existential primer

Karl Barth
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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…

Do not use this site as a study guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result in misunderstanding the profiled individuals. 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:

Work; Author, p. Page


Karl Barth (pronounced “bart”) was born on 10 May 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich (Fritz) Barth and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth.

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 passive.
— 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 until 1921.

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 sentences.
— 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 Germany.

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.
1904–1906 Attended University of Bern.
1906–1907 Attended University of Berlin.
1907 Returns to the University of Bern.
1907–1908 University of Tuebingen.
1907 Serves as an assistant pastor in Meiringen, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.
1908–1909 Completes studies at the University of Marburg.
1908 Ordained by the Swiss Reformed Church.
1909–1911 Assistant clergy, a curate, in Geneva.
1911–1921 Pastor in Safenwil, Aargau, Switzerland.
1913 March 27 Marries Nelly Hoffman.
1919 First major work published, The Epistle to the Romans.
1921 Appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen
1922 Publishes first of six revisions to The Epistle to the Romans.
1925–1930 Granted chair at Münster (Muenster), professor of “dogmatics.”
1930–1934 Granted chair at University of Bonn, professor of systematic theology.
1931 Publishes a study of St. Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum.
1934 Publishes Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner, a response to Emil Brunner’s defense of anti-Semitism.
1934 Helps draft the Barmen Declaration, declaring the German church “paganized” and anti-Christian.
1935 Removed from teaching at Bonn after refusing to pledge loyalty to National Socialism and Hitler.
1935–1962 Professor of theology at University of Basel, Switzerland.
1937–1938 Visiting Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
1946–1947 Guest professor at University of Bonn.
1948 Speaks at the opening meeting of the Conference of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam.
1962 Visiting lecturer at Princeton University.
1968 December 9 Died in Basel (note: some biographies list December 10 or 11).



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 resurrection.

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 his point.

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 escapes us!
— 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 this argument.

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

Church 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 disciplined structure.
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 information.

Andrews, Isolde; Deconstructing Barth: A Study of the Complementary Methods in Karl Barth and Jacques Derrida (New York: P. Lang, 1996)

Barth, Karl; <trans.> Edwyn C. Hoskyns; The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933)

Barth, Karl; <ed.> John D. Godsey; How I Changed My Mind (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1966)

Bromiley, Geoffrey W.; Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979)

Busch, Eberhard; <trans.> John Bowden; Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Fortress Press, 1976)

Karl Barth is the primary source for quotes within this Web page. It is probably the best source for Barth’s reflections on his own life.

Casalis, Georges; Portrait of Karl Barth (New York: Doubleday, 1963)

Cunningham, Mary Kathleen; What Is Theological Exegesis? Interpretation and Use of Scripture in Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995)

Davaney, Sheila Greeve; Divine Power: A Study of Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne (Fortress Press, 1986)

Hartwell, Herbert; The Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction (Westminster Press, 1964)

Jenson, Robert W.; Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth (Nelson, 1963)
Note: Due to the poor quality of the archived text, I might have the publisher wrong!

Johnson, William Stacy; The Mystery of God: Karl Barth and the Post-Modern Foundations of Theology (John Knox Press, 1997)

Jungel, Eberhard; <trans.> Paul, Garrett E.; Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Westminster Press, 1986)

McCormack, Bruce L.; Karl Barth’s Critically Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909–1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

McKim, Donald K.; How Karl Barth Changed My Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986)

Molnar, Paul D.; Karl Barth and the Theology of the Lord’s Supper: A Systematic Investigation (P. Lang, 1996)

Mueller, David; Karl Barth (Word Books, 1972)

Mueller, David L.; Foundation of Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1990)

O’Grady, Colm; The Church in the Theology of Karl Barth (Corpus Books, 1968)

Parker, T. H. L.; Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 1970)

Rodin, R. Scott; Evil and Theodicy in the Theology of Karl Barth (P. Lang, 1997)

Sharp, Douglas R.; The Hermeneutics of Election: The Significance of the Doctrine in Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990)

Stroble, Paul E., Jr.; The Social Oncology of Karl Barth (San Francisco: Christian University Press, 1994)

Thinkers of the Twentieth Century, Second edition; Turner, Roland <ed.> (St. James Press, 1987)

Thompson, John <ed.>; Theology Beyond Christendom: Essays on the Centenary of the Birth of Karl Barth (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1986)

Thorne, Phillip R.; Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception and Influence in North American Evangelical Theology (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1995)

von Balthasar, Hans Urs; <trans.> Drury, John; The Theology of Karl Barth (Holt, 1971)

Whitehouse, W. A.; Creation, Science, and Theology: Essays in Response to Karl Barth (Eerdmans, 1981)

Willems, B. A.; <trans.> van Velzen, Matthew J.; Karl Barth: An Ecumenical Approach to His Theology (Paulist Press, 1965)

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