Top Ten Theologians: #9 – Karl Barth

I anticipate, of all the Top Ten Theologians, Karl Barth (pronounced Bart) will be the most debated theologian on the list.  I wrestled more with his inclusion and position on the list than I did with any of the other theologians.  It is with excitement and yes, some trepidation, that I offer to you the life of Karl Barth.

In order to appreciate Barth, it is important to understand a couple people/movements playing a crucial role in Barth’s world.

Barth’s World

The Enlightenment

Imagine living in a world where you know more than your parents.  Every teenager would respond, “That’s easy to imagine!  My parents are clueless.”  In the 1600’s and 1700’s, however, people genuinely knew more about life than those who came before them.

Guess what?  The earth is actually round, not flat.  For so many centuries we thought the earth was the center of our solar system.  Not anymore.  The sun, not the earth, is at the center of our little world. 

A newly discovered land called America is being colonized across the Atlantic Ocean.  The laws of the universe are being unlocked by Isaac Newton with the recent discovery of gravity.  The Age of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, is turning the world upside down.  People felt they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age enlightened by reason and science.

If our grandparents and great grandparents had been so naïve about our world, where else were they naïve?  [Warning: the next sentence is a spoiler alert!] Imagine the whole world, for centuries, believing Santa Claus flew in his sleigh, came down your chimney, ate your cookies, drank your milk and left you a gift.  For the first time the world collectively understands our dad is eating the cookies.  We’re not little kids anymore; we see the world with adult eyes.

We know there was a man named Saint Nicholas who lived a long time ago.  Our research shows he was born in 270AD in modern-day Turkey.  He was a gracious man who secretly gave gifts to people.  Yes, he existed but I’m not so naïve any more to believe he drank my milk, in my house, on December 24th.  The scientific method, coupled with reason, allows us unprecedented understanding.  The Age of Reason now turns its suspicious eye to the Church.

We know there was a man named Jesus who lived a long time ago.  Our research shows he was born around 5BC in the city of Bethlehem.  He was a holy man whom we greatly respect.  Yes, he existed but I’m not so naïve any more to believe he walked on water, was the actual son of God, and he definitely didn’t die for the sins of the entire world.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Could Christianity survive such inquiry?  Would it crumble under the scientific method?  Friedrich Schleiermacher came on the scene to save Christianity.  He would become one of the most famous “Christians” of the last 400 years.

Schleiermacher loved the faith.  Let’s stay with our Christmas illustration.  Just like everybody else, he didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore.  Was he ready to cancel Christmas?  No way, are you kidding me?  He loved Christmas.  He loved the warm fuzzy feeling of Christmas.  It was such a marvelous season of the year.  Spending time with people you love, eating wonderful food, the glow of the fire warming your soul.  Waking up early on Christmas morning is so delightful.  Schleiermacher would never dream of cancelling Christmas.  He actually wanted everyone to love the feeling of Christmas.

Schleiermacher could care less about Christmas; my illustration is merely to show the approach he took in trying to save Christianity from the Enlightenment.  Schleiermacher reduced Christianity to a single aspect: the romantic notion of feeling.1  It didn’t matter what you thought about God, the important response came from your feelings toward God.  God is a powerful being, but He is not to be separated from the world.  Think of it this way, Santa Claus really only exists within the atmosphere of Christmas.  God does not exist in some objective sense; God exists within the feelings of the people.  Why was Schleiermacher a Christian?  Couldn’t he have been a Buddhist?  He thought Jesus was the all-time best at feeling God.  Jesus didn’t have to be God, walk on water, or die for the sins of humanity.  We needed his example to show us how to best feel God.  Schleiermacher was a follower of Christ because Christ was the most religious man who ever lived.2  It is like Jesus had the greatest “Christmas Spirit” and those who follow Jesus closely will have the most “Christmas Spirit.”

Friedrich Schleiermacher became the father of a movement called Theological Liberalism.  Riding the wave of the Enlightenment seminaries from differing denominational backgrounds adopted Schleiermacher’s thoughts.  Princeton (Presbyterian), Harvard (Calvinist), Dartmouth (Congregationalist), Brown (Baptist), and Yale (Calvinist) all adopted much of Modern Theological Liberalism.

No one would stand toe-to-toe with Schleiermacher and theological liberalism as much as Karl Barth. Another person, however, instead of trying to “save” Christianity, looked to destroy all Barth stood for.

Adolf Hitler

Most of the men on our Top Ten list interacted with more than one “big time” issue during their lifetime.  In addition to the rise of Theological Liberalism, Karl Barth lived in Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler.  Karl Barth was just 3 years older than Hitler.  When Hitler became the leader of Germany in 1934, Barth was 48 years old.

