15 Things I Learned About Karl Barth (With Bonus Quotes)

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I (Nathaniel Grimes) spent this week with Eberhard Busch’s biography of Karl Barth, which is changing my life. Go buy it, enroll at your local seminary to gain library privileges, borrow it from Doug Campbell – whatever you have to do to get this in your hands. In the meantime, enjoy this appetizer.

  1. When he was born, one of his aunts said he looked “quite terrible” (7). This confirms my belief that the best theologians are driven by relentless insecurities.
  2. The first line of his first play, at age 11 or 12  “I’m thirsting for the blood of aristocrats” (27). You are never too young for the revolution!
  3. At age 12 he recounted his day as leader of a local street gang: “Today I did a good deal of bashing up and got bashed up by plenty of people..there really is some splendid poetry in this active and passive” (25). He was already interpreting his experiences dramatically and dialectically.
  4. Also at age 12, he started collecting his own writings under the title “Karl Barth’s collected works, dedicated to his grandmother” (27).
  5. Barth took a position at a pastor in a small village, and tried to just teach the people theology, which they were not at all interested in. They were dealing with the issues of industrialization and labor exploitation, sermons like his Reformation Day address on Melanchthon’s Loci Communes were not appealing (54). Eventually he wised up and became what they need, which was essentially a community organizer. He started speaking as though “he believed the kingdom of God was close to the poor and that Jesus identified himself with them.” This provoked attacks from local manufacturers, and the president of his church committee resigned in protest (70).
  6. At the same time many of his friends and mentors in liberal theology signed a declaration allying themselves with Germany’s move to war. To him, “their ethical failure’ indicated that ‘their exegetical and dogmatic presuppositions could not be in order” (83). In resistance he joined the Socialist party, and people began calling him “the red pastor of Safenwil” (83). This kind of move away from liberal theology towards socialism calls into question modern theological/political frameworks.
  7. He saw socialism as evidence that God was at work on the earth.  He gave a lecture on this, and afterwards the epithet “apocalyptic” was first used against him,  as he proclaimed “there are new things to be expected from God” (87).
  8. Like many great theologians, he dealt with depression throughout his life (127).
  9. During the Nazi rise, Barth preached a sermon on the topic “Jesus Christ was a Jew” (as part of the lectionary, of course) and people walked out (234).
  10. Bonhoeffer had retreated to London. Barth wrote to tell him he needed to come back, to stop playing “Elijah under the juniper or Jonah under the gourd.” Bonhoeffer took his advice, and later Barth was tormented by the fact that he had sent Bonhoeffer to his death (233).
  11. A theologian from Moody Bible Institute came and offered Barth “a hundred dollars to write an article on the second coming of Christ. I was reminded of Judas Iscariot and politely, but firmly, declined. Then I pushed him out, but not without being told that the Bible said “feed my lambs,” while I seemed to be behaving as though it said “feed my giraffes” (403).
  12. Barth had a conversation with Billy Graham, of whom he said: “He’s a “jolly good fellow” “with whom one can talk easily and openly; one has the impression that he is even capable of listening, which is not always the case with such trumpeters of the gospel.” But then he went to see Graham preach at St. Jacob stadium, and witnessed his influence on the masses. “I was quite horrified. He acted like a madman and what he presented was certainly not the gospel.” “It was the gospel at gun-point….He preached the law, not a message to make one happy. He wanted to terrify people. Threats – they always make an impression. People would much rather be terrified than be pleased. The more one heats up hell for them, the more they come running.” To Barth, it was illegitimate to make the gospel law or “to ‘push’ it like an article for sale… we must leave the good God freedom to do his own work” (446).
  13. Although he was involved in prison ministry throughout his time in Europe, when he visited American prisons, he found them so terrifying he compared them to Dante’s inferno (460).
  14. He tried to insert into his Dogmatics the opinion (printed in small type) that “a really good horseman cannot possibly be godless” (271).
  15. A man came and told him he “revered Karl Barth for the inner life and Karl Marx for the outward life.” Barth observed “everything will depend on whether he can leave both these Karls behind him and endeavour to move from human to divine wisdom” (252).

