The Life and Theology of Karl Barth

The Life and Theology of Karl Barth

It should come as no surprise when a brain that has been marinating for decades in North American evangelical culture has an immediate and visceral response to the names of  prominent historical Christians:

  • C.S. Lewis:  Green light and heart emojis (but, remember, he did smoke . . .)
  • Francis Schaeffer:  Amazing intellect, but too bad about those knickers.
  • Karl Barth:  Tornado sirens and a flashing inerrancy and Neo-Orthodoxy warning light!

Thanks be to God, we are occasionally given the opportunity to step back from our preconceptions and to look at historical figures through a helpful and forgiving lens. In Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, Mark Galli has extended that gift.

A Rebel with a Cause

Born in Switzerland in 1886, Karl Barth entered the world at a time when liberalism was changing the way Christians worshiped and thought about God. Emphasis on human reason and experience led to a gradual abandonment of the primacy of revelation and to a detour around foundational truths such as the deity of Christ and the fallenness of man.

It was not until Barth  married and entered the pastorate that he began to question his liberal theological underpinnings. His heart for his working class congregation led him to seek answers in socialism, but when Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, and the falling dominoes led to World War I, Barth’s eyes were opened to significant cracks in the logic of liberalism. “If religious experience could give rise to such divergent and even contradictory conclusions, perhaps it could no longer be relied upon to provide an adequate ground and starting point for theology.” (34)

Barth was also a vocal opponent of National Socialism, writing articles that attacked right wing political dogmatism along with letters and pamphlets denouncing the heresy that blood or race had any bearing on church membership or acceptance before God. In 1935, Barth and his family were forced to return to Switzerland where his ministry was based until his death in 1968.

The “Godness” of God

Barth’s studies led him to conclude that the Bible was a “book not so much about men and women but about God,” (43) and that the only sound basis for our theology is the revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture. In his career as a pastor, professor, and theologian, he became known for his commentary on Romans and a stalwart teaching of the complete otherness of God. By the time he reached middle age, Barth had become something of a rock star in his theological circles.

He was a strong proponent for church life even throughout the chaos of Nazi persecution of the Confessing Church, arguing that “we must not . . .hold ourselves aloof from the church or break up its solidarity; but rather, participating in its responsibility and sharing the guilt of its inevitable failure, we should accept it and cling to it.” (51)

Steadfast in Faith–and Steadfast in Adultery?

It is difficult to reconcile the utter strangeness of a man who lived in awe of a holy God while subjecting his wife and children to the indignity and inappropriateness of a live-in mistress, but this also was part of the mystery of Karl Barth. His research assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaur, was a fixture in both his professional life and in his home.

In an article written for Christianity Today after the publication of this biography, Mark Galli expressed stunned distaste over the rationale Barth used to justify his moral failure. Barth’s dialectical approach to theology emphasized the contradiction between two truths in order to gain insight into the deep truths about God. For example, Jesus is both God and man. Barth’s stretch of reason was that he and Charlotte “had no choice  but to live in this dialectical tension between obeying God’s command about marital fidelity and what felt right to them. ” The ugliness of Barth’s sin is exacerbated by his blatant use of theological arguments to justify it.

Barth for Evangelicals

Whether we choose to argue that Karl Barth’s theology supported him in poor moral choices or that his theology was terrific and truthful, but he simply failed to live up to its ideals, he is arguably one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century. One of the most helpful features of Galli’s biography is his familiarity with evangelical culture as he “translated” Barth via two doctrines that are unique to his thinking and examined their usefulness to evangelical teachers and pastors:

  1. The Word of God–  Barth viewed Scripture as a three-fold reality: the preached Word, the written Word, and the revealed Word, Jesus Christ. This is helpful, but then he goes on to insist that “Scripture is God’s Word in so far as God lets it be His Word. Therefore, the Bible . . . becomes God’s Word” as we hear it.” (111) Evangelicals can join Barth in understanding that the Bible is not a magic book, but does indeed come alive for us through the work of the Spirit. However, his rejection of inerrancy is a problem, especially when he (illogically) sets Scripture as a means of revelation and then says that it contains “historical, scientific, and even theological errors.” (113)
  2. Universal Reconciliation–  In all the church’s wranglings over election, Barth has distinguished himself by taking a very unique stance, holding that “Christ is both the only one who elects and the only one who is elected.” Therefore, humanity is chosen only in a secondary sense, and all men and women are reconciled to God through the death of His Son. Judgment and pardon are both present in Barth’s soteriology, but pardon for sin “does not depend on one’s response to Christ. . . Instead, total pardon is objectively accomplished in Jesus Christ on behalf of mankind.” This, inevitably leads to universalism, but I appreciated theologian Oliver Crisp’s rendering of Barth’s thinking:  “The Reformers say, ‘If you repent and believe, you will be saved,’ while Barth says, ‘You are saved; therefore, believe and repent!'” I see the potential for error, but this helps me to sharpen my own appreciation of what’s going on behind the scenes when someone “prays the sinner’s prayer.”

