Tag Archives: Busch

The Promise and Peril of Theology

Milan Cathedral

Of all disciplines theology is the fairest, the one that moves the head and heart most fully, the one that comes closest to human reality, the one that gives the clearest perspective on the truth which every disciple seeks. It is a landscape like those of Umbria and Tuscany with views which are distant and yet clear, a work of art which is as well planned and as bizarre as the cathedrals of Cologne or Milan … But of all disciplines theology is also the most difficult and the most dangerous, the one in which a man is most likely to end in despair, or – and this is almost worse – in arrogance. Theology can float off into thin air or turn to stone, and worst of all it can become a caricature of itself.

Karl Barth, cited in Busch, Karl Barth, 244.

Karl Barth Special on Logos



life-and-select-works-of-karl-barthI already have all of these in real books, but it is a very good introductory special for those who want or like digital versions. There are selections from across the decades of Barth’s career, from the early 1920s through to a few final pieces from shortly before his death in 1968. Some of them are major works – The Münster Ethics (1928), Barth’s Gifford lectures The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1937-1938), and Theology and Church, a collection of essays from 1920-1928. Others are occasional pieces, including lecture series, sermons, short theological pieces, and Barth’s tribute to Mozart, with whom he carried on a life-long love affair. Also included in the set is the massive biography by his friend and student Eberhard Busch, which I have reviewed in three posts under the title of Karl Barth, A Remarkable Life.


The books are available from Logos.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #3

Time Cover BarthThis is my third and final instalment of observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s excellent account of the life of Karl Barth.

Barth’s view of the relations between male and female has been rejected by most in the days since his death. In this respect, he was certainly a man of his time arguing that female follows male as B follows A. The two are equal and definitely necessary, but just as definitely ordered. Busch’s story shows Barth living in a largely male world, with many male associates and peers. Nevertheless, women also show up in his life in many and varied ways, as friends and associates, as students and scholar-peers (though only one or two of these), and as fellow partisans in the struggle (see p. 317 for the story of Hebelotte Kohlbrügge who in July 1942 smuggled in her mouth, a microfilm of Barth’s message to the confessing churches in Holland!).

There was also, of course, a woman in his life, and I don’t mean Nelly, his wife. He married Nelly in 1913 and she remained his faithful wife all his days, and was mother of their five children. Nevertheless, the (other) woman in his life was Charlotte von Kirschbaum (“Lollo”), introduced to Barth in 1924 and who became a permanent member of his household in 1929. Without Lollo, Barth would not have been Barth. She became his assistant, typing and checking his works, handling his vast correspondence, participating in discussions with him and others, and accompanying him on his journeys, his semester-length stays in Germany immediately after WWII, and even on his holidays. We naturally conjecture as to the nature of their relationship, and in our time, given our fascination with all things sexual, many simply assume that it was such. We will never know whether or not that was the case for there is simply no record or comment to that effect by Barth or any of his family or associates. Her presence in the Barth house caused tensions for decades, and yet she was also treated as one of the family by the children, and after her death, buried by Nelly in the family tomb. Later in her life she began to give lectures and also wrote some of her own work. Barth himself acknowledged that he could not have accomplished anything near what he did without her participation and assistance. She was obviously a very capable and intelligent woman who chose a difficult (and selfless?) life in order to make a largely unseen contribution to Barth’s highly visible and significant career. Several biographies have been written about Charlotte—not all complimentary to Barth; I must read them also.

Charlotte von Kirschbaum c1950s
Charlotte von Kirschbaum c1950s

Old Age
As an old man with frequent health battles, Barth remained interested in theology, in his students, and in questions of the wider world. By now he was an international citizen, and guests from around the world came to visit him in Basel and to chat over their small kitchen table Bruderholzallee 26 in Basel. When, in December 2011 I visited his archives now housed there, I was told by archivist and curator, Hans Anton Drewes, that the then pope, Benedict XVI had visited Barth and sat at that table as the young and up-and-coming Joseph Ratzinger.

Of course, in old age other friends and associates were also growing frail and dying. I teared over as I read (and am tearing now again as I write),

In April 1966 Emil Brunner had also died. Shortly beforehand, Barth had sent him a “message through his friend Peter Vogelsanger: ‘If he is still alive and it is possible, tell  him again, “Commended to our God,” even by me. And tell him, Yes, that the time when I thought that I had to say “No” to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious Yes to all of us.’ These words were the last that Brunner heard in his life… (476-477).

He still lectured from time to time, and on the night before he died was preparing a lecture to be given to a forum of Catholic and Reformed theologians in January 1969. The title was typical: “Starting Out, Turning Around, Confessing.” Barth was always “beginning again at the beginning,” seeking to hear again and afresh the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ and witnessed in Holy Scripture. His work was interrupted by two phone calls, one from his godson Ulrich, and later, a phone call from his oldest friend Eduard Thurneysen whom he had known since his student days. The two friends spoke about the gloomy world situation before Barth said, ‘But keep your chin up! Never mind! “He will reign!”’ Afterwards, he did not return to his work but went to bed for the final time, Nelly finding him in the morning.

