Letters from Basel: 2. Why Did I Choose to Study at Basel?

Dear Friends:

Some of you have asked me the reasons for my decision to spend this sabbatical year at Basel, Switzerland. As a city Basel has many features which make it an ideal place to spend a year of study. In urging someone to accept an appointment to the University of Basel, the 16th century Reformer of Basel, Johannes Oecolampadius wrote:

You will find many conveniences here. Healthful air, a pleasant situation, a people, since they embraced Christ, peaceable and simple in their manner; ready access to printers. Basel has always been a favorite city with learned men. Erasmus is indeed gone, to please the princess to whom he is under obligation, but it is my opinion that he will soon return.

Many of these features of Basel are still present today, and one of the current guide books of the city uses almost identical words.

However, these features of the city of Basel had little to do with my coming here in 1959. Although the Swiss climate is very pleasant, and many people do come here for reasons of health, I am thankful that no such reason needed consideration on my part. True, Basel was also once a great printing center. Erasmus’ presence here was at least in part motivated by the easy access to printers. It was also an opportune place for Calvin to be when he decided to publish the first edition of his Institutes. But it could hardly be claimed that I went to Basel in search of a publisher. And even if I had, I am confident that Grand Rapids would today offer many more opportunities in this respect than Basel.

The reference of Oecolampadius to Erasmus as motivation for coming to Basel has more relevance in my case. I came to Basel almost entirely for the purpose of hearing and studying one man—not Erasmus of course, but Karl Barth.

But why should someone teaching at Calvin Theological Seminary wish to come to Basel to study Karl Barth? I will readily admit that one need not come to Basel to study Barth’s theology. He has written so much that one could not possibly read through all of it in the course of a year. There would be enough to do if one were to remain in Grand Rapids, for example, and study Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik there.

Thus the question is really this one—Why should I be studying Barth’s theology during this sabbatical yea r? Haven’t our Reformed theologians been basically critical of Barth’s theology? Indeed, they have. I have not come to hear Barth because I accept his theological position. On the contrary, my disagreement with Barth remains basic. My main reason for studying Barth’s theology in Basel is due to rus tremendous influence on the contemporary theological world. One can not really understand the trends of present-day theology without a thorough knowledge of the man who has controlled the discussions of the last forty years. Along with Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr have had the major roles in systematic or dogmatic theology. But Barth stands out in this group. Emil Brunner and Paul Tillich have admitted that Barth’s early thought played a major part in the development of their own positions. And Niebuhr has again been significantly influenced by Tillich’s theology. Furthermore, Niebuhr and Brunner have already retired from their teaching positions. Barth, although the oldest of the group, is still active in teaching and lecturing at the University of Basel and is tirelessly at work seeking to complete the Kirchliche Dogmatik, which is already the most extensive dogmatics of history. The opportunity of hearing the lectures which will later appear in the Church Dogmatics, of sitting in on seminars and discussions, I thought, would provide a great deal of assistance in understanding the very complex character of Barth’s thought, and hence of the theological discussions of our era.

There arc other subsidiary or allied motives for a more thorough study of Barth. While Reformed theologians are pretty generally agreed in their evaluation of Tillich’s thought, there are significant differences in relation to the evaluation of Barth. One need think only of Prof. C. Van Til’s book entitled The New Modernism and Prof, Berkouwer’s more recent book on The Triumph of Grace in the Theology 0/ Karl Barth. While both books are critical of Barth, Berkouwer’s critique is not nearly as thoroughgoing as that of Van Til. Furthermore, since Barth’s Church Dogmatics is not yet completed, a great deal of attention will be given to the forthcoming volumes and their significance for interpreting the whole. Again, Barth’s influence may be expected to increase in the United States since the Kirchliche Dogmatik which was begun in 1932 has, with the exception of the first part-volume, only recently come into English translation.

These constitute some of the more important reasons for my decision to come to Basel to become better acquainted with the theology of Karl Barth. I am not really studying under Karl Barth since I am not working toward any official degree, nor am I taking any courses for university credit. But I am studying the theology of Barth, Anyone who has even a slight knowledge of the present theological climate will recognize the very significant opportunity which thiS affords me. And I can add that although I am doing what I desire to do, and what I enjoy doing, I also regard it as part of my duty. I need quote only the words from the formulary used for the installation of professors of theology at Calvin. There, in one and the same sentence, our task is described in its positive and negative aspects: “expound to the m the mysteries of the faith; caution them against the errors and heresies of the old but especially of the new day…” (Psalter Hymnal, p. 107).

