I thought it would be a good exercise to write down everything (well not everything, but some prominent things) I know about Karl Barth off the top. Here we go.
Karl Barth was a Swiss pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland. He was trained by some of the great ‘liberal’ theologians of the early twentieth century; including William Hermann, et al. After receiving his formal education in Germany he went back to his little parish in Safenwil and began pastoring his congregation during the years of World War I. At this time his Democratic Socialism was kicked into full gear as he advocated for the rights of the blue-collar workers in his area. As World War I progressed his sermons seemed to be lacking in the ability to meet the needs of his people. He began to realize that the “gospel” he was preaching was not powerful and life-changing like he thought it should be. He began to realize that his sermons were not grounded in the world of the Bible, but instead they were grounded in the pietistic teachings he had heard from his various ‘liberal’ professors. This prompted him to begin to look into the Bible for himself; he began to read it for himself, and like Martin Luther years before, Barth was confronted with what he called “the strange new world of the Bible.” He was particularly struck by the epistle of Romans.
As Barth became ensconced within the world of the Bible, particularly in the epistle to the Romans, he decided to write a commentary on this epistle. At its completion, in the 1920s (1921 I believe) as I recall, at its publication and reception Barth was thrust back into the academic world of Germany in blitzkrieg speed. His commentary dropped bombs, as it were, on the liberal theology in such a way that Barth quickly became someone to be reckoned with. It wasn’t just a reckoning that was required, but the publication of der Romerbrief demonstrated that theological genius of Barth in such a way that he was given due respect; even if the theologians and theology he critiqued within his Romerbrief hit close to home for the German guild.
At this point Barth left his parish in Safenwil and headed for Berlin where he took a post as a faculty member in theology. During these early years of his burgeoning theological career he also spent time in Göttingen; here he began his quest into the world of Reformed theology with the help of Heppe. Barth taught many courses here in quick succession; i.e. on the theology of Schleiermacher (who became a kind of theological foil and even nemesis of Barth’s), the theology of Calvin, and even on the epistle of Philippians (he also wrote a commentary on this later). It was also at this time that Barth had his Göttingen Dogmatics published; which were essentially his lectures on theology that he gave at Göttingen for his divinity students. Later on people would look at these Dogmatics and see a more traditional Barth who had to yet make his Christological turn (which we see in his maturing and mature theology in the Church Dogmatics).
Eventually Barth left Göttingen and made his way back to Berlin. World War II started, Hitler became the Kaiser, and the world became embroiled in a demonic swirl of warfare and holocaust; Barth was right in the middle of this. He was against Hitler and the Reich, and unabashedly forthright with his disdain. His belligerence towards the Reich had him officially kicked out of Germany (Berlin), and as I recall by the direct orders of Hitler himself. Once he returned to Switzerland he ended up at the University of Basel, where he would hold his chair in theology for the rest of his career. He was back in Switzerland, but still fully engaged with the WW2 and its fallout. As part of his efforts he along with the Confessing church in Germany, with particular connection with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, penned the Barmen Declaration. This was a declaration, a confession even, that declared that the confessing church in Germany was bound to its one and only Kaiser, Jesus Christ. At the heart of the Barmen Declaration was an anti-natural theology which later would become front in center in Barth’s Church Dogmatics and theology of the Word. Barth persisted in his efforts from a distance, preaching and articulating a theology that would undercut any theology, particularly the Reich’s theology in that instance, which would presume to speak for God, as if God could not speak for himself.
As the War ended, Barth continued in his efforts, teaching students at the University of Basel, and engaged in voracious writing. Barth started to write what would be his magnum opus, at first entitled Christian Dogmatics; but he believed ‘Christian’ was too ambitious of a title and changed it to the Church Dogmatics. The CD, by time Barth was done, was made up of six million words, and encompassed the length of his career; he never was able to finish a volume five. In the CD Barth grounded his prolegomena in his theology of the Word and in his analogy of faith/relation against the more prominent (among orthodox theologians) analogia entis/being. He engaged deeply with writers such as Calvin, Polanus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Augustine, Schleiermacher, Hermann, Von Harnack, Luther, and the whole tradition of the Christian church. As George Hunsinger has noted, Barth followed a Chalcedonian pattern in his theologizing, appealing to the ancient categories, but often reifying them and rearticulating them in a way that he believed was most faithful to the categories of Holy Scripture.
As Barth wrote further into his CD he took Calvin’s double predestination and recasted it in such a way that Jesus Christ now became both the elect and reprobate for all of humanity in his vicarious humanity. This recasting was a reformulation, and what Barth believed a correction of the whole Augustinian tradition; particularly when it came to this doctrine. In fact, Barth saw election (in light of the way he recasted it in Christ) as the ‘sum of the Gospel;’ he believed it was all words the best that could be heard, because it was all about Jesus. Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation took election away from thinking in terms of decrees, and instead personalized and actualized it by grounding it in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Barth first saw election grounded in a doctrine of God, rather than in a doctrine of salvation. He understood Jesus to be the electing God and the elected human; this had and has radical ramifications, to the point that certain prominent Barth scholars of today battle about whether the election of God is the primal basis of God’s Triune being, or if instead election was a subsequent reality of God’s Triune being to freely be Immanuel. This is an ongoing debate, particularly in English speaking, and more pointedly, North American Barth studies sectors. Barth wrote much more in his CD, on theo-anthropology, covenant/creation, reconciliation, so on and so forth. One prominent thing that framed Barth’s theologizing was something he took over from Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck; the idea that Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’). He believed that no theologizing could truly be done until we first go to hear from the God (it cannot happen prior to God’s Self-revelation; which goes back to his prolegomena).
Backtracking a bit, Barth could be said to have started out as a theologian of crisis, becoming a theologian of analogy, and then turning into a theologian of dialectic. There is debate about this timeline, and whether or not Barth made some of these turns or not. Bruce McCormack of Princeton wrote his PhD dissertation largely challenging Hans Urs von Balthasar’s thesis that Barth remained a theologian of analogy. But this is all the stuff of academics.
Before I finish, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite books by Barth; he wrote a book called The Theology of the Reformed Confessions. In it he distinguishes the Reformed approach to Scripture from the Lutheran. In that distinction he affirms his allegiance to the Reformed scripture principle, and thus shows the kind of elevated view that Barth had for Scripture; it was here where his Protestant chops really were on display. It was also here where his Protestant theory of authority was on display, with particular reference to his theology of the Word; which of course he sees grounded in Jesus Christ as the eternal Word. In this volume Barth self-identifies as a Reformed theologian, but as one who works within the spirit of the Reformed faith rather than in the letter of the Reformed faith. He sees those who follow the ‘letter’ as those who simply want to repristinate the Reformed faith from their perception of the so called post-Reformed orthodox theologians rather than ‘always reforming’ the Reformed faith under the pressure of God’s life in Christ attested to in Holy Scripture; which he sees as operating in the ‘spirit’ of the Reformed faith.
There is more to be said (but this post is too long for a blog post as it is), and I think I could say more. I’m not totally sure I have all of the details of Barth’s biography right, but I’m pretty close if not. Barth was a virtuoso theologian who I thank God for everyday.