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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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In 1931 he began the first book of his massive Church Dogmatics. It grew year by year out of his class lectures; though incomplete, it eventually filled four volumes in 12 parts, 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.

Fascist idolatry

Barth fought not just with liberals but allies who challenged some of his extreme conclusions. When Emil 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.

By this time, Barth was immersed in the German church struggle. He was a founder of the so-called Confessing Church, which reacted vigorously against the ideology of "blood and soil" and the Nazis' attempt to create a "German Christian" church. The 1934 Barmen Declaration, largely written by Barth, 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 was fired. He was offered the chair of theology in his native Basel, however, and from there he continued to champion the causes of the Confessing Church, the Jews, and oppressed people everywhere.

Pastor Karl

After the war, Barth engaged in controversies regarding baptism (though a Reformed theologian, he rejected infant baptism), hermeneutics, and the demythologizing program of Rudolf Bultmann (which denied the historical nature of Scripture, instead believing it a myth whose meaning could heal spiritual anxiety).

Barth also made regular visits to the prison in Basel, and his sermons to the prisoners, Deliverance to the Captives, reveal his unique combination of evangelical passion and social concern that characterized all his life.

When asked in 1962 (on his one visit to America) how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, he replied, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Though Barth made it possible for theologians again to take the Bible seriously, American evangelicals have been skeptical of Barth because he refused to consider the written Word "infallible" (he believed only Jesus was). Others gave up on Barth's theology because it overemphasized God's transcendance (to the point that some former Barthians began championing the "death of God"). Nonetheless, he remains the most important theologian of the twentieth century.

131 Christians Everyone Should Know

131 Christians Everyone Should Know

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