Karl Barth on Billy Graham and Evangelism

I have taken the following quote from Kait Dugan’s blog, and a post that she has written, inclusive of this paragraph from Eberhard Busch (a student and research assistant to Karl Barth). In the quote, Busch is reflecting upon Karl Barth’s thoughts on famed evangelist Billy Graham; the quote notes Barth’s impression of Graham from his personal meetings with him, and then from personally hearing Graham preach at a “crusade.” I’ll let you read the quote, then comment on the other side:

“The same frontier was evident in a conversation Barth had with Billy Graham, in August 1960. His son Markus brought them together in Valais. However, this meeting was also a friendly one. ‘He’s a “jolly good fellow”, with whom one can talk easily and openly; one has the impression that he is even capable of listening which is not always the case with such trumpeters of the gospel.’ Two weeks later Barth has the same good impression after a second meeting with Graham, this time at home in Basle. But, ‘it was very different when we went to hear him let loose in the St Jacob stadium that same evening and witnessed his influence on the masses.’ ‘I was quite horrified. He acted like a madman and what he presented was certainly not the gospel.’ ‘It was the gospel at gun-point . . . He preached the law, not a message to make one happy. He wanted to terrify people. Threats – they always make an impression. People would much rather be terrified than pleased. The more one heats up hell for them, the more they come running.’ But even this success did not justify such preaching. It was illegitimate to make the gospel law or ‘to “push” it like an article for sale . . . We must leave the good God freedom to do his own work’.” (ht: Kait Dugan)

– Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, 446.

Pretty critical, eh? Barth raises an intriguing point, though; especially for us American Evangelical types. I grew up in the house of an evangelist (pastor, my dad), and I myself, am quite an evangelist. The question that Barth raises is an old one, how do Law and Gospel relate? Luther and Calvin have their famous, and disparate approaches to answering that question; as does T.F. Torrance and Karl Barth.

Really, what is underneath Barth’s critique is his belief that grace precedes law, and maybe even eviscerates law. That grace grounds everything (nature), and so this should have impact upon the way we preach and proclaim the Gospel. Shouldn’t we proclaim the Gospel that starts with God’s love, in a way that God’s no, always comes in his yes for us (for the whole world!) in Christ?

This critique of Graham, I would imagine, will strike most of us kind of harsh. But I think it at least illustrates the import of how we think of the Gospel, and what it is, and what it does.

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9 Responses to Karl Barth on Billy Graham and Evangelism

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Really, what is underneath Barth’s critique is his belief that grace precedes law, and maybe even eviscerates law. That grace grounds everything (nature), and so this should have impact upon the way we preach and proclaim the Gospel.

    Barth would be horrified at the idea that grace eviscerates law. Grace grounds the law, as well as nature. Barth did not put grace and law in opposition. The point of his reversal (grace precedes law) is in order to eviscerate natural theology, not to eviscerate law. If law can be defined apart from grace, then it can be defined apart from God, apart from Christ — that was Barth’s concern.


  2. Kevin Davis says:

    As for Graham, folks may be interested in this post I did several years ago (man, I’ve been blogging for a long time!):



  3. Bobby Grow says:


    Yeah, I agree; my point on eviscerating Law was overstated. I did not mean to take Law away from Barth, but simply to emphasize the priority of grace over nature as what gives nature its place.

    Thanks for the correction.


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Or even Law its place.


  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Yeah, you and me both … on blogging. If I had my original blog the archives would go back to 2005 ;-). We are the die hards!


  6. Kevin Davis says:

    Yeah, I thought you might have just been overstating — but it’s the job of a Presbyterian to watch out for these things!


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Thank you my Pressie, brother. Good to hear from you. Are you ordained yet?


  8. Kevin Davis says:

    I’m a little past halfway in my M.Div. program, so not ordained yet.


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