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?