When Harvey Cox was a student minister in Berlin in 1962, one year after the erection of the Wall, he was able to travel back and forth between East and West because he held an American passport. He thus became a courier for pastors and Christian laypeople on both sides of that divide and was sometimes able to smuggle theological books into the East. What the people wanted most were copies of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. “To carry in something by Bultmann would have been a wasted risk,” Cox said. “Let the bourgeois preachers in West Germany agonize about the disappearance of the three-decker universe and existentialism. We had weightier matters to confront.”

My own introduction to the thought of Karl Barth took place in an undergraduate course on “contemporary” theology. We were asked to read The Word of God and the Word of Man, a collection of Barth’s early sermons and addresses, and though I was not then and am not now a Barthian with a capital “B,” Barth grabbed me right from the start.

Unlike Bultmann’s demythologizing and dismantling of the biblical worldview and Tillich’s culture-correlated philosophy of religion—they and a few others were the “canon” in those days (the sixties)—in Barth’s work I found a theology that spoke to the heart and one also presented in a provocative, passionate, and personal way. Here was theology that sounded like something eternally important was at stake. Here was a theology that mattered.

When I began formal theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, neo-Kantian and liberationist paradigms prevailed there. Barth, when mentioned at all, was treated as passé, antiquated, definitely démodé. But my doctoral studies propelled me back to the Reformation, especially to the connection between the doctrines of election and ecclesiology, and this in turn forced me back to Barth. I remember plowing through Barth’s discussion of predestination in Church Dogmatics II/2 and discovering there both a way of doing theology and an engagement with Scripture and tradition that I had not encountered before.

True, I shared many of the standard Evangelical reservations about Barth. For example, I was critical of both his challenge to biblical inerrancy and his tilt toward universalism (though he denied the charge). I would not have called him “the great Church Father of Evangelical Christendom, the one genuine Doctor of the universal Church the modern era has known,” as the editors of the English edition of his Church Dogmatics did shortly after his death in 1968. But it was clear that Barth was a titanic figure whose work neither Protestants nor Catholics could ignore.

Karl Barth was a churchly theologian. What does this mean? In the first place, it refers to the fact that, unlike the majority of professional theologians, both in his day and in ours, Barth did not possess an earned doctorate. This was obviously not from any lack of scholarly ability on his part, but rather from his prior decision to pursue pastoral ministry rather than an academic career. For twelve years Barth served as a pastor, first as a pastoral assistant at a German-speaking congregation in Geneva and then as pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church in Safenwil, a small industrial town in the Aargau. Barth’s distinctive theology emerged out of his pastoral struggles. What does the preacher say to the waiting congregation every Sunday morning? How dare he say anything at all? This tension between the preacher’s duty to speak for God, on behalf of God, and the enormous presumption, indeed the impossibility, of doing so is at the very root of Barth’s theological discovery. He once put it like this: “We ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.”

Barth’s theological training in the great liberal tradition of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, and Herrmann had not prepared him to deal with this dilemma, nor had his immersion in the Swiss version of the social gospel movement, an involvement which earned him the title “red pastor” for a while. Barth was haunted by the question King Zedekiah posed to Jeremiah long ago: “Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jer. 37:17). This question, which is every preacher’s question, propelled Barth back to the Holy Scriptures, where he discovered a new orientation for preaching and a new basis for theology.

Barth is a churchly theologian in another sense as well. He understands theology, which he defines as “the scientific self-examination of the Christian church with respect to its distinctive God-talk,” to be a spiritual discipline within the community of faith. The purpose of theology is to serve the integrity of preaching, and thus it is part of the church’s humble worship of God. Following his stint as “a young country pastor,” as Barth referred to his Safenwil days, he spent the rest of his life in four university settings: in Göttingen (1921-25), in Münster (1925-30), in Bonn (1930-35), and finally in his native Basel (1935-68).

There is a sense, however, in which Barth never left the pastorate, for all of his work as an academic theologian—lectures, addresses, books, disputes, and sermons—was intended to serve and build up the church. This commitment is reflected in the title he gave to his major theological project. After publishing the first volume of his Christian Dogmatics in 1927, he abandoned this effort and made a fresh start under a new definitive rubric, Church Dogmatics. In Barth’s view, theology can never be a mere branch of “religious studies,” a scholarly activity pursued with presumed objectivity and lack of personal commitment. As Barth would say near the end of his career, theology is not an end in itself but rather a service in and for the community of Jesus Christ. “Theology is committed directly to the community and especially to those members who are responsible for preaching, teaching, and counseling. The task theology has continually to fulfill is to stimulate and lead them to face squarely the question of the proper relation of their human speech to the Word of God, which is the origin, object, and content of this speech.” Theology must be done in the service of the church or it is not a ministerium Verbi Divini.

Despite Barth’s sturdy determination to be a theologian in the service of the church, he can be acutely critical in his statements about the church. This was especially so in Barth’s early writing, in which the gospel is depicted in stark opposition to the church. An easy equipoise between these two realities is not possible, for “the gospel dissolves the church and the church dissolves the gospel.” The church, Barth seems to say, has become not a means to God but rather a substitute for God, an idol.

