Karl Barth (1886-1968) was considered by Pope Pius XII to be “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” He remains one of the most influential and controversial figures in modern theology.
The Strange New World of the Bible
Barth was raised in a pastor’s home in Switzerland, but moved to Berlin where he was immersed in the study of liberal theology with Adolf von Harnack. His affair with liberal theologians ended at the outbreak of the Great War, when Barth was disillusioned by their support for Kaiser Wilhelm’s foreign policy. He later explained
An entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, which up to that point I had accepted as basically credible, was thereby shaken to the foundations, and with it everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians.
Barth turned to the “strange new world of the Bible,” reading it as for the first time, and soon published a commentary on Romans. He discovered the writings of the Reformed tradition and lectured and pastored for several years before beginning to write his own theological works. In 1935, he returned to Switzerland to teach after being forced to leave Germany for taking a stand with the Confessing Church against the Nazis.
Barth had already begun work on his magnus opus, the Church Dogmatics. Over the course of 35 years, he wrote several volumes totaling 6 million words (over 9,000 pages). Barth is notoriously difficult to read, but when asked to summarize his theology, simply replied, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” For Barth, all dogmatics is Christological. He “aims at being not only Christ-centred but also Christ-bounded—Jesus being the grounds for and the boundary of theology’s possibility.” Jesus as the Word and revelation of God is Barth’s “all in all.”
Theological and Moral Problems
While Barth called the church back to the gospel of Jesus, he focused on the revelation of God given in Christ (the Word incarnate) at the expense of the revelation of God given in the Bible (the Word inscripturated).
Barth believed that the Bible attests to the revelation given in Jesus, but that it is not revelation properly-so-called. Only Jesus, not the Bible, is inerrant. Barth became the leading figure in neo-orthodoxy, a theological movement which emphasized subjective experience while denying the objective, propositional nature of the Bible. Mark Bird explains, “Believing that revelation is non-propositional makes truth subjective. We could never know what was absolutely true.”
Barth’s theological problems are compounded by his gross moral failures, which he tried to justify with his theological method.
While Barth ultimately denied inerrancy, his serious exegesis and belief in the supremacy of Scripture result in writings that are true and helpful at innumerable points, despite the consequences one would expect. His insights are too brilliant to be relegated to the trash bin of history. This raises the question, “What is a discerning Evangelical to do with Karl Barth?” to which D. A. Carson responds, “It would be nice if every movement that came along was right from the throne room of God or right from the pit so you could bless it or damn it and get on with life, but that is just not the way life is.”
Since life is not so simple, we must assume a careful but listening posture. Barth deserves a hearing, if only because he is a giant who is too tall to look over. He has been described as a “bomb on the playground of theologians,” and ignoring the blast will not lessen the blow.