In 1911, Karl Barth (1886 - 1968) is settling into his first parish in the Swiss industrial town of Safenwil. Here in this economically depressed and seemingly God-forsaken place, Barth gets his start in pastoral ministry. Born in Basel, Switzerland, he is the son and grandson of ministers, but family connections have not paved the way for a prestigious parish.
The congregation is deeply divided: the affluent factory owners expect religion to sustain their lifestyle, while the poor seek consolation and assistance. But amid his failure Barth is convinced that he has grown in his understanding of pastoral ministry: "It was there that I first began at least to become aware of the full scope of the task of a Reformed preacher, teacher and pastor." Despite pressure from the most prosperous in his congregation, Barth stands alongside the poor.
It is during his early ministry that he begins to recognize the weakness of the liberal theology that has long been in vogue in European universities. Of what relevance are such teachings to the militaristic European culture that is deeply embroiled in an arms race? He digs into Scripture for answers, focusing on Paul's letter to the Romans. Here he is confronted with the sovereignty of God—not a domesticated god of the liberals, but an awesome "divine incognito" beyond the comprehension of human beings. The only hope of knowing God is through Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.
Barth's commentary on Romans appears in 1919, and the following year he begins teaching at the University of Göttingen in the field of Reformed theology. Although the first edition of his commentary on Romans gets off to a slow start, the timing is right. Liberal theology is bankrupt. Students, ministers, and laity alike are seeking something more substantial for their spiritual diet. He insists on the absolute primacy of Christ—that Christ is the very Word of God and therefore is the foundation of theology. The Bible is foundational for all of his studies, particularly in pointing to Christ, but it is only secondarily the word of God. No book—not even the Bible—can challenge the primacy of Christ. The publication of his first volume of Church Dogmatics in 1932 further solidifies his place as a leading biblical scholar and theologian, though never without heated exchanges with both liberals and conservatives.
Challenging any form of religion aligned with national interest, Barth insists that Christians must look to the cross of Christ in seeking to live out their lives in a perilous world. And indeed, world affairs are very perilous as Hitler is coming to power. Barth has moved on to the universities in Münster and Bonn; but in 1935, after refusing to take an oath to Hitler, he returns to Switzerland to teach in Basel.
Barth's theological teaching and writing are more contextualized and practical than systematic. Indeed, Church Dogmatics grows out of his lectures and the questions students raise. He challenges not only theological liberalism but also the Reformed teaching of Calvin. He argues that any theoretical dogma that seeks to balance election with reprobation would trump the very sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Yet his own "dialectical theology" balances grace with judgment as well as other biblical paradoxes.
After the first volume of Church Dogmatics appears, many more volumes follow—a work still in progress at the time of his death in 1968. One person in particular plays a large role in his work: Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who serves as far more than a secretary and editor. In fact, so dependent is he on her that in 1929 she moves into his home so that she can be awakened during the night when he needs her assistance. She reads widely in theological fields, attends lectures, and keeps copious notes. Whether their relationship goes beyond theological pursuits is debated, but her presence in the Barth household creates tension in the marriage and with the children.
In 1962 Barth was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and in the years after his death he was regarded as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century—perhaps even since Aquinas, as Pope Pius XII suggested. He was heralded as the father of neo-orthodoxy, a term he himself rejected.