Karl Barth

“Karl Barth is incontestably the greatest figure in modem theology since Schleiermacher, occupying an honored position among the great elite of the church—Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.”1) Thus writes T. F. Torrance of Scotland, an ardent admirer of Karl Barth. An eminent French writer, C. Casalis, bypasses Schleiermaeher and asserts that “not since Luther and Calvin has Protestantism had a single theologian of the stature and importance of Karl Barth.”2 Casalis adds: “He is moreover one of those few men within a given period of history who make such an impact in their own sphere of influence that a new epoch begins with them: even their adversaries are only important in relation to them.”3 And Paul Tillich, himself a theologian in the front ranks, calls Barth “the most monumental appearance in our period.”4 Roman Catholic theologians too, especially those of Europe, have praised Barth in terms they usually reserve only for Thomas Aquinas. Even his twelve fat volumes of the Church Dogmatics, containing some nine thousand pages, is the only equivalent in this century of the great summa of the medieval scholastics.

Barth’s dogmatics is unquestionably the most important systematic theology of this century. However, Barth has influenced all the theological disciplines as wen as religious thought in general today. His major significance for history lies in the fact that he has begun a new era in evangelical theology. H. Boulliard, the French Catholic theologian, aptly speaks of Barth’s Copernican revolution in Protestant theology which put an end to the dominance of liberal theology. Barth has been a molder of the contemporary mind.

Background and Ministry

Who is this theological giant, now seventy-nine years of age, who since the First World War has dominated theological thought and brought about the collapse of liberal. ism and the development of neo-orthodox theology? Karl Barth was born on May 10, 1886 in Basel, Switzerland. His father was a Reformed minister who became a New Testament professor at Basel and later at Bern. Both grandfathers were

ministers and since the early nineteenth century Barths served in the ministry of the Swiss churches. Already on his sixteenth birthday on the occasion of his confirmation, Karl decided to study theology. Early in his university training he was deeply shaken by Kant’s philosophy and attracted by Schleiermacher’s theology. Although his father desired that he study with more conservative, orthodox professors, Karl Barth eventually came to sit at the feet of the most illustrious liberal theologians of his day, notably Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann. Barth studied subsequently at the Universities of Bern, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg. Returning to Bern for his final examinations, he was ordained in 1908.

Barth served for one year in Marburg as assistant to Prof. Martin Rade in editing Die Christliche Welt. Then for two years he served as Vikar or assistant pastor of the German-speaking congregation in Geneva and from 19111921 he was pastor of the Swiss congregation of Safenwil. Here he underwent that soul-stirring experience which led him to sec the irrelevance and error of liberalism. He published his famous commentary on Romans and was rocketed into a more than forty year orbit of international fame.

A call to become professor of Reformed theology at Goettingen, Germany in 1921 was the beginning of an illustrious academic career. ]n 1925 he transferred to the University of Munster and in 1930 to the University of Bonn. When he refused to take the Hitler oath of allegiance he was expelled from Germany in 1935. In the city of his birth, he was welcomed by the University of Basel where he continued to teach systematic theology until his retirement in 1962. His only visit to the United States in the spring of 1962 “caused as much stir as would a visit by the Pope to a Jesuit convention.”5

Since 1932 Barth’s major effort has been devoted to the writing of his massive Church Dogmatics. His literary output now numbers some forty to fifty major titles in addition to hundreds of articles. Today at the ripe age of seventy-nine, he is still attempting to write the remaining volumes of the Church Dogmatics. A growing library concerning the Barthian theology already numbers over five hundred volumes.

The Preacher’s Problem

Karl Barth was rockcted to fame from the launching pad of the pulpit, not the academic lecture hall. His revolt against liberalism and tlle dcvelopment of his new theology had its origin in the problem of the preacher preparing and deliVering his Sunday sermon. The critical years of the First World War found Barth in the middle of his ministry at Safcowil. He found himself becoming more and more disillusioned with the liberal theology he had learned from the books of Schleiermachcr, Ritschl and Troeltsch and from the lecturcs of Harnack and Herrmann. The world of “good men” was at war, and bombs were bursting just across the Swiss borders. He found it wellnigh impossible to mount his high Swiss pulpit and preach the message of the social gospel and liberal fantasies. He honestly acknowledged that the people were asking for bread and he had only stones to offer. Yet he preached his sermon over an open Bible. The anxious people were looking for a word of comfort and peace from God; not for the unrealistic words and utopian dreams of man. In this crisis Barth turned his thoughts to that open Bible. There he discovered a strange new world; new vistas and insights opened to him. Together with his neighboring minister, Eduard Thurneysen, he began a study of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Eventually this led to the publication of his commentary, the Romerbrief. The first edition of 1919 made some impact, but the revised edition of 1921, in the words of Catholic theologian Karl Adam, “fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” Barth attacked the liberal assumption that the Bible expressed only man’s religious experiences. He maintained that it contained God’s Word to man. The real God of revelation , said Barth, is “the Wholly Other.” As Kierkegaard expressed it, there is “an infinite qualitative difference” between God and man, between eternity and time. Man’s efforts along liberal lines to reach God through inner emotion or reason leads only to making God in man’s image. That was the beginning of Barth’s Copernican revolution. It required a one hundred-eighty degree change in direction. Barth led the revolt and armies followed his command.

