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Karl Barth – From Liberalism to Neo-Orthodoxy

Karl Barth was born in 1886, the son of a Swiss Reformist minister. In 1904, in the midst of his studies, he read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, stating it was “the first book that truly moved me as a student.”. Barth was a student of Protestant Liberalism at Tübingen and Marburg. It was after his studies at Marburg that Barth spent the next ten years as a Pastor. He became disillusioned with liberal theology with the advent of the first World War, seeing it as prima face evidence against man’s progress and perfectibility, two major doctrinal points of the German liberalists.

The turning point for Barth was when a number of his former professors signed a document titled “Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World”, which supported the Kaiser’s war policies. In doing so, Barth believed that his professors, and liberal theologians in general, had strayed by assigning divine support for a war that supported a particular culture. The final breaking point was the rise of Hitler, and the Nazi’s manipulation of theology and putting allegiance to the Führer above devotion to Jesus Christ.

Barth’s writing of the Barmen declaration signified his break with liberal theology. However, most theologians argue that Barth’s theology was neither liberal nor neo-orthodox, a label which Barth rejected. In the Barmen declaration, Barth essentially stated there is “No führer but Jesus.” This led to his expulsion from the National Socialists in 1935 for refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler, a move lauded by prominent theologians, including S. Parkes Cadman.

Barth argued that Liberal Protestantism had become too humanistic, and that WWI and the German Evangelical Church’s support of Adolf Hitler testified to that fact. Barth looked to return to a Christianity to where the revelation of God was primary to anything else. In particular, Barth’s theology was based on a single point of revelation, one where God reveals who God is through Jesus Christ. This came to be known informally as Barth’s “tangent theory”.

Barth also rejected the idea the revelation of God’s word through the Bible is static, and, in fact, God’s revelation to us through Jesus Christ is a dynamic and living thing. The Bible was to be looked at as mankind’s recollection of God’s revelation through Jesus Christ, not as revelation itself.

Barth also took a fresh look at the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. Barth’s viewpoint was much more universalistic, in that Jesus Christ was the embodiment of both the elect and the reprobate. Through Jesus, he assumes all reprobation and elects all of humanity for salvation through this atoning death on the cross.

Barth’s influence on theology is undeniable. Following WWII, Barth lectured around the world, including at the opening of the World Council of Churches in 1948. He was later invited to the sessions which would become Vatican II. In his waning years, Barth made a great number of visits to the prisons in Basel, which continually showed how evangelism and social concern impacted every moment of his life.

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