The sentences he had just written and to which he did not return after the call from Thurneysen were about the need for the church to listen to the Fathers in the faith who have gone before, for “‘“God is not a God of the dead but of the living.” In him they all live’ from the Apostles down to the Fathers of the day before yesterday and of yesterday” (498).

In my view, Karl Barth is one of those Fathers to whom we do well to listen.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #2

Time Cover BarthToday I continue to post some observations drawn from Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts which I highly recommend.

The living and true God, the high and holy God, the transcendent and immanent God, the one God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ, God the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, God the Wholly Other, the Good and Gracious God who has come to us and judges and calls us in Jesus Christ: this God was the centre of Barth’s existence, from whom and towards whom he lived. It was the reality of this God who ever stands over against us which drove Barth’s break with the Liberal theology of his student years, and it was the knowledge of this God revealed decisively in Jesus Christ that continued to drive his innovative theology over the course of his career.

Dismayed by the capitulation of all but one of his Liberal teachers to the war policies of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914, Barth and his friend Eduard Thurneysen knew they could no longer follow this theology, and so sought a “wholly other” foundation for theology (it was Thurneysen who first used the famous phrase). They tried starting again with Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel, but found them more and more dissatisfying. In the end, they turned again to Scripture and found, “Lo, it began to speak to us.” Barth began his career with exegesis, especially of Romans, and it was this work which catapulted him into public awareness. For much of his career he taught not only theology but also New Testament exegesis. His Church Dogmatics abound with extended passages of biblical exegesis and exposition. About to be expelled from Germany by the Gestapo in 1935, he said in his final words to this students:

We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! I had plans for the future with other colleagues who are either no longer here or have been away for a long time – but there has been a frost on our spring night! And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given us (259).

Theology and Church
Theology, of course, is what Karl Barth is most well-known for. This was not only the field of his expertise, but also his passion. As early as 1902, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, and on the eve of his confirmation, ‘I made the bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time’ (31). Theology, for Barth, is a human endeavour of response to the Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ. It is faith seeking understanding, the free and joyful science of God who has given himself to be known by us. It demands our very highest, deepest and most concentrated thought, and yet it is still grace if we come to know God at all. Indeed, as Barth struggled to grasp how he might arrange and structure the doctrine of reconciliation, ‘I dreamed of a plan. It seemed to go in the right direction. The plan now had to stretch from christology to ecclesiology together with the relevant ethics. I woke at 2 a.m. and then put it down on paper hastily the next morning’ (377). Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV/1-4) is seen by many as a modern classic—and its outline came in a dream!

The Church Tower at Barmen
The Church Tower at Barmen

But theology, for Barth, is a discipline in and for the church, and indeed, for the entirety of his career Barth remained a man of the church. It is no accident that his major work is called Church Dogmatics—he had changed the title from an earlier attempt which was titled Christian Dogmatics. Barth wanted to make sure that theology is an activity of the church, and that the church rather than the academy was the proper locus for theology, although theology could legitimately be undertaken in the university so long as it remained true to its proper theme and method. Barth did theology to support and inform the proclamation of the church, and throughout his career pastors and preachers remained amongst his most avid readers. If only that remained true today! Theology is not an end in itself, but exists as a ministry of and to the church that it may be faithful in its other ministries of preaching and teaching. In so doing the church remains a teaching church and a hearing church, the place where God’s gift of revelation continues in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the church is thereby continually formed and reformed, gathered, built up and sent.

Not only is theology in and for the church, but as Busch makes crystal clear in his account of Barth’s life, theology is also and simultaneously in and for the world. Theology is done in the world as well as in the church, for God’s Word comes to us as people in the world and God’s call makes us responsible to the world. For Barth, then, theology and ethics belong indissolubly together, and always in this order: right thought about God issues in right thought about the world and the church’s life in the world, and so generates an active life in correspondence to the active God revealed in Jesus Christ. Barth lived an active life in the world. During his Safenwil pastorate (1911-1921) he was known as the ‘Red Pastor’ because of his socialist convictions and activity on behalf of the poor workers in his village undergoing industrial transformation. He was deeply involved in the Confessing Church and the theological and ecclesial resistance to Hitler. After the war he pleaded for the forgiveness of the Germans and participated actively in its reconstruction, and was just as deeply involved in the politics of the Cold War, at odds with his many friends on both sides of the Atlantic because he refused to be caught up in anti-Communist fervour, but instead sought to support the church living under Marxist regimes.

Karl Barth – A Remarkable Life #1

Time Cover BarthAlthough first published in German in 1975, and in English translation in 1976, Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts is still the go-to text for the story of Karl Barth’s remarkable life and theological development. That is not to say that this is the final word on his life; far from it, for we are still awaiting a full-scale critical biography. Perhaps someone might undertake this task for the fiftieth-anniversary of Barth’s death in 2018. (Do any German-speaking historians read this blog?) This work is not so much a biography as an account of Barth’s life, almost an itinerary, or a leafing through his diary, with Barth himself providing a running commentary on the various episodes of his life, the people he met, and the momentous events and days in which he participated.

