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“Christ is All: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Karl Barth” — Part 2

In our previous post, part 1, we introduced our thesis and opened with the beginning of Barth’s life. We pick up here with his years from the beginning of his academic career to his death.

C. Professor Barth

In 1922 he was appointed professor of Reformed Theology in Göttingen. The position was newly minted and was to accommodate Reformed students in an predominately Lutheran school. One of his first lectures was on the Heidelberg Catechism. This was his initiation into Reformed academic study. He worked, it is reported, day and night to prepare his lectures. Some of his earliest lectures were at 7 AM, having only finished his lecture notes between 3-5 AM! He was quite critical of the Catechism, saying that historically it marked the transition between the Reformation’s zeal to the church’s complacency (Busch, 128). The first question and answer, he said, is “definitely not good” beginning as it does with “your comfort.” Apparently, it was too pietistic and subjective!

It was during these years at Göttingen that he began to prepare his lectures on Dogmatics.1 Here he took up Heppe’s Dogmatics and began to understand and appreciate more and more the old Reformed theologians, especially Calvin. It is not that he agreed with them. But working from them, and learning lessons from them, he refined his own dogmatics in its own characteristic way. He could not go back to his Professors’ immanence theology, but neither could he go all the way with the Reformed. Rather, he re-appropriated the Reformed insights and gave them his own distinctive spin, within a basic modern framework. We’ll discussion his theology some more later on.

It was while in Göttingen in 1924 that Barth met Charlotte von Kirschbaum. She was a helper to Barth in his research, indexing and cataloging many quotes from the reading he was doing. Charlotte, or Lollo (sometime “my dear Lollo”) as he called her, was 13 years younger than Barth (born June 25, 1899). In the summer of 1925 we know she assisted Barth in his research on Augustine and Luther as they went off together to “the Bergli,” a summer cottage owned by their mutual friends. She was 26 at the time, and Barth had just turned 40. It is reported that there was a deep mutual trust and understanding between them (Busch, 185). In fact, so deep was their relationship that she moved into the home with him and his family (in 1929), much to Barth’s wife’s (Nelly) chagrin. This relationship caused a great strain in Barth’s other relationships, including with his mother and close friends. Busch notes that “the intimacy of her relationship with him made particularly heavy demands on the patience of his wife Nelly.” (ibid). Nelly increasingly faded into the background, even though she never left him. It is said that this arrangement, even and especially when Barth and Lollo went off to the Bergli for study, caused a great strain, burden, and suffering for his wife and children. Lollo was herself an accomplished theologian in her own right. She wrote on and lectured on the Protestant doctrine of woman. Her insights even made their way into CD III.2 (Busch, 363). When she finally died, several years after Barth (d. 1975), she was buried with him and his wife (d. 1976) in the same plot.

In 1925 he made another move, this time to Münster. There he prepared seminars on the history of Protestant theology from the time of Schleiermacher and also on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? This seminar (and the book that came from it), it is argued by some, was the impetus for a significant shift and change in his thinking. It is particularly the thesis of von Balthasar that his Anselm book marks a turn in Barth’s theology toward an analogia entis, or an analogy of being, in a more classically scholastic direction. More on this later.

In 1930 he made his last move in Germany, this time to the University of Bonn. It was here that Barth would come up against Hitler and the 3rd Reich. Eberhard Busch notes that

Politics suddenly became interesting for Barth in 1933, after Adolf Hitler established the Third Reich. Barth spoke out in anger against Naziism when it attempted to create new “German Christian” churches in which National Socialist political theories were given the same sanctity as theological dogma….[according to Barth] This was a nationalist heresy….[which produced] confusion between God and the spirit of the German nation.

In response to the Nazis, Barth launched a new magazine to attack this “heresy.” Furthermore, in 1934 he wrote the Barmen Declaration—an anti-Nazi protest that claimed the autonomy of the church from all temporal power. The declaration was signed by 200 leaders of Germany’s Lutheran, Reformed and Evangelical Unionist churches.

It did not take long, however, for the Nazi’s to persecute non-conformists. The opposing party to the Nazi’s, the Democratic Socialists Party, was threatened by the Nazi’s. The leadership of the DSP advised those in the party who held academic posts to withdraw their formal membership so as not to sacrifice their academic careers. But Barth would not resign his membership. He said, in short, if they want him to teach, they have to take him as he is, party membership and all. Soon thereafter, the Nazi’s disbanded completely the Democratic Socialist Party.

And Barth’s days in Germany were now numbered.

So, the German Christian Movement began to grow, and they encouraged all others in the church to join with the Nationalist government. In the midst of this there was a push to make changes in the church’s book of order (Bausch, 226). The changes would be quite “patriotic,” speaking of “our beloved German Fatherland” and provide for a centralized “Reich Bishop.”

In response to these proposed changes, a group called the “Pastor’s Emergency League” was formed. Out of this group the “Confessing Church” was founded. The was a coalition that opposed the change in the church order. Barth wrote in this context calling the position of the German Christians “heresy” and summoning the church to do theology, and only theology. The church is to be concerned to preach the Gospel only, and is not to see church membership tied to race or blood.

The document in which he wrote this was entitled “Theological Existence Today” and was sent to Hitler on July 1, 1933. 37,000 copies were printed before it was banned the following year. The effect of this pamphlet is said to have been “tremendous” (Busch, 227). The new church order, however, was put into place, including the notorious “Aryan paragraph,” which stated that only Aryans, or those married to such, would qualify for employment in the church.

