Portrait of Karl Barth | Review – Biography

Posted on June 2, 2011 by


Part 1 – Casalis begins by setting forth the widespread impact that Barth has had on the theological community. He also tries to show how, although part of the Reformed church, his works were not defending his niche but were for all Christianity. He also gives some samples of Barth’s work to show his values.

Part 2 – Here begins the real Biographical portrait. Casalis starts with the obligatory “Born in _place_  on _date_” (in case you care it’s Basel, Switzerland  on May 10, 1886). Then he tells a little of the culture of Basel and how that shaped Barth’s character and professional aspirations.

Then he vaults to His time as a young professor at Gottingen, Germany.

I’ll save you the Hit by hit summary and give you my observations and impressions.

One thing that surprised me is Barth’s time as a pastor. It seems that his pastorate at several Swiss German Reformed Churches helped to bring his mostly academic theology to earth.  And out of this came his convictions for theological work.

A large part of the biography is dedicated to the time of WWII, and Barth’s role in the German Church. His work leading up to the war and his activity as an exile to Switzerland during the war give a good show of his heart and convictions. He vehemently opposed the Nazi party and condemned the German churches pandering to them. He wrote to encourage a return to biblical Christian belief and practice through theological journals and letters.

After the war he was a voice of compassion and reason for the German people that, although not part of the Nazi regime, had not fought against them.

Through the accounts given Barth is shown to have a deep conviction for Biblical truth, the centrality of Jesus, and a social conscience based on theological beliefs.

During the cold war Barth didn’t have as much to say about communism, which upset churches that were under communist oppression and some western churches (especially in America where communism had been demonized).  Here is a snippet of Barth’s response to one critic.

“When Hitler took power in 1933, he did so with the consent and complicity of the whole world. Not only the Germans,but the western democracies, the Russians and even the Swiss, tolerated, accepted, and approved the establishment of his dictatorship. // …it was necessary to swim against the stream and accept whatever risks came with doing so.

Today, however, the western world is lined up against the USSR, displaying an attitude of fear and aggressiveness. // There is no danger of ideological contamination…”

He goes on to show the inherent dangers in such vehement anti-communism, how the fight against communism has taken a turn that will not lead to victory, and warns that they are heading to WWIII.

I found his response to show a good measure of temperament and insight, along with a sense that silence can be as impacting as a shout.

Casalis then goes on to talk about Barth’s views on the atomic bomb, Christians in politics, Mozart, and some self critique. He also talks about Barth’s, then work in progress, Church Dogmatics.

Overall I found that this look at Barth’s life and work; his education, pastoral career, activism and academic career, helped to put flesh to a man that has been intellectualized, deified, and demonized. As with most people He got somethings right and somethings wrong. But this man’s impact on the theological landscape has been greater than some give him credit for. The main drums he beat throughout his career; Centrality of Jesus in Scripture, Sufficiency of Scripture in theology, and the social responsibility of Christians, have persevered to this day. Looking at some of the most well respected leaders of the protestant church you will find those same values.

I will say that I find some encouragement in the fact that some part of every Christian delineation opposed his work, and in some regard Him as a person. It shows that he was a threat to their Corporate Idolatry. This wouldn’t be the case if his work wasn’t still so influential, and his influence so broad.

All in all I can’t say that I completely agree with him, but i can say that I respect him and admire his courage and dedication to the cause of Christ.

There is a Part 3 – a Critical look at his major works. We’ll see how long it takes me to get into that.

Posted in: Book Review