Karl Barth

Karl Barth books and biography


Karl Barth

Karl Barth
Karl Barth

Karl Barth (May 10, 1886 – December 10, 1968) (pronounced "bart") a Swiss Reformed theologian, was one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the 20th century.[citation needed] Beginning with his experience as a pastor, he became one of the founding fathers of the Neo-Orthodox movement, which assumed prominence in Christian thought between the two World Wars.[citation needed] He was considered by pope Pius XII as the most important Christian theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas.[citation needed]


Early life and education

Born in Basel, Barth 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. In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffman, a talented violinist. They would have four sons and a daughter. Later he was professor of theology in Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930) and Bonn (1930–1935) (Germany). While serving at Göttingen he first met Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who became his long time secretary. 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 (1935–1962).

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 Hermann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men like Christoph Blumhardt and Søren Kierkegaard, and the impact of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.

The most important catalyst was, however, his reaction to the support most of his liberal teachers had for German war aims. The 1914 "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World"[1] 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 thinking is also a direct response to the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel and the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Epistle to the Romans

In his commentary The Epistle to the Romans (germ. Römerbrief; 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. Many theologians believe this work to be the most important theological treatise since Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.

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.

Barmen Declaration

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 Erklärung) 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 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 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 defense. His answer was, "Yes, especially on the northern border!" 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.

Church dogmatics

Barth's theology found its most sustained and compelling expression through his thirteen-volume magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics (Germ. "Kirchliche Dogmatik"). Widely regarded as an important theological work, the Church Dogmatics represents the pinnacle of Barth's achievement as a theologian. Barth published the first part-volume of the Dogmatics in 1932 and continued working on it until his death in 1968, by which time it was 6 million words long in thirteen part-volumes. Highly contextual, the volumes are written chronologically, beginning with Vol. I/1, and address political issues (generally quite subtly) as well as questions raised by his students after lectures. (The material published as the Church Dogmatics was originally delivered in lecture format to students at Bonn and then Basel.) 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. It was translated into English under the editorial leadership of T. F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley.

Later life

Barth on the April 20, 1962 cover of TIME magazine
Barth on the April 20, 1962 cover of TIME magazine

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, 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. Barth taught for a time at Duke University. [1]

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 nor did he wish anyone to be forced to do so, but acknowledged a fundamental disagreement with most of those around him and wrote: "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."[2]

In 1962, Barth visited the USA, where he lectured at Princeton Theological Seminary, University of Chicago, and San Francisco Theological Seminary. He was invited to be a guest at the Second Vatican Council, but could not attend due to illness.


Barth tries to recover the Doctrine of the Trinity in theology from its putative loss in liberalism. His argument follows from the idea that God is the object of God’s own self-knowledge, and revelation in the Bible means the self-unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own efforts. Note here that the Bible is not the Revelation; rather, it points to revelation.

Barth, Liberals and Conservatives

Although Barth's theology rejected German Protestant Liberalism, his theology has usually not found favour with those at the other end of the theological spectrum: confessionalists, evangelicals and fundamentalists. His 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 often referred 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 is a linchpin of their theological system: biblical inerrancy. (It was for this belief that Barth was criticized most harshly by the conservative evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, who was a student of strident Barthian critic Cornelius Van Til.) 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.[citation needed] Barthians respond by saying that the claim that the foundation of theology is biblical inerrancy is to use 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.[citation needed]

The relationship between Barth, liberalism and fundamentalism goes far beyond the issue of inerrancy, however. From Barth's perspective, liberalism, as understood in the sense of the 19th century with Friedrich Schleiermacher and Hegel as its leading exponents and not necessarily expressed in any political ideology, is the divinization of human thinking. This, to him, inevitably leads one or more philosophical concepts to become the false God, thus blocking the true voice of the living God. This, in turn, leads to the captivity of theology by human ideology. In Barth's theology, he emphasizes again and again that human concepts of any kind, breadth or narrowness quite beside the point, 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 to God's revelation. However, in His freedom and love, God truly reveals Himself through human language and concepts, with a view toward their necessity in reaching fallen humanity. Thus Barth claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church, echoing a stand expressed in his native Swiss Reformed Church's Helvetic Confession of the 16th century.

In general, Barth stands in the heritage of the Reformation in his opposition against attempts to closely relate theology and philosophy. His approach in that respect is termed "kerygmatic," as opposed to "apologetic."