In the church, the “Beyond” is transfigured into a metaphysical “something” which, because it is contrasted with this world, is no more than an extension of it. In the church, all manner of divine things are possessed and known, and are therefore not possessed and not known. In the church, the unknown beginning and end are fashioned into some known middle position, so that men do not require to remember always that, if they are to become wise they must die. In the church, faith, hope, and love are directly possessed, and the Kingdom of God directly awaited, with the result that men band themselves together to inaugurate it, as though it were a thing which men could have and await and work for.

What Barth protests is the domestication of God in the structures and institutions of the church. The church understood as the repository of religious consciousness, or as the apex of “Christian” civilization, or as the private club of moral rectitude, could no longer be the place where the thunder and lightning of God’s grace breaks through to human beings. It was necessary, Barth felt, to write “Ichabod” over the door to such a church precisely so that the gates could be opened to let the King of Glory enter in. He put it like this: “Only when the end of the blind alley of ecclesiastical humanity has been reached is it possible to raise radically and seriously the problem of God.”

Barth’s critique of the church here is more like that of Luther than that of Wycliff, Hus, Savanarola and other pre-reformers who protested vigorously against the abuses of the late medieval church. Such matters are mere trifles compared to what Barth calls “the blessed terribleness of the theme of the Church which is the very Word of God—the Word of beginning and end, of the creator and redeemer, of judgment and righteousness.” In this dialectic the church is divided into two parts—the Church of Esau and the Church of Jacob. By this designation Barth does not refer to confessional differences, say, between Roman Catholics and Protestants, nor to different theological camps such as conservatives and liberals. The Church of Esau is “observable, knowable and possible,” whereas the Church of Jacob is where the truth of the gospel triumphs over all human deceit. This latter church, Barth goes on to say, is “unobservable, unknowable, and impossible . . . capable neither of expansion nor of contraction; it has neither place nor name nor history; men neither communicate with it nor are excommunicated from it. It is simply the free grace of God, his calling and election; it is beginning and end.”

Here we are at the headwaters of Barth’s dialectical ecclesiology. It is not hard to see why those with a vested interest in the church—any church—would respond to Barth’s rhetoric with consternation and reproach. If the church is utterly unknowable, unobservable, so detached from history that one cannot speak of it properly, then very practical questions ensue: To whom do we pay our tithes (or church taxes in the state churches of Europe)? Who shall train the church’s ministers, and how? Who shall write the church’s liturgy, or lead its worship, or send out its missionaries, or do its pastoral care? It has always seemed to some of Barth’s critics that his “bifurcation” of the church would lead inevitably to ecclesial nihilism.

But this is to miss the deeper point that Barth is making. It is necessary, he believed, to be so decisively against the church, precisely in order to be so unreservedly for it. Even in Romans, where the language of diastasis reaches fever pitch, Barth always remains with both feet firmly planted within the physical, finite, fallen, Esau-like church.

We must not, because we are fully aware of the eternal opposition between the Gospel and the church, hold ourselves aloof from the church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it.

We must bear the tribulation of the church as participant-observers. Only through sharing its anguish are we able to pray for revival and work for reformation.

Interpreters of Barth do not agree as to what extent his thought is marked by steady development or by major breaks and new trajectories. Barth himself pointed to some significant shifts in his thinking along the way, although he could also claim continuity and once boasted that, unlike Augustine, he had not found it necessary to publish a volume of retractations! In any event, Barth did recognize that some of the language he had used in Romans was a little over the top. In retrospect, he admitted that he had spoken “somewhat severely and brutally, and moreover—at least according to the other side—in part heretically.” What is clear is that he found a more constructive way to describe the church and its role in relation to the Gospel and to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

From the 1920s onward, the image that came to dominate his ecclesiology was that of herald or witness. To be sure, this image can also be found in Barth’s earlier writings as well. Already he had discovered Matthias Grünewald’s famous depiction of the crucifixion, originally painted for a hospice at Isenheim. Grünewald was an early Reformation painter from the Rhineland who may possibly have embraced the message of Luther near the end of his life. What drew Barth to this painting was Grünewald’s portrayal of John the Baptist. He stands at the right of the cross with an open Bible in one hand while pointing with the other to the figure of Christ in the agony of death. In faded red letters behind John are the Latin words: Illum oportet crescere, me autem minue, “He must increase, while I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The pointing finger of Grünewald’s John in this painting became the central icon of Barth’s life and work. John’s ministry was one of persistent negation. There is no evidence that he had the slightest interest in self-promotion. He consistently denied that he was Elijah, the messianic Prophet, or Christ. When he was asked to declare who he was, his reply was to say, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, make straight the way for the Lord.” His message was entirely referential. “Look,” he said, “the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29). This image of John, of his bony finger pointing toward Christ on the cross, is precisely the perfect paradigm for every preacher, for every Christian, and consequently, for the church itself.

Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is tfgeorge@samford.edu.   

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