and theological learning, Karl decided at the age of 16 to become a theologian. Between 1904 and 1908 he was educated at the universities of Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg and studied under the leading Protestant religious scholars of the day. In 1908 Barth was ordained to the Swiss Reformed ministry. He then served as pastor of congregations in Geneva (1909-1911) and in the village of Safenwil (1911-1921). In 1913 Barth married Nelly Hoffman, and they had three sons and a daughter.

Early Theology (1919-1931)

Thoroughly educated in the liberal Protestant approaches to Christianity, early in his career Barth came to be troubled by liberalism's easy marriage between Christianity and overconfident modernity. The uncritical support of World War I by leading German intellectuals, including some of Barth's teachers, however, irrevocably exposed for him the bankruptcy of liberalism's religious anthropocentricity.

Faced with the task of preaching each week, Barth turned with fresh eyes to the Bible and discovered there what he was to call a "strange new world." In 1919 his explosive Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans catapulted the unknown pastor into international theological prominence. Strongly influenced by the recently discovered 19th-century religious thinker Kierkegaard, Romans stressed the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and man. According to the Bible's own testimony, said Barth, revelation is entirely the gracious self-disclosure of the utterly transcendent and otherwise hidden God in the person of Jesus Christ. This revelation is the crisis or judgment of all human activities, including religion. In this work Barth strongly opposed liberal theology's blurring of the divine-human distinction and the subordination of Christian faith and ethics to the passing standard of each historical period.

Romans brought Barth an invitation to become professor of reformed theology at the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he remained from 1921 to 1925. This post was followed by professorships at the universities of Münster (1925-1930) and Bonn (1930-1935). During this period Barth's understanding of the nature and method of Christian theological reflection developed into the mature position of his monumental Church Dogmatics. The first volume of the work appeared in 1932, and at Barth's death in 1968 it had grown to 13 volumes and was the most comprehensive exposition of theology since St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologica. Leading up to this main work were writings such as the sermons and lectures included in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1924) and Theology and Church (1928); and Anselm: Fides quaerens intellectum (1931), a study of the great 11th-century theologian whose method of "faith seeking understanding" had a decisive influence on the direction of Barth's developed theology.

In these early years the theological movement which Barth had begun, variously called "theology of the Word, " "theology of crisis, " "dialectical theology, " "Neo-Reformation theology, " and "neo-orthodoxy, " attracted in varying degrees men who, with him, became the leading Protestant theologians of this century. Among them were Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Friedrich Gogarten.

Later Theology (1931-1968)

At Bonn, Barth assumed leadership of those Protestants in Germany who opposed the rising National Socialist or Nazi party. After Hitler came to power, Barth served as the chief drafter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church's Barmen Declaration (1934), a confession of faith vigorously repudiating Nazi ideology on the basis of the gospel. The following year Barth was expelled from Germany. He returned to his native Basel and was a professor of theology at the university there until his retirement in 1962.

Barth's numerous writings after 1931, besides the successive volumes of Church Dogmatics, include Credo (1935), which comments on the Apostles' Creed; The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1938), which is a good example of Barth's important recovery of the vital theological insights of the Protestant Reformation; Dogmatics in Outline (1947), which summarizes his theology; Against the Stream (1954), which includes some controversial essays on the cold war, describing communism in theological terms as far different from Nazism; and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (1963), which contains the lectures he gave in the United States during his only visit, in 1962.

A lecture Barth delivered in 1956 entitled "The Humanity of God" (published in The Humanity of God [1960]) best describes the development which took place in his theology. He had begun, he said, with the "otherness" of God as the biblical theme which most needed attention; but the direction of his theological was toward a deepening concentration on Jesus Christ as the full revelation of God and therefore the sole object of theological thinking. In this light Barth had come to see more and more fully that the central theme of Scripture is the "togetherness" of the sovereign God and creaturely man in Christ—God's "humanity" in the Incarnation.

