Light on a Crucial Theological Voice

Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict
By Christiane Tietz
Translated by Victoria J. Barnett
Oxford, pp. 480, $32.95

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Review by J. Scott Jackson

From his childhood in Bern, Switzerland, Karl Barth showed a penchant for starting brawls, just as his revolutionary theology still inspires debate five decades after his death. Barth’s shadow looms large over modern Christian thought, and one century after his incendiary Epistle to the Romans (second edition) was published, avid interest in his work grows apace, as conferences and monographs parse his massive oeuvre with increasing precision and detail.

Given his legacy as a seminal ecumenist thinker, often accounted among the likes of a Calvin or an Aquinas, Barth has not heretofore been the subject of a critical biographical monograph — until Christiane Tietz of the University of Zurich published her definitive, erudite, yet accessible work, recently translated into English.

Drawing from recently published material, including personal correspondence released to the public by Barth’s descendants, Tietz’s work fills a major scholarly lacuna and deserves wide readership among pastors, teachers, students, and lay believers. The density, prolixity, and rhetorical complexity of Barth’s writings — especially his 13-volume Church Dogmatics — have daunted, perplexed, and discouraged myriad would-be readers.

Works on Barth’s theology abound; Tietz puts flesh on the passionate and fraught human being who birthed it. We find here Barth as a precocious theology student, chafing against his father’s moderate conservatism while he pursued immersion in modernist theologies in Berlin and Marburg. We see, later, a loving father of five, wrestling with his grief in the funeral homily for his son, Matthias, who died at age 20 after a climbing accident.

Most notably, Tietz sheds new light on one of the most excruciating and notorious aspects of Barth’s life — a four-decade affair with his lover, “secretary,” and theological collaborator, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who lived in the Barth household from 1929 until 1966, when she moved into a nursing home. Though theologically astute, she was content to work by his side and in his shadow day to day in their home office, compiling secondary sources, culling critical reviews of his work, and offering her feedback.

The author also insightfully helps to clarify Barth’s public theology and fraught political engagements, subjects of increased attention in recent scholarship. At the outset of World War I, Barth’s disillusionment with leading German academics who endorsed Kaiser Wilhelm’s militarist nationalism spurred him to reject liberal Protestant theology and ethics, seeking a new foundation in the wholly other God of the New Testament, the Reformers, and Kierkegaard.

In the post-war chaos that fostered the National Socialist insurgency, Barth, a Swiss national working in the German academy, overcame his initial reluctance to enter the fray publicly and he joined the Social Democratic Party. Barth soon became a leader of the Confessing Church movement that resisted, perhaps too haltingly, Nazi efforts to coopt and control German Protestant churches.

Barth was a principal author of the Barmen Declaration (1934), which asserted the freedom of the gospel and sole lordship of Jesus Christ over against all temporal rulers. Barth later regretted his failure to condemn the scapegoating of Jews that came to genocidal fruition in the Final Solution. Such was the notoriety of Barth’s protest that Hitler personally reviewed his dossier. Barth eventually was banned from speaking and his writings were confiscated.

Barth’s refusal, as a civil servant, to sign an unqualified oath of loyalty to the Führer sparked an official inquiry that estranged him from some members of the Confessing Church resistance and culminated in his dismissal from the University of Bonn. Barth incisively came to see National Socialism as a totalizing, anti-Christian religion that threatened ruin and destruction of all human values.

Controversy dogged Barth back in his homeland, as he repatriated at the University of Basel, where he taught until 1961. He angered Germans by urging Czech Christians to resist the Nazi takeover of their country, and accusations that he violated Swiss neutrality led to (unsuccessful) official efforts to censor him. Later, during the Cold War, Barth demurred from explicitly criticizing Communist regimes as he had the fascists, eliciting harsh criticism from Brunner, among others.

Theological strife followed Barth to the latest stages of his unfinished Dogmatics, as his rejection of infant baptism garnered criticism. Though Barth’s life and work will no doubt continue to engender controversy, Tietz ably demonstrates that Barth’s voice can continue to inform the quest for an authentic discipleship and theology.

Scott Jackson is a theologian, independent scholar, and writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts.


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