Faithful Friday: Karl Barth

By Ian Wilson (Rated G)

Perhaps the most famous theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1886, the son of a professor of Early Church History at Bern. Barth studied at several universities during his theological training, and came under the influence of 19th century liberal theology. After graduating, he became a minister in Geneva from 1909 to 1911, before moving to Safenwil, Switzerland. He then married Nell Hofman, with whom he had several children. 

It took one of the most bloody and violent conflicts in human history to make Barth question the liberal theology of his teachers. Liberal theology of the time taught that the reality of God was established by human experience or thought; to be liberal is to be liberated from human traditions. One must experience God for oneself, rather than relying on tradition. 

After a thorough study of the Scriptures and meetings with several pastors, Barth became a changed man, preaching a radical return to the gospel and the theology of the Reformation; a neo-orthodoxy, which was a significant departure from theological liberalism. He believed that the infinite love, goodness and sovereignty of the utterly transcendent God was the central message of Christianity. God is completely “other” and apart from human experience, yet He condescends to meet us in Jesus Christ and the prophetic teaching of the Scriptures. 

In 1921, Barth was given a professorship at the University of Gottingen, where he began studying the historic theology of the Church Fathers and scholastic Reformers. He was quite a popular and dynamic teacher, and held professorships at several German universities. While in Germany, Barth saw the rise of what he termed “natural theology”, an outgrowth of theological liberalism which sought to bring Christianity in line with the rising Nazi ideology. Barth vigorously opposed this perversion of Christianity, even to the point of being barred from teaching. 

Barth returned to Switzerland in 1935, having been offered a chair of theology by the University of Basel, where he would remain until his death. There, he continued to add to the work that became known as Church Dogmatics; Barth’s magnum opus. Based on his class lectures, the book swelled to four volumes, and remained unfinished at his death in 1968. In addition to all of this, Barth preached weekly to inmates at the prison in Basel; he believed that the truth and freedom found in the Gospel was for everyone, wherever they are.

Karl Barth is remembered as one of the greatest minds in Protestant Christianity, who had a genuine love and appreciation for God and his fellow man. 

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