The marks of human unrighteousness and ungodliness are crossed by the deeper marks of the divine forgiveness.
– Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 95.
Karl Barth was born on this day in 1886. If you are one of the few readers of this blog who aren’t theologically inclined, Barth may be a strange name to you. It is a funny thing, that the most influential theologian since the Reformation is still largely unknown, even within the church.
The story of Barth’s conversion to Christianity, if I can be so unapologetically and atrociously evangelical about it, has been told in many places, far better than I could. Broadly speaking, he was schooled in the finest theology of his day, which was German liberalism. He sat at the feet of scholars like Van Harnack, who had a cultural and political influence that it is hard to imagine any theologian possessing. The generation before him had, it was thought, successfully integrated the Enlightenment with German Protestantism and thus adapted Christianity to the realities of the world. Speaking with a tabloid anachronism that obscures more than it reveals, these boyos had out-flanked any potential new-atheist style attack on Christianity.
How they managed this is interesting, not just as a piece of intellectual history but because the lingering effect of such approaches can be found in all corners of Protestant Christianity, the liberal and conservative sides. In short, they build on the foundations of Schleiermacher who argued that religious experience was a domain beyond the objectively knowable on one hand and the mysterious unknowable on the other.
Barth drank deeply from this well. He was a brilliant scholar but he was gripped by the ability of the Gospel to bring about social change and so he took up parish ministry in the little Swiss town of Safenwil. Then in the summer of 1914 he opened up his newspaper to find that over 90 leading German intellectuals, including all his theological teachers, had signed a public declaration in support of Kaiser Wilheim II’s war policy.
That morning, Barth realised he did not know what he thought he knew. It seems it wasn’t until the summer of 1916 that he came to know what he needed to know. What happened in the interim was that, plunged beyond doubt, into a territory of chaotic uncertainty, he searched for some semblance of meaning in the ruins of the rational palace of the intellect he had inhabited. He found resolution in the most surprising of places: the Bible. It was a “strange new world to him.” Preparing for a sermon series he was due to deliver on Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, Barth had a series of epiphanies that in effect, constituted him as a new man. Since the World War had been declared, he was no longer confident of human reason. Now he was no longer lost in self-referential circles. What he discovered reading and re-reading Romans was that God was God.
God is God.
This sounds like a tautology. It is actually a revolutionary proposition. It was revolutionary in 1916 and it is revolutionary today. God is God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man. Human reason cannot work its way up a ladder to find God. As Barth’s later student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, a God we can prove is an idol.
In other words, for all his genius as a preacher, Schleiermacher was spoofing. A strange warming of your heart is not evidence for God. A code of laws and a functioning society of people who get on well together and happen to sing hymns in a special building on Sunday mornings is not evidence for God.
Barth found language to take God seriously.
In 1918 his commentary on Romans was published. It dropped like a bomb on European theology. I was not brave enough to widely cite it when I sat in seminary classes on Paul’s writing. After all, the study of Paul has moved on magnificently since then. But when I preach on Romans it is my first book, well thumbed and heavily marked. It is dense and cyclical and startling.
God is God. Man is not God. But God is man. The heart of Barth’s theology is that in Jesus, God is revealed. Without Jesus, God is hidden. With Jesus, God is revealed as being for humanity. God gives the gift of himself to us. And in becoming man, Jesus brings all humanity into the life of God.
If you aren’t a Christian that might seem dense and meaningless. Arguably that is because we still live in a world ruled by the thought processes of Van Harnack. If you are a Christian it might seem obvious. Arguably that is because Barth has left his impact on every significant Christian theologian of the last century. If you are a theologian that might seem deficient and dreadfully shallow as a summation of Barth. Arguably that is because I am writing this off the top of my head while distracting myself from exam study!
After the Romans commentary, Barth was called into the university. He worked in Bonn and Gottingen and then back in his hometown of Basel. His major work is the Dogmatics. There is no way to over-state the importance of this work. Barth’s refusal to separate doctrine from ethics has simply redefined what theology is. His insistence that the revelation of God in Jesus through the Spirit is the subject matter of Christianity rebooted us out of the dead-end we had worked ourselves into. Barth leaves us with very little to say that is simple. But we had made a dreadful mistake when we imagined that Christianity was just the logical conclusion that a good man, well informed would arrive at.
Barth was one of the first to identify the demonic nature of the NAZI movement. He pretty much single-handedly wrote the Barmen Declaration, which continues to be of importance as Christians try to figure out how to relate to power. He was an invited guest at the Second Vatican Council and an influence on many of the key theologians who helped draft those documents. In the post war world he was a constant critic of nuclear armament, of Cold War disputes and a regular visitor to the local prison where he would preach on Sunday mornings and then hang out with the prisoners smoking cigars he brought with him. As the years go by, it is this angle of Barth that I appreciate the most – his theology is joyous and expansive and inclusive – and he said that this was because his theology was a theology of prayer.
So on Barth’s birthday, let us end with a prayer from Barth:
Dear Father in heaven, we thank you for the eternal, living, saving Word that in Jesus you have spoken and continue to speak to us human beings. Do not allow us to hear it only in a cursory fashion and to be too lazy to obey it. Do not let us fall, but remain near each one of us with your comfort, and between each one of us with your comfort, and between each of us and our fellow human beings with your peace.
Let dawn continue to break a little in our hearts, in this institution, at home with those who are dear to us, in this city, in our nation, and throughout the whole earth.
You know the errors and misdeeds that make our current situation once again so dark and dangerous on all sides. Let a fresh wind blow through it, that might at least scatter the thickest fog from the heads of those who rule this world, but also from the heads of the peoples who permit themselves to be ruled, and above all from the heads of those who make public opinion.
And have mercy on all of those who are sick in body and in spirit, the many for whom life is suffering, those who are lost and confused through their own or other’s fault, those who have no human friends or helpers. Show our youth also what true freedom and genuine joy are, and do not leave the old and the dying without the hope of the resurrection and eternal life.
But you are the first, who are concerned about our sorrows, and you are the only one who can turn them to good. We thus can and want only to lift our eyes up toward you. Our help comes from you, who made heaven and earth.
Your Correspondent, Just rubbed his armpits with air fresheners; new car.