Monday, December 10, 2012

In Memory of Karl Barth

Karl Barth passed away forty-four years ago today, on December 10, 1968. Since he is generally regarded as the greatest Christian theologian of the twentieth century, I am writing this in memory of his life and the significant contributions he made to the world of Christian theology.
Barth was born in Switzerland in 1886. A couple of years after studying at some of the best universities in Germany, learning from the leading liberal theologians of the day, in 1911 he became pastor of a Reformed church back in his home country and served that church for ten years.
In 1919, Barth published a commentary, The Epistle to the Romans (Der Römerbrief). That seminal book resulted from his struggling over what to preach during the difficult years of World War I. What he had learned from his liberal professors did not seem to work, so as he began work on that book in 1916 he turned to what he called “the strange new world within the Bible.”
In spite of not having a doctorate, Barth was appointed a professor in Göttingen in 1921, and he taught in Germany until he was exiled from the country (Germany) in 1935. He was exiled partly because of his penning the Barmen Declaration the year before, a document of the Confessing Church that was formed in opposition to the “German Christians” who pledged their loyalty to Hitler.
Barth’s greatest theological achievement was the writing of Church Dogmatics, a detailed exposition of Christian doctrine that ended up being more than 9,000 pages (and six million words!) and which was published in thirteen volumes from 1932 to 1967.
The great Swiss theologian made only one visit to the United States, in 1962. I still regret not being able to go with some seminary friends to hear Barth speak that year when he came to Chicago Divinity School. (I didn’t think I had the time, and as a full-time student with a wife and two children I certainly didn’t have the money to make that trip to Chicago from Louisville.)
April 20, 1962
Many of you have heard the anecdote about a question he answered when he was in the U.S. A seminary student asked him what the most momentous discovery of his long theological life had been. Barth’s terse answer was, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Barth was widely criticized by conservative Christians who thought he was too liberal. But ironically, his theology was developed mainly in opposition to the theological liberalism of the early twentieth century—and the support of the German war effort by some of his former liberal theology professors.
It is true that Barth did not affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, and he accepted the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. But he rejected many of the central emphasizes of theological liberalism and re-emphasized many of the central themes of the Protestant reformers. Thus, in this country his work became widely known as neo-orthodox theology.
Personally, I was influenced more by another Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner (1889-1962) with whom Barth sometimes disagreed. But they both were advocates of neo-orthodoxy—a theology of the “radiant center,” which I have long emphasized in my teaching and writing.
The brief concluding section of the last chapter of my book The Limits of Liberalism is titled “Recommending the Radiant Center.” In that book, Barth’s theology is introduced briefly on pages 28-29 and 120-1; his name is mentioned in several other places as well.


  1. Dr. Glenn Hinson, former professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote,

    "December 10, 1968, was also the day Thomas Merton died in Bangkok, Leroy. We had a memorial service for him and Barth here in Louisville. Merton loved Barth."

  2. Dr. Hinson, thanks for mentioning Merton, for this gives me the opportunity to remind you and other readers of this blog that one year ago today my blog posting was titled "In Memory of Thomas Merton."

    December 1968 was the final month of my first semester of teaching in Japan, and I was so overwhelmed at having to give 90-minutes lectures in Japanese that I scarcely had time to think about anything else.

    So after all these years I am happy to have had this opportunity to write in memory of Barth (today) and of Merton (on 12/10/11).

