Blogging Through Barth: Interlude

How many theologians end up on the cover of Time?
How many theologians end up on the cover of Time?

Did you miss part 1? Check it out here

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Before we get back to The Epistle to the Romans, I was reflecting on what that great philosopher Pete Townshend, from that great philosophical group The Who, asked in the great lyrical masterpiece “Who Are You”

Tell me who are you? (who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

Cause I really wanna know (who are you? who, who, who, who?)

It’s a good question and I realized that we need to go over a little biography information on Karl Barth so what we have a better idea of what this guy is writing about.

So just remember kids, when your parents tell you to turn down the music just tell them you are learning about Barth and play it all the louder
So just remember kids, when your parents tell you to turn down the music just tell them you are learning about Barth and play it all the louder

Before we really get into Barth’s early life, there is a difficulty. How do I fit the basic life and thinking of one of the most important theologians of the 20th century into a thousand words or less (and I have already used a hundred rambling on about The Who)? To answer my own question, this is not going to be an exhaustive or even very complete post on Barth’s life and works. This post is just meant to give us an idea of who Barth is and give us a little background on The Epistle to the Romans and not the literally millions of other words that the man wrote.

With that said, Karl Barth was born in 1886. Both his grandfathers were pastors, his father was a pastor and a theologian, so it could be said that Barth was a PK (in fact, a super-PK). The man grew up in the Church and grew up around theology so it is no surprise that in 1904 Barth went to the university to study theology too. He bounced around a couple different universities in Switzerland and Germany before ending up at Berlin. In all these places, but especially in Berlin, Barth was introduced to and thoroughly immersed in Protestant Liberalism.

What is Protestant Liberalism? Well it probably deserves it’s own blog post (or book), but very briefly, Protestant Liberalism is a way of reading the Bible and doing theology that started in 1800’s. In the 1800’s science was making so many new discoveries that many theologians and philosophers wanted to integrate this new knowledge into their understanding of the Bible. For example, how do we understand Genesis 1 in light of evolution? Questions like that were asked and wrestled with during this time. Overall, Protestant Liberalism produced an emphasis on human rationality, human ability to do good, and a theology that emphasized ethics and morality instead of complicated theology and/or dogma.

Protestant Liberalism did many wonderful things and Barth was clearly brought up in and taught that method of theology and ministry. In 1911 he finished his education and became pastor at a Reformed Church at a Swiss town on the border with Germany. His ministry, preaching, and theology all went fine until World War I

World War I started in 1914 and in that same year a document named “the Manifesto of the Ninety-three” was written and signed by 93 German scientists, scholars, and intellectuals. The Manifesto was basically a statement that said the scientific and scholarly community was in full support of the German side in World War I. Among the group that signed this document were 5 theologians (two of which were Barth’s teachers at seminary), one pastor, and three philosophers.

When Barth saw theologians, pastors, and philosophers all voicing their full support for the German cause he began to question the theology that he had been taught. With all of Protestant Liberalism’s emphasis on ethics and morality, his professors still voiced their complete support for one of the most awful conflicts in world history. Barth began to realize that he needed to rethink his theology because the Protestant Liberalism that he was taught was not enough for the crisis of World War I

Barth’s career as a pastor also made him realize the need to rethink his theology. The Protestant Liberalism that he had been taught had an emphasis on the basic good things that people could accomplish and on morality/ethics. All of that seemed so impossible to preach at a time when millions of young men were dying in World War I. Barth describes how he felt like his preaching during this time was like pounding his head against a brick wall and how nothing he said seemed to relevant.

So Barth needed to rethink his theology. Like all good theologians (and similar to what we suggest) Barth went back to the Bible. He read the book of Romans and this book that we are reading was the result of his attempt to rethink his own theology. The first addition was published in 1919 and it was revised many times after that. Barth’s reading of Romans led him to a couple conclusions that are dealt with in The Epistle to the Romans. First, left on our own God and humans are radically separated. No matter how good or rational a person is they cannot know God and cannot confuse their cause with God’s cause. Second, everything humans do is under God’s judgment because we are sinful and apart from God there is no good. Third, the only way that we know God and know God’s love and grace is through Jesus Christ. The human mind can’t, by itself, understand or know God’s love. Only through Christ.

The Epistle to the Romans would go on to radically affect theology in Europe and America and would produce it’s own theological movement. Barth would continue to write and be one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. But that is a story for another time. This post, longer than I expected, gives us just enough information for a background on the book I am reading. Next week will dive back into the text.

P.S. I have been very hard on Protestant Liberalism in this post. I want to be clear: Protestant Liberalism has done so much for the advancement of theology that it is impossible to write about it all. That, however, does not mean it is perfect.

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