Karl Barth

From Academic Kids

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Karl Barth on the cover of TIME magazine

Karl Barth (May 10, 1886 - December 10, 1968) was a Swiss Christian theologian, and one of the leading thinkers in the neo-orthodox movement. Many modern Protestant theologians count themselves to be (at least nominally) followers of either Barth, or of his contemporary, Paul Tillich.

Born in Basel, he spent his childhood years in Bern. From 1911 to 1921 he served as a Reformed pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton Aargau. Later he was professor of theology in Bonn (Germany). He had to leave Germany in 1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Barth went back to Switzerland and became professor in Basel.

Barth was originally trained in German Protestant Liberalism under such teachers as Wilhelm Herrmann, but 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 like Herrmann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men like Christoph Blumhardt, and the impact of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck. The most important catalyst was, however, his reaction to the support for the German war aims of most of his liberal teachers. 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. In his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (germ. Rmerbrief; 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.

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" (germ. Dialektische Theologie). Other members of the movement included Rudolf Bultmann, Eduard Thurneysen, 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 (germ. Barmer Erklrung) which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity - 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 Fhrer, Adolf Hitler. 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 for refusing to swear an oath to Hitler and 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 defence. His answer was, "Yes, especially on the northern border!" In 1938 he wrote a letter to a Czech colleague, Josef Hromdka, in which he declared that soldiers who fought against the Third Reich were serving a Christian cause.

After the end of the Second World War, Barth became an important voice both in support of German penitence and of reconciliation with churches abroad. Together with Hans-Joachim Iwand, he authored the Darmstadt Statement in 1947, which was a more concrete statement of German guilt and responsibility for the Third Reich and Second World War than the Stuttgart Declaration of 1945. 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, this 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. In the 1950s, Barth sympathized with the peace movement and opposed German rearmament.

In 1962, Barth visited the USA, where he lectured at the University of Chicago and Princeton Theological Seminary. He was invited to be a guest at the Second Vatican Council, but could not attend due to illness. In later life, Barth wrote the massive Church Dogmatics (germ. Kirchliche Dogmatik) - unfinished at about six million words by his death in 1968. Barth explores the whole of Christian doctrine, where necessary challenging and reinterpreting it so that every part of it points to the radical challenge of Jesus Christ, and the impossibility of tying God to human cultures, achievements or possessions. The work has been deeply influential on German-speaking and English-speaking theologians, and has been partly responsible for a revival of interest in traditional Christian doctrine amongst academic theologians.

Although Barth's theology was built around a rejection of German Protestant Liberalism, his theology has not always found favour with those at the other end of the theological spectrum: conservatives, evangelicals and fundamentalists. His mature doctrine of the Word of God, for instance, does not proceed by arguing or proclaiming that the Bible must be uniformly historically and scientifically accurate, and then establishing other theological claims on that foundation. Some evangelical and fundamentalist critics have therefore tended to refer to Barth as "neo-orthodox" because, while his theology retains most or all of the tenets of Christianity, he is seen as rejecting the belief which for them is a lynchpin of the theological system: biblical innerancy. (For instance, it was for this belief that Barth was criticized most harshly by the conservative evangelical theologian, Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer.) Such critics regard proclaiming a rigorous Christian theology without basing that theology on a supporting text that is considered to be historically accurate as a separation of theological truth from historical truth; for his part, Barth would have argued that making claims about biblical inerrancy the foundation of theology is to take a foundation other than Jesus Christ, and that our understanding of Scripture's accuracy and worth can only properly emerge from consideration of what it means for it to be a true witness to the incarnate Word, Jesus.

The relationship between Barth, liberalism and fundamentalism goes far beyond the issue of inerrancy. From Barth's perspective, liberalism (with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hegel as its leading exponents) is the divinization of human thinking. Some philosophical concepts become the false God, and the voice of the living God is blocked. This leads to the captivity of theology by human ideology. In Barth's theology, he emphasizes again and again that human concepts can never be considered as identical to God's revelation. In this aspect, Scripture is also written human language, expressing human concepts. It cannot be considered as identical as God's revelation. However, in His freedom and love, God truly reveals the Godself through human language and concepts. Thus he claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church. Barth stands in the heritage of the Reformation in his wariness of the marriage between theology and philosophy. Whether his sharp distinction between human concepts and divine revelation is biblical or philosophically sound remains debatable.


"Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way."

Writings by Karl Barth

External links

fr:Karl Barth nl:Karl Barth ja:カール・バルト pt:Karl Barth sk:Karl Barth sv:Karl Barth


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