Theology Made Simple by Karl Barth - Midweek Musing 1/10/2023
Are you familiar with Karl Barth?
Karl Barth was a prominent Swiss theologian of the 20th century, known for his significant influence on Protestant theology. He is compared to theologians like Thomas Aquinas played a pivotal role in reshaping Protestant theology during the tumultuous 20th century. He was the author of "The Barmen Declaration" which directly opposed Hitler and Naziism. (This declaration is part of our denomination’s Book of Confessions.) Barth was also a leader in the German Confessing Church, a Protestant group that resisted the Third Reich.
Born in Switzerland, Barth grew up with a rebellious nature but later pursued theology studies at the University of Bern and other German universities. He served as a pastor in Geneva and Safenwil, advocating for workers' rights and education. Barth gained international attention with his commentary on "The Epistle to the Romans."
In 1921, Barth became a professor at the University of Göttingen. Later he held academic positions in Münster and Bonn, where he began working on his magnum opus, the unfinished "Church Dogmatics."
Barth vocally opposed Nazism and published "Theological Existence Today!" in 1933, followed by the Barmen Declaration in 1934, which vehemently denounced Nazi ideology. The Barmen Declaration is part of our denomination’s Book of Confessions and you can find it here. Barth incurred the wrath of the Nazi Party; in 1935 he was dismissed from his position in Bonn due to his refusal to pledge allegiance to Hitler without qualifications.
Returning to Switzerland, Barth continued to support the Confessing Church, Jews, and oppressed people. After World War II, he advocated for German penitence and reconciliation with foreign churches. Barth also opposed the nuclear arms race and worked towards ending the Cold War.
In 1962, Barth first visited the United States, delivering lectures including a series of lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also had meetings with figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Barth’s influence extended into mainstream American religious culture, as evidenced by his appearance on the cover of Time Magazine.
Karl Barth passed away in 1968 in Basel, leaving behind a legacy of significant theological contributions and resistance against oppressive ideologies. Clearly, he was a brilliant scholar and theologian; however, he was also able to break down the message in simple terms that even I can understand.
An example of this occurred during one of his trips to the United States where he was asked to be a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School. At the end of a captivating closing lecture, the president of the seminary announced that Dr. Barth was not well and was quite tired, and though he thought that Dr. Barth would like to be open for questions, he shouldn’t be expected to handle the strain. Then the president of that great theological school said to the great scholar, “Therefore, I will ask just one question on behalf of all of us." He turned to the renowned theologian and asked, "Of all the theological insights you have ever had, which do you consider to be the greatest of them all?
It was the perfect question for a man who had written literally tens of thousands of pages of some of the most sophisticated theology ever put into print. The students held pencils right up against their writing pads, ready to take down verbatim the premier insight of the greatest theologian of their time. Karl Barth closed his tired eyes, and he thought for a minute, and then he half smiled, opened his eyes, and said to those young seminarians, "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
May those with ears hear the simplicity and power of this truth.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Alleluia. Amen.