The Revolt Against Liberalism

Elsewhere I have tried to show that the significance of Barth’s theology involves at least the following five elements. Barth has “1) influenced the entire theological situation of our generation, 2) led the theological revolt against liberalism, 3) awakened a new interest in Scripture, 4) inspired a new interest in the Reformers, especially Calvin, and 5) developed a new theology, the comprehensive system of thought set forth in his monumental Die kirchliche Dogmatik.”6 Here there is space to call brief attention to only the second and last of these considerations.

The significance of Barth in molding the contemporary mind is first of all due to his revolt against liberalism. If Schleiermacher was the father of liberal theology, it was Karl Barth who dealt it a death blow and then slowly developed a new theology—dialectical, crisis theology, neo-orthodoxy—to take its place.

What was the secret of Barth’s power over the minds of men? What contributed to his prestige, prominence and influence in the twentieth century? His personality alone is not sufficient explanation. It is not merely the forcefulness of his speech 0 1′ his bold way of thinking which confronts men with absolute alternatives. How has he brought about this the greatest upset known to the theological world for generations? No simple explanation for key events in history is possible. Why was Luther able to spark the Reformation which Wycliff and Huss could not bring off?

“His name will live on in the history of theology as that of the great conqueror of liberal theology,” observes the Lutheran, Herman Sasse. “What the conservative theologians failed to accomplish, what neither the consciously Lutheran nor the consciously Reformed theologians succeeded in doing was done by this student of Wilhelm Herrmann and Adolf Harnack. In Karl Barth liberal theology brought forth its own conqueror. He could overcome the liberal theology because he was bone of its bones and flesh of its flesh.”7 This was certainly a key to Barth’s success. He spoke from the inside. But he also spoke at the right time. Greatness and influence in history must always be the product of a gifted man and an historically ripe occasion.

Liberalism is not entirely dead, of course; in the United States it lives on in strange places and in Europe as well as elsewhere a neo-liberalism largely stimulated by Bultmann has already risen from Barthian contexts. And even in Barth strains of liberalism still continue in what is distinctly a post-liberal theology. But Sasse is correct when he observes that ever since Barth’s revolt against liberalism, modern Protestant liberalism has actually become an “anachronism.” While others before had said much that Barth said, and some had also said it better, Barth gained a hearing and moved men because he spoke at the right time. His voice was first heard in the year following the close of the World War. European civilization was in a state of collapse. And since that civilization reflected the views of modern liberal Protestantism, it was also implicated in the great judgment pronounced on this once proud civilization of western man. Barth saw this and exposed it. He recognized the falsification of revelation, faith, the church, yes of Christianity itself in liberalism and saw that its collapse was part of the war’s pillage. When he spoke, the time was ripe for all to see this destruction. His experiences had become the experiences of many. And thus he became their spokesman. “So he became the chief exponent of the movement which once again shifted the emphasis in evangelical theology back from the subject to the object.”8

Barth’s Neo-orthodox Theology In leading the revolt against liberalism which developed into a Copernican revolution, Barth had many close associates. Initially Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann and others were united in their revolt against the old liberalism. But as so often happens, while agreed in attacking the opponent, they soon discovered radical differences in their positive views which were to replace that liberalism.

Differences between Barth and Brunner sOon appeared concerning questions of general revelation, natural theology and the virgin birth. Tillich and Bultmann’s views developed far to the left of Barth’s thought. Reinhold Niebnhr now asserts that he finds Barth irrelevant and has ceased to read him. Initially Barth exercised a tremendous authority over his followers which was evident in their ready acceptance of his various changes. When he accepted a new version of the doctrine of the virgin birth, many former liberals followed him. Later when about 1940 he rejected the doctrine of infant baptism, however, he found fewer followers. Whole hearted endorsement of his massive theology today is rare, but its subtle influence is still extremely widespread.

Barth has aimed at an ecumenical theology, and in a measure he has been successful. His thought has affected many Baptists as well as Lutherans, Episcopalians and even many Roman Catholics while gaining influence especially among Reformed and Presbyterian churches. His works are read by preachers and his thought probably affects many more sermons than one might suspect.

Barth is a theologians’ theologian. He regards theology as a beautiful and happy science. There is no denying, however, that his Church Dogmatics is ponderous and often dull even to his enthusiastic followers. There could scarcely be a writer more difficult to summarize accurately. Barth has rethought the whole of theology, and his Church Dogmatics weaves together into a comprehensive dialectical system of thought not only dogmatics but also exegesis, history of dogma and ethics. It is truly the work of a genius.

