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

“Christ is All: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Karl Barth”1

Part I

  1. Introduction and Thesis

A. Introduction

You are reading the first installment of a four part series on the life and thought of Karl Barth. The first two parts of this series will be on the life of Barth, and the last two parts will be on his thought. My goal is to provide a nutshell of the man and his theology. Needless to say, so much more can and needs to be said about Barth. This series, however, is intended to only give an entryway into deeper study for those who are so inclined, while also giving an impression for the casual reader who is looking to familiarize himself with Barth. For this reason, it is purposely written as a mere introduction. Those who want to know more about his life and thought are encouraged to consult the works cited here. Now, that is my goal, but what is my thesis that runs throughout this series?

B. Thesis

It may be argued that all theology is a matter of negotiating the conceptual relationship between unity and diversity. How do we distinguish, and relate, the one essence of God from his persons? We must do so in a way that the essence is distinct from the persons, without separating them or loosing their relation. How do we distinguish between Christ’s human and divine nature without losing the hypostatic relation? How do we avoid confusing justification and sanction without separating them in the relationship they enjoy by virtue of union with Christ? Distinction-in-relation is the repeated mode of operation in all good and careful theology.

And so it is with understanding the theology of Karl Barth. What are the continuities and the discontinuities between his thought and that of modern theologians who went before him? Understanding Barth’s thought, relative to modern theology, is a matter of distinction within relation. Only within a basic relation of continuity with his forebears can we properly understand the discontinuities. Only when we understand Barth in this way – Barth in relation, Barth in context – can we ever hope to understand aright the profundity of his thought and the contribution he makes to the long history of theological reflection.

In doing this, it will become apparent how his Christology – in fact, Christ himself – is so central to his life and thought that it not only informs but structures every loci of his theology.2 That Christ is central – in fact that Christ is everything – for Barth is the working thesis of this series. The idea of “Christ-as-all” (or “christopantism”) is a way of “nutshelling” Barth’s thought such that even the casual reader can walk away with a better – albeit, basic – understanding of the the man and his theology.3

To that end, in this series we will examine his life and his thought. We will sketch a relatively brief biography of his life which will in turn set the backdrop for understanding his thought as a whole. From this we will see how his thought is in relation to modern thought, even while he makes a distinct contribution to what is known as modern theology. We will finally conclude with a critical appraisal of Barth’s theology.

  1. Life

    A. Beginnings

On May 10, 1886 Karl Barth was brought into this world. 1886 represented a day and an age of no little religious and political upheaval. Barth was born in an era which can rightly be characterized as the height of the flourishing of theological liberalism and political tensions throughout Europe. Albrecht Ritschl was nearing the end of his life and career, and Adolph von Harnack was at the height of his powers. Despite attempts at peace, Otto von Bismark’s application of realpolitik was uniting the nation and building up the walls of German nationalism.

It was in this context that Karl was born to Fritz and Anna Barth in Basel, Switzerland. Fritz Barth was a pastor and a theologian in his own right. Before Karl was born, Fritz and Anna had left the pastorate and moved back to Basel for Fritz to take up a call teaching at the College of Preachers, an institution to train “spiritual” pastors for the free churches, in opposition to liberalism. It should not be missed that Barth was born into an anti-modernistic home to an anti-modernist pastor.

At the age of 18 he matriculated at the University of Berne where he recalled how he was “earnestly told, and … learnt, all that can be said against ‘the old orthodoxy’…all God’s ways begin with Kant and, if possible, must also end there.”4 In fact, Kant was Barth’s “first love” in University. Here he also found himself developing his social and political thought as well. He was an advocate of socialism, believing that a biblical worldview demanded it. But his socialism was not of a nationalist sort. Already, despite his initial sympathies with theological liberalism, he shows a strong skepticism of governments as agents of revelation or grace. Socialism must spring from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and not from fascist ideals.