Barth's theological "revolution" was a dynamic, nonfundamentalistic recovery of the biblical message as the proclamation of the unique self-disclosure of God to man in Jesus Christ. He believed that Christian theology ought always to derive its entire thinking on God, man, sin, ethics, and society from what can actually be seen in Jesus as witnessed by the Old and New Testaments rather than from sources independent of this revelation. His voluminous writings explore the inexhaustibly fruitful implications of his total Christ-centeredness.

Thomas Oden said of him: "Barth looked like a casting agency's idea of a German professor, with his shock of wavy gray hair, high forehead and cheekbones, craggy eyebrows. His owlish eyes peered occasionally over his horn-rimmed glasses, which often sat at the tip of his nose. He was known for his geniality, modesty, patience and sympathy, and above all a pixyish sense of humor." Barth's chief avocation was a passionate love of Mozart's music. He died on Dec. 9, 1968.

Further Reading

Numerous studies of Barth's life and thought are available. Among the best in English are Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910-1931 (1962); George Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth (trans. 1963); Herbert Hartwell, The Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction (1964); and Thomas C. Oden, The Promise of Barth: The Ethics of Freedom (1969).

Additional Sources

Busch, Eberhard, Karl Barth: his life from letters and autobiographical texts, London: S.C.M. Press, 1976. □

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Barth, Karl

Karl Barth (bärt), 1886–1968, Swiss Protestant theologian, one of the leading thinkers of 20th-century Protestantism. He helped to found the Confessing Church and his thinking formed the theological framework for the Barmen Declaration. He taught in Germany, where he early opposed the Nazi regime. In 1935 when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler, he was retired from his position at the Univ. of Bonn and deported to Switzerland. There he continued to expound his views, known as dialectical theology or theology of the word. Barth's primary object was to lead theology back to the principles of the Reformation (called neo-orthodoxy). For Barth, modern theology with its assent to science, immanent philosophy, and general culture and with its stress on feeling, was marked by indifference to the word of God and to the revelation of God in Jesus, which he thought should be the central concern of theology. In the confrontation between humanity and God, which was Barth's fundamental concern, the word of God and God's revelation in Jesus are the only means God has for Self-revelation; Barth argued that people must listen in an attitude of awe, trust, and obedience. This theological position is also related to those of Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, and Rudolf Bultmann, although Barth's position is the stricter. Barth's writings include The Epistle to the Romans (tr. 1933), The Word of God and the Word of Man (tr. 1928), Credo (tr. 1936), and Church Dogmatics (Vol. I-IV, tr. 1936–62).

See T. F. Torrance, Karl Barth (1966); R. E. Willis, The Ethics of Karl Barth (1971); E. Busch, Karl Barth (1976); G. W. Bromiley, An Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (1981).

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Barth, Karl

Barth, Karl (1886–1968). Christian theologian, of dominating importance in 20th cent. Beginning his career at the end of the long 19th-cent. ascendancy of liberal and reductionist theology in Germany (e.g. Feuerbach, Schleiermacher, and Strauss), epitomized for Barth in the figure of Harnack, Barth entered his first and massive protest against this in his Der Römerbrief (1919). This introduced what came to be known as ‘dialectical theology’, or ‘the theology of crisis’ (Gk., krisis, ‘judgement’). God cannot be found by humans as the conclusion of an argument, or as the experience at the end of a religious or mystical quest. God, rather, speaks his Word through the words of ‘the strange new world of the Bible’. Although he published many works, his major commitment was to the many-volumed Church Dogmatics. The first volume appeared in 1932; 13 volumes later, it was unfinished at his death. He increasingly stressed the human vocation to co-operate with the initiatives of God in creation, and saw a place for human wisdom and knowledge as a prolegomenon to the acknowledgement of the sovereignty of God.

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Barth, Karl

Barth, Karl (1886–1968) Swiss theologian. Barth was a leading thinker of 20th-century Protestantism, and tried to lead theology back to principles of the Reformation. He emphasized the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. His school has been called dialectical theology or theology of the word. In 1935 he was suspended from his position at the University of Bonn for his anti-Nazi stance, and he returned to Switzerland. His works include Epistle to the Romans (1919).

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