Hitler capitalized on the shameful loss of World War I and the crushing Versailles Treaty to once again try to make Germany a great country.  Without getting into all the events and theology of the Third Reich it is beneficial to mention a few things.

First, Hitler secretly wanted to destroy Christianity but realized he would become more politically powerful if he used Christianity for his own purposes.  Hitler adopted a strategy “that suited his immediate political purposes.”3  He worked to unify the entire church of Germany under the “German Christian” movement.  He used Christians as pawns all the while believing, “We do not want any other god than Germany itself. It is essential to have fanatical faith and hope and love in and for Germany”4  He hoped to destroy Christianity in Germany once the war had ended.

Second, In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to Martin Luther as a great warrior, a true statesman, and a great reformer.5  Hitler tried to position himself as following in the footsteps of Martin Luther.

Third, in 1933 the total population of Germany was 65 million people.  45 million people were considered Protestant Christians.  In 1933 Germany had 18,000 Protestant pastors.  15,000 of them would support Hitler during the war.6

Karl Barth would play a crucial role in responding to Hitler.

Barth’s Life

Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland on May 10th, 1886.  His family moved to Bern, Switzerland due to his father being a professor at the University of Bern.  In 1904, at the age of 18, Karl enrolled at the University of Bern for theological studies.

The University of Bern introduced him to Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant, who’s Critique of Practical Reason he called “the first book that really moved me as a student.”7

Karl Barth then studied in Berlin Germany. What you must understand is that Germany was the bastion of theological liberalism. In Berlin he would study under liberal theologian Adolf Van Harnack with unbounded enthusiasm.8 Barth then continued his studies at the famous German Tübingen University before finally going to the oldest Protestant-founded school in the world, the University of Marburg in Marburg, Germany. Barth was drawn to Marburg in order to study under Wilhelm Herrmann.  He states, “I absorbed Hermann through every pore.”9  Hermann was able to articulate a coherent account of Christianity which took Kant and Schleiermacher with full seriousness.

Here is the key: It would appear Barth was on the road to becoming the next great liberal theologian.

Barth went on to spend the next 11 years as a pastor back in Switzerland.  While pastoring in Geneva, Barth plunged into Calvin’s Institutes “with profound impact.”10  As Barth’s studying of the Christian faith increased he started lecturing in Switzerland and Germany.  By 1921 he was appointed an Honorary Professor of Reformed Theology at the University of Göttingen.  In 1935 Barth was removed from his teaching position in Germany and sent to Switzerland.  He would teach at the University of Basel for the rest of his professional life.

Barth is best known for writing his 13 volume Church Dogmatics (nearly 8,000 pages in the English Translation).  Barth’s thoughts, as we will see, greatly shaped the 20th century and beyond. 

Barth’s Thoughts

Karl Barth follows liberal theology as he leaves the university and first enters the pastorate.  In his first two years of sermons he makes statements such as, “the greatest thing is what takes place in our hearts”; “Calvin’s view of the authority of the Bible would be quite wrong for us”; “Sometimes they [the Ten Commandments] contain too much for our needs and sometimes too little.”  In one sermon he dismissed the orthodox understanding of Christ articulated in the Chalcedonian Definition, commenting that “if Jesus were like this I would not be interested in him.”11

August 1914

Everything changed for Barth with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Barth writes:

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors.  Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated.  In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history.  For me at least, 19th century theology no longer held any future.12

To continue with my Christmas illustration, Karl Barth begins to recognize that if your faith is wrapped up in wanting to experience the warm fuzzy feelings of Christmas, you may one day kill people to ensure you get what you want to feel.  Barth concluded such ideas were blasphemous and simply amounted to equating talk about humanity and human culture with talk about God.13  He declares religion to be a human effort by which we seek to hide from God. Barth is quickly on the road to becoming one of liberal German scholarship’s top ten heretics.

How you ask? First he recovers the doctrine of the Trinity from liberalism.  God is not existing as part of human knowledge, as Schleiermacher thought, for Barth God exists through God’s self-knowledge apart from human involvement. As if this were not enough, he then makes moves back toward a traditional understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. Regarding the Bible he states, “It is not right human thoughts about God that make up the content of the Bible, but rather right divine thoughts about human beings.”  This is a one-two punch in the face of his German mentors. God, who exists as Trinity, operates far outside the feelings of humans.  The second person of the Trinity, Jesus, is far from Santa Claus.  He is indeed “two natures who met to be thy cure.”  Unless two natures had met in Christ “without separation or division” yet also “without confusion or change”, neither reconciliation nor revelation, as Barth explained them, could have taken place. By 1916 Barth had fully rejected modern liberal theology.

