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 necessary for man and that Christianity, the highest form of religion, was as valid in the modern age as it ever was.

But at the same time it admitted that the Christian faith had to be modernized. Much in the Bible, it was felt, was unacceptable to modern man, such as the miracles, the absoluteness and finality of Christ, and the idea that he is the ontological Son of God and that by his death he brought about the atonement for sin. All these elements have to be removed. But this does not really matter, for despite this “demythologizing” (the term may be modern but the matter is not!), we still can retain the real core of the Christian message. Adolf Harnack, the leader of German liberalism, summarized this core in three propositions: (1) the fatherhood of God; (2) the inestimable value of the human soul; (3) the ethical teaching of Jesus. In other words, the liberal teaching of that period was nothing else than a Christian form of natural religion, with its customary emphasis on the immanence of God and man’s inherent goodness.

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During the First World War, while millions of men were dying on the battlefields of Europe, this theology broke down completely. Paul Tillich described his own experience as a chaplain in the German army in a graphic way. During the battle of Champagne in 1915 there was a night attack in which many of his personal friends were wounded or killed. “All that horrible long night I walked along the rows of dying men, and much of my German classical philosophy broke down that night—the belief that man could master cognitively the essence of his being, the belief in the identity of essence and existence.… The traditional concept of God was dead.”

Barth’s Discovery

Barth, who was a native of Switzerland, never was actively engaged in the war, but in those same years he entered the ministry in one of the small mountain villages of Switzerland. Soon he discovered that the liberal theology simply did not work. He had no message for his parishioners. He then began to study Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and saw that the message of Paul was quite different from that of his liberal teachers. Instead of the immanent God of liberalism he found a God who is holy and transcendent. Instead of the liberal conception of revelation as man’s discovery of God—who can be found everywhere—he discovered that according to the Bible God can be found only in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Instead of the optimistic humanism of the older liberal school, he read about man as a sinner, who is lost in himself and can be saved only by divine grace.

These discoveries he published in his first major work, his Commentary on Romans. This book was a bombshell. It was completely different from the usual commentaries of that time. In the liberal commentaries, exegesis was a purely historical-grammatical exercise. One analyzed the text, put it into its historical and religious context, and then extracted the elements of truth. Naturally, this “truth” always coincided with the author’s own conception of truth. Barth, however, went far beyond the merely critical approach. He was looking for the theological message. What does Paul say to us people of the twentieth century? What does his message mean when we apply it to our personal, ecclesiastical, and religious situation? The exhilarating and liberating answer was: God, the holy and transcendent God, in whose sight all our own righteousness (whether personal, ecclesiastical, or religious) is sin and unbelief, speaks to us redemptively in his Son Jesus Christ, who became sin for us and in our stead. Throughout all his writings Barth has emphasized this same message. Indeed, his entire Church Dogmatics, a monumental work of thirteen big volumes, is one long commentary on this one theme: the revelation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

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Why So Much Influence?

But had not conservative theologians said the same all through the period of liberal hegemony? Why did Barth become so influential? There are several reasons.

1. Here was a man who himself came out of the liberal school. Although he came from a conservative background (his father’s Introduction to the New Testament was for many years used as a textbook in my own former university, the Free University of Amsterdam), Barth had studied under the great leaders of the older liberal school, such as Adolf Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann, and he had absorbed their teaching. When, after his rediscovery of Paul’s message he started to attack the liberal theology, the attack came from an insider who knew exactly what the weak points were. The presuppositions of liberalism had been his own, and he knew why they had failed him and would fail everyone else.

2. Barth spoke the language of his time. He was deeply influenced by such writers as the Danish theologian-philosopher Sören Kierkegaard and the Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevski. Their books were devoured by the post-war generation, and Barth, who spoke their language, thus spoke to the mood of this generation. Theology was no longer a speculative affair; it had become an existential matter touching the deepest layers of man’s existence.

3. Most important, Barth struck some of the deepest and most central chords of the biblical message. Over against the immanent “god” of the liberals, he spoke of the holy and transcendent God of the biblical revelation. Over against the shallow humanism of liberalism, he spoke of the grace of God. Over against the liberal idea of revelation as man’s discovery of God, he spoke of revelation as God’s act in Jesus Christ, condescending to man in his blindness and unbelief. Salvation was no longer a matter of man’s improving himself by following the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount; it was again recognized as fully and wholly God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. Admittedly, some of young Barth’s emphases were rather one-sided. Barth himself admitted this in some of his later writings, especially in his small book The Humanity of God. But it cannot be denied that his theology meant an entirely new approach. Barth repeated it again and again: There is only one truly Christian theology, namely, a theology based on God’s revelation in Christ. And this was his conviction throughout his life. In his Dogmatics in Outline, a series of lectures on the Apostles’ Creed given to German students immediately after the last war, Barth said that the second article on Jesus Christ is the heart of the Christian confession:

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The second article does not just follow the first, nor does it just precede the third; but it is the fountain of light on which the other two are lit.… Article II, Christology, is the touchstone of all knowledge of God in the Christian sense, the touchstone of all theology. “Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are.”

