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Friday April 5 2019

Looking Back: Thank God for Karl Barth

A tribute to the renowned theologian, printed in April 1969. Barth had died the previous December.

Thank God for Karl Barth

John B. Logan pays tribute

When I heard that Professor Karl Barth had died at the age of 82 in Basle, where he was teaching till last summer, I thought to myself that the old warrior had at last laid up his sword. Amongst the augmented trumpets sounding, there must be a great alp-horn echoing through the Delectable Mountains. Here he will surely feel at home. I should like to add my own little recorder to the chorus. Under God, I owe my soul to Karl Barth: widely judged the greatest Protestant theologian since Calvin. No other has so influenced Roman Catholicism.

The teacher

I recall my first sight of him at Geneva University in 1935. After Hitler dismissed him from Bonn, he had been appointed to a chair in Basle. A well-built man of 49 wearing a cream-coloured alpaca jacket and grey flannels, he was sitting on a wooden seat under a tree, bending forward a little, talking to friends. His mass of black hair tumbled over a complexion where the olive tints of the sun mingled with a scholar’s pallor. Wrinkles of thought and of laughter were about his eyes and brow. His laughing light blue eyes peered intently through thick spectacles. He carried a pipe as if it were familiar.

Conditioned strongly against him then by liberal theology and extended studies in Biblical criticism, I found him a blazing sun amidst a constellation of scholars. He lectured on The Church and the Churches (still a basic critique of ecumenism), on Calvin’s Catechism. With pungency and humour he was prepared to discuss our objections. Speaking in a fairly high-pitched voice, with a slight dryness of articulation, his concentrated intensity of utterance made up for any lack of modulation and emphasised his sincerity. His arguments were pointed by flexible use of his hands, giving an impression of charged emotion. He seemed to tremble with power.

The bell-ringer

Barth supported the workers in their struggle for social justice when he was pastor of Safenwill in Aargau (1911-21), but found that the liberal theology in which he had been reared gave him no Gospel with which to confront the social and industrial crisis. This, he believed, had been aggravated by contemporary religious chaos. He revolted against the support of leading German theologians and churchmen for the Kaiser’s war policy, as he later revolted against Hitler’s rule. He began with prayer and radical scholarship to listen to the Word of God in the Bible. Instead of seeking justification for his own theories, he allowed God to speak to him against human inclination to find that his preaching and his life began to have astonishing effects. In his hands, God’s Word was a mightier weapon than social agitation. Barth likened himself to a man stumbling on a dark belfry stair, catching a rope, and finding that overhead the church bell is ringing out. The Word of God revealed itself within the life of the Church as the Body of Christ and thence to the world, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit, judging, condemning and renewing all.

Christ is all in all

Only God can reveal God, says Barth. God reveals Himself supremely in and through his Son Jesus Christ, in whom God became man, taking upon Himself man’s sinful nature, representing God to man and man to God. Imperfect human reason, sharing in man’s sinful separation from God, cannot comprehend God. Jesus Christ as He is presented to us primarily in the Bible, embodied in the Church and its Gospel proclamation and known by the Holy Spirit in conscience and life, includes everything concerning God and man, the world, time, eternity, and reconciliation between man and God. The Holy Spirit links the Jesus of history, the eternal Son of God, and the Christ of experience, continually re-inspiring a living tradition.

Like a symphony

Loving music, especially Mozart, Barth presented the Gospel like a great orchestral symphony. God’s Word was its theme, especially in his magnificent series Church Dogmatics. His work forms a symphony of several progressive movements, blossoming into human understanding latterly in works like The Humanity of God. Generations to come will find in his writings a quarry for re-statements of the everlasting Gospel. With multitudes, I thank God for Karl Barth.

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