Karl Barth has been compared to Søren Kierkegaard and
Martin Luther. He was a dedicated Protestant Christian, seeking to reassert
the original Reformation values. Barth was also a believer in free will
and the need to choose Jesus Christ as a savior. For Barth, authentic faith
was not about logic or reason: it was about obedience to the teaching of
Christ, even when those teachings might seem less than pragmatic in a particular
situation. Considering Barth’s resistance to the Nazis, this was not a
mere academic exercise in his life.
Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…
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These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations
included because within them is where you will find the experts.
Read their works!
NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing”
from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
Author, p. Page
Karl Barth (pronounced “bart”) was born on 10 May 1886
in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich (Fritz) Barth and Anna Katharina
Frtiz was a theology professor who would greatly influence
his son’s life. In particular, Fritz was fascinated by philosophy, especially
the implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories on free will.
According to Barth’s autobiography, Karl
Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts,
the theologian recalled his early love for attention. His later fiery
oratory was as much about passion for faith as about the love of attention.
Taken to a play at the age of ten, an impatient Barth quite literally
“acted up” in the theatre.
It took quite a long time to begin, and then in the solemn silence I
shouted, shrieked and barked so loudly that everyone started looking
at me. I enjoyed that very much!
— Karl Barth
Acting up went beyond mere shouting. Barth was something
of a hooligan — complete with joining a roving street gang. One can theorize
about the setting of Barth’s childhood, a militaristic Europe, but whatever
the reason he developed a hero worship of military figures and legendary
warriors. Barth and his brother would, quite literally, beat each other
for fun. In time, Barth established himself as the leader of his street
gang, leading his band of followers in feuds with rival gangs. Win or lose,
Barth found fighting exhilarating.
Today I did a good deal of bashing up and got bashed up by plenty of
people myself. There really is some splendid poetry in this active and
— 1899 diary entry, Karl Barth
No self-respecting gang leader would be an honors student,
and Barth behaved accordingly. Though never in serious trouble at school,
he maintained a rebellious image and mediocre academic performance. Yet,
Barth’s act of mediocrity was known by classmates for what it was. His
peers considered him scholarly, particularly when it came to history.
According to Barth and his biographers, he eventually
revealed his passions for words and leadership in a more constructive form.
Barth formed an unofficial poetry society. Barth found reading and writing
poetry was preferable to fisticuffs by his early teen years. By the age
of 15, Barth was starting on a path towards theological scholarship.
Confirmation and Dedication to Christianity
It was a century before the 1989 film Dead Poets
Society when Karl Barth founded his Renegade Poets club. Before
that, he was trying to be an authentic ”rebel without a cause” — being
a hooligan for no good reason!
Members of the Swiss Reformed (Protestant) church undergo
a formal “Confirmation” into the faith. Confirmation includes formal training,
including dogmatics and traditional theological perspectives of the faith.
Karl Barth was captivated by the training.
Barth’s diaries and autobiography recount the influence
of his Confirmation teacher, Robert Aeschbacher, who argued against the
dominant philosophy at the turn of the century: materialism. Specifically,
Aeschbacher taught Barth that “scientific materialism” (such as that found
in the works of Marx) was not going to answer the most important questions
about life or even the universe. Faith in science, Aeschbacher taught,
was misplaced. Science could not explain the riddles of the universe.
Though his father was a theologian, it was Aeschbacher
who persuaded the young Barth to consider the irrational, and therefore
inspiring, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of the eve of
his Confirmation, Barth made a personal choice to embrace Christianity.
I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and
pastoral care and so on in my mind, but in the hope that through such
a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in
place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time.
— diary entry, Karl Barth
Once he dedicated himself to theology, the influence
of his father increased. Following in the steps of Fritz, Karl Barth came
to see his father as his most important mentor.
The man who without question laid the foundation for my later involvement
in theology was my father Fritz Barth. By virtue of the quiet seriousness
with which he studied Christianity, whether as scholar or teacher, he
became and remained my model.
— diary entry, Karl Barth
In 1904 Barth entered the University of Bern, where his
father was his primary theology professor. Fritz Barth was known as a “moderate”
or even “liberal” theologian who did not insist on a strict, literal reading
of scripture. The younger Barth did not embrace this liberalism, instead
drifting towards a more conservative theology. Karl studied traditional
philosophers, with a particular interest in Immanuel Kant. Convinced philosophy,
not science, was the better discipline for finding meaning in life, Barth
found Kant’s works appealing.
As a university student Barth dedicated a great deal
of time to the student newspaper, Christian World. Unfortunately,
the rebellious Barth was still present in the young man, who took up drinking
at local pubs and smoking heavily.
