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Meet Karl Barth

Meet Karl Barth

– by Absalon Alvarez

In the picture above Karl had just received discipline for disobedience from his Father Friz.

Karl Barth’s Childhood Family

Karl Barth was born on May 10th, 1886.

He was the first child of Anna Katharina Barth and Friz Barth. His father was a Swiss Reformed professor of New Testament.

A troublesome child, Barth didn’t like going to school and for some time was the leader of a local street gang, engaging in feuds at school and in the neighborhood. (In the this family picture, Barth had just been disciplined by his father).

In 1904 Barth set out to follow in the footsteps of his father and started to study theology at the University of Bern. Later on he continued his studies in Germany at the universities of Berlin, Tübingen and Marburg. His school of thought was in Liberalism, and his approach to ministry in his early years was that of social gospel. While studying, he was also involved in social justice causes, including advocating for workers’ rights.

The Barth's, c. 1910

The Barth’s, c. 1910

In 1909, Barth became a Pastor in Geneva, and then in Fafenwill in 1911, where he served for a decade. In Safenwill is where Barth met his wife, Nelly Hoffman, and married in 1913.

Barth continued to be extremely involved in social work since, which was in line with his influences throughout seminary. These included such liberal scholars as Wilhelm Herrmann (idealist) and Adolf Von Harnack (social gospel).

The Manifesto of the Ninety-Three was a letter signed by 93 German intellectuals, from many academic areas such as science, math, arts, and theology. They signed this proclamation endorsement in support of the German military actions in the beginning of WWI. This is believed to have been the cause of Barth’s disillusionment with his professors, many of whom signed it. He believed that the lack of morals in their theology allowed them to be influenced to fit the political movements of that time.

Torn by the way liberal theology was shifting, and was being used and influenced by secular leaders, Barth decided to rethink his theological understandings. A visit with preacher Christoph Blumhardt seems to have motivated Barth to begin a journey to understand and do theology differently. Blumhardt’s understanding was that “the call of the Christian is still for him to give himself completely to the cause of the kingdom; to do everything in his power to help the world toward that goal. Yet, at the same time, a Christian must remain calm and patient, unperturbed even if his efforts show no signs of success, willing to wait for the Lord to bring the kingdom at his own pace and in his own way.” Blumhardt’s influence encouraged Barth to begin his theological work, and to begin writing.

In 1916 Barth decided to write a commentary on Paul’s epistles to the Romans. Published in 1919, it was intended for his own use, and for a small circle of friends. Instead, this work landed like a bombshell in the theological arena.

kb3His commentary brought to life certain subjects that had been muted by liberal theology. Barth wrote vigourously of the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. This would be central to his thoelogy from this time onward. In particular, he clearly lays out the radicalness of the Gospel. “Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative difference between God and man and God and the world.”

Because Barth’s commentary received international attention, he was offered a job at the University of Goettingen in 1921.

1927 Barth’s theological journey moved to a different set of topics, which would become the collection of writings we know today as Church Dogmatics. One of Barth’s key theological themes in Dogmatics, his emphasis on the Word of God,  is expressed in this quote: “The object of theology is not Christian faith, but the word of God.” Barth had become convinced that the Christian theology had granted too much to philosophy. So he declared that the Word of God provides not only answers, but also questions. “The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths.”

Barth’s work mirrored earlier theological traditions of freedom and critical stance towards the task of theology. He insisted, however, that no matter how true or correct theology was, it always remains a human endeavor, and therefore must always be seen with a combination of freedom, joy, and even humor.

In that time that many people believed that theological systems were a thing of the past. Church Dogmatics showed there was still room and value for systematic theology. For many, Barth’s theology served as an antidote for liberalism.

friedrichcochDuring the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933, the German church struggled against the belief of so-called “German Christians” who believed in the perfectibility of the human race. This conviction, which was rooted in natural theology, had become part of Hitler’s political agenda for the Third Reich. It was believed that the German church had a divine calling to reinterpret Christianity, particularly in terms of opposing Judaism. This gave credence to the establishing of numerous anti-Semitic policies.

kb4In protest, Barth and others gathered in the city of Barmen for what they called “ the witnessing synod.” The fruit of their meeting was what is known as tthe Barmen Declaration, written by mostly Barth. This meeting and declaration gave rise to what is known as “the Confessing Church”, the movement eventually led in part by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the years ahead, they would start an underground movement, and even make plans to assasinate Hitler.