  • “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way."
  • "The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself."
  • "Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it."
  • “There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical. ” (Church Dogmatics 1:2, 469)
  • "The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us. ” (Church Dogmatics)
  • "Barth’s dedication to the sole authority and power of the Word of God was illustrated for us… while we were in Basel. Barth was engaged in a dispute over the stained glass windows in the Basel Münster. The windows had been removed during World War II for fear they would be destroyed by bombs, and Barth was resisting the attempt to restore them to the church. His contention was that the church did not need portrayals of the gospel story given by stained glass windows. The gospel came to the church only through the Word proclaimed. …the incident was typical of Barth’s sole dedication to the Word. "

Elizabeth Achtemeier

  • "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world."
  • "In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it." (Barth 1933, p. 30)
  • "What expressions we used — in part taken over and in part newly invented! — above all, the famous ‘wholly other’ breaking in upon us ‘perpendicularly from above,’ the not less famous ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man, the vacuum, the mathematical point, and the tangent in which alone they must meet." (Barth 1960, p. 42)
  • "It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure."
  • Once a young student asked Barth if he could sum up what was most important about his life's work and theology in just a few words. The question was posed even with gasps from the audience. Barth just thought for a moment and then smiled, "Yes, in the words of a song my mother used to sing me, 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.'"[2]

Writings by Karl Barth

  • The Epistle to the Romans ISBN 0-19-500294-6
  • Preaching Through the Christian Year ISBN 0-8028-1725-4
  • God Here and Now
  • Fides Quaerens Intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme, John Knox (1960); reprinted by Pickwick Publications (1985) ISBN 0-915138-75-1
  • Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
  • Church and State
  • The Humanity of God, 1960, John Knox Press, ISBN 0-8042-0612-0
  • The Christian Life , posthumous lecture fragments, ISBN 0-567-09320-4, ISBN 0-8028-3523-6
  • The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth. Edited by Kurt I. Johanson. Regent Publishing (Vancouver, BC, Canada): 2007
  • "No Angeles of Darkness and Light", The Christian Century, 20 January 1960, p. 72 (reprinted in Contemporary Moral Issues, Second Edition, Harry K. Girvetz, editor. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1968)

The Church Dogmatics in English translation

  • Volume I Part 1: Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09013-2, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05059-9
  • Volume I Part 2: Doctrine of the Word of God, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09012-4, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05069-6
  • Volume II Part 1: The Doctrine of God: The Knowledge of God; The Reality of God, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09021-3, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05169-2
  • Volume II Part 2: The Doctrine of God: The Election of God; The Command of God, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09022-1, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05179-X
  • Volume III Part 1: The Doctrine of Creation: The Work of Creation, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09031-0, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05079-3
  • Volume III Part 2: The Doctrine of Creation: The Creature, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09032-9, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05089-0
  • Volume III Part 3: The Doctrine of Creation: The Creator and His Creature, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09033-7, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05099-8
  • Volume III Part 4: The Doctrine of Creation: : The Command of God the Creator, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09034-5, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05109-9
  • Volume IV Part 1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09041-8, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05129-3
  • Volume IV Part 2: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the Servant As Lord, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09042-6, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05139-0
  • Volume IV Part 3, 1st half: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the True Witness, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09043-4, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05189-7
  • Volume IV Part 3, 2nd half: Doctrine of Reconciliation: Jesus Christ the True Witness, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09044-2, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05149-8
  • Volume IV Part 4 (unfinished): Doctrine of Reconciliation: The Foundation of the Christian Life (Baptism), hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09045-0, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05159-5
  • Volume V: Church Dogmatics: Contents and Indexes, hardcover: ISBN 0-567-09046-9, softcover: ISBN 0-567-05119-6
  • Church Dogmatics, 14 volume set, softcover, ISBN 0-567-05809-3
  • Dogmatics in Outline, (1947 lectures), Harper Perennial, 1959, ISBN 0-06-130056-X
  • Church Dogmatics: A Selection, with intro. by H. Gollwitzer, 1961, Westminster John Knox Press 1994 edition, ISBN 0-664-25550-7
  • Church Dogmatics, dual language German and English, books with CDROM, ISBN 0-567-08374-8
  • Church Dogmatics, dual language German and English, CDROM only, ISBN 0-567-08364-0


  • Evangelical Theology, American lectures 1962 - given by Barth in Chicago, Illinois and Princeton, New Jersey, ISBN 978-0-9785738-0-5 and ISBN 0-9785738-0-3

Secondary bibliography


  1. ^ Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals, 1914.
  2. ^ "No Angeles of Darkness and Light", The Christian Century, 20 January 1960, pp. 72 ff.

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