Karl barth’s name stands out for an unexpected wave of neo-orthodox theology in the middle of our century. Barth’s early books certainly signaled an end to the rule of theological liberalism. Although his early writings show ethical weaknesses that are characteristic also of some reformational orthodoxy, they did prepare a good section of the German church for resistance to the cult of the nation in 1933.
Barth in his later years turned more and more to the Scriptures as the only source of theology, refusing domination by philosophies. The last two or three volumes of his Church Dogmatics show this clearly. His new stance, though, did not exert the same influence throughout the length and breadth of the Church as his earlier one had. Problems and positions of liberal theology have come back and dominated the last twenty years, and the age of “Barthianism” now almost looks like an episode in the history of theology in the twentieth century.
Shortly after Barth’s death in 1968, a program of publishing his complete works was set up that may in the end run to eighty volumes. The editors were successful in catching the public eye by first publishing several volumes of Barth’s letters: his correspondence with Bultmann (showing early roots of their later disagreement), followed by two volumes of Barth’s early exchange of letters with his closest friend, Eduard Thurneysen. More recently, a collection of letters from the last seven years of Barth’s life has proved to be of great interest (Briefe 1961–1968, edited by J. Fangmeier and H. Stoevesandt, Theologischer Verlag Zurich, 1975). The book gives intimate insights into Barth’s mature thinking and reveals a much clearer picture of his position in the crosscurrents of our time. It may come as a surprise to many.
Barth felt that the Roman Catholic Church and theology had begun to move, to an extent he had not imagined before. But in what direction? One of the most captivating elements of the book is the letters Barth sent to Hans Küng, Roman theologian of world renown who began his career with a thesis on Barth and later became a frequent visitor to Barth’s home. Barth watched closely Küng’s efforts to reform the church. He compared him with Luther on his way to Worms. But there are also, toward the end, two long letters expressing Barth’s “deep-rooted” anxiety that Küng and his friends might tend toward a kind of Protestant rationalism as in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and repeat its mistakes. Barth was one of the first to point out the dangers of present-day Catholic progressives who may set out to discover biblical Christianity but who quickly bypass it, ending up in theological liberalism or worse.
Much has been said about Barth’s political position, which at times seemed strangely one-sided. In this volume for the first time one gets a glimpse behind the scenes, e.g., of Barth’s wrestling with Professor Hromadka of the Prague Peace Conference, something he would not allow to come into the open. He felt that Hromadka had become partisan in the Cold War, lacking that “superior position” which means the proclamation of the Kingdom in the East just as much as in the West. He had noticed the same onesidedness in the World Peace Movement. He never supported it and felt that “Picasso’s Bird” was just an anti-American vulture and not a dove of comfort to all kind of people.
Of course, in a book like this one looks for Barth’s opinions of theological trends of the day. There are letters to Jürgen Moltmann and to Wolfhart Pannenberg commenting on their first major books without flattery. The most pressing problem of those years was, though, what Barth called “the sick theology of our day,” “those miserable existentialists,” and the Bultmannians, whom he used to name “the Company of Korah.” He spoke unsparingly of John A. T. Robinson and of Dorothee Solle (“that woman ‘should keep silence in the churches’!”).
While he publicly exhorted church leaders not to be unduly impressed by the “cock-a-doodle-doo” of a few hundred students of theology and their busybody professors (“He that sitteth in the heavens … shall have them in derision”), in letters to close friends he would admit that looking at the follies of those theologians made him feel disgusted and tired. How should one deal with them? In some letters he says they should be spoken to more squarely, and he waits for the man who will rise up and do away with the lot, in the manner of his own dealings with liberal theology in the twenties. Then again he strongly advises against making public martyrs of them. His main concern seems to be that one should be guided not by the adversary all the time but by the subject matter of the Gospel itself. This is why he rebukes evangelicals (and some of his own school) who confine themselves to polemics instead of “caring and praying for the Church’s positive witness to become much more definite, clear, and concentrated.”
One of the remarkable features of these letters is the stirring pastoral touch frequently shown. He will admonish one of his first class of confirmands (herself now well into her sixties) to attend church more regularly. To an old-age pensioner he sends a check so that “the Kingdom of God may not be in words, but in power.” There is hardly a letter that does not carry an element suited to build the faith of the addressee, be it a young girl or a university professor. Often he will quote a line from a hymn. A regular preacher at Basel prison, in a letter he urges one of the inmates “not to cease with prayer but to love God Who from eternity has destined you to be His friend.” To an old friend suffering from much illness he writes. “You and we all are held by the Best Hand, and we will hold to it, too, won’t we?” The illnesses and prolonged hospitalizations of his own last years he took in the mood that “God has kept me happy and healthy for so many years; should I now complain?”
Faith was real to him, and his letters show a cheerful spirituality that not all theologians call their own. Barth’s theology needs to be tested, and not a little of it contested. We must never attach ourselves to any theologian blindly, buying his system as a whole. It is to God himself and to his Word that we have pledged our loyalty. Barth was “a man with his contradictions.” But he was also a father in Christ, a man of God, and we see him drawing always nearer to the authority of God’s Word.
It is to be hoped that this volume of Barth’s last letters will soon be published in English, because it gives not only shrewd judgment on today’s theological trends but also evidence of the reality of the ever living God.
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