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Karl Barth
Karl barth
Karl Barth
Name Karl Barth
Birth date May 10 1886
Death date December 10 1968
Era 20th century
Culture Swiss German
Church tradition Reformed
Theology school Neo-orthodox
Influences Friedrich Schleiermacher, Emil Brunner
Influenced John Webster, Eberhard Jongel

Karl Barth (1886-1968, pronounced "Bart") was a 20th century Swiss theologian in the Reformed tradition. A vigorous opponent of theological liberalism and modernism, he is known as "the Father of Neo-Orthodoxy".



Born in Basel, he spent his childhood years in Bern. From 1911 to 1921 he served as a Reformed pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton Aargau. Later he was professor of theology in Bonn (Germany). He had to leave Germany in 1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Barth went back to Switzerland and became professor in Basel.

Barth was originally trained in German Protestant Liberalism under such teachers as Wilhelm Herrmann, but reacted against this theology at the time of the First World War. His reaction was fed by several factors, including his commitment to the German and Swiss Religious Socialist movement surrounding men like Herrmann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men like Christoph Blumhardt, and the impact of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.

The most important catalyst was, however, his reaction to the support for the German war aims of most of his liberal teachers. Barth believed that his teachers had been misled by a theology which tied God too closely to the finest, deepest expressions and experiences of cultured human beings, into claiming divine support for a war which they believed was waged in support of that culture, the initial experience of which appeared to increase people's love of and commitment to that culture. In his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (1919) Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.

In the decade following the First World War, Barth was linked with a number of other theologians, actually very diverse in outlook, who had reacted against their teachers' liberalism, in a movement known as "Dialectical Theology".

In the run-up to the Second World War, Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration, which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity, arguing that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other 'lords' - such as the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

In later life, Barth wrote the massive 14 volume Church Dogmatics, unfinished at about six million words by his death in 1968. In the work, Barth explores the whole of Christian doctrine, and where necessary, challenging and reinterpreting it so that every part of it points to the radical challenge of Jesus Christ and the impossibility of tying God to human cultures, achievements or possessions. The work has been deeply influential on modern theologians, particularly those in the Reformed tradition, and has been partly responsible for a revival of interest in traditional Christian doctrine amongst academic theologians.

Theological perspectives[]

Scripture and revelation[]

Barth's theology assumes a certain amount of the tenets of liberal Christianity, most notably the assumption that the Bible is not historically and scientifically accurate. Barth has been called "neo-orthodox" ("neo" meaning new) because, while his theology retains most or all of the essential tenets of Christianity (Trinity, Deity of Christ, etc.), he clearly rejects Biblical inerrancy. His reconciliation of having a rigorous Christian theology without a supporting text that was considered to be historically accurate was to separate theological truth from historical truth. It is arguably for this belief that Barth has been criticized the most harshly by more conservative Christians such as Francis Schaeffer.

For Barth, the Bible is not revelation. It does not reveal God, but instead points to revelation (i.e., God Himself). Scripture is written human language, expressing human concepts. It cannot, for Barth, be considered as identical as God's revelation. The Bible is a mere physical instrument through which God's revelation is conveyed, though it is authoritative for the Church.

"Holy Scripture as such is not the revelation. And yet Holy Scripture is the revelation, if and as far as Jesus Christ speaks to us through the witness of His prophets and apostles. Holy Scripture is a token of revelation... But there has never yet been a faith in the revelation which has passed by this token, a faith which was not rather awakened, nourished and controlled precisely through the instrumentality of this token." (Revelation, p. 67)

"By this paradox Barth maintains that the text of scripture cannot be equated/identified with revelation (since revelation is the person of God in Christ), but its witness to Christ can be used by Christ to reveal himself." [1] The Bible finds its authority because of its content - because it is a witness to God in Christ who gives it such authority.


Barth has also been criticized for his alleged belief in universalism, however, Barth himself noted that insistence on necessary universal salvation impinged on God's freedom and suggested it was beyond the church's duty to speculate on the subject (Church Dogmatics 2.2, 417). "For Barth, the grace of God is characterised by freedom. On the one hand, this means that we can never impose limits on the scope of grace; and on the other hand, it means that we can never impose a universalist 'system' on grace. In either case, we would be compromising the freedom of grace we would be presuming that we can define the exact scope of God's liberality. So Barth's theology of grace includes a dialectical protest: Barth protests both against a system of universalism and against a denial of universalism! The crucial point is that God's grace is free grace: it is nothing other than God himself acting in freedom. And if God acts in freedom, then we can neither deny nor affirm the possibility of universal salvation." [2]

Barth says that,

"The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God's grace. But would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrified only for our sins? Has he not ... been sacrificed for the whole world? ... [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides" (Barth, God Here and Now, pp. 41-42).

For Barth, then, we can neither affirm nor deny the possibility that all will be saved. So what can we do? Barth's answer is clear: we can hope (see Church Dogmatics 4.3, pp. 477-78). [3]


Barth's theology denies the necessity of apologetics. He states in The Epistle to the Romans (1919, trans 1933),

The Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths. The Gospel is not the door but the hinge. The man who apprehends its meaning is removed from all strife, because he is engaged in a strife with the whole, even with existence itself. Anxiety concerning the victory of the Gospel--that is, Christian Apologetics--is meaningless, because the Gospel is the victory by which the world is overcome. ... It [the Gospel] does not require representatives with a sense of responsibility, for it is as responsible for those who proclaim it as it is for those to whom it is proclaimed. It is the advocate of both. ... God does not need us. Indeed, if He were not God, He would be ashamed of us. We, at any rate, cannot be ashamed of Him. (p. 35)

Wikipedia:Karl Barth

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 2.2. Trans. G. W. Bromiley, J. C. Campbell, Iain Wilson, et. al. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957.

Selected publications[]

Church Dogmatics in English translation[]

  • Church Dogmatics, 14 volume set, softcover, ISBN 0567058093
  • Dogmatics in Outline, (1947 lectures), Harper Perennial, 1959, ISBN 006130056X
  • Church Dogmatics: A Selection, with intro. by H. Gollwitzer, 1961, Westminster John Knox Press 1994 edition, ISBN 0664255507


See also[]

  • Neo-Orthodoxy
  • John Webster
  • Eberhard Jongel

External links[]