In 1908 Barth was ordained into the Swiss Reformed Church
clergy by his father. Barth completed his academic studies in 1909, a year
after his ordination. During his last year of study, Barth accepted a post
as an assistant pastor. Three years after his ordination, Barth was appointed
as pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland. Barth would serve as a pastor in Safenwil
Karl Barth married violinist Nelly Hoffmann on 27 March
1913. They would eventually have five children: Franziska Nelly, Karl Markus,
Christoph Friedrich, Robert Matthias, and Hans Jakob.
While a pastor in Safenwil, Barth increasingly embraced
a conservative theology, but with a political liberalism. Unfortunately,
his scholarly bent was unappreciated by his parishioners, who were mainly
factory workers. Carefully researched and typed, Barth’s sermons were like
school lessons — and apparently just as interesting. His congregation slowly
decreased in size.
Politics and Ethics
Barth’s political liberalism led him to involvement in
unions and the socialist movement. Watching the struggles of his working-class
congregation, Barth became convinced that a new economic order was needed.
During World War I, Barth came to be known as the “Red Pastor of Safenwil.”
After World War I, Barth started to reconsider the role
of political engagement in his life. He wondered if his theology was being
undermined by his political and social forays. He wrote in his diary:
The need to preach proved a very healthy corrective and stimulus in
the development of my ideas…. Above all, it has become increasingly clear
to me that what we need is something beyond all morality and politics
and ethics. These are constantly forced into compromises with “reality”
and therefore have no saving power in themselves.
Disillusioned with politics, and likely affected by the
horrors of the First World War, Barth was even unsure of his role as a
pastor. He found some peace in Biblical scholarship. Midway into World
War I, Barth dedicated himself to an in depth study of scriptures attributed
to St. Paul.
During the work it was often as though I caught a breath from afar,
from Asia Minor or Corinth, something primeval, from the ancient East,
indefinably sunny, wild, original, that somehow is hidden behind these
— diary entry, Karl Barth
Rise to Prominence
Following WWI, in 1919, Barth’s commentary on St. Paul
was published, The Epistle
to the Romans. The work was unusual for its conservative theology
and its open attacks on humanism. The work was either famous or infamous,
depending on the positions of particular critics.
The success of The
Epistle to the Romans allowed Barth to pursue scholarship
full-time. He left the congregation in Sanfenwil to relocate to Germany,
home to numerous universities. From 1921 to 1935, Barth taught at universities
in Goettingen, Muenster, and Bonn. Barth’s scholarship began to produce
the multi-volume Church
Dogmatics, a study of the Protestant tradition through the
lens of Barth’s increasingly conservative theology.
The Rise of Nazi Germany
As Barth was dedicating himself to the massive Church
Dogmatics, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists were
gaining influence and political power in Germany. Barth was forced
by events to reconsider his withdrawal from political involvement.
Could he be a “good Christian” and remain silent? For Barth, the answer
was a clear “No.”
Karl Barth became an outspoken critic of the National
Socialists, opposing Hitler’s political machinations. It was clear to Barth
that Hitler was using the weak German democracy to establish a tyranny.
When Hitler announced the state of Germany was favored by God, Barth was
deeply offended as a theologian and worried as a resident of Central Europe.
University instructors, like all teachers in Nazi Germany,
were ordered to begin each day with “Heil Hitler” and various nationalistic
anthems. Barth refused to comply. Not content to merely resist the order,
in 1934 Barth composed the Barmen Confession, a formal declaration that
God was separate from and His authority higher than the state. As anticipated,
Barth was removed from his teaching post and “escorted” out of Germany.
From his new home in Basel, Switzerland, Barth continued
to speak out and write about the threat to Europe posed by Hilter. Working
as a professor of theology at the University of Basel, Barth used his post
to write directly to various Christian church officials, political leaders,
and anyone else he thought might be persuaded to resist Hitler. Barth wrote
of Nazi aggression and the suppression of Christian values in Hitler’s
Barth was troubled by the ease with which German religious
leaders accepted Hitler, even promoting the notion that the state and “science”
were equal to the churches. Barth saw “reason” taken to a cold, indifferent,
and dangerous extreme. Even if the Nazi logic was flawed, it seemed reasonable
to enough people.
The Post-War Years
Following World War II, Barth dedicated himself to the
rebuilding and restoration of Germany. Though he had condemned Hitler and
the National Socialists, Barth always considered the German people victims
of historical circumstance. He did not dismiss the Holocaust, but he recognized
the rise of Hitler occurred within a larger social upheaval.
Barth returned to lecture at the University of Bonn during
the 1946—1947 academic year. His political involvement declined and he
returned to religious scholarship. Church
Dogmatics was once again Barth’s focus.