Later on he would go to Berlin to study under von Harnack. Here he was treated to the well-known thesis that the doctrine of the early church was a baptizing of Greek philosophical thought. For this seminar Barth wrote a 158 page paper on the book of Acts, for which he received high commendation from Harnack (Busch, 39). It was around this time that Barth finished his reading of Kant, working carefully through his most important works, and then took up Schleiermacher. He was quite drawn to Schleiermacher and the history of religions school.

However, his father wanted him to study under the conservative Adolph Schlatter, so Barth – reluctantly – enrolled at Tübingen for a short spell. After this he went over to Marburg in 1908 where he learned under his new inspiration Wilhelm Herrmann. He was quite taken away with Herrmann, especially his book Ethics. He was also significantly impacted by the Marburg neo-Kantian philosophers Cohen and Natorp (Busch, 44). By the time he finished his formal education, he was well-steeped in modern thought, and he was a committed neo-Protestant.5

B. The Change

It was in 1909 that he left Marburg to take his first ministerial post in Geneva as assistant pastor of the German Reformed Church there, preaching his first sermon that fall on Philippians 3:12-15. He was here for two years. It is reported that his sermons were very long, academic, and liberal! (Busch, 52-54).

In 1911 he took a new call in the village of Safenwil. So strong was his commitment to preaching and promoting socialism there he become known as “the red pastor.” This is where he would spend the next 10 years of his life and marry his wife, Nelly Hoffmann.6 It is also the place where he would write and publish his Der Römerbreif, a commentary on the book of Romans which is said – famously – to have landed like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.

On August 1, 1914 the world changed forever as the supposed “war to end all wars” broke out.7 But beyond the war itself, there was an event that shook the theological world (Busch, 81). Ninety-three German intellectuals, including Barth’s most beloved professors (e.g., von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann) signed a document in support of the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This caused Barth to bring into question the liberal theology which they taught – and he believed. According to Barth, the ethical failure resident in their support of the war “indicated that their exegetical and dogmatic presuppositions could not be in order” (ibid). No longer could their teachings be trusted.

To be sure, this caused a crisis in the midst of his pastorate. He had been preaching liberalism fervently, but no longer could he do so. It was his friend and colleague in the ministry, Eduard Thurneysen, who suggested a new way forward when he whispered to Barth: “What we need for preaching, instruction and pastoral care is a ‘wholly other’ theological foundation.” (Busch, 97). No longer could they “share the fruit of Schleiermacher.” (ibid). Rather than beginning with a god of the subjective human experience, they would begin with the God who is, and who reveals himself wholly outside of us. This God would not be dependent upon man for his being and identity. This God would be a free God, a sovereign Lord, and not the projection of man’s imagination. He would stand as judge over man and his feelings. Therefore, two years after the outbreak of war, and the day after “Thurneysen’s whisper,” Barth sat down under an apple tree and gave himself to reading the book of Romans afresh.

During this time he is said to have read and written ceaselessly. Originally his writing was only for himself and a few friends to reflect on his change of thinking. He described this time as his still coming out of the eggshells of the theology of his teachers (Busch, 99). Barth was committed to stand on God’s perspective over against all human and partisan perspectives. Man had commandeered God for his party, his purpose, and his own political agenda. For Barth, however, God transcends party politics and worldly agendas. As a result of these new ways of thinking, Barth penned his commentary on Romans, finally finishing the first draft in August 1918. After some difficulty finding a publisher, it was finally printed in Dec 19188, and substantially revised in 1922.9

He begins the commentary with a fundamental ontological claim: there is a qualitative difference between time and eternity, or between God and man. This is where we get the idea that Barth’s God is “wholly other.” Over against the immanence theology of liberalism, Barth responded with a thoroughgoing transcendence theology. Rather than God revealing himself in man’s feeling of absolute dependence, God stands over all and renders all under his judgment – his crises. This is one of the original terms used to describe Barth’s theology – “crises theology.”

