Karl Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who is often regarded as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. His influence expanded well beyond the academic realm to mainstream culture, leading him to be featured on the cover of Time on April 20, 1962.
Beginning with his experience as a pastor, Barth rejected his training in the predominant liberal theology typical of 19th-century European Protestantism. He also rejected more conservative forms of Christianity. Instead he embarked on a new theological path initially called dialectical theology due to its stress on the paradoxical nature of divine truth; e.g., God's relationship to humanity embodies both grace and judgment. Many critics have referred to Barth as the father of neo-orthodoxy – a term that Barth emphatically rejected. A more charitable description of his work might be "a theology of the Word." Barth's work had a profound impact on twentieth century theology and figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who like Barth became a leader in the Confessing Church – Thomas F. Torrance, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, Stanley Hauerwas, Hans Kung, Jürgen Moltmann, and novelists such as John Updike and Miklós Szentkuthy.
Barth's unease with the dominant theology which characterized Europe led him to become a leader in the Confessing Church in Germany, which actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In particular, Barth and other members of the movement vigorously attempted to prevent the Nazis from taking over the existing church and establishing a state church controlled by the regime. This culminated in Barth's authorship of the Barmen Declaration, which fiercely criticized Christians who supported the Nazis.
One of the most prolific and influential theologians of the twentieth century, Barth emphasized the sovereignty of God, particularly through his reinterpretation of the Calvinistic doctrine of election, the sinfulness of humanity, and the "infinite qualitative distinction between God and mankind". His most famous works are his The Epistle to the Romans, which marked a clear break from his earlier thinking, and his massive thirteen-volume work Church Dogmatics, one of the largest works of systematic theology ever written.
Karl Barth was born on May 10, 1886, in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich "Fritz" Barth and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth. Fritz Barth was a theology professor and pastor who would greatly influence his son's life. In particular, Fritz Barth was fascinated by philosophy, especially the implications of Friedrich Nietzsche's theories on free will. Barth spent his childhood years in Bern. One of the places at which he studied was Marburg University, where he was taught for a year by the Jewish Kantian thinker, Hermann Cohen. From 1911 to 1921 he served as a Reformed pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton of Aargau. In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffmann, a talented violinist. They had a daughter and four sons, one of whom was the New Testament scholar Markus Barth (October 6, 1915 – July 1, 1994). Later he was professor of theology in Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930) and Bonn (1930–1935) (Germany). While serving at Göttingen he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who became his long-time secretary and assistant; she played a large role in the writing of his epic, the Church Dogmatics. He had to leave Germany in 1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and went back to Switzerland and became a professor in Basel (1935–1962).
Barth was originally trained in German Protestant Liberalism under such teachers as Wilhelm Herrmann, but he reacted against this theology at the time of the First World War. His reaction was fed by several factors, including his commitment to the German and Swiss Religious Socialist movement surrounding men such as Hermann Kutter, the influence of the biblical realism movement surrounding men such as Christoph Blumhardt and Søren Kierkegaard, and the effect of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.
Kierkegaard’s influence on Barth’s early theology is evident in The Epistle to the Romans. The early Barth read at least three volumes of Kierkegaard’s works: Practice in Christianity, The Moment, and an Anthology from his journals and diaries. Almost all key terms from Kierkegaard which had an important role in The Epistle to the Romans can be found in Practice in Christianity. The concept of the indirect communication, the paradox, and the moment of Practice in Christianity, in particular, confirmed and sharpened Barth’s ideas on contemporary Christianity and the Christian life.
The most important catalyst, however, was Barth's reaction to the support that most of his liberal teachers voiced for German war aims. The 1914 "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World" carried the signature of his former teacher Adolf von Harnack. Barth believed that his teachers had been misled by a theology which tied God too closely to the finest, deepest expressions and experiences of cultured human beings, into claiming divine support for a war which they believed was waged in support of that culture – the initial experience of which appeared to increase people's love of and commitment to that culture. Much of Barth's early theology can be seen as a reaction to the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.
