Karl Barth is one of those figures in history who come up again and again in my studies of theology. I have several posts on my blog exploring his views on select topics, but I thought readers unfamiliar with him would appreciate a quick bio and recommendation on how to study Barth.

Karl Barth, who lived from 1886-1968, was perhaps the most influential theologian of the 20th century. Church Dogmatics, Barth’s monumental life-work that consists of more than 6 million words, was written over the span of 35 years. In it, Barth covers in depth the great doctrines of the Word of God, God, Creation and Reconciliation. He made it his task “to take all that has been said before and to think it through once more and freshly to articulate it anew as a theology of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

From Time Magazine’s April 20, 1962 cover story we learn a bit more about Barth’s influence and the controversy he generated.

In the 20th century, no man has been a stronger witness to the continuing significance of Christ’s death and Christ’s return than the world’s ranking Protestant theologian, Swiss-born Karl Barth (rhymes with heart). Barth knows that the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are not coherent, but he refuses to make the mystery more palatable to human reason by suggesting—as did the great 19th century Theologian D. F. Strauss in his Life of Jesus—that the story of the crucifixion is a “myth.” Instead, Barth argues that the subject of this unique event is God, not man; and only God can know the full truth of his own history. Man’s only road to understanding of this divine history is through faith—faith in the reality and truth of what the Evangelists so incoherently describe…

Barth has been variously damned as a heretic, a narrow-minded Biblicist, and an atheist in disguise—and praised as the most creative Protestant theologian since John Calvin…

Harvard’s German-born Paul Tillich… calls him, “the most monumental appearance in our period.”…

Reinhold Niebuhr regards Barth as a “man of infinite imagination and irresponsibility”…

Dr. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary speaks for a host of U.S. fundamentalists in charging that “Barthianism is even more hostile to the theology of Luther and Calvin than Romanism.”…

His treatment of Christian dogma has soared across denominational boundaries, affecting the thought of Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians as well as his own Reformed Church. Preachers read him, and his thought probably affects a good share of the sermons spoken in U.S. churches any given Sunday, but laymen hardly know his name.

Why Study Barth?

If you have an interest in theology, you should own Barth. Barth’s dogmatic theology is loaded with engaging and provocative ideas, which will challenge you for years to come. Two characteristics that define Barth’s theology are his emphasis on the person of Christ (Barth “works from Christ outward”) and his insistence that ethics and theology cannot be separated. Barth taught that “theology is ethics,” since knowing God entails doing his will.

Barth’s theology was shaped by his experience of living and teaching in Germany during the rise of Nazism. By 1934, Barth had become a leader in the Confessing Church movement, which stood in courageous opposition to Nazism at a time when the German Protestant church had largely endorsed National Socialism. This stand cost him his professorship at Bonn University and he was forced to flee the country in 1935.

Barth has been called neo-orthodox, evangelical, and Reformed. Indeed, his views developed remarkably over his lifetime as he moved from a liberal position to one of dialectical theology (theology founded on paradoxes or tensions). Later in life, Barth abandoned the views of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, and the liberal tradition. He argued that God was not made in man’s image but is instead “Wholly Other.”

Barth is probably best described as “ecumenical” since his work is read by Protestants and Roman Catholics, mainstream and evangelicals. Indeed, Barth was described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas, and his work continues to be a major influence on students, scholars and preachers today.

How Should I Study Barth?

My suggestion–get an electronic copy of Barth’s Church Dogmatics from Logos. The price is competitive with any paper edition you can find and worth every penny for its increased ease of use and power Logos gives you to explore this massive amount of text.

This electronic edition includes an extremely helpful volume titled, “Index, With Aids for the Preacher” which offers a topical index of the other 13 volumes and a summary of key thoughts.

Some Helpful Definitions

David Guretzki is associate professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada and written a free PDF, “Reading the Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth – A Primer.” In his primer, Guretzki shares six motifs, based on the work of George Hunsinger, that can help us understand the key characteristics of Barth’s theology in the Church Dogmatics (CD).

  • Actualism – Actual events of God’s action in history shape reality as we experience it. E.g., We understand history by how God has actually acted; we do not interpret how God has acted through a general theory of history.

  • Particularism – The particular and concrete logically and theologically precedes the general and the abstract. E.g., the Incarnation in its unique particularity must inform the general nature of humanity; a general theory of humanity does not inform the particular nature of a human named Jesus

  • Objectivism – Theological claims must be shaped by the object they seek to describe. E.g., God must be spoken of in terms of how he himself objectively presents himself (“reveals” himself) to us.

  • Personalism – Knowledge of God is knowledge of God as one who is to be known as a “personal” being and not merely as a “control belief.”

  • Realism – Language about God is based on Scriptural language that is neither “literalist” (theological language cannot be equated directly to God) nor “expressivist” (theological language is not merely that which is expressed when thinking about God), but a “real analogy” to God.

  • Rationalism – the mystery of God can be coherently spoken of without needing to comprehend God; i.e., theology is a “rational wrestling with mystery.”



Other Helps

A few resources from the web that will help your reading of Barth.

Now let me ask, 
What are some of the other keys to understanding Barth?  
What insights or links can help in understanding this monumental work?

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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