It is at this time that Barth’s theology begins to be seen as a “new theological trend and new school” (144). It is labeled variously. Some called it crises theology, but others called it “theology of the word” or “dialectical theology.”10 Later it would receive the label “neo-orthodox.” As an aside, Barth himself rejected this label (CD III.3, xii). It is regarded by some today as a misnomer. As early as 1972 German reflection on the thought of Barth was challenging the “neo-orthodox” label (see McCormack, Critical-Realistic, 24-28). Bruce McCormack’s magisterial study seeks to show that Barth’s theology never was an attempt to repristinate the older orthodoxy of either the Reformed or Lutheran traditions. Quite on the contrary, while there are significant discontinuities between Barth’s thought and that of modern theology since Schleiermacher, there is also a fundamental continuity. So strong was that continuity that the German scholar Trutz Rendtorff concluded that Barth really was an “exponent of liberal theology.” (McCormack, 28).

McCormack, in fact, observes that Anglo-American theologians in particular try to read – or, misread – Barth as a “neo-orthodox” theologian. Barth, in other words, may have rejected the liberal orientation to modern theology, but he did not reject modern theology as such. He certainly did not reject it for the sake of going back to something that preceded it. The lesson here is, of course, don’t call Barth a “neo-orthodox” theologian and don’t refer to his theology as “neo-orthodoxy!” If anything, it might be more accurate to refer to his theology as neo-modernism. Its not quite the old liberal theology and its not a rediscovery of pre-modern post-reformation Reformed orthodoxy, but rather is something new. But something new within the broader sphere of modern theology.11

But whatever you label Barth’s theology, one thing is for sure, his Romans commentary changed his life forever. He would move very quickly now from being a small-time pastor in a rural community to being a leading mind among the young, restless, and European crowd. And his commentary would also get the attention of the academy. And to the academy he would go.

In the next installment we will conclude our short biography as we look at his years as a professor and then finally his retirement and death. Of special interest will be some attention to his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his live-in assistant.

1This is a revision of a lecture I gave in May 2015 at Mid America Reformed Seminary (http://www.midamerica.edu/).

2On the different ways of articulating Barth’s christocentricity see the study by Marc Cortez, “What Does it Mean to Call Karl Barth a ‘Christocentric’ Theologian?” SJT 60 (2007):1-17. Cortez offers a way forward for greater clarity of how and in what way Barth’s theology can be described as christocentric.

3I have avoided, at this point, using the term “christomonism.” I have in part because it is usually understood as being a criticism of Barth’s thought; see for instance Cortez, “What Does it Mean,” 4-5. But while the term has been connected with criticisms (see the literature cited in the reference above), the word need not be used critically. In fact, for Barth the term is owned as a badge of honor, and from his perspective the “allness” of Christ in his theology is its strongest and most endearing quality. In other words, I want to renew the concept and use it as a positive descriptor of Barth’s theology. However, while the concept is good what I propose here is that the language of “christopanism” rather than “christomonism” is a more accurate term. The term is not original to me, however. As far as I can tell it is previously used by Joseph Palakeel, The Use of Analogy in Theological Discourse: An Investigation in Ecumenical Persepective (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1995), 327 and Thomas Guarino in Foundations of Systematic Theology (New York: T&T Clark, 2005) 232. It should be noted, however, that they do not use the term in the same, positive, way I am proposing here.

4Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 34.

5“Neo-Protestant” is common parlance for “liberal.”

6 Whom he met while in Geneva, on March 27, 1913 (age 27).

7And expression coined by H.G. Wells soon after the outbreak of the war.

8 Even though 1919 is the common publication date.

9 This 2nd edition is what is available in English today.

10 Without even knowing it, Barth’s themes had some overlap with the existentialism and phenomenology of the day. So, dialectical theology was characterized by “its question about the superior, new element which limits and determines any human self-understanding. In the Bible this is called God, God’s word, God’s revelation, God’s kingdom and God’s act. The adjective ‘dialectical’ describes a way of thinking arising from man’s conversation with the sovereign God who encounters him.” (ibid).

11The expression neo-orthodoxy was a charge leveled against Barth very early on, even in the early reviews of his first edition of Romans. He was charged with a lot of things, including being a pacifist and an anabaptist. But because of his rejection of history and scientific theology, it was believed that he was advocating for a return to the old, pre-modern theology.


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