After the WWII, Barth’s influenced remained considerable. He served as an important voice for the German church in their attempts for reconciliation with church bodies around the world. And, though he didn’t embrace a Fundamentalist understanding of the infallibility of the word of God (he believed in the infallibility of Jesus Christ, revealed in the Word), he modeled how a high regard for the scriptures could still be legitimately held in modern theological studies. Even though Barth died in December 10, 1968, his legacy and impact continue to have influence in theology today.

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Don’t Make Me Lead the Church?

As I look into the annals of our church family, I stumbled upon this obvious, yet profound, theme.

downloadPachomius (d. 348), after being discharged from the military, found his way to a life of solitude in the desert. He and his followers were committed to never holding church office.

St. Anthony of the Desert (d. 356) committed himself to a life of solitude and prayer. He avoided church leadership issues, but his fame led to gossip about his doctrinal beliefs. His only involvement in local church life in the city ended up being him having to clear his name.

Athanasius (d. 373) was a church bishop, but chose to order his life by the rhythms of the monastery. Whenever he was in trouble in church politics, he would run to the desert for spiritual and relational peace. 

Basil the Great (d. 379) was ordained an elder against his will! Conflict drove him back to the monastic life. But then he was elected bishop, which was followed by direct conflict with the Roman Emperor. As a bishop, he championed (you guessed it) the monastic life of solitude!

st-gregory-nazBasil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) was forced to become a bishop by Basil. He didn’t want the job – he preferred a life of contemplation. Gregory was so sad being a pastor that he left his local church. But, he was such a great thinker that his influence became known in the high places of power in the Empire. He was then called by Theodosius to become bishop of Constantinople. He didn’t want that job, either…and, sure enough, as soon as he assumed that role other church leaders started hammering him on some policy and procedure issues. So, he resigned yet again, and went back to little Naziansus to be a song-writer at his original local church.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), Basil’s younger brother, was an introvert. He enjoyed anonymity and solitude. His big brother Basil forced him against his will to become a bishop (why do these guys keep doing that?). But major conflicts ensued, so he went into hiding. Emperor Theodosius found him, read his amazing theological writings, and obliged him to travel all over the empire teaching doctrine. Gregory always felt this was a huge distraction to what he really wanted – a life of solitude.

Martin of Tours (d. 397) was also a military man. After he was released from the army, he, too, settled into the monastic life. When Tours needed a bishop, the people elected Martin to the post. But even though he took the position, he chose to live his life like a monk, not like a prestigious church leader. He eventually felt the need to move out of the city.

Ambrose (d. 397) didn’t want to be a bishop, but one night the crowd in Milan demanded that he take the job! He tried hard to dissuade the people. He then tried to escape. Finally, the Emperor himself let it be known that Ambrose would be bishop, like it or not. So, begrudgingly, he accepted the role – all this before he was even baptized!

John Chrysostum (d. 407) was a lawyer-turned-monk who happened to be a great preacher. He was so good that people couldn’t accept the fact that he wanted to live in simple solitude. He was preaching in Antioch when he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople, because the Emperor wanted him as the bishop there. As a monk committed to poverty, the glitz of the Roman capital turned his stomach…and he preached about it. More conflict! From there he was turned on by other bishops, banished from the city, and even exiled, where he died from failing health.

Jerome (d. 420) was a monk, who then became a church leader. He did incredible work as a Bible translator and theologian. But his work in the church drove him to depression. He made a lot of theological enemies, and spent the last 10 years of this life lonely, in a lot of pain, and surrounded by controversy.

Augustine (d. 430), from the time he became a Christian, wanted a life of solitude. He was on that path when he was ordained in the church of Hippo against his will.

Obvious, isn’t it? Everyone craved solitude! The great leaders of the Imperial church all realized something: Following Jesus is the one thing to be desired above all else … and being a leader in the local church is huge distraction to that simple pursuit! And their experience was that church leadership worked against that desire, not for it.

I’ve been a Christian now for 39 years. I went to Christian college and graduate school. I’ve been pastoring for over two decades. In my lifetime, I have never met another man or woman who shares this ancient conviction. “I would much rather live a life of solitude than be a leader in the church.” No, what I experience instead is an almost insatiable desire to be in the throes of church life, preferably as the senior leader of the church.

I’ve also experienced in my ministry career that local church life is fraught with peril, especially for the pastors. When church conflict is at its peaks, rich community life and shared spirituality ebb. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

I truly believe that, if I could get all these “great uncles” together in my living room, they would tell me, “Bill, don’t let life in the church keep you from the main thing of knowing Jesus deeply. Leave ministry leadership if you have to. Don’t lose it! Because it’s the best.”

I wish I could have heard from you guys sooner.

 
 

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