(Non) Response to Soviet Communism
Barth, like many European academics did not condemn the
rise of Joseph Stalin or the communism of the Soviet Union. He did not
defend the tactics of Stalin, but he found rabid anti-communism even more
disturbing. Barth developed a cynicism towards all forms of government,
finding none ideal.
Barth retired in 1962, but never stopped writing and
lecturing. He was invited to lecture at various universities in the United
States, so he made the journey at the age of 75. As part of his tour of
the United States, Barth insisted on visiting Civil War battlefields. His
fascination with war had never faded.
Barth died in 1968, in Basel, Switzerland.
1886 May 10
Born in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich (Fritz) Barth and
Anna Katharina Sartorius.
Attended University of Bern.
Attended University of Berlin.
Returns to the University of Bern.
University of Tuebingen.
Serves as an assistant pastor in Meiringen, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.
Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie (The Word of God
and the Word of Man), Sermons and Essays: 1924
Die Lehre vom Worte Gottes; Prolegomena zur christlichen Dogmatik (The
Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics),
Die protestantische Theologie im 19.Jahrhundert (Protestant
Theology in the Nineteenth Century), Text: 1947
Dogmatik im Grundriss (Dogmatics in Outline),
Den Gefangenen Befreiung; Predigten aus den Jahren 1954–59 (Deliverance
to the Captives), Sermons: 1959
From our current moment in history, it can be difficult
to comprehend the influence of theologians during the early twentieth century.
Social and political activism was considered a part of Christianity, a
social gospel dedicated to the industrial workers. Clergy supported unions,
women’s suffrage, and racial integration. Karl Barth, though a conservative
theologian, was a social activist.
Barth’s desire to reform Christianity was a call to return
to the teaching of Jesus. Barth has been compared to Martin Luther and
even John Calvin. While he advocated reforms within the faith, these proposed
reforms were about reconnecting believers to the teachings and idealism
associated with Christ’s life, teaching, and especially the miracle of
The writings of Barth are based on faith; they are not
an attempt to persuade others to accept Christianity. Barth was trying
to reaffirm traditional Christianity to those within the faith. As a result,
the texts do not try to explain good and evil, or try to convince readers
that miracles can be proved.
Barth believed that Christianity promised a better future,
one in which social justice was a duty. This is a social gospel, not a
gospel against sinners who will be condemned to Hell. As a scholar and
pastor Barth wanted Christians to challenge inequities and injustices.
For those seeking “fire and brimstone” in theology, Barth offers little.
The Epistle to the Romans; Der Römerbrief (1919)
Barth’s study of Biblical scripture attributed to St.
Paul was published in 1919. In The
Epistle to the Romans, Barth offers a conservative theological
interpretation of the New Testament Book of Romans, which is also known
as “The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans.” The historical origins of the
ancient text have been debated, but Barth’s commentary is not a historical
text; Barth assumes the letter to be Paul’s work.
For Barth, it was impossible for any human to comprehend
God. Instead of trying to discover the rational explanation for God’s various
requests (or demands), the key for Barth was acceptance of God. Accepting
Jesus, in particular, was the path to redemption and eternal peace. This
is similar to Søren Kierkegaard’s
“leap of faith” — reason and faith are incompatible, so you either accept
the miracles of Christ or you do not. It is a personal choice.
Barth was writing during a time of extreme scientific
advancement. To suggest science could not answer every question was a radical
notion. Some were starting to view the Bible as literature, a collection
of parables within parables. The notion of “humanism” was gaining popularity
in Europe. Faith in humanity was increasing while religious faith was beginning
a decline that is still evident in Western culture.
One can have too much faith in science, philosophy,
or religion. Barth was not rejecting science, but thought Europeans were
expecting too much from humanity. The Two World Wars probably illustrated
Having watched the affects of science, technology, and
the resulting Industrial Revolution, Barth doubted humanity would or could
perfect itself. While there were great improvements in some areas, mankind
was definitely not transcendent. Only God, The Creator, in His various
forms is transcendent, completely beyond the grasp of mortal minds.
God, through the Son and Savior, Jesus Christ, decided
to approach humanity. It was always up to God, through revelation or Christ,
when and how to express Himself to humans. According to Barth’s traditional
theology, not even the various churches or their clergy can help connect
individuals to God. It is a personal connection, offered by God and either
accepted or rejected by the individual who hears the Word of God. This
is a conservative Protestant theology: the Bible is God’s divine offering
of truth and salvation. The church has no divine power, no special connection
to God, other than to offer the Word to congregations.
Woe be to us, if from the summits of religion there pours forth nothing
but religion! Religion casts us into the deepest of all prisons: it cannot
liberate us. Flesh is flesh; and all that takes place within its sphere,
every step we undertake towards God, is as such weak. Because of the
qualitative distinction between God and man the history of religion,
Church History, is weak, utterly weak.