On a visit to the United States during the year I was born, church lore holds that Karl Barth summarized his theology and his life’s work in one simple sentence: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It’s likely that this really happened, but it’s unfortunate that Barth could not have found that great love sufficient to enable him to love his wife and his children more than he did.

His story becomes a cautionary tale for any of us who teach and study Scripture, for we will never live up to all that we know, but may we find grace to live consistently with the remarkable message of the gospel with all its provision for forgiveness. May we stand before the mirror of the Word with earnest prayer for a searching and a knowing God to reveal our sins and to hold us close to His Truth.


Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals simply click on the title here, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

48 thoughts on “The Life and Theology of Karl Barth”

  1. I had an interesting exchange with a young fellow who bases his ministry on Universal Reconciliation. He argued that the Scripture that proclaims in the end “every knee will bow” is the revelation of all souls saved. I responded that I once saw a bumper sticker that said – “Those who do not believe in God had better be right” and in the same vein, I offered that if UR is true, I’m all good so why do I need to believe in anything, including his teachings? He went silent after that. I have that effect on people though. 🙂

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    1. I love that you shared this conversation here. It really illustrates the practical application of what sounds like an ivory tower matter. Of course, all theology is waaaaay more practical than we realize.

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  2. Not to this level, but, I remember justifying my sinful behavior before my stroke. I am so thankful that God pointed me in the right direction. It has been a painful, joyful, and an invigorating experience living to please my Savior. Thank you for taking the time to read my book on prayer. Your insightful review is very much appreciated. Have a fantastic weekend Michele, and may God continue to bless you and yours.

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    1. YES! And do you ever listen to the CT podcasts? Mark does Quick to Listen with Morgan Lee, and then there’s The Calling. Both just excellent, and that’s where I learned about this book. I was so very impressed with his ability to take a pretty dusty subject and make it clear and interesting to this middle aged housewife.

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  3. Wow! I was worried there for a minute, Michele. Some points to consider from Barth, but thank you for concluding that perhaps his is a “cautionary tale” in a world frought with liberalities.

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    1. I knew this review was going to “throw” some readers–hopefully not irredeemably. I do puzzle over the ways of God and His choosing of leaders with all their flaws and foibles … that is, until I look into my own heart.

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    1. Yes, we do tend to be a bit prejudiced. One thing I didn’t note in the bio was that both Barth and Bonhoeffer were shaky on inerrancy, but we never hear that about Bonhoeffer because we tend to focus on his heroism and pre-mature death.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to smile at your intro – I’d always had a similar reaction to hearing Barth’s name but didn’t really know much specifically about him. Thanks for enlightening me!

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  5. Michele, What a service you’ve done in fleshing out the life and beliefs of this man who is mostly a name (with warning lights!) to me. He was a product of his time in some respects. Makes one wonder how much we are unwittingly products of our time and place in the history of the Church. It’s always disappointing (and potentially confusing and disillusioning) when great men don’t prove to be all great, but perhaps that’s the point of the Gospel. Only God is great. People are flawed and forever in need of forgiveness.

    As for ‘Jesus loves me, this I know…’ , this is no grounds for universalism. God indeed loves the world. Some will accept this and bow the knee willingly to His ways, others will reject their need for such a love and in the end will bow the knee because they have no choice, hating this ‘tyrant’ God all the while.

    It’s a disturbing thing to know so much about God’s holiness, and yet consciously and willfully live at odds with it. The intellect has great potential for hardening our hearts to truth! God deliver me from being so smart. And may He grant us soft hearts to listen and obey. Thank you for this cautionary tale and all your careful thinking about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very strange that this comment went flying off into a strange place. I’m hoping that by responding to it, I will trick it into showing up in its proper place. I’m glad you took the time to read and reflect on Barth’s life along with me. It’s so much easier just to write someone off as “wrong” and “misguided” (make no mistake, he was BOTH!), and to miss out on any truth that seeps up through the cracks.
      This business of knowing so much and applying only what is convenient is a frightening tendency.

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      1. ( : thanks for trying…It’s my fault for fiddling with identities I guess. I was interested to read another review of this book that showed up in the Reader… all praise, no caution. Thank you for the fuller picture!