Barth denies that man can know God through his own efforts. God’s revealing act is the key to knowledge of God. Agreeing with the higher-critical approach to Scripture by liberals Barth maintains that the Bible is a fallible, human witness to revelation—not revelation itself. This erroneous view of Scripture affects his entire theology adversely. He views God as the transcendent one and stresses the attributes of love and freedom, although the overtones of liberalism again appear in the predominance given to love. His view of the trinity is a new complex form of modalism so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not regarded as three distinct persons, but modes of existence known from the three-fold form of God’s revelation in proclamation, Scripture and Word of God.

Calvin’s view of predestination is strongly opposed. Barth holds to universal election. Reprobation is applicable only to Jesus Christ and this reprobation is rejected on the cross. His view of creation is Christological as are all his doctrines. The biblical theme of creation, fall and redemption, however, is altered by Barth to that of creation, reconciliation and redemption. Thus the imperfection, sin and evil that can for reconciliation are already somehow included in creation. The biblical account of creation and Adam’s full are not regarded as historical but are called sagas. Although Christology is central for Barth’s thought, it is radically different from the Reformed understanding of the Scripture doctrine of Christ. Barth holds to a doctrine of universal reconciliation, universal election, universal justification and even universal sanctification. But he will neither affirm nor deny a universal salvation, although that view appears to be the clear implication of his premises. While Barth has given new impetus to preaching as the vehicle of expected revelation, the biblical urgency of preaching is absent because of this theological context.


Personal animosity could hardly be the occasion for one to reject Barth’s theology today. Although he began as an untamed lion whose roars disturbed many, he has now become almost as tame as a lamb. Yet he is fearless and courageous, honest and humorous and an altogether charming person.

There is no doubt as to his stature; his mark on history is secure. Students today and forever in the future will have to add the study of Karl Barth’s theology to their already heavy demands in Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, and Schleiermacher. A new epoch began with Barth, and his mature thought has such significance that academic study must seek to master it.

The nature and the extensiveness of Barth’s thought makes appraisal difficult. Few people have read all of Barth’s writings and half-baked evaluations are still too frequent. But even competent scholars who are well acquainted with Barth’s theology sometimes express quite varied opinions. The Dutch scholar, G.C. Berkouwer, writes of the “triumph of grace in the theology of Karl Barth” while making serious criticisms of Barth’s thought. Dr. C. Van Til has long spoken of Barth’s thought as “the new modernism” and has recently written a book expressing the alternative as “Christianity and Barthianism.” Some former liberals who for a while followed Barth have now turned to the neo-liberalism of Bultmann and sometimes speak of Barth’s thought as a new scholasticism or a revived fundamentalism. Simple evaluations are not possible, because Barth’s thought is distinctly new on the theological horizon and extremely complex.

While Barth has indeed sparked a new interest in the Bible and awakened a new study of the Reformers, while he has emphasized the transcendence of God and man’s absolute need of revelation, while he has again given new significance to the church and to preaching—these are largely formal matters. The content of his thought is where the important evaluations are to be made. This reader of Barth’s theology is convinced that when Barth is judged from the standpoint of Scripture (from which standpoint Barth wishes to be judged), then one discovers that Barth has produced a massive synthesis in which biblical themes have been disastrously combined with elements of Kant’s philosophy, Kierkegaard’s thinking, and contemporary existentialism. While some of Barth’s doctrines are flagrantly in conflict with Scripture, the whole system of his thought is one which does not reproduce the great biblical pattern of God’s perfect creation, man’s rebellious fall into sin, and God’s gracious and sovereign redemption through Jesus Christ (second person of the trinity) in the communion of the Holy Spirit (third divine person of the holy trinity). In the fuller light of history it will appear more clearly that while Barth led the revolt against liberalism, his own theology developed during the ensuing years contained within it the remnants of the old enemy and thus the seeds of its own decay.


1. “Karl Barth” in Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, edited by George L. Hunt (New York: Association Press, 1958), p.58.

2. Portrait of Karl Barth (New York: Doubleday &. Co., 1963), p.34.

3. Ibid.

4. Time, VoL LXXIX, No. 16 (April 20, 1962), p. 59.

5. Ibid.

6. The Significance of Barth’s Theology (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1961) pp. 11ff.

7. Here We Stolid (New York: Harpel & Bros., 1938), p. 155.

8. Ibid., p. 156.

Because many are fascinated but confused when faced with the positions of Karl Barth, widely recognized as “the theological giant of our time,” we are most pleased to present this clear and concise survey of the man, his influence and his major teachings by Fred H. Klooster, professor of Systematic Theology, Calvin Theological Seminary, in Grand Rapids, MI.

For those whose appetite is whetted by this article, we refer Dr. Klooster’s book, THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BARTH’S THEOLOGY, publishes by Baker Book House in 1961.