Barth’s Influence

The influence of Karl Barth is most clearly apparent in two areas.  First, his thoughts are seen as dismantling the tidal wave of modern theological liberalism.  Webster writes, “The brilliance of Barth’s account of the reality of Christ was enough to bring large parts of the edifice of 19th century liberalism crashing to the ground.”14 Schleiermacher found his match in Barth.

Second, Barth’s rejection of liberalism for an objective Christ-centered faith made it possible for him to clearly see the evil of Hitler.  Barth wouldn’t let Schleiermacher redefine Christianity and he wasn’t going to let Hitler do it either.  15,000 pastors had already thrown their hat in with Hitler.  Barth is believed to have written the Barmean Declaration of 1934 which proclaimed: the church cannot be run by Hitler because it is solely Christ’s property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.  Furthermore, the church cannot submit to Hitler, it only submits itself explicitly and radically to Holy Scripture as God’s gracious Word.

Barth provided much of the theological foundation upon which 3,000 German pastors stood against Hitler, many of them at the cost of their very lives.  Men like Dietrich Bonheoffer were heavily influenced by Barth.

Barth’s Foibles

One of the complaints many people have about Barth is he didn’t communicate clearly enough so many times it is difficult to understand exactly what he’s trying to say.  Webster writes:

Reading Barth is no easy task.  Because the corpus of his writing is so massive and complex, what he has to say cannot be neatly summarized.  Moreover, his preferred method of exposition, especially in the Church Dogmatics, is frustrating for readers looking to follow a linear thread of argument.  Commentators often note the musical structure of Barth’s major writings: the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations.  No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say.  As a result, Barth’s view on any given topic cannot be comprehended in a single statement (even if the statement be one of his own), but only in the interplay of a range of articulations of a theme.15

But by far the greatest foible that conservative American Evangelicalism has charged Barth with is his seemingly liberal theology. However, when we understand the context of Barth’s situation, what he was expected to accomplish (i.e. being the next great liberal theologian Germany was to produce), we should cut him more than a little slack. While Barth’s theology would not be in line with some of our Evangelical theology, he, as many people have put it, “dropped a bombshell on the playground of theological liberalism”. While his pendulum may not have swung back to the far right, his conservative stance on God, Christ, and the Scriptures would be a catalyst for the eventual fall of the prominence, respect, and hope of liberal theology.

Barth’s Effect on Us

16First, Barth’s theology intends to be comprehensive in its engagement with the Bible and the history of Christian theology.  It is a theology which takes seriously Scripture and Tradition.  We would do well to emulate.

Second, Barth’s dogmatics is “nondogmatic” in character.  No matter how thorough and advanced your theology will become you will still merely be a human thinking about an infinite God who exists outside of your time, space and thoughts.

Third, Barth’s theology understands itself to be bound at every point to God and to God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.  It is a theology of submission to God and, as such, naturally leads to worship.  It is not a science of culture or even of religion; it is christocentric dogmatics.

Fourth, In Barth’s theology, dogmatics and ethics belong together in the closest possible relation.

Fifth, Barth’s theology makes the proper subject of theological existence to be the congregation.  What emerges from Barth’s concentration on the congregation is a call for congregations to become more “mature” as unified bodies, with pastors and laity engaging together in the work of ministry rather than leaving such work to a professional class.

What do you think of Karl Barth?  Please comment below on our second Top Ten Theologian.  Up next, we go back in time to meet a completely different person in a totally different world. 


Get the Brand New Top Ten Theologians Book!

Get this series in book form to take notes and give to friends. This 140 page illustrated book provides the breadth of Church History knowledge you need in a format you can actually digest. You’re tired, it’s been a long day, you only have a few minutes of precious reading time. We’ve stripped away the fluff giving you the necessary people, places and events to get you learning from the greats.

About the Reader…

Once you get to know these great theologians from Church History you’ll want to read them in their own words. The reader contains 10-15 page excerpts from the best writings of each theologian. The reader actually allows you to get a feel for the depth and style of each theologian without getting buried by their volumes of works. This is a great place to start before embarking on in-depth reading from these theologians.

Click Here or on the image below to save $5 by getting the Theologians Book and the Reader together.

Further Reading:


1 Bingham. Pocket History of the Church. P.151
2 Bingham. Pocket History of the Church. P.151
3 Conway. The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945.  P 3.
4 Heiden. A history of National Socialism. p100.
5 Hitler. Mein Kampf. Section 7.
6 Shirer. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. pp234-240.
7 Barth, Bultmann. Letters 1922-1968. p157.
8 Webster. Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. p2.
9 Ibid., p2.
10 Ibid., p154.
11 Franke. Barth for Armchair Theologians. p22.
12 Barth. The Humanity of God. p.14
13 Franke. p.31.
14 Webster. Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. p.12.
15 Ibid., p.9.
16 This section is heavily sourced from the great work, Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, by Bruce L. McCormack from Baker Academic. 