Barth first began his commentary The Epistle to the Romans (Ger. Der Römerbrief) in the summer of 1916 while he was still a pastor in Safenwil, with the first edition appearing in December 1918 (but with a publication date of 1919). On the strength of the first edition of the commentary, Barth was invited to teach at the University of Göttingen. Barth decided around October 1920 that he was dissatisfied with the first edition and heavily revised it the following eleven months, finishing the second edition around September 1921. Particularly in the thoroughly re-written second edition of 1922, Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions. The book's popularity led to its republication and reprinting in several languages.
In the decade following the First World War, Barth was linked with a number of other theologians – actually very diverse in outlook – who had reacted against their teachers' liberalism, in a movement known as "Dialectical Theology" (Ger. Dialektische Theologie). The members of the movement included Rudolf Bultmann, Eduard Thurneysen, Eberhard Grisebach, Emil Brunner, and Friedrich Gogarten.
In 1934, as the Protestant Church attempted to come to terms with the Third Reich, Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen declaration (Ger. Barmer Erklärung). This declaration rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity by arguing that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as the German Führer, Adolf Hitler. Barth mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church and Barth was elected a member of its leadership council, the Bruderrat.
He was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. In the course of his appointment he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defense. His answer was, "Yes, especially on the northern border!" The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung carried his 1936 criticism of Martin Heidegger for his support of the Nazis. In 1938 he wrote a letter to a Czech colleague Josef Hromádka in which he declared that soldiers who fought against the Third Reich were serving a Christian cause.
Barth's theology found its most sustained and compelling expression in his thirteen-volume magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics (Ger. "Kirchliche Dogmatik"). Widely regarded as an important theological work, the Church Dogmatics represents the pinnacle of Barth's achievement as a theologian. Church Dogmatics runs to over six million words and 8,000 pages (in English; over 9,000 in German) – one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written. The Church Dogmatics address four major doctrines: Revelation, God, Creation, and Atonement or Reconciliation. Barth had initially also intended to complete his dogmatics by addressing the doctrines of redemption and eschatology, but decided not to complete the project in the later years of his life.
After the end of the Second World War, Barth became an important voice in support both of German penitence and of reconciliation with churches abroad. Together with Hans-Joachim Iwand, he authored the Darmstadt Statement in 1947 – a more concrete statement of German guilt and responsibility for the Third Reich and Second World War than the 1945 Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. In it, he made the point that the Church's willingness to side with anti-socialist and conservative forces had led to its susceptibility for National Socialist ideology. In the context of the developing Cold War, that controversial statement was rejected by anti-Communists in the West who supported the CDU course of re-militarization, as well as by East German dissidents who believed that it did not sufficiently depict the dangers of Communism. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1950. In the 1950s, Barth sympathized with the peace movement and opposed German rearmament.
Barth wrote a 1960 article for The Christian Century regarding the "East-West question" in which he denied any inclination toward Eastern communism and stated he did not wish to live under Communism or wish anyone to be forced to do so; he acknowledged a fundamental disagreement with most of those around him, writing: "I do not comprehend how either politics or Christianity require or even permit such a disinclination to lead to the conclusions which the West has drawn with increasing sharpness in the past 15 years. I regard anticommunism as a matter of principle an evil even greater than communism itself."
In 1962, Barth visited the United States and lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, the Union Theological Seminary and the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He was invited to be a guest at the Second Vatican Council, after which he wrote a small volume, Ad Limina Apostolorum [At the Threshold of the Apostles].
Barth was featured on the cover of the April 20, 1962 issue of Time magazine, an indication that his influence had reached out of academic and ecclesiastical circles and into mainstream American religious culture.
Barth died on December 10, 1968 at his home in Basel, Switzerland. The evening before his death, he had encouraged his lifelong friend Eduard Thurneysen that he should not be downhearted, "For things are ruled, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but things are ruled – even here on earth—entirely from above, from heaven above.”