4. In all this Barth returned to the insights of the Reformation. The Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, explains the first article of the Apostles’ Creed as follows: “I believe that the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that is in them, who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ his Son my God and my Father, in whom I so trust …” (Lord’s Day IX). Indeed, Barth was in the tradition of the Reformers, and it was he who sparked the renewed study of the theology of the Reformers, which was, and still is, so characteristic of the post-liberal period. Yet his own theology was not just a mere repetition of the answers given by orthodoxy; again and again the old answers were set within a new and modern framework, resulting in new depths and new perspectives, and at times also in marked deviations from the traditional Reformation theology.

All these factors caused Barth’s voice to be heard everywhere, and it continued to be heard throughout the whole period between the two world wars. It became particularly loud in the thirties, when Barth strongly opposed the so-called German Christians, who regarded Hitler as a special instrument in the hand of Providence and urged the Christian Church in Germany to recognize him as such. Barth recognize this as a pseudo-Christian version of “natural theology,” which thinks it can hear God’s voice in the ordinary facts of history and read God’s message directly from these facts. Over against this Barth maintained that God’s voice can be heard only in Jesus Christ. In the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934, in which the Confessing Church expressed its Christian opposition to the false religion of the “German Christians,” Barth and his friends confessed that their sole trust was in Jesus Christ. The first article begins with the quoting of John 14:6 and John 10:1 and 9, and then continues with these words:

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Jesus Christ, as He is testified to us in Holy Scripture, is the One Word of God, which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine that the Church can and must acknowledge as sources of its proclamation, except and beside this one Word of God, other events and powers, forms and truths, as God’s revelation [cf. W. Niesel, Reformed Symbolics, 1962, 358].

The Church Dogmatics

Barth’s leadership in the Confessing Church led to his expulsion from the University of Bonn. He returned to Switzerland, where he was appointed professor of systematic theology in the University of Basel. Here he began the great work of his life, the writing of his Church Dogmatics. In the course of the years this work grew into a monumental dogmatic cathedral. First of all, it contains his own understanding and interpretation of the message of Scripture. Scripture itself plays an essential part in it. Although it contains speculative elements, it is undeniably a serious attempt to base theology on Scripture. No recent theologian has put so much pure exegesis into his dogmatics. I know ministers who will not prepare a sermon before they check to see what, if anything, Barth has written on the text or passage. In the second place, Barth in the Church Dogmatics enters into a penetrating discussion with the church fathers of all ages: the fathers of the early Church; the great church father of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas; the Reformers; the fathers of the Post-Reformation period, both Lutheran and Reformed; the great leaders of Liberalism, notably Schleiermacher, founding father of the liberal school of thought. The Church Dogmatics contains some of the finest analyses of the history of theology that have ever been written. Yet in all the volumes the central theme is always that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ as a God of grace and mercy.

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This was the main reason why Barth’s theology appealed to a generation that had come out of the ruins of the older liberalism. It was as if a new world opened itself to them. Many ministers learned anew what real preaching is. A new interest in systematic theology manifested itself, resulting in the course of the years in a flood of dogmatic handbooks. Exegesis too profited from the new theological climate, and many new sets of commentaries and many volumes of biblical theology appeared. One may even say that such great works as the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Kittel are the indirect fruit of Barth’s theology.

For many belonging to the generation between the two world wars, Karl Barth was the theological leader and spiritual father. Even during the last world war Barth played a leading role, by encouraging his brethren in all countries, irrespective of which side of the conflict they were on, by the letters he sent from Basel.

After World War Ii

After the Second World War, however, a change took place. A new liberal theology arose. Actually it started during World War II, in 1941, when Rudolf Bultmann, professor of New Testament theology in Marburg, addressed a meeting of German ministers on the topic “New Testament and Mythology.” In this lecture Bultmann proposed an entirely different approach. He did not want a simple return to the older liberal theology of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, but at the same time he rejected Barth’s “solution.” In his opinion Barth dealt with revelation as if it were a stone falling straight from heaven into a strange world. Bultmann wanted to take his starting point in modern man with his existential needs and problems. Before we can hear the answer of the Bible, he said, we must know what the problems are for which we desire an answer. At this point Bultmann turned for help to the contemporary existentialist philosophy, especially that of Heidegger, his former colleague at Marburg. In its analysis of human existence, existentialism gives us the true picture of man, Bultmann felt, and with this picture in mind we should turn to the Bible. He believed that the Bible does give us an answer to our human, existential problems but that this answer can be found only after we have demythologized the Bible and translated its message into existential categories.

