Feast of Karl and Markus Barth (December 10)   23 comments


Above:  A German Stamp Bearing the Image of Karl Barth

Image in the Public Domain


KARL BARTH (MAY 10, 1886-DECEMBER 10, 1968)

Swiss Reformed Minister, Theologian, and Biblical Scholar

father of


Swiss Lutheran Minister and Biblical Scholar


Karl Barth (whose feast day in The Episcopal Church has been December 10) was arguably the most important Christian theologian of the twentieth century.  Pope Pius XII (reigned 1939-1968) considered him to be the most consequential Christian theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Markus Barth, a Biblical scholar like his father, was a prominent scholar of the Pauline epistles.

Karl Barth was Swiss.  He, a son of Fritz Barth, a Swiss Reformed minister and professor of theology, entered the world at Basel on May 10, 1886.  Our saint’s mother was Anna Katharina Sartorius.  Our saint studied at Bern, Berlin, Tubingen, and Marburg, was steeped in Liberal theology, such as that of Adolf Harnack.  That post-Enlightenment theology was anthropocentric (emphasizing the human experience of God) and optimistic regarding human nature.  (World War I called that anthropocentric optimism into question.)

Towards the end of Liberalism’s heyday came the contribution of the doyen of NT Liberal scholars, equally famous but more enduring in influence.  These were the lectures on Christianity, delivered by Adolf Harnack without manuscript or notes, to some six hundred students from all the faculties in the University of Berlin at the turn of the century, at the height of his own powers and at the self-consciously high point of European and German culture.  In these lectures Harnack deliberately turned his back on the Christ of dogma.  Christianity indeed must be rescued from its dependence on metaphysics and philosophy.  What was needed now was a rediscovery of the simplicity and freedom of the gospel which Jesus himself had preached.  Here for Harnack was “the essence of Christianity”–the “historical Jesus” encountered through the Gospels in his own religion and message.  And what was that essence?  Harnack summed up Jesus’ gospel as centering on the fatherhood of God, the infinite value of the human soul, and the importance of love, regularly popularized thereafter as “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”  These were Jesus’ enduring insights, what was of permanent value when abstracted from the merely transitory.  According to Harnack, “true faith in Jesus is not a matter of creedal orthodoxy but of doing as he did.”

…In this case, the most important hermeneutical principle at work was in effect the conviction that Jesus, the “historical Jesus,” the Jesus stripped of dogmatic accretion, would/must have something to say to modern man, and the consequential desire to provide a mouthpiece for the restatement of that message.

And the result?  A Jesus portrayed and understood as a teacher of timeless morality, Jesus as a good example, Jesus as more the first Christian than the Christ–a flight from the Christ of dogma indeed!  At the same time, we should not decry the Liberal focus on the moral outcome of religion as the test of its character; such concerns had brought the slave trade to an end and achieved political, social and industrial reforms, although the Liberal tendency to understand morality solely in terms of personal and individual responsibility was the stronger influence, and the laissez-faire economics and imperialist hubris of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to have been little affected.  Moreover, the reassertion of the importance of feeling in religion, of faith as a deeply rooted passion, was surely an important correction to a Protestantism still inclined to be too word-focused and still overly dependant on the Enlightenment paradigm of science and reason.  Not least Liberal scholarship deserves credit for its concern to speak meaningfully to its own age.  Here too the motivating force in life of Jesus scholarship was not unfaith but desire to speak in the idioms of the time, desire to be heard.  The trouble was, we may say, it allowed the spirit of the age to dictate not simply the language but also the agenda.

–James D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, Jesus Remembered (2003), pages 37-39

Barth, ordained a Swiss Reformed minister in 1909, served at Geneva (1909-1911) then Safenwill (1911-1911) before teaching at the University of Gottingen (1921-1925).  Then he became Professor of Dogmatics and New Testament at the University of Munster (1925-1930) and Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Bonn (1930-1935).  In 1913 our saint married Nelly Hoffmann (1893-1976).  The couple’s children included Markus (1915-1994) and Christoph (1917-1986).

Barth changed his theological mind more than once.  One break with his training occurred in August 1914, when, much to his dismay, he learned that 93 German intellectuals (including all of his seminary professors) had signed a manifesto endorsing imperial German war efforts.  The church was too close to the state, our saint concluded.  Barth’s break with his training deepened in 1919, with the publication of the first edition of his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.  The Neo-Orthodox phase of Barth’s theology had begun.  Eventually he changed his mind again, becoming, in the estimation of Professor Phillip Cary, in his Great Courses series The History of Christian Theology, simply orthodox, in line with St. Augustine of Hippo and other giants of Christian theology.

Barth’s discomfort with the church being too close to the state deepened in 1933, after Adolf Hitler rose to power.  Hitler sought (quite successfully, overall) to co-opt German churches.  The Confessing Church, of which our saint was a founder, formed in opposition to this effort.  As the first of the Duseldorf Theses (1933) stated,

The holy Christian church, whose only head is Christ, is born from the word of God; in this it abides, and it does not harken to any alien voice.