Over the course of his life Barth wrote the 6,000,000 or so words of his unfinished magnum opus Church Dogmatics, hundreds of formal lectures and articles, hundreds more lectures to his students, hundreds of sermons (especially while pastor at Safenwil), and thousands of letters. Busch has carefully mined all these resources and more besides, such as radio broadcasts and recordings of class conversations, in order to let Barth tell, in his own words, the story of his life. The result is a large book of over 500 pages covering the whole of his life from his early childhood in Basel as a lively and perhaps even somewhat wild boy, through his student and pastoral years, to his early career in Göttingen and Münster as young professor, his participation in the church struggle against Hitler and the Nazi ideology which engulfed the nation and church, through the years of his global prominence, and to the final twilight years in which he still remained active and involved in theology despite advancing age and associated health concerns.

Barth’s theological development and commitments are naturally a primary focus of the work, and Busch has included sufficient summaries, excerpts and commentary to give the reader a good sense of Barth’s thought at each particular phase of his career. But the book also has extensive accounts of his family and friendships, his interactions, journeys and conflicts, which allow the very human and at times flawed character of the man to be clearly seen. The inclusion of more than 100 photographs add depth, colour and interest to the story, and the several maps, family tree, and extensive references help the reader, especially those not familiar with the history or geography of Barth’s time, to read profitably.

Eberhard Busch has done us a salutary service in preparing this account. I recommend it highly to any and all theological students, and anyone participating in Christian ministry. It is a story of a man living in extraordinary times, whose uncommon intellect, abundance of hard work, and network of relationships issued in a remarkable life of witness to Jesus Christ, and a substantial contribution to the work of church in his day.

Busch, Karl Barth LifeI have just read, for the first time actually, the whole book from cover to cover. Previously I have only read those earlier sections immediately relevant to my work. Reading the whole has given me a fresh appreciation and sense of this remarkable life. Over the next few days I will record some observations of those things which stood out to me as particularly significant.

Extraordinary Times
Born May 10, 1886 and died December 10, 1968, Barth lived through two world wars and was deeply involved in both—not so much as a soldier, although he did enlist in Switzerland’s defence force in WWII, despite being in his 50s—but in thinking through what it meant to be church, to be a Christian, to do theology, in such turbulent and distressing times. Other movements included the rise of Christian socialism in Switzerland, the communist revolution in Russia and then the rise of international communism, especially the Stalinist variety, the attempted putsch in Germany, the Weimar Republic and its failure, the Confessing Church, Barmen, the atomic bomb, the eastern bloc and the Cold War: maybe it is the case that extraordinary times call for extraordinary characters. Barth was certainly an extraordinary man in extraordinary times.

One of the primary characteristics to emerge from his story was Barth’s energy: he was a vibrant and dynamic person, accomplishing a vast amount of work and maintaining a punishing schedule of classes, meetings, lectures and international trips. He certainly slowed as he aged, but even then maintained quite high levels of participation in affairs theological, ecclesial and civil. He was a diligent networker and correspondent, obviously an extrovert, who enjoyed people and maintained enduring friendships and other associations over the course of his life. Yet there was also a certain pugnacious aspect to his character, evident in childhood scraps with his peers, his take-no-prisoners approach to the dispute with Brunner, his brother’s complaint that Karl was ‘a man who would brook no opposition’ (269). Thus he managed to lose friends and alienate colleagues as well, at times, being sharply critical of those with whom he disagreed. Especially during the church struggle of the 30s, the severity of the circumstances seemed to demand an “all-or-nothing,” black and white approach to the issues; one either sided with or against the gospel, and no sitting on the fence was possible.

And then, of course, his uncommon intellect, nurtured by the formidable German education system. Barth (and his associates) were deeply immersed in biblical studies and theology, had mastery of literature and philosophy, Greek, Hebrew, Latin (Barth was also fluent in French and then also learned English), the Patristic fathers and the Reformers, as well as living in the golden age of German culture prior to WWI. This, of course, also suggests his privilege, for only those of the right class got to go to university, and to participate in the kinds of circles in which Barth naturally fit all his life. He came from Old Basel society, from generations of pietist ministers on both sides of his lineage. Early in his life he rejected pietism as a way of being Christian, and yet it is evident that the influence of his pietist heritage marked him all his days: religion and theology could never simply be intellectual, but always was oriented to the good and gracious God, with “a touch of enthusiasm.”

On Scripture, and Understanding Jesus

BuschThe German Christians made the decision in November 1933 that they wanted to purify the gospel “from all Oriental distortion.” With that they accomplished the very opposite – they distorted the message. There have been for a long time and there are also today tendencies to subject the figure of Jesus Christ attested to us in Scripture to the favorite ideas of a particular point in time – until we discover one day that we can satisfy our ideals really much better without this figure! It will constantly be a Reformational act when one moves away from such fantasies to the hearing of Holy Scripture.

From: Eberhard Busch, The Barmen Theses Then and Now, 24-25.