Now that I have been at Basel for a few months, let me add a note as to the realization of .my aims. Naturally the major portion of my time is devoted to private study of Barth’s writings. This I have been doing with great satisfaction in the comfortable apartment which we have on the fifth floor of a sixteen-story building on the banks of the Rhine River. Since the classes which I attend are held late in the day, I am able to study almost without interruption until four in the afternoon. This is without doubt the best part of a sabbatical year.

However, this private study is enlivened and challenged by about nine hours of contact with Karl Barth weekly, in classroom, seminar, and colloquium. And it is this which makes the coming to Basel worthwhile. Since the university semester runs from November to March and from April to July. I have had only about six weeks of these class contacts as yet. However, I have been thoroughly pleased with the help they afford in understanding Barth. In the lectures one is better able to understand which points he emphasizes, why he emphasizes today points which he did not so much emphasize earlier (though without basic change, Barth insists), how he delights in the either/or expression, the affirmative and negative, the statement made one way and turned about again in the other way, the “not only…but also,” etc. In the seminars and colloquia there is also opportunity to raise questions and hear answers to questions old and new. All of this helps a great deal and stimulates one in his private study of the ponderous volumes of the Kirchliche Dogmatik.

Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik has grown out of his classroom lectures during the past thirty years. During this winter semester he lectures from 4 to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The material we hear in the classroom now will eventually become volume IV 14 of the Dogmatics. This concerns the ethical part of the doctrine of reconciliation. But, as was expected, in this ethical section Barth will be discussing the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the large lecture hall of the newest university building, some 200 students eagerly listen to hear “some new thing.”

One of the best occasions for becoming better acquainted with Barth’s thinking is a weekly meeting of the Societat on Thursday night from 8 to 10. Meeting in a private room of a restaurant near Barth’s home are about thirty of the more advanced students—mainly Germans with a few Swiss and Americans, one Englishman and one South African. The discussions at present are centered on volume III/4, the ethical section of the doctrine of creation. Barth insists upon giving most attention to the principles rather than specific cases, so that one has the opportunity here of dealing with the more doctrinal issues of his view of creation. The most interesting sessions recently were devoted to Barth’s view of war, Communism, Hungary, and East Germany. This encounter with the German students themselves proved very interesting, and perhaps in a later letter I will give you a more detailed review of this discussion.

On Tuesday evenings twice a month, Barth holds an English colloquium in this same restaurant from 8 to 10. Since wives are also invited to this gathering, the number present reaches fifty to sixty. The Americans comprise one of the largest foreign groups in Basel today. Some even drive from Heidelberg and Geneva to attend this colloquium. The discussions here are based on volume II/I, the doctrine of God, especially the attributes. In about a month we will be moving on to II/2 where Barth begins his study of election which he regards as the heart of the Gospel. Since he there specifically rejects the position of Calvin, we should have some interesting meetings when we get to that part.

I find one of the most interesting and challenging sessions the weekly seminar on Calvin’s Institutes. Here the same group of students which comprise the Societit meet on Wednesday from 5 to 7 in an ancient building which housed the original University. Here in a small crowded seminar room on the very bank of the Rhine, a study is being made of the Latin text of the Institutes (I, i–ix). Four students are required to sit across the table from Barth and most of the discussion is carried on between Barth and these four. One session is devoted to translation into German and analysis of what Calvin said, and the next session devoted to evaluation and critique of Calvin’s thought. At present we have just reached the third section of chapter one, and about three sessions will be devoted to this crucial section alone. Although Barth has professed a great deal of admiration for Calvin, he differs with Calvin on some of the most fundamental points. Here again, I find the discussion very interesting, and I am constantly challenged to a deeper study of Calvin. I am confident that my elective course in the theology of Calvin will benefit from this seminar at Basel-the very city in which the Institutes were first published and where Calvin prepared the revised and enlarged second edition as well.

Through these class-room contacts with Barth one has the opportunity of hearing his explanations and answers to questions dealing with all four of the main volumes of the Kirchliche Dogmatik thus far published—volume I through the seminar on Calvin, volume II in the English Colloquium, volume III in the German Societit, and volume IV in the current lectures. In this way my private study has stimulus and focus, and the aim for which I came to Basel is gradually being accomplished.

But I must end this letter lest it become an obstacle to my purpose in coming, and at some later time I hope to tell you more about what is happening in Basel. But at least you now know why I decided to spend my sabbatical year in study at the University of Basel.

Sincerely yours,

Fred H. Klooster