Biography of Karl Barth

Name: Karl Barth
Bith Date: May 10, 1886
Death Date: December 9, 1968
Place of Birth: Basel, Switzerland
Nationality: Swiss
Gender: Male
Occupations: theologian
Karl Barth

The Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), a giant in the history of Christian thought, initiated what became the dominant movement in Protestant theology up to the present day.

Karl Barth was born on May 10, 1886, in Basel, the eldest son of a Swiss Reformed minister. Raised in an atmosphere of evangelical piety and theological learning, Karl decided at the age of 16 to become a theologian. Between 1904 and 1908 he was educated at the universities of Bern, Berlin, Tübingen, and Marburg and studied under the leading Protestant religious scholars of the day. In 1908 Barth was ordained to the Swiss Reformed ministry. He then served as pastor of congregations in Geneva (1909-1911) and in the village of Safenwil (1911-1921). In 1913 Barth married Nelly Hoffman, and they had three sons and a daughter.

Early Theology (1919-1931)

Thoroughly educated in the liberal Protestant approaches to Christianity, early in his career Barth came to be troubled by liberalism's easy marriage between Christianity and overconfident modernity. The uncritical support of World War I by leading German intellectuals, including some of Barth's teachers, however, irrevocably exposed for him the bankruptcy of liberalism's religious anthropocentricity.

Faced with the task of preaching each week, Barth turned with fresh eyes to the Bible and discovered there what he was to call a "strange new world." In 1919 his explosive Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans catapulted the unknown pastor into international theological prominence. Strongly influenced by the recently discovered 19th-century religious thinker Kierkegaard, Romans stressed the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and man. According to the Bible's own testimony, said Barth, revelation is entirely the gracious self-disclosure of the utterly transcendent and otherwise hidden God in the person of Jesus Christ. This revelation is the crisis or judgment of all human activities, including religion. In this work Barth strongly opposed liberal theology's blurring of the divine-human distinction and the subordination of Christian faith and ethics to the passing standard of each historical period.

Romans brought Barth an invitation to become professor of reformed theology at the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he remained from 1921 to 1925. This post was followed by professorships at the universities of Münster (1925-1930) and Bonn (1930-1935). During this period Barth's understanding of the nature and method of Christian theological reflection developed into the mature position of his monumental Church Dogmatics. The first volume of the work appeared in 1932, and at Barth's death in 1968 it had grown to 13 volumes and was the most comprehensive exposition of theology since St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologica. Leading up to this main work were writings such as the sermons and lectures included in The Word of God and the Word of Man (1924) and Theology and Church (1928); and Anselm: Fides quaerens intellectum (1931), a study of the great 11th-century theologian whose method of "faith seeking understanding" had a decisive influence on the direction of Barth's developed theology.

In these early years the theological movement which Barth had begun, variously called "theology of the Word," "theology of crisis," "dialectical theology," "Neo-Reformation theology," and "neo-orthodoxy," attracted in varying degrees men who, with him, became the leading Protestant theologians of this century. Among them were Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Friedrich Gogarten.

Later Theology (1931-1968)

At Bonn, Barth assumed leadership of those Protestants in Germany who opposed the rising National Socialist or Nazi party. After Hitler came to power, Barth served as the chief drafter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church's Barmen Declaration (1934), a confession of faith vigorously repudiating Nazi ideology on the basis of the gospel. The following year Barth was expelled from Germany. He returned to his native Basel and was a professor of theology at the university there until his retirement in 1962.

Barth's numerous writings after 1931, besides the successive volumes of Church Dogmatics, include Credo (1935), which comments on the Apostles' Creed; The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1938), which is a good example of Barth's important recovery of the vital theological insights of the Protestant Reformation; Dogmatics in Outline (1947), which summarizes his theology; Against the Stream (1954), which includes some controversial essays on the cold war, describing communism in theological terms as far different from Nazism; and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (1963), which contains the lectures he gave in the United States during his only visit, in 1962.

A lecture Barth delivered in 1956 entitled "The Humanity of God" (published in The Humanity of God [1960]) best describes the development which took place in his theology. He had begun, he said, with the "otherness" of God as the biblical theme which most needed attention; but the direction of his theological was toward a deepening concentration on Jesus Christ as the full revelation of God and therefore the sole object of theological thinking. In this light Barth had come to see more and more fully that the central theme of Scripture is the "togetherness" of the sovereign God and creaturely man in Christ--God's "humanity" in the Incarnation.

Barth's theological "revolution" was a dynamic, non-fundamentalistic recovery of the biblical message as the proclamation of the unique self-disclosure of God to man in Jesus Christ. He believed that Christian theology ought always to derive its entire thinking on God, man, sin, ethics, and society from what can actually be seen in Jesus as witnessed by the Old and New Testaments rather than from sources independent of this revelation. His voluminous writings explore the inexhaustibly fruitful implications of his total Christ-centeredness.

Thomas Oden said of him: "Barth looked like a casting agency's idea of a German professor, with his shock of wavy gray hair, high forehead and cheekbones, craggy eyebrows. His owlish eyes peered occasionally over his horn-rimmed glasses, which often sat at the tip of his nose. He was known for his geniality, modesty, patience and sympathy, and above all a pixyish sense of humor." Barth's chief avocation was a passionate love of Mozart's music. He died on Dec. 9, 1968.

Further Reading

  • Numerous studies of Barth's life and thought are available. Among the best in English are Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology, 1910-1931 (1962); George Casalis, Portrait of Karl Barth (trans. 1963); Herbert Hartwell, The Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction (1964); and Thomas C. Oden, The Promise of Barth: The Ethics of Freedom (1969).
  • Busch, Eberhard, Karl Barth: his life from letters and autobiographical texts, London: S.C.M. Press, 1976.

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