50 Responses to “Top Ten Theologians: #9 – Karl Barth”

  1. As a Canadian, having attended a Bible School here, I had learned that Barth was liberal. Then I moved to Austria for four years where I pastored a small Baptist church. I learned pretty quickly to temper my remarks, because there he was admired for having rescued Protestantism from liberalism.

  2. I am very much enjoying this series. Thanks for hard work in putting it together – keep it coming.

  3. Thanks, Tim, for a really good blog. For some reason, American Reformed conservatives have problems with Barth, so I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. I was happy to be proven wrong. Barth is probably the theologian who has influenced me the most and I had the pleasure of doing a class on him with John Webster in Aberdeen. While you could have gone into more depth about what he actually thought about various subject that I’m sure Reformed types would be interested in, like the Bible or election, your introduction is really good and spot on. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  4. Awesome article, Tim. Top-notch! Keep up the great work.

  5. wanting to know more August 12, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Very helpful write-up on Barth, & great extended analogy to Christmas. I haven’t had a chance to do much study on Barth (unfortunately). Can you clarify a few things?

    Re: his departure from theological liberalism and the start of his neo-orthodox perspective. If he had come to hold such a critical understanding of the Bible, God, & Christ as an emerging theological liberal, upon what did he suddenly base his neo-orthodox views? I mean, obviously he came to find the scriptures to reveal God, but how did he suddenly find the scriptures to be reliable/dependible when he previously had such a critical view of them?

    And Barth’s views on Christ… was this just theologizing about Christ, or did he believe in the actuality of the gospel episodes as historical events? I mean, in comparison, Bultmann certainly didn’t hold to any historicity of the gospel episodes, but he still saw those as important for existential experience. Was Barth like that? I can’t imagine so.

    Thanks in…

  6. I grew up thinking Barth was a liberal. Thanks, Tim, for correcting me!

  7. Wanting to know more,
    You asked regarding Barth. I do not know if Tim will get around to reply, but I thought I might be able to offer some thoughts. (My only knowledge of Barth is that I have read “The Great Passion” by Eberhard Busch, who was an assistant and student of Barth. Its 280 pages. I also read three of his lectures.)

    Barth’s Neo-Orthodoxy seems rooted in his doctrine of “The Humanity of God”. It is a horrible title, but the point of the doctrine is that God interacts with man. Schleiermacher’s God had no connection to man. Barth saw that as untrue. That God did interact with man. He is “God with us”. This would be the foundation of many doctrines.

    It is hard for me to answer your second question. Logically, the first question should conclude with a positive for here too. But as mentioned in the article, his view on everything cannot be stated succinctly. So I cannot say for sure. I think he did, but am not sure.

  8. Tim,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a fair and redemptive review of Karl Barth. My only disagreement is that I would have had him higher on my list, but then we haven’t yet seen the rest of yours!

    I heard a preacher recently quote Barth in a favorable way but he introduced the quotation by disclaimer, calling him “a terrible theologian.” I wanted to jump up and shout “You don’t know Karl Barth!!” My appreciation of him is for the exact reasons you mention. When you put him in context, his stands for (or at least back toward) theological orthodoxy and biblical authority are nothing less than heroic.

  9. “Schleiermacher could care less about Christmas; my illustration is merely to show the approach he took in trying to save Christianity from the Enlightenment.”

    Sorry to point this out but please watch this video:

  10. That video was funny for a bit but was WAY over the top and became somewhat annoying.

  11. Having now read quite a few volumes of Barth’s (Dogmatics in Outline, his lectures on Calvin, several volumes of Church Dogmatics, Intro to Evangelical Theology, Prayer, the lectures in his Humanity of God, half of the Gottingen Dogmatics), I must say that I am thoroughly persuaded by necessity for anyone serious about theology to study Barth. During my undergrad years in a very conservative denominational college the only time I heard his name it was almost as a naughty word. So I thought he must be some horrible menace to the Church and to be avoided at all costs. However, I initially read his “Intro to Evangelical Theology” and instantly fell in love with his manner of theological reflection (despite its moments of difficulty). While I appreciate your post and your willingness to list Barth, I simply do not see any way around recognizing him as one of the top ten theologians…to do otherwise would simply fail to speak to perhaps one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

  12. I could care less about that YouTube video.

  13. I gotta say I liked the video. Expressions like that are a pet peeve for me. The other really bad one is “all that glitters is not gold” when what is really meant is “not all that glitters is gold.” The former really means “If it glitters, gold is not gold.” This often shows up as something like “All the people didn’t agree” instead of “not all the people agreed.”

    However, I agree with Barth being in the top ten, and in spite of my pet peeve, Tim’s content is top-notch! (Wait…did I use that correctly?)