Accordingly, the persecution would only increase. As a professor at the University of Bonn, Barth was technically a civil servant. But he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Führer or open his classes with the Nazi salute. It would be bad taste, he told them, “to begin a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount with ‘Heil Hitler.’” Soon after, Barth was brought before a Nazi court and found guilty of “seducing the minds” of German students, was suspended and eventually fined 20% of his annual salary.2 This spelled the end of his time in Bonn. Providentially, however, it was the occasion for his return home to Basle, where a special chair of theology was offered to him by the University. It is here in Basel that he would live, write, and teach for the rest of his life.

In 1962 Barth paid a long overdue visit to the U.S. Here he lectured many times, including at the University of Chicago and Princeton. While in America he met the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Billy Graham (whom he met earlier back in Europe). It was while he was at Princeton that he had his one and only run-in with the Westminster apologetics professor, Cornelius Van Til (more on this below). And finally in 1968, after suffering a series of health set-backs (including at least one stroke), he died peacefully at in his bed where he was being taken care of by his faithful wife, Nelly. She found him dead on the morning of December 10 in their Basel home.

D. Literary Corpus

Barth’s literary output is by any standard amazing. He wrote a lot along the way including a large library of sermons, letters, and other unpublished manuscripts. This is not even including his course lectures (much of which made it into his published volumes) and other special lectures he gave.

But the back bone to his literary work, after the two versions of his Romans commentary, is the Göttingen Dogmatics and his Church Dogmatics. While he was teaching in Göttingen, he gave two rounds of lectures on Dogmatics between 1924-25. These lectures were published in three volumes. It was anticipated that the Göttingen Dogmatics would be translated into English and made available in two volumes, but only one volume has ever been published.

After this, while he was in Münster, he published his Christian Dogmatics in Outline, which he later labeled “a false start.” But these four volumes all formed the ground work for his later real start, which became known as the Church Dogmatics.

He began the CD in Bonn and then continued it in Basel. The first part of volume I was released in 1932 and the final part of volume IV was released in 1967, the year before he died. He had anticipated writing a fifth volume on the doctrine of redemption, which would have included his thoughts on eschatology. However, by the time he finished volume IV, he was literally too tired to do it. He expressed his “lack of energy and mental drive” to make it happen. But the finished project was 13 tomes, excluding the index, spreading out over nearly 10,000 pages.

I have included a link to a timeline of Barth’s literary output and his career here. This timeline was put together by Darren Sumner and posted at the Out of Bounds blog. This provides a very helpful, at-a-glance, resource for gaining appreciation and understanding of his literary productivity.

E. Meeting with Van Til

There are many versions of the story of Van Til and Barth meeting. Truth is, Van Til made at least one attempt to meet Barth while he was in Basel, even phoning Barth’s house. Unfortunately, Barth was out of town and unable to meet.3 When Barth came to the States, he gave a lecture at the chapel on the campus of Princeton University. Van Til and Art Kuschke traveled up to Princeton to hear the lecture. Afterwards they hurried outside to meet Barth. Van Til introduced himself, they shook hands, and Barth said something to effect “you say bad things about me, but I forgive you.” According to Kuscke’s account, Van Til did not reply to Barth before he was whisked off in a car and taken away. Van Til did follow-up soon thereafter with a letter seeking to set the record straight that he never called Barth the worse heretic in church history, and never questioned his personal faith. Van Til also asked Barth’s forgiveness if he had misrepresented anything he wrote (Muether, 191). Barth never replied.

To the best of my knowledge, Barth never makes any explicit reference to Van Til in any of his published writings. He does seem to allude to him in a letter on June 1, 1961 to G.W. Bromiley at Fuller Seminary in which he refers to some of his “fundamentalist” critics as those who believe him to be the worse heretic of all time (Busch, 380; Karl Barth Letters: 1961-68, 8). He also refers to Van Til in a letter to Edward Geehan (editor of the festschrift for Van Til, Jerusalem and Athens) saying that Van Til has not understood a word he has written. Barth, however, quickly acknowledges that he himself had not understood Van Til’s critique! (Muether, 191). He further refers to Van Til, in a veiled manner, in his 1955 preface to CD IV.2, xii. In there he refers to certain “fundamentalists” who are beyond the pale of dialogue because they are “cannibals.” It is interesting to note that Van Til signed his last letter to Barth as “C. Van Til, Ein Menschenfresser” (Muether, 191).

F. Relationship with Bultmann and Brunner

Many have lumped together the three great “B’s” of dialectical theology – Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner – as if they were of a cloth. But, actually, it did not take long for Barth to part company with these two. In the mid-30’s Brunner issued a call for dialectical theology to give some room to Natural Theology in its thinking. To this call Barth issued his very passionate “Nein!” where he argued that to give any quarter to Natural Theology is to go back to the analogia entis and neo-Protestantism. Bultmann with his denial of the historicity of the miracles of Jesus, the supernatural acts of God, and his demythologizing hermeneutic moved the basis of theology away from Christ and back to man. From Barth’s perspective, scientific history is a human construct and formed Bultmann’s starting part in theology. For Barth, this was to ground theology in something other than God’s revelation, which is Jesus Christ himself. Because of this, Barth leveled several lengthy critiques of Bultmann throughout his CD.

Again, so much more can – and should – be said about this man’s amazing (and often time disturbing!) life. But for now we move beyond his biography and reflect some on his thought. We will take up his theology in the next part of this series – part 3.

1Because he was a professor of Reformed Theology at an essentially Lutheran school, he had to change the name of class to Reformed Dogmatics, for plain Dogmatics was reserved for the Lutheran dogmatics classes.

2 For his defense, Barth pulled a copy of Plato’s Apology from his pocket, read Socrates’ argument to the court of Athens that he should be given a pension for his services to the city’s youth rather than be condemned to death. Something like that, Barth suggested, ought to be done for him. “It seemed like a good idea before going into court,” he says sadly, “but it made no impression on the judges.”

3In Muether, Van Til, and in Van Til’s Ein Menschenfesser letter to Barth.


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