–Quoted in Linwood Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought, Revised and Expanded Edition (1995), page 346

Barth was among the authors of the Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934), which condemned Nazi ideology.  The following year he had to leave Germany because he refused to pledge allegiance to Hitler.

From 1935 to his retirement in 1962 Barth was Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Basel in Switzerland.  He completed his 13-volume Church Dogmatics (more than 9300 pages long), which he began at Bonn.  Our saint also delivered the main address at the World Council of Churches (1948).  During the 1950s Barth spoke out against the nuclear arms race and for Christians living behind the Iron Curtain.  Our saint followed his conscience, regardless of what was politically popular and acceptable.

Barth, aged 75 years, visited the United States in 1962, with the encouragement of his son Markus, then a professor at The University of Chicago.  For seven weeks the great theologian toured, speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary, The University of Chicago, Union Theological Seminary (New York City), and San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Barth met the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and considered the encounter to have been too brief.

Barth died at home in Basel on December 10, 1968.  He was 82 years old.

Barth’s theology was optimistic and rooted not in human experience but in the love and sovereignty of God.  His theology was Christocentric, about divine purposes, not anything human.  The Trinity, Barth insisted, is the basis of divine revelation; God the Father is the speaker, God the Son is the spoken word, and God the Spirit is the response in the hearts of people.  All of the above are inseparable and essential parts of the act of divine revelation, Barth wrote.  Furthermore, the theologian insisted, God speaks uniquely via Christianity and God reveals the Word of God (Jesus) via the word of God (the Bible).

Barth wrote about dialectical theology.  God says both “yes” and “no,” the theologian taught.  Furthermore, Barth insisted, the divine “no” always serves the divine “yes.”  He wrote that faith is an “impossible possibility;” that is, we cannot reach God yet God can reach us.  Divine revelation, not human perception of God, is the proper basis of faith, the great theologian wrote.  Divine revelation, Barth taught, is a shattering event; the institutional church is the crater the event created.  Furthermore, our saint wrote, there is no need to turn to human experience, nature, consciousness, or existence to hear or relate to God, for God can, metaphorically, give us ears to hear.

Barth redefined the Augustinian and Calvinist doctrine of election, thereby incurring the criticism of many staunch Calvinists.  According to our saint, God chose incarnation.  Furthermore, according to Barth, election is not a hidden decree; it is really about Jesus, is good news, is the basis of the Gospel, and precedes creation.  Our saint explained that the question is the election of Christ, not people.  He taught that Jesus Christ is the covenant in one person and that the covenant is the purpose of creation.  The great theologian insisted that, in Christ, God is for, not against, humans.

Barth also redefined Double Predestination.  It applies only to Christ, he wrote; God the Father has predestined Christ to death on the cross (God’s “no”) and resurrection (God’s “yes”).  Therefore, according to Barth, election always serves blessing, not condemnation.  Barth also taught that God has predestined certain people to Heaven, for the benefit of those not so predestined.  Grace, the great theologian insisted, was crucial.

Some critics of Barth’s theology have detected universal salvation in it.  Barth did not state that explicitly, but he did not think that God saving everyone would be terrible.

Barth, aware that many people identified themselves as Barthians, stated that nobody should think of himself or herself as a Barthian.  People should be and think of themselves as Christians, the theologian insisted.

Two of the sons of Karl Barth became scholars of the Bible.  Christoph Barth (1917-1986) was a scholar of the Old Testament.  He taught in Indonesia then at Mainz, Germany.  At Mainz he organized his lectures on the Old Testament into publishable form and published them in the Indonesian language; the first volume debuted in 1970.  Christoph’s widow, Marie-Claire, also a teacher of theology, supervised the condensation of the four volumes of the Indonesian text in English translation as God With Us:  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (1991).

Markus Barth, born at Safenwill, Switzerland, on October 6, 1915, was a Pauline scholar and a Lutheran minister.  In 1940 he married Rose Marie Oswald (1913-1993); the couple had five children.  Markus studied theology at Bern, Basel, Berlin, and Edinburgh before receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen in 1947.  From 1947 to 1953 he served a church at Bubendorf, near Basel.  For 19 years (1953-1972) Markus taught New Testament at, in order:

  1. The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa;
  2. The University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; and
  3. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Then, from 1973 to 1985, he taught New Testament at the University of Basel, in Switzerland.

Markus wrote about baptism, Holy Communion, the Pauline Epistles, Jewish-Christian dialogue, justification, and the resurrection of Jesus.  His books included the volumes on Galatians and Ephesians for The Anchor Bible series and a posthumously published commentary on the Epistle to Philemon.

Markus died at Basel on July 1, 1994.  He was 78 years old.

The legacies of the Barths glorify God.






O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.

We thank you for the faithful legacy of [Karl Barth, Markus Barth, and all others]

who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.

May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Psalm 103

Philippians 4:8-9

Mark 12:28-34






23 responses to “Feast of Karl and Markus Barth (December 10)

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