  14. A great choice. It is indisputable that Barth belongs in the top ten.

    Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) called Barth the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. If only Catholics paid more attention to statements by the bishop of Rome! Not that Barth agreed; for example, he treasured Luther and Calvin immensely.

    There are details of Barth’s theology which do not withstand careful scrutiny. On the other hand, there is a hardly a page of Barth from which one cannot learn to be a joyous thankful human being in God’s presence.

    The Barmen Declaration of 1934 reproduces the beating heart
    of Barth’s theology. The first article is worth quoting in full:

    1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)

    Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

    We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

    Barth is very quotable:

    “The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us.”

    “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

    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.'”

    I also recommend the following as an intro to Karl Barth:

    Short and sweet version: Barth was a Reformed theologian, an ecumenical theologian, an ecclesial theologian, an exegetical theologian, a moral theologian, a poetic theologian, a scientific theologian, a contextual theologian, a joyful theologian, and a nomadic theologian.

  15. An interesting choice. Served as a primer for me, who knows little of Barth.

    Keep ’em coming. :^D

  16. Reply to post 5: re: Barth’s view of “the actuality of the gospel episodes as historical events.”

    Barth affirmed the literal resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, he had nothing to do with the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Why not? First, he believed that God reveals Himself by the Spirit through via proclamation of the Gospel (with himself being an opponent of all forms of natural theology). Secondly, and in a more nuanced sense, Barth saw ‘the Jesus event’ as a-historical, in that it was not a ‘normal’ event within history; the Eternal God had intersected into human history (in time and eternity) in the Incarnation. Seeing these things as such, Barth distanced himself from the ‘historicity’ of Jesus (including the Quest for the Historical Jesus) and/or any attempts at ‘rational proofs’ for the resurrection. (Barth would be some sort of fideist, along these lines).

  17. On Barth as Joyful Theologian ~ Some time ago, I borrowed (from a library) cassettes of Barth’s only lectures he gave in the USA. The book “Evangelical Theology: An Introduction” *are* these lectures (highly recommended, esp. if you could hear the lectures)!

    With Barth’s strong Swiss accent, the question was posed to him (not exact words, but close):
    “Was the snake who spoke to Eve a *literal* snake?”

    Pausing, the happy theologian replied, “If zeh snake vas a leet-eral snake? (pause, then suddenly)!—“Zeh more imporeent qvestion iss: But vhat vas it zhat zeh snake said?” (audience guffaws), hahahaha, :)

  18. Barth’s lectures are available for purchase, at about $70, last time I checked. (I’m disappointed they haven’t become available for free, but be that as it may).

    Anyways, a 15 minute excerpt is online.
    From the segment (or chapter): “The Community” (Church).
    @ here.

    Last time I heard it I *had* to shout, “HALLELUJAH!!!!”

  19. Brilliant. Well done, Tim. I am duly instructed and have a heightened desire to read Barth now… That’s always a sign of success for me. “Invitation to the Classics” with Os Guinness and… Tim Kimberly! Boom.

  20. I was curious about the exploitation of liberal touchy-feely theology in Germany to promote a nationalistic religion. In this country, the most nationalistic religion seems to be associated with the conservative church, especially when it comes to concepts like American exceptionalism. By contrast, theological liberals are the ones who yell “God damn America!” and claim the American military-industrial complex are the twin beasts of the apocalypse. I’m not sure the problem is with doctrine but with patriotism.

    • Megan,

      I think they can go hand-in-hand. Yes, nationalism defined the Nazi party but their doctrine allowed for the patriotism. This is why Barth turned his back on liberalism. He saw doctrine which did not contradict the patriotism. Is there an objective transcendent God? If there is has He communicated to us? If He has, then does he communicate to us certain ethics and morals? If so, are concentration camps in His ethics? His seminary professors were signing documents, due to their patriotism, which they believed to be ultimately increasing their religious experience. Their liberal ideology led them to view their own experiences, in light of their patriotism, as the desires of God. Barth believed the Word of God, not the words from pastors, to be the only ultimate authority. He knew doctrine and nationalism will always influence each other. Consciously or ignorantly.

      What do you think?


  21. Daniel F. Wells August 19, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the article. There is no doubt that Barth is the most influential, debated, and footnoted theologian in Western theology in the 20th century. To dominate an entire century of thought as he has done warrants his place on this list.

    However, I do think more nuance is needed in claiming Barth, in his rejection of liberalism, embraced a traditional view of inspiration. Obviously, many have pointed to his affirmation of ‘errors’ and ‘contradictions’ in Scripture. In addition, his language of Scripture becoming the Word of God rather than being the Word of God puts him out of accord with the church’s historic understanding of Scripture. Finally, Barth doesn’t escape the looming shadow of Schleiermacher as much as we think. His view of Scripture becoming the Word of God and the essential dynamic of the existential encounter a reader has with Scripture parallels the radical subjectivism of Schleiermacher.