— The Epistle to the
Romans; Karl Barth
For religious humanists, who believed that science could
discover “how God thought,” Barth’s theology was an insult against human
ability. Secular humanists could dismiss Barth as a religious zealot, but
liberal theologians were forced to explain why Barth’s theology was outdated.
The “modern” theologians were eager to embrace advancements, wanting to
reconcile science and theology. Barth was claiming such attempts at rational
faith were misguided.
In St. Paul, Barth found a man willing to accept miracles
and miracles and divine inspiration as a gift that did not need explanation.
Paul’s faith was the pure faith Barth believed should be the aim of all
Christians. The modern Christian churches were no longer inspired, no longer
passionately accepting Christ.
Paul what a man he must have been and what men also those for whom he
could so sketch and hint at these pithy things in a few muddled fragments!
[…] And then behind Paul: what realities those must have been that could
excite the man in such a way! What a lot of far-fetched stuff we compile
about his remarks, when perhaps ninety-nine per cent of their real content
— diary entry, Karl Barth
Church Dogmatics (1932–1961)
The multi-volume work Church
Dogmatics represents the theology of Barth in great detail.
Four massive volumes were published during Barth’s lifetime, which
an incomplete fifth volume available in posthumous fragments. Church
Dogmatics has been compared to the works of Thomas Aquinas, Summa
Theologie and Summa Contra Gentiles,
by some critics.
The fifth volume of Dogmatics was
outlined as “Eschatology,” meaning a study of the “last or final things.”
Barth found some humor in the fact he did not have the last word — since
that belongs to God.
Volume one of Church
Dogmatics is The
Doctrine of the Word of God. Barth read the Bible as a literal
document and adhered to a conservative theology. This first volume
of the Dogmatics was
an explanation of the primacy of scripture and a defense of Christian
doctrines. Among the doctrines Barth considered essential to the nature
of Christianity was the belief in the Holy Trinity: God as Father,
Son (Jesus Christ), and Spirit. It is a fundamental notion of traditional
Christianity that God can be everywhere, yet can also take specific
forms — especially that of His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Volume two of Dogmatics, The
Doctrine of God, is even more specific on the nature of God according
to Christian theology. Barth held that God was beyond human understanding,
a position which Barth spent thousands of pages explaining throughout
his lifetime. Barth suggested God was revealed through scripture (The
Word) and Jesus Christ. Some Christian theologians complicate this by
suggesting Jesus is The Word in physical form, but Barth does not make
Volume three of Dogmatics, The
Doctrine of Creation, explores the creation of the universe, earth,
and humanity in particular. Barth opened the text with a study of Genesis
and the creation stories. (There are two creation stories in Genesis,
which has long puzzled Biblical historians and some theologians.) The
bulk of The Doctrine of Creation explores God’s covenant
with humanity. Barth concluded the work with an explanation of the ethical
responsibilities humanity has under God. Guidance is offered by scripture,
but to behave ethically is always a personal choice.
Volume four of Dogmatics, The
Doctrine of Reconciliation, explores the nature and role of Jesus
of Nazareth. Barth, as a conservative Christian theologian, insisted
that accepting Jesus Christ was key to redemption. Christ was both man
and God, beyond humanity’s comprehension, yet human. Barth believed that
the physical nature of Jesus was an important connection to humanity;
God literally suffered as a result of human sinfulness.
After the publication of volume four of Dogmatics,
Barth explained that he had come to view humanity as a part of God, an
essential expression of God’s creative power. This does not mean humanity
is God, in a literal sense, but that just as a painting expresses the thoughts
of the artist, humanity was an expression of God.
Critics and Church Dogmatics
Dogmatics is a massive work, compiled over three decades.
These volumes are the result of a lifetime of scholarship. It is likely
a reader would need a lifetime to analyze Dogmatics.
The Church Dogmatics is
so large as to be almost grotesque…. The reader is sometimes disconcerted
and discouraged by the sheer weight of words…. But it is well worth the
effort! He who accepts the discipline of reading these nearly seven thousand
pages finds an exciting world unfolding; amazed, fascinated and overwhelmed,
he simply cannot tear himself away from these huge volumes with their
— Portrait of Karl Barth; Georges Casalis
Unfortunately, most of these books are out of print or
nearly impossible to find. I located one Barth biography online for $104
in May, 2008. I couldn’t justify the expense. As a result, the bibliography
is based on books I found covered in dust at the libraries of CSU, Fresno,
and the University of Minnesota. This bibliography needs some editing;
I apologize for the incomplete links to Amazon and any missing publication