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May 10 Karl Barth, influential Protestant Theologian


Karl Barth the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century was born on May 10th 1886. A leader of the 'Confessing Church' which resisted Hitler and Nazi's in Germany. He attempted to realign protestant theology after becoming disillusioned with what he considered a 'liberal drift' that had emptied Christianity of its historical gravity and moral force and left it exposed to cultural shifts such as what had begun to happen in Germany with it extreme nationalist ideology.

After the War he became more influential across international and denominational lines and was invited as an observer the the Second Vatican Council




His life’s work and thought can be best considered in his monumental four volume 'Church Dogmatics', which runs to over six million words and 9,000 pages and is one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written. Through it he attempted to realign Protestant theology by stressing the “wholly otherness of God”. He is credited in recovering the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity and also in appropriating the Christology of the ancient church into mainstream Protestant thinking. He was also one of the leaders of the Christian Intellectual opposition to the Nazi’s in Germany, responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration which clearly and bravely rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity.


He was concerned by what he saw as the dominance of 19th-century liberal theology, and in particular its tendency towards anthropocentrism, that is reducing the faith to human categories and experience. He realised that nineteenth century theology had failed to make significant inroads into the twentieth century due to the traumatic experience of the first World War. This growing disillusionment was confirmed when the "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World" was signed by his teacher Adolf Von Harnack. The manifesto was a nationalistic response to the negative image of Germany being portrayed in the press by other countries and articulated moral indignation, laying charges against those who had wronged the German nation. Barth concluded he could not follow their understanding of the Bible and history any longer and re-examined his own theological principles. He became more critical of liberal theology and how he felt it had lost its purpose and particularly become hijacked by historical methodology.


One example would be the supposed Quest for the Historical Jesus which he perceived was often motivated more by a desire to produce an alternate Christology than a true historical search. This would be taken to its logical conclusion in Rudolf Bultmanns book New Testament and Mythology, where he argued that it was no longer plausible to demand that Christians accept the "mythical world picture" of the New Testament. Bultmann suggested that the Bible should be demythologised and that Jesus’ humanity be emphasised as a great moral teacher rather than a miracle worker. A leading sociologist of religion, Linda Woodhead, describes this shift of Protestant liberalism as its response to the challenges of modernity, particularly the advances and discoveries that were being made in the Enlightenment .


Barth’s disillusionment with the liberal Theology in which he had been trained led him to write a book in 1919 called The Epistle to the Romans in which he resolved to read the New Testament differently. In the second edition, Barth argued that the God who is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions. The book's popularity led to its republication and reprinting in several languages. 12 years later, Barth’s thesis was put to the test, as the Protestant Church in Germany attempted to come to terms with the Third Reich. The dominant German Evangelical Church had embraced many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology and sought the creation of a national "Reich Church" and supported a "nazified" version of Christianity called the "German Christians". Barth opposed this, and was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration which rejected the influence of Nazism on German Christianity by arguing that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as the German Führer, Adolf Hitler. Barth mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church and Barth was elected a member of its leadership council, the Bruderrat. Barth urged his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer to return to Germany (see pod of Apr 8 ) But when he himself, refused to swear an oath to Hitler he had to return to his native Switzerland, where he assumed a chair in systematic theology at the University of Basel. After the end of the Second World War, Barth became an important voice in support both of German penitence and of reconciliation with churches abroad.


As his international influence grew, he was invited to be a guest at the Second Vatican Council. At the time Barth's health did not permit him to attend. However, he was able to visit the Vatican and be a guest of the pope in 1967, after which he wrote the small volume Ad Limina Apostolorum (At the Threshold of the Apostles). Barth's intellect reached beyond the limits that usually restricted Protestant theologians, breaking new ground. For instance he wrote on the topic of Mariology (the theological study of Mary). Barth's views on the subject agreed with much Roman Catholic dogma but he disagreed with the Catholic veneration of Mary. Barth was also featured on the cover of Time magazine, an indication that his influence had reached out of academic and ecclesiastical circles and into mainstream American religious culture.


His five-volume Church Dogmatics is his great theological legacy reorienting all theological discussion around the figure of Jesus. The original 'white whale' edition, spreads out into 18 hardback copies and is called so because of the custom binding from the publisher. Dealing with the Doctrine of the Word of God, the Doctrine of God, the Doctrine of Creation, the Doctrine of Reconciliation and the Doctrine of Redemption and is one of the longest works of systematic theology ever written. Some have compared it to Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Church Dogmatics was co-authored with his assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Theirs was an unusually intense relationship, she was working full-time for Barth as a secretary and assistant preparing his lectures. In October 1929 she moved into the Barth household with Barth's wife Nelly and children to continue academic theological work, where she remained for nearly forty years. Her presence in the Barth household resulted in duress in the family at times, and lead to speculation of a loving (platonic) relationship that was confirmed by the release of many personal letters between Barth and Kirschbaum in 2017. However, after Barth died in 1968, Nelly Barth continued to visit Charlotte in the hospital