    I also see problems with Barth’s construal of the doctrine of justification. Alister McGrath has a good chapter on this issue in a book of essays on barth and evangelical theology.

  22. Great post Tim. Here is some good background on Schleiermacher over at Theology Network by Mike Reeves.—-friedrich-schleiermacher.htm

  23. I think it very strange to read Barth as if he were a radical subjectivist.

    I don’t think Barth always expressed himself well in his teaching on Scripture, but the heart of his teaching on the Bible, its triplex form (the Word of God made flesh; the Word of God inscripturated; the Word preached), his insistence on sola fide (fides qua creditor and fides quae creditor) and therefore his insistence that the statement “The Bible is the Word of God” is a statement of faith, or it is, literally, nothing – are in line with the Reformation far more than the abstruse things many modern-day inerrantists bang their head on.

  24. Good article, and fairly even-handed, I expected a barbecue. As for Barth, I lost God in the enlightenment rationalism of Evangelicalism, found him in Barth. Christ disappeared in the mutually contradicting theories of scripture and inspiration of Evangelicalism and their dangerous doctrine of making scripture the fourth person of the trinity, but heard him speaking loudly in Barth. I was tired.
    Barth not only saved Christianity from Liberalism, he also battled European Christianity as well, and saved it from Ernst Troeltsch, Albert Ritschl, Adolph von Harnack, and others like them, something that van Til, Warfield, Hodge and other perennial evangelical favorites could never hope to do.
    Until you have either lived in Europe (France in my case) and seen the environment that Barth lived and worked in, you can’t appreciate his contributions.
    Are there problems with his theology? Well yes, but I have problems with Walvoord, van Til, and a bunch of others who are still battling the Enlightenment.
    I still am an evangelical, but a healthy, vibrant one because of Barth. Try reading him, and not what your teacher told you. Kudos to John Hobbins for his comment.a

  25. Your article suggests that, in the 1600s the idea that the earth is round was new. Everyone knew that fact since the 2nd century BC, so it can hardly be said to be a new concept. Also, the issue of heliocentrism is complex, and the reason it wasn’t known until the 18th century is that the stellar abaration wasn’t observed until then (the stellar parrallax, which was what everyone before was looking for, wasn’t discovered until the 19th century). Their views on the universe were in league with what the evidence of the day suggested. They, like us, were probably wrong about alot.

  26. Nice post on Barth, but why start off with the flat earth myth?

    The myth of the flat earth continues :(

  27. Tim,

    Excellent post. My quibble is that you place him too far down on the list. I place Barth in the top five theologians in the history of the Church.

    Not only did he rescue the church from liberalism–he rightly put Christ at the center of his theology and served as a vital corrective for the anemic trinitarianism of all Western theology since Augustine by going back to Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians . In addition he called conservative theology on the carpet for succumbing the captivity of Enlightenment rationalism

  28. Good article, Tim. It’s rare to see Barth discussed with much depth or nuance. The article displays a bit of both and captures some of the complexity and “difficulty” of Barth… difficulty not just in his communication style, but in that even “experts” on him tend to find either inconsistencies or unsolvable puzzles.

    Having read a fair amount of him, and some about him, I find it interesting that you didn’t raise the universalism issue, and the related justification one. From “Church Dogmatics” it seems unavoidable that he was some kind of universalist though apparently he never either accepted or rejected the label. I’d agree with him in this sense: that IF God sees individuals as separated from “him” in such a way as to require redemption via a “saving” (or justifying) act, then Christ is the Elect for all of humanity, regardless of a given person’s knowledge or overt acceptance of it or lack thereof. While affirming orthodox Reformed dogma, Barth here departed, clearly.

  29. No question that Barth deserves to be on the top 10, however, his redefinition of orthodox concepts and terminology is problematic. Based upon what I have read by him it is difficult to firmly establish his orthodoxy. Indeed some, like Dr. Clark in his work Karl Barth’s Theological Method, offer scathing criticism of Barth’s dialectical theology. He may have dealt a serious blow to liberalism but it seems that in so doing he was still not able to bring himself to accept historical orthodoxy.

  30. KG,

    I think there is no question that Barth did not fully accept historical orthodoxy. He and a few others were plowing new ground in terms of both method and specifics of interpreting Scripture. This was partially due to the shock of first one world war, and then a 2nd. If people think he “returned” to orthodoxy from the liberalism he was mostly trained under, that is both superficial and wrong.

    I don’t recall his direct statements about NT scholarship in relation to higher criticism. I know he argued particularly with Bultmann, tho both are considered “neo-orthodox.” I don’t think he agreed close to fully with anyone… very independent and pioneering. And I think he did consider valid much of what “critical” studies brought up as to questions of authorship and authority, dating, etc. (And for good scholarly reason!) It was more the theological conclusions he differed with.

