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.