Bonus Quotes

  • On personal salvation, in dialogue with Wesley: “I do not deny the experience of salvation…but the experience of salvation is what happened on Golgotha. In contrast to that my own experience is only a vessel” (447).
  • In 1927: “theological liberalism is moribund” (161). This may have been a bit optimistic.
  • Of Bultmann. “When is he really going to get to the point and say something substantial? When will he stop talking so much about the historical and systematic presuppositions of the bible, its context, and so on?” (194).
  • “The proclamation of the church is by nature political in so far as it has to ask the pagan polis to remedy its state of disorder and make justice a reality. This proclamation is good when it presents the specific commandment of God, and not good when it puts forward the abstract truth of a political ideology” (216).
  • He saw “preaching on themes” as an effect of natural theology: ”once the preacher wants his sermon to fill a second function over and above the service of the divine word, and plans it this way, the second function wins the day and the preaching ceases to serve the word” (219-220).
  • Barth characterized fascism as a religion, “with its deep-rooted dogmatic ideas about one thing, national reality, its appeal to foundations which are not foundations at all, and its emergence as sheer power” a religion “from which Christianity could expect ‘only opposition’ (218).
  • “Wherever there is theological talk, it is always implicitly or explicitly political talk” (292)
  • “Of all disciplines theology is the most difficult and the most dangerous, the one in which a man is most likely to end in despair, or – and this is almost worse – in arrogance. Theology can float off into thin air or turn to stone, and worst of all it can become a caricature of itself” (244).
  • Barth criticized the “hyphen linking Christianity and race,” as faith was assimilated into modern categories (208).
  • Barth spoke of creation as the “external basis of the covenant” and the covenant as the “internal basis of creation” (317).
  • Barth described the dangers of faith in “the abstract, transcendent God who is not concerned with real men, abstract eschatological waiting, without significance for the present, and the equally abstract church, only occupied with this transcendent God, and separated from state and society by an abyss” (290).
  • “The gospel is not a dead possession that a man ‘has.’ One should beware of this capitalist understanding of Christianity…!” “No theology can do more than show man the way to the gospel, and only where that happens does its community live” (344).
  • “I am against all fear of communism. A nation which has a good conscience, whose social and democratic life is in order, need have no fear of it. Much less the church, which is sure of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (356).
  • “As far as possible I would like to avoid mentioning God and the devil in the same breath.” “I love angels, but have no taste for demons, not out of any desire for demythologizing but because they are not worth it” (364-365).
  • He warned of “temptation of doing theology by the criterion of an emotional reaction against the reactionaries in theology and the church” although such an approach “gives plenty of opportunity for letting off steam” (372).
  • “Apologetics is an enterprise which is deeply suspicious and alien in all its forms” (387).
  • “I don’t believe in universalism, but I do believe in Jesus Christ, the reconciler of all” (394).
  • On the church – “is it the community which can already recognize the coming king in its hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick, imprisoned brethren?” (400).
  • “The commandment of God runs: You may allow yourself to be loved by me” (415).
  • “Eternal life is not another, second life beyond our present one, but the reverse side of this life, as God sees it, which is hidden from us here and now. It is this life in relationship to what God has done in Jesus Christ for the whole world and thus also for us. So we wait and hope – in respect of our death – to be made manifest with him” (488).
  • On Kierkegaard: “I must regard him as a teacher through whose school every theologian must pass at some time. Woe to anyone who has failed to do that. But he should not remain in it, and he will do better not to return to it” (468).
  • While dealing with Kierkegaard: “Faith is the collapse of every effort of his own capacity and will and the recognition of the absolute necessity of that collapse. When a man sees the other aspect, that when he is lost he is justified…he sees himself from God’s point of view” (172).
  • In no circumstances may “the freedom of the Word of God…be limited through a sovereignty which we already impose on its testimony: it must be allowed its own sovereignty…Of course we all have some kind of ontology or world-view in our heads. And that is not prohibited…But when we read the Bible we are not to think that we are dealing with an ultimate authority which has to put itself at our disposal…what we have to do, rather, is quite simple : we must see that we keep the doors and windows open…so the wind can come in” (466).
  • “Philosophers…have taken note of me..respected me, to the extent that I have given them a practical demonstration that as a theologian I feel no obligation to any of them.” (208).
  • On election “The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel” and “not something neutral beyond Yes and No; it is not No, but Yes; nor is it Yes and No, but Yes in its substance, its origin and scope”“There is no will of God which differs from the will of Jesus Christ.” In Jesus Christ “we have to directly with the election of God himself” Jesus is not only “the God who elects” but “the man who is elected” (301). He argued for a kind of double predestination, where rejection (no) was accomplished on the cross. He stridently opposed any view which held that specific groups were elected or rejected. (278) “In the election of Jesus Christ God has destined election, salvation and life for man, and rejection, damnation and death for himself” so man’s belief in God’s predestination is a matter of “not believing in his rejection” (301).
  • On revelation: “the objective reality of revelation” is Jesus Christ, in whose reality God’s freedom for man becomes an event (279).
  • “The true Christian church is the community of those who have been pardoned in judgment. Its foundation….is not human religious experience but the divine word of revelation directed to man” (150).
  • “As theologians we ought to talk of God. But we are human, and so we cannot talk of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability, and in so doing give God the glory” (140).

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Nathaniel Grimes

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