  31. Thanks Howard,

    i get that. My point was that one of the criteria was that the theologians were “Christian”. At what level of unorthodoxy would someone need to be in order to be included. Barth was not defending the historic claims of the Church. His dialectical approach stands upon a substantially different epistemological and even metaphysical foundation than Christian orthodoxy.

  32. KG,
    I’m not sure you are actually responding to Barth. It sounds more like you are echoing the work of someone else concerning Barth as he most certainly was “defending the historic claims of the Church” while at the same time contributing to further reflection (as all good theologians do). And as far as his foundation…it was certainly opposed to modernistic and Enlightenment (scientistic) approaches as well as those which were an overreaction against such. In other words, I’m not sure how it is you are actually trying to define “Christian orthodoxy,” but it seems he was more “orthodox” in his approach than many of our modernist Evangelical approaches.

  33. Rick,
    I am not claiming to be an expert on Barth but I have read enough of him to recognize trajectories in his theology that I do not find to be orthodox. He often uses historical terminology but with substantial redefinition. His dialectical theology is a denial of propositional revelation. Perhaps I reveal my conservative evangelical views but I see Barth’s theology as a substitution of postmodernism for modernism. Neither are an affirmation of the objective truth of the bible in a historical sense. (btw I agree that much of modern evangelicalism is no better).

  34. KG,

    If Barth, as broadly educated, studied and reflective as he was, and focused intently on Christ and God’s grace through Christ, did not affirm “the objective truth of the (B)ible in a historical sense,” don’t you think he had some darn good reasons for not doing so? (I do.) Call it “postmodernism” if you want, but I hope that by labeling you are not dismissing simplistically.

  35. Barth was clearly a very intelligent and reflective man and he is not to be dismissed lightly. In the final analysis, however, I disagree with his proposed solution to the problems he was wrestling with. I think that a rejection of propositional revelation is ultimately fatal for Christian theology if such a term is to retain any of its historical meaning. I am not dismissing simplistically… I am dismissing based upon my reflection upon the trajectory of his thought.

  36. Barth was fantastic – he would be my honorable mention on my top ten.

  37. I just wanted to correct one thing: people in the middle ages didn’t think the world was flat.

  38. Barth poses a serious conundrum, in his life and his works. On one hand, he rejects his earlier theological mentors because of their ethics in endorsing the first World War. On the other hand, he quite openly creates a menage a trois, alienating both his wife and his children as his lives in the same house with his mistress. How can we resolve these problems? His mistress, Charlotte, seems to have been indispensable to his scholarly work, which we all laud, and God knows we all have our many failings, but shall we ignore this grossly aberrant behavior? and can we really argue that his willful disregard for his marriage vows had no real impact on his theological views? I have always simply segregated his moral life from his theological writing, but can we really do so?

    • Kathleen,

      I looked into this issue while writing on Barth. Looking back I probably should have talked about this in the Foibles section. I will include it for the book. The reason I didn’t include it initially is that it was hard to find clear information about the relationship. I haven’t come across anyone, so far, who says the relationship was sexual. If people speak of an affair they speak of an “emotional” affair. People say his Dogmatics should have included Charlotte as a co-author. When she died development of the Dogmatics stopped. I do wrestle with trying to separate how much of their relationship was of an extremely close and productive boss/assistant relationship, and then how much of their relationship crossed the line of appropriateness. There are executives that have very close multi-decade relationships with secretaries that are above reproach. The relationship is extremely close but never “went there.” Since his relationship with Charlotte affected his children and it looks like his wife, I say it was not wise at all. But I’m not sure if there’s enough evidence to say they were having an affair. Yes, I admit it is a foible, but I’m not sure there’s enough evidence right now to say he should be removed from the list. Some quick thoughts… What do you think?


  39. Thanks for following up on this. I think we would be doing a lot of uncomfortable wiggling if we didn’t assume that it had a sexual component. She moves in. His wife and children are angered by this. His friends are appalled. He and Charlotte go on vacations together, without wife and family. He was clearly way more than a secretary or assistant. We may want “proof,” but if any Christian leader did this today, that would be proof enough. If it were “platonic,” there would not, I think, be so much angst in friends and family.

    I’m not out to get Karl Barth, nor am I arguing that he should be removed from the list. There is so much he (and Charlotte, of course!) have contributed to the conversation. It’s just interesting to me that we prefer our theologians to be moral exemplars, and so often they’re not. Weird how able we are to separate our deep spiritual understanding from our actual behavior.

