Tuesday, 11 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (12): 11 December, Karl Barth

Karl Barth (1886-1968) … “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way”

Patrick Comerford

I mentioned yesterday [10 December 2012] the interesting coincidence that two of the great Christian writers and thinkers of the 20th century, Thomas Merton and Karl Barth, died on the very same day, 10 December 1968. They are both commemorated on the same day in the Calendar of Saints in the Episcopal Church in the US.

Saint Damasus I, who was the Bishop of Rome or Pope from 366 to 384, is commemorated in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and by some Anglicans on this day, 11 December. The son of a priest, his life coincided with the rise of Constantine I as Emperor and the reunion and re-division of the Western and Eastern Empires, and he is associated with the legitimisation of Christianity, with his Papacy coinciding with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire in the year 380. His personal secretary was Jerome, who translated the Bible into the Vulgate Latin.

However, I thought it would be a useful Advent exercise today to return to yesterday’s commemoration in the calendar of the Episcopal Church in the US and to the life of Karl Barth (1886-1968), who was, perhaps, the most influential theologian of the 20th century, and Pope Pius XII described him the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.

Although many think of Karl Barth a German theologian, he was born in Basel in Switzerland on 10 May 1886, the son of a pastor and professor of theology, and spent his childhood in Bern.

Barth studied at several prestigious universities including Tübingen. After completing his studies, he served as a Swiss Reformed Church pastor in Geneva and Safenwil in Switzerland.

The events of World War I brought Barth to critically question the dominant theology of the day, which, in his view, held a too easy peace between theology and culture. In his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919 and then thoroughly rewritten in 1922, Barth reasserted doctrines such as God’s sovereignty and human sin, central ideas which he believed were excluded and overshadowed in the theological discourse of the day.

It was said this His ground-breaking commentary on Romans “fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” By then, he was Professor of Theology in Göttingen (1921-1925), and from there he moved to Münster (1925-1930) and Bonn (1930-1935).

With Hitler’s rise to power, Barth joined the Confessing Church and was primarily responsible for writing the Barmen Declaration (1934). In it, Barth claimed that the Church’s allegiance to God in Christ gave it the moral imperative to challenge the rule and violence of Hitler.

As a consequence, Barth was forced to resign his professorship in Bonn when he refused to swear an oath to Hitler. Barth then returned to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. In the course of his appointment he was required to answer a routine question asked of all Swiss civil servants: whether he supported the national defense. His response was firm: “Yes, especially on the northern border!”

Meanwhile, Barth had published the first volume of his 13-volume opus, the Church Dogmatics, in 1932. Barth continued to work on the Dogmatics until his death in 1968. An exhaustive account of his theological themes and a daring reassessment of the entire Christian theological tradition, the Dogmatics gave new thought to some of the central themes first articulated in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

In the Church Dogmatics, Barth address four major doctrines: Revelation, God, Creation, and Atonement or Reconciliation. In the first volume, “The Doctrine of the Word of God,” Barth laid out many of the theological notions which would comprise the heart of the entire work, including his understanding of God’s Word as the definitive source of revelation, the Incarnation as the bridge between God’s revelation and human sin, and the election of the creation as God’s great end.

He was invited to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council. He featured on the cover of Time magazine on 20 April 1962. He died in Basel on 10 December 1968.

Barth in his own words:

Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.

The best theology would need no advocates: it would prove itself.

Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.

There is a notion that complete impartiality is the most fitting and indeed the normal disposition for true exegesis, because it guarantees complete absence of prejudice. For a short time, around 1910, this idea threatened to achieve almost a canonical status in Protestant theology. But now, we can quite calmly describe it as merely comical.

The center is not something which is under our control, but something that controls us.

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

In the Resurrection the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh, but touches it as a tangent touches a circle, that is, without touching it.

It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.

I haven’t even read everything I wrote
(a possibly apocryphal response to a student who claimed to have read everything Barth had written).


Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.


Jeremiah 30: 23 to 31: 6;
Psalm 76: 7-12;
Romans 7:14-25;
John 8: 34-36.

Tomorrow (12 December): Saint Finnian of Clonard

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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