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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.