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Karl Barth

Born in Basle, Switerland on May 10th, 1886. Studied under Adolf von Harnack, the great master of German liberal theology, at Berlin. In the summer of 1911 he became pastor at Safenwil, Switzerland.

His experience as a pastor brought him to the conclusion that the Bible was not about religion but rather the kingdom of God. With the outbreak of the First World War, Barth became increasingly disillusioned with the liberal theology which had dominated the nineteenth century and now supported the German war effort.

His commentry on Paul’s letter to the Romans (1922) theologically separates the twentieth century from the nineteenth. It was ‘dialectical’ in nature. It was written not so much as to inform but rather to challenge and transform its reader. In it he sought to call the church back to the living God of the Bible who has spoken to us once and for all in Jesus Christ the living Word, and who meets us as the transcendent Lord in the present moment in the crisis of decision and encounter. It stressed the importance of the cross of Christ as God’s affirmation and judgment of the world.

In 1921 Barth was called to a teaching post at Gottingen, then to Minster and in 1930 to Bonn. In the 1930s he opposed the National Socialist attempt to subjugate the German church. In 1935 he was forbidden to teach in Germany. Barth returned to his hometown of Basle where he spent the rest of is life writing his Church Dogmatics.

In his Church Dogmatics, Barth was to work out the implications of the Christian doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation in every area of Christian life. Barth’s theology became more Christocentric on two accounts. Firstly, he recognised that the implicit existentialism of his earlier period, with its one-sided emphasis on the present moment of divine-human encounter and decision, could detract from the central stress of the Bible on what God has done for mankind in reconciling the world to himself in Christ. Secondly was the experience of National Socialism which sought to justify its racist policies by appealing to a doctrine of natural ‘orders of creation’. This Barth felt betrayed the Christian understanding of grace by appealing to sources of revelation other than Jesus Christ: he was the Jew in whom God has broken down the barriers between the Jews and all other ethnic groups (the `Gentiles'); he is head over church and state; to him alone we owe supreme loyalty.

Barth saw himself standing in the tradition of the ancient fathers of the church and the Protestant Reformers, engaging in lifelong dialogue with liberal Protestantism on the left and Roman Catholicism on the right - both of which he felt weakened the emphasis of the Bible that God accepts us by grace alone in Jesus Christ.

Barth retired from teaching in 1962 and died on December 10th, 1968.

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