    My question is… can we really? Are we to believe that Barth’s relationship with Charlotte in the face of marital discord (whether or not it was sexual) had no effect on his theological constructs? That we can so thoroughly segregate truth from reality without consequences in the exploration of that truth?

    I’m really just asking…

  40. Kathleen (and all),

    You have a good and important point. And the questions you end with we need to keep wrestling with, conceptually and in our own lives. Indeed, everything is interlinked. We cannot and do not create airtight separate categories.

    I don’t know much about the issues of Karl and Charlotte but what would be of most concern, were I still paying much attention to Barth’s work, would be how he managed his relationships (or sought to) overall, and particularly with his wife and kids in this situation–was there more openness and integrity than secretive avoidance and disloyalty, etc.? I don’t know if it applies in his situation or not, but I have often heard that in some circles in Europe, having a mistress was relatively common and at least tolerated (probably not really liked, understandably) by some wives. From what some have shared, that may not pertain with Barth’s wife/family, whatever was the type of “affair.”

    One factor to note: Barth may not have been well in touch with his inconsistencies, like most of us. For example, I felt, in writing a paper on this many years ago, that his general criticism of “mysticism” (as defined by him) did not square with aspects of his own thinking and theological method.

  41. For those wrestling with Barth’s theological method, and its lack of proper objectification, Barth understand the difficulty inherit in this view. He knows this.

    His entire project in Church Dogmatics is to show why it should be so. Christian knowledge is analogia fides, and faith seeking understanding. It is never analogia entis.

    Man knows and can apprehend God only through faith.

    Barth emphatically rejects analogia entis, the hallmark of Thomistic, Catholic approaches.

    It should not pass as fair interaction with Barth to dismiss him for his analogia fides approach. Everyone disagrees with that, chiefly because of the problems that this approach has for our understanding of history and revelation. Barth is not ignorant of this fact.

    What merits attention now is the case he builds for why. Barth is consciously aware of the problems of his understanding presented in Dogmatics. What’s needed now, is interaction with his reasons.

    Clark and Henry, and I speak as a propositionalist, never really gave him a fair trial in this regard. Henry, particularly, was always eager to dismiss Barth simply on this charge.

    Michael Metts

  42. Thanks, Michael, for this interesting input. I think it all helps to illustrate one thing of some import: European and American theologians seem to view things though slightly different “lenses” or perceiving/organizing grids. While both sides of the Atlantic share “Western” viewpoints in a broader sense, American Christianity and American thinkers I think have some distinctives relative to Europeans. In at least some cases, I think the European viewpoints are good “correctives” or challenges to ours (I speak as an American).

  43. As a graduate of Fuller Seminay (MDiv ’78), I was a student of Ray Anderson, who took in PhD under T.F. Torrance who we all know is a major contributor to our understanding and access to the Barth library. I have spent my church life continuing to read Barth and understand his methodology. I am looking forward to teaching a class on Barth just after January (2013). On the subject of Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum I simply wanted to share the names of two books that those who have addressed questions in this area might find useful. 1) “The Question of Woman, The collected writings of Charlotte von Kirschbaum”, trans by John Shepherd with an Intro by Eleanor Jackson, Eerdmans, 1996. 2) “Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Karl Barth, A Study in Biogrpahy and the History of Theology.” by Suzanne Selinger, Penn State Press, 1998. Those interested in this “foible” in Barth’s life will find these useful for further discussion.

  44. Great summary of Barth’s life and place in theology. One place where many people bump up against some difficulty with Barth is his use of the word “modes” when discussing the Trinity. When we take the time to understand what Barth was really saying, it is clear that he did not fall into the Modalist heresy.

  45. Richard Erickson August 29, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I have had many times when I just could not understand, but then how is a finite human being supposed to understand The infinite God whom we see as the center of our existence. For instance, try to hammer out an understanding of the concept of time as it is for us as well as as it is or is not for The Trinity. Try and explain The Trinity in a manner that is comprehending and not just a repetition of words. I have gone back to what Kart Barth was supposed to have responded as referenced above, and his application of that beloved song has often smoothed my waters. “Jesus loves me; this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” In truth, that is pretty much all the comprehension I need.


  1. I Think I Believe » Links for the weekend - August 12, 2011

    […] Kimberly over at Reclaiming the Mind names Barth as number 9 of his top ten theologians with a very good introduction to the […]

  2. Theological Foibles « Cheese-Wearing Theology - September 6, 2011

    […] ten theologians. If you haven’t checked it out you should. So far he’s done Irenaeus, Karl Barth and […]

  3. Top Ten Theologians: #7 – C.S. Lewis | Parchment and Pen - September 6, 2011

    […] agree it is risky and potentially short-sighted to have two 20th century people (Lewis and Barth) on the list.  Time has not vetted these men as much as someone like Irenaeus or Anselm.  […]

Leave a Reply