WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth

Every day in every way things are getting better and better.

Popular saying before World War I

World War I marked the beginning of a new era. In Europe and North America before the war, there was a general feeling of optimism about the future of humanity. Because of the success of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and the hope of the various revolutions of the 19th century, people anticipated the eventual creation of a just society on earth.

The ferocity of the Great War chastened that optimism. Many people were surprised at how strong the call of nationalism was on the human psyche. The Western Liberal project had to rethink the question of human nature and society. The same introspection had to happen within the Liberal theological project begun by Friedrich Schleiermacher as well. The person who threw the bombshell into Schleiermacher’s project was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). (Note: Barth is pronounced as if it had no ‘h.’ It rhymes with ‘part.’)

Barth’s Background

Karl Barth started off as a product of his time. As a Liberal Christian theologian, he trained under the acknowledged masters of the craft: Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann. He then settled down as a pastor in the small Swiss village of Safenwil.

Karl Barth

One event changed everything for Barth. Ninety-three of Germany’s most esteemed scientists, professors, artists, and intellectuals issued a manifesto in October 1914. The manifesto was adddressed to ‘the Civilized World.’ In it, these intellectuals declared that the reports of German atrocities on the battlefield were false, that Germany was justified in defending itself, and that they were determined to support the war to the end. They wrote, “Have faith in us! Believe, that we shall carry on this war to the end as a civilized nation, to whom the legacy of a Goethe, a Beethoven, and a Kant is just as sacred as its own hearths and homes.”

Distancing From His Tradition

Barth was horrified to see that his mentors and teachers had signed the manifesto. These men were the flower of the German intellectual and humanitarian tradition as well as the liberal theological tradition. Yet, they had used this tradition to justify nationalistic German militarism.

He had to ask, what had gone wrong? He wrote later: “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.”

Natural Consequences

Barth eventually articulated that he thought there was a fatal flaw in Schleiermacher’s project. Barth saw the manifesto as the end result of the legacy of Protestant thought since the Enlightenment. German Protestantism had over time rejected reliance on traditional sources of Christian authority. Higher criticism had presented the Bible as a human creation rather than a divine source of authority. German theology, following the liberal tradition of Schleiermacher, taught that creeds and doctrines were far less important than the inner experience of the individual.

Believing that the Bible only articulated a vision of God based on the extremely narrow perception of one ancient group of people, German theology followed Georg Hegel and argued that we need to know God progressively through history. Von Harnack and others believed that God clearly was moving with Germany, yielding the greatest concentration of art, scientific achievement, music, rigorous education, modern spirit, thriving economy, and military might. They were a ‘world-historical nation.’ Barth was appalled that Christianity could lead to this conclusion.

Finding God Again

In a sense, Barth started theology over again. He started looking for sources other than liberal theology. He read Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky to find other visions of Christianity. But most importantly, he went back to the Bible and discovered what he called The Strange New World Within the Bible. He decided that Christianity had been finding the wrong things in the Bible. Theologians had been looking for history, morality or Godly living, when they should have been looking for God.

“We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!”

Karl Barth

This was Barth’s great insight. As Roger Olson puts it, “Barth criticized liberal theology for turning the gospel into a religious message that tells humans of their own divinity instead of recognizing it as the Word of God, a message that humans are incapable of anticipating or comprehending because it comes from a God utterly distinct from them.” (The Journey of Modern Theology, pp. 302-303).

A Theological Bombshell

After spending two years meditating on these questions and reading through Paul’s letter to the Romans, Barth published his commentary on the book of Romans in 1918. This was no ordinary commentary. Barth scholars like to say that “it fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians.” In fact, theology would never be the same again.

Barth articulated a vision of Christianity which was not about the harmonious unfolding of universal values of love and mercy, but of a crisis. This is a crisis between the sin and destructiveness of human beings confronted with the ‘no’ of a righteous God. He argued that there is no source for theology other than reflection on the Scriptures. Every other source of authority is just human wishful thinking. God, he reminded his readers, is completely ‘other.’ All we can know about God is what God reveals to us. And what God has revealed is the end of religion in Jesus Christ. He writes, “the Gospel is not one truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths.”

Responses to Barth’s Book

 His teachers were puzzled by the book. Many prominent biblical scholars and theologians dismissed it as the reflection of a religious fanatic. But many more felt that Barth was capturing something important. The book has been in continuous publication and is one of the classics of modern theology. It articulates a classical vision of Christian authority and doctrine, while also affirming the truths of historical biblical criticism. For Barth, the Gospel is Jesus Christ making the world new.

Theology vs. the Nazis

Whatever else one may think of Karl Barth, this theological foundation gave him the tools to fight against the Nazis. In the 1930s, he saw familiar theological problems arising. Theologians were claiming that the ‘spirit’ was moving in a new leader: Adolf Hitler. This time, Barth was not caught by surprise. In 1934, he was the principle author of The Barmen Declaration. In it, he declared the independence of the Christian church from the corrupting influence of nationalistic fervour. He wrote:

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death. We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.

Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things. We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well. We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.

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4 Replies to “WWI and the Fall of Christian Empire, Part 2: Karl Barth”

    1. Thanks so much for reading Margaret! Yes, some of the same trends seem to be surfacing again. Worrying.

  1. Well this gives me much to reflect on. When I started I wondered where
    Kierkegaard fit in. And you answered that.

    Yet I have a soft spot for personal experience in one’s journey through scripture.

    1. But the story isn’t over! There are more events and theologians coming who will ask strong questions of Barth. I too think personal experience is important. But I also think that Karl Barth gives us a healthy cautioning. I think he overstates it, but in his overstating he makes an extremely important point. Just my take on it.

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