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Christian History Home > 131 Christians > Theologians > Karl Barth

Karl Barth
Courageous theologian
posted 8/08/2008 12:56PM

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"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 gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths." Karl Barth 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.



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Shocking liberalism

He started out life conventionally enough: he was born in Basel, Switzerland, the son of Fritz Barth (pronounced "bart"), a professor of New Testament and early church history at Bern, and Anna Sartorius. He studied at some of the best universities: Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg. At Berlin he sat under the famous liberals of the day (like historian Adolph von 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 curacy from 1909 to 1911, Barth was appointed to a working-class parish in Switzerland, and 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 Germany was becoming increasingly militaristic and that his former professors were supportive of this. Barth, dismayed with the moral weakness of liberal theology, plunged into a study of the Bible, especially Paul's Epistle to the Romans. He also visited Moravian preacher Christoph Frederick Blumhardt and came away with an overwhelming conviction about the victorious reality of Christ's resurrection—which deeply influenced his theology.

Out of this emerged his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1919). He sounded themes that had been muted in liberal theology. 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 pounded on the theme of God's absolute sovereignty, of his complete freedom in initiating his revelation in Jesus Christ.

He spoke dialectically, in paradox, to shock readers into seeing the radicalness 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 followed in 1922. It rocked the theological community. Barth later 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." Liberal theologians gasped in horror and attacked Barth furiously. But Barth had given that form of liberalism a mortal wound.

His theology came to be known as "dialectical theology," or "the theology of crisis"; it initiated a trend toward neo-orthodoxy in Protestant theology.

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.

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