The year is 1979. A first-year theological student, on holiday in Switzerland, is walking through one of the cemeteries of Basel. Perhaps you find this a rather strange pastime for a student. Well, we all occasionally do strange things during our holidays—as well as at other times. As the young fellow looks at the tombstones, suddenly he sees a name that seems to ring a bell. “Karl Barth, 1886–1968.” Isn’t that a rather familiar name? Who in the world is he?

I projected this imaginary case into the future, ten years hence. But something similar might happen even today. It is remarkable but undeniable that Karl Barth, one of the giants of our century, is unknown to many people today. Although thirty years ago his name was almost a household word, not only in but also outside the Church, many of our daily newspapers did not even record the fact of his death on December 9, 1968.

Who was this great man, and why was he pushed into the background in recent years?

Before World War I

For the greater part of his life Barth was professor of theology, first in Germany and, after his dismissal from the University of Bonn by Adolf Hitler in 1935, in his native Switzerland. He was no dry-as-dust professor but one of the most creative thinkers of the century, a man who single-handed changed the whole theological climate of his day.

Up to the First World War, the dominating theology in Europe as well as in the United States was the older liberal theology. It was characterized by a strong optimism about the abilities of man and an extremely shallow conception of God. Over against the claims of nineteenth-century science, by whose progress it was deeply impressed, this liberal theology maintained that religion was ...

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