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After 1945 this new approach caught on everywhere, to such an extent that both on the Continent of Europe and in the English-speaking world the theological discussion was dominated by the new theology. In Germany the chairs of theology in the main universities were occupied by former students or followers of Bultmann. In the United States Reinhold Niebuhr’s leadership was replaced by that of Paul Tillich, and later came such extreme movements as the God-is-dead theology. In Britain the new theology found eloquent defenders in such men as Bishop J. A. T. Robinson and R. Gregor Smith. One of the results was that Barth and his theology receded into the background. Some soon spoke of the “eclipse” of Barthianism and of the post-Barthian era.

But why this change? The first and general answer is that it was in conformity with the mood of the times. Everywhere after World War II one could hear the cry for change and renewal. But this is not the only answer. I believe the eclipse of Barth’s theology was due also to some weaknesses in it.

Barth’s Weaknesses

In the first place, there was a lack of emphasis on man’s personal existence and responsibility. In the first years Barth so strongly emphasized the divine, transcendent aspect that the human aspect was almost neglected. Not only was faith seen as God’s gift, but God himself was seen as the real subject of faith. There was continuity neither in the divine revelation nor in the responding faith of man. Later on, Barth admitted that this approach was one-sided and tried to correct it, but the damage had been done. In addition, in the second half of his career there was an increasing tendency toward what I would call an “objectivism of grace.” For instance, Barth taught that in Christ’s death all men are “objectively” reconciled with God. Some—namely, the believers—know it; others, the unbelievers, do not; yet it is objectively true of them all. But does this not mean that man in his unbelief, in the existential need and pride of his unbelief, is no longer taken seriously? This was the charge the new liberal theology leveled—and still levels—against Barth. In strong reaction it asks: How can one approach modern man with such an objectivizing message, which does not take his existential situation into account? Must we not start from the other end, from man himself and his existential situation?

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A second weakness of Barth’s theology was that he never satisfactorily solved the problem of the authority of God’s Word. Undoubtedly, the Bible had the central place in his theology. His one desire was to derive his theology from the Bible, and he did not hesitate to call the Bible the Word of God. But at the same time this expression was bracketed by far-reaching qualifications. The Bible is not the Word of God, in the sense of a direct identification, but it has again and again to become the Word of God (i.e., the actual conception of revelation). In itself it is only the human, fallible witness to revelation, and as a human, fallible witness it may freely be subjected to historical criticism. Barth has always defended the good right of such criticism (though, unlike Brunner, he hardly ever practiced it). But of course, once one accepts the critical approach as legitimate, it becomes theologically very difficult, if not impossible, to oppose radical criticism. If the Bible in itself is nothing more than a human witness to revelation, why should we accept everything that is in it? Must we not strip it of the mythological framework in which the authors expressed themselves as children of their time, a framework that is completely out of tune with our modern scientific outlook? In addition, there was Barth’s concentration of all revelation in Jesus Christ, to the exclusion of all general revelation. This one-sidedness was bound to lead to a reaction in which the significance of the general revelation would easily be overrated.

In the third place, Barth’s theology completely neglected the problems involved in the relation between natural science, with its empirical approach, and faith. There is a strange silence on this point in the thirteen volumes of the Church Dogmatics. In the volume that deals with the doctrine of creation, for example, there is no discussion of evolutionism and its implications for the Christian faith. In his strong dislike of all “eristic” (apologetic) theology (Brunner), Barth virtually neglected the apologetic conversation with the scientist. Again I believe that the new theology is a reaction against this omission, with all the sad results of a reaction theology, that is, of going to the other extreme.

The result of the new developments is that many in the younger generation are saying: Karl Barth? Ah yes, he was the chap who dominated the discussions before 1945; now we are living in another time with different problems.

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Final Appraisal

My own opinion is that we should not dismiss Barth easily. Despite the limitations of his theological system, he undoubtedly is one of the giants in the history of theology. One must put him on a level with such men as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher, men who molded the thinking of their own time and of subsequent centuries. I am deeply convinced that in the long run the theologies of men such as Bultmann and Tillich will lose their significance and be regarded as abortive attempts to translate the Christian message into the thought categories of the twentieth century. I do not deny that they make a contribution, and that we can learn from them. But I also believe that when the period of existentialist theology is past, Barth will still be with us, just as Augustine and Thomas and Luther and Calvin are still with us.

Klaas Runia is vice-principal and professor of systematic theology at the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria, Australia. He holds the degrees of B.D., M.Th., and Th.D. from the Free University, Amsterdam. Among his books is “Karl Barth’s Doctrin of Holy Scripture.”

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