  3. Of course, Leroy, this column takes me back to my seminary days which started in 1971, right after the deaths of some of those intellectual giants of theology in the 20th-century: Tillich (1965), Buber (1965), Barth (1968), R. Niebuhr (1971). Earlier, of course, we had lost Brunner and H.R. Niebuhr. // But what your column inspires in me are thoughts about the fact that in seminary I was reading concurrently liberal and neo-orthodox theologies. Since I entered seminary (Eden, where the Niebuhrs had attended) from a fundamentalist-evangelical Baptist background, it took me a while to figure out what was going on. I knew the words they were using--sin, redemption, eschatology, atonement, etc.--but I could tell they were within a different paradigm (I didn't know that word, "paradigm," at that time :) and so didn't quite mean the same thing. I also had terrific professors who had studied under many of the greats and themselves had studied in universities and seminaries all over the world. It turned out to be an exceedingly rich theological environment. In fact, the reason I chose a UCC seminary over Midwestern Baptist and Southern Baptist, even though I knew absolutely nothing about the UCC, was that it appeared that every single full-time faculty member of the two Baptist seminaries had earned their highest degrees also from Baptist schools. And I wanted a broader, more diverse environment in which to explore my faith. I felt quite lost at the time; I knew I was still a person of faith; but I also knew I could no longer function in a creedal church. (I didn't know the word "creedal" back then either. :) // What I'm struggling with today is not so much the tensions and debate between the liberal and the neo-orthodox; although I continue to pursue such studies, but primarily to expand theological understanding to be increasingly inclusive of others and responsive to scientific insight, which, of course, puts me, from your perspective, in one of the liberal camps (specifically process theology). // What I struggle with is how much more direct debate to carry on with fundamentalists. It seems to me that inerrancy is so utterly debunked by now that I find it hard to understand how anybody who does any serious biblical study at all can continue to believe it. I'm reasonably sure it's declining, at least in the West. I notice that more and more evangelical thinkers seem to be embracing the neo-orthodox approaches, and so are moving even further from fundamentalism with its inerrancy. // Indeed, the major "distortion" of faith among American conservative Protestants today may not so much be inerrancy and doctrinal rigidity as it is a selling out to a militant American nationalism.

  4. Thanks Leroy for the timely and significant remembrance.

  5. Dr. Michael Willett Newheart wrote, and I post it here with his permission,

    "Thanks, Leroy, for spotlighting Barth on the anniversary of his death. I've often wondered about that 'Jesus loves me' story. Do you know any context about his remark?

    "I liked the TIME cover photo you showed. Aw, those were the good old days, when theologians appeared on the cover of major newsmagazines. How much did those covers reflect a theologically informed society, and how much did it reflect Henry Luce's longing for a Christian America?"

    1. Michael, thanks for writing. I don't know the answer to your second question, but this may answer your first one.

      Martin Rumscheidt is the editor of a small book by Barth published in English as "Fragments Grave and Gay [sic]" (1971). The Epilogue is an address that Rumscheidt gave at the Memorial Service for Barth in the chapel of Knox College, University of Toronto, on December 19, 1968.

      In that address, Rumscheidt refers to Barth's "reply to a student at Richmond Theological Seminary in Virginia who asked him what the most momentous discovery of his long theological life had been." And the "Jesus loves me" sentence is the reply mentioned by Rumscheidt. (This is on page 124.)

      I couldn't find any information of Barth going to Richmond to lecture, so I wonder if the student perhaps came to hear Barth speak when it was at Princeton

    2. In response, Michael wrote,

      "I read your response to my question. Thank you. I'll have to look up Barth's 'Fragments Grave and Gay' to read the whole story. Frankly, I've grown to dislike the story because the folks I have heard tell it are essentially saying that we don't need Barth's Dogmatics or any sophisticated theological treatises; all we need is the Bible, from which we KNOW that "Jesus loves ME." And Barth becomes the "fall guy" because he himself says that his theological work is dispensable. Or such is the spin that I've heard.

      "I don't think that's what Barth meant, so I'm interested in knowing more about the incident."

  6. Michael, there is not much more of the story to read. The quoted words are in the second paragraph of the memorial service talk, and regards Barth's desire not to be idolized.

    Rumscheidt says, "If some day somebody absolutely insists on donating a stained-glass window in his [Barth's] memory and wants to encircle his head with one of his famous sayings, let him choose his reply to a student . . ."

    Then comes the words that I cited above, and nothing more.