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The Man Who Launched a Theological Revolution

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Philip Jenkins - published on 04/28/15

In 1915 Swiss Pastor Karl Barth transformed Protestantism

As 2015 progresses, we have plenty of grim centennials to mark: the Armenian Genocide, the Gallipoli Campaign, the first use of poison gas at the front line. In so many ways, 1915 was a memorable (and dreadful) year. We might though be missing one of the key stories of that time, which continues to reverberate through the way we understand Western religion. Unknown to most people outside his immediate neighborhood, it was at exactly at this time that a young Swiss pastor was launching a theological revolution.

When the war broke out in 1914, theologians in the rival nations fell over each other in seeking to produce the most extreme statements of nationalist and jingoistic propaganda. Partly because Germany had the best-developed academic structures, scholars from that country were among the most outspoken, and, in retrospect, their words were the most disturbing. At the outbreak of war, a galaxy of the nation’s greatest religious minds subscribed to an outrageous propaganda declaration, a Manifesto, in support of Germany’s goals and tactics.

Among its horrified readers was Karl Barth, then a 28-year old Reformed pastor in neutral Switzerland. Reading the signatories of that document, “I discovered almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time, I suddenly realized that I could not
 any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, nineteenth century theology no longer held any future.”

For Barth and like-minded critics, questions naturally presented themselves: When those great Christian scholars signed those propaganda statements, how did they differentiate themselves from any other super-patriotic bourgeois of the time? As Barth wrote, “It was like the Twilight of the Gods when I saw the reaction of Harnack, Herrmann, Rade, Eucken and company to the new situation.” How exactly did the kingdom of God that they preached relate to worldly states, to empires and kingdoms?  

In response, Barth developed a whole theory of authority within Christianity that demanded a reimagining of long-orthodox beliefs about the church’s relationship to secular culture. Those ideas constituted an intellectual and spiritual revolution. Modern theologian Richard Burnett remarks, “Barth’s break with liberalism in the summer of 1915 is the most important event that has occurred in theology in over two hundred years.” Barth is often called the greatest Christian theologian of the twentieth century, possibly since Thomas Aquinas, and his thinking is inseparable from the wartime crisis.

Seeking alternatives to liberal Protestantism, Barth read authors like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, who affirmed a Christianity rooted not in reason or the standards of this world but rather in what the world saw as absurdity. He also developed his own distinctive ideas, based on a radical separation between God, the absolutely holy, and a world that could, with all the best intentions, never rise unassisted beyond its sins and failures. Barth began a rereading of the Bible, in a manner quite different from the scholarly detachment of the academics: “A new world projects itself into our old ordinary world. We may reject it. We may say, ‘It is nothing; this is imagination, madness, this God.’ But we may not deny nor prevent our being led by Bible ‘history’ far out beyond what is elsewhere called history—into a new world, into the world of God.”

As he spoke to local audiences of pastors and scholars, reports began to spread about this daring intellectual from a tiny parish, and of his startling views. In November 1915, he spoke in Basel on the theme of “Wartime and the Kingdom of God,” where he presented the fundamental message: the world remains the world, but God is God—“Gott ist Gott und Welt bleibt Welt.” He went even further in characterizing the world as ruled by the Devil, so that any attempt to change it would be worthless and doomed to failure. Christians must rather await the coming of the kingdom of God.

In 1916, Barth began his intense two-year study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one of the most daring texts within the New Testament. Central to the Epistle is the idea of justification, of making righteous, through faith in Jesus Christ. This justification is a supreme act of grace, that is, of God’s undeserved and inexplicable free gift. Paul says that without this grace, human beings can achieve or become nothing good, and he describes at length the all-encompassing sins and delusions in which the unredeemed world wallows. “[They] changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator.” Such warnings of idolatry made excellent sense in the Europe of the war years, and especially in understanding the churches’ reactions to the times.

By 1919, Barth published the first edition of his commentary on Romans, initially with a small publisher and a print run of just a thousand copies. But it was the second edition, published in 1922, that “burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians.” The revolution in European religious thought was under way. Any attempt at sketching Barth’s long-term influence would take up many books, but suffice it to say here that it transformed Protestantism. It also had a profound and lasting impact on Catholic thought, especially following the Second Vatican Council.

As we commemorate the events of 1915, surely that intellectual transformation deserves our attention?


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