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    1. I thought this one was going to be difficult, but really, I enjoyed putting some meat on the meager bones of information that I had about Barth. I wish his story could have been different, but it’s a good one for me to read and to learn from.

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  6. What I was wanting to say was THANK-YOU for wading through the thick and thin of Barth’s life and informing me of why I see flashing lights when I hear his name! His certainly is a cautionary tale to those of us who have so much head knowledge of Scripture and claim to be espousing truth when we write about it. Does our walk match the talk. Does the Spirit inform our understanding or are we leaning on our clever intellects…Good warning.

    I find the ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’ testimony to be missing something. God does love the world and is not willing that any should perish. But He waits for us to acknowledge our personal need of that love and bow to its rule as needy sinners. Eventually all mankind will bow, it is true. Some will bow gladly, in humble awe of their Father, others will be forced to bow to the King of Kings whom they hate as a non-negotiable Tyrant. It puzzles me how this is seen as a defense of Universalism.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful and educational review!

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    1. Thank you, Linda, for persevering. I did find your other comment and even tried responding to it, but it is stuck somewhere in the cracks.

      I was hoping to get your insights on this book. I’m glad you also needed a reminder of the origin of those flashing lights. However, I did not know about his moral issues until I listened to the CT podcast prior to reading the book. So . . . I must confess that I read with a chip on my shoulder, but Galli did a good job addressing the sin without throwing baby and bathwater out the window in a huff. It’s so disappointing when a great thinker uses his or her gifts as a means for creating a smokescreen.

      I have my misgivings about the “Jesus Loves Me” summary as well, but I’m not sure he was using it to defend universal reconciliation so much as he was just show boating his gift for the “common touch.” Somewhere I read a cynical person’s thought that he may have even planted the questioner in the audience so he could give that terrific answer “off the cuff.” Who knows?
      And since I don’t, I guess I’ll just find the kernel of loveliness that sits inside that truth and know that my certainty of Jesus’ love for me is “so” because Scripture states it and He demonstrated it in His every action.

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  7. it sounds like such an interesting read Michele. It fascinates me how spiritual leaders can so often justify their actions and failings by interpreting the Good book to suit their needs. It’s quite sad actually

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    1. Great! I’ve been relieved to find out that I’m not alone in my categorizing “the names.” We miss a lot when we just go with a category, though, and don’t look deeper, so thanks for looking alongside me!

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  8. Oh my, this book sounds like a brain teaser. I love biographies and actually had my children read them before chapter books :} This one would mess with my head. I do have a pet peave about Christians who twist the Word to make it say what they want it to say. I think we all do it to a degree and that’s part of sanctification, but….
    As always, a great review Michele. And I like your feather signature!

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    1. Thanks, Char! A wonderfully gifted friend put that together for me!
      And yes, I do think the bio of Karl Barth might mess with your head. It’s hard to read about conflicted characters like him, to appreciate their contribution while completely rejecting their poor choices.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I had not heard of Karl Barth, Michele, so I especially enjoyed reading your post. He sounds like a very controversial character but also a very interesting one. Thank you for being a part of the Hearth and Soul Link Party. I hope you are having a lovely week.

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    1. Yes, I had that same sensation wash over me as I read his bio. So often these great thinkers have such inexplicable blind spots. It’s enough to make me thankful that I’m so average.

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    1. We don’t hear about him nearly as much as his contemporary, Bonhoeffer. I just recall his name being somewhere on the wishy washy side of some bandwidth in a theology class from college. It was good to get some background to clear up the haze.

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  10. First off, I loved your intro, Michele. 🙂 And I also appreciated your thoughtful take on Karl Barth’s life and theology. Struggling to handle such a dichotomy is certainly relevant these days, isn’t it? What do we do when prominent Christians change their minds about various biblical teachings, for example? Do we discount their prior work? Chalk it up to a difference of opinion? Embrace their new views too? This is such a tricky part of social media for me. When I see someone I respect retweeting the words of someone who has espoused views that go against scripture, for example, I have to admit it gives me pause.

    But, I digress! You’re right … Barth’s life is a cautionary tale for us today. Nobody is immune to the kind of rationalizing he did … may God give us the wisdom and humility we need to acknowledge our own blind spots and seek to live according to God’s truth.

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    1. Yes, I’ve had the same struggle with online leaders and thinkers, and it’s tempting to throw it all out, to un-friend and un-listen. It’s challenging, for sure. And I found Barth’s story to be extremely challenging. His assistant was likely both villain and victim in this story, and it’s a miracle when God uses our work and our words, fallen creatures that we are.

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