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Karl Barth: Friend or Foe?

Ryan Glomsrud

Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, by Mark Galli. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, xvi + 176 pages, $18.00, paper.

This new volume on Karl Barth serves two purposes as indicated by the title. First, it is an introduction to the life and thought of a towering figure in modern theology, pitched for those new to (or not-so-familiar-with) Barth. Second, it is specifically “for evangelicals,” in that the author gives both a diagnosis as well as a suggested remedy for what ails American evangelicalism. The book’s author, Mark Galli, is the editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine. Galli has been sympathetic to the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement. However, in his role as editor, he is well positioned to offer insider criticisms of evangelicalism as a whole, prosecuting the charges of shallowness and man-centeredness of even some more conservative wings of the movement. In this book, Galli introduces the Basel theologian to a group already familiar with the “God-centered” theology of Jonathan Edwards. The result is a very readable primer to Karl Barth, although it is difficult to imagine “Karl Barth is My Homeboy” t-shirts on sale at a Gospel Coalition conference any time soon. In what follows, I will consider the book first as an introductory biography and then, much more briefly, as an engagement with American evangelicalism.

Barth’s Life

As a biography, the book doesn’t break any new ground. It presents a summary of the only substantive work of this sort in existence that was published in 1976 by Barth’s former assistant, Eberhard Busch.[1] Galli readily acknowledges his dependence on Busch, but readers may not know (and possibly Galli and many Barth students are similarly unaware of the fact) that the Busch text was not just based on autobiographical writings but was in reality an autobiography. Barth himself organized much of the material, chose the letters, and composed many of the transitional sections. This is mentioned merely to point out the rather surprising fact that there is no in-depth biography of Karl Barth in existence, to say nothing of a critical biography like Joseph Frank’s monumental work on Dostoevsky, or Joachim Garff’s impressive study of Søren Kierkegaard. Galli’s contribution doesn’t intend to fill that gap, however, but amounts to a Reader’s Digest of the semi-autobiographical Busch volume.

The book consists of fourteen, manageable chapters after the introduction. The introduction and chapters 1 and 14 engage American evangelicalism. Albeit briefly, Galli explores the history of Barth’s relationship to the movement from the 1940s and 50s (with tidbits on Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Cornelius Van Til), through the 1960s and 70s (mentioning Fuller Seminary luminaries such as Geoffrey Bromiley and Paul Jewett among others), all the way to the present (citing appreciative if critical engagements with Barth by the likes of Allister McGrath, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Michael Horton). Further, Galli prosecutes his critique of evangelicalism in these sections (to which we will return in conclusion), where he observes the striking similarities between the Protestant liberalism of Barth’s age and contemporary evangelicalism of our own day.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are biographical in nature dealing with the early years of the theologian’s life. Barth’s upbringing in a family that tended towards pietism, and the “positive” theology of his father, which Galli describes as a “moderately conservative and warm” version of Protestantism, is set against the tradition of Protestant liberalism in which Barth was largely immersed and which won him over during university training in Berlin and Marburg. Galli also explores Barth’s early pastorate, his involvement with socialism, and his movement away from liberalism at the outset of the First World War.

Galli’s treatments of these early periods of Barth’s life are standard, none of which are likely to raise a specialist’s eyebrows. Still, one could nitpick, though only after acknowledging that the shortcomings aren’t unique to Galli but represent something like the received wisdom in evangelical circles concerning the history of modern theology. Four issues in particular come to mind, which in the end are connected and further highlight the need for a scholarly and critical biography of Barth.

First, throughout the book and in Barth scholarship generally, it is often difficult to assign meaningful definitions to the terms “pietism,” “liberalism,” “Reformed,” or even “evangelical.” Fuzzy categories and vague descriptions then make it difficult to sustain a coherent narrative. Readers are therefore advised to abandon all preconceptions of such labels and simply try to determine from context how authors define their terms. More often than not, how an individual self-identifies becomes the determining factor, apart from theological or historical analysis. For his part, Galli’s book doesn’t attempt to resolve these terminological difficulties, and he can hardly be faulted for that. Nonetheless, his attempt to describe Barth’s development is open to critique. Frequently, the ambiguity of theological designations obscures the connections between movements and figures.[2]

Second and along similar lines, Galli seems to regard Barth’s involvement with socialism as a young pastor as a mere short-term episode of primarily social-political importance, rather than the abiding and theologically-inspiring catalyst that it was. In truth, the tradition of Swiss pietism (known in Barth’s day and context as “Swiss Religious Socialism”) fed Barth’s critique of other streams of Protestant thought. In an alternative narrative of Barth’s early development to the one Galli inherits, one could argue more accurately that Barth moved from one branch of pietism (i.e., his father’s “positive” theology) to another, namely Wilhelm Herrmann’s liberal pietism, all before returning to a modified version of his father’s theology as inspired and glossed by Swiss Religious Socialism (yet another branch of pietism). Of course, Barth developed numerous creative, inventive positions over the course of his life, but the arc of his story began and ended within the pietist tradition. Other classifications, such as “Reformed,” “orthodox” or “neo-orthodox,” can only be understood in a strictly post-confessional sense.

Third, Galli offers a genealogy of Protestant Liberalism that, while it is well worn in evangelical circles, over-emphasizes the history of philosophy (i.e., Protestant liberalism as an outcome of the epistemological progression from Descartes to Kant and Schleiermacher). To criticize this potted history, passed down in seminary classrooms from generation to generation, may be perceived as wading into the weeds of historical theology. And yet, the story is deficient in some respects. At the very least, it misses the broader context of what is after all called “Cultural Protestantism.” In other words, the narrowly philosophical narrative misses the way in which Protestant liberalism emerged from the comingling of pietism (as a church ethos), romanticism (as a cultural movement), and conservative politics (as the indispensable background for the religious awakenings in German-speaking lands). A richer account of the history of modern theology would actually help Galli highlight the myriad connections between the liberalism of Barth’s day and evangelicalism today.

The fourth quibble concerns Galli’s boilerplate account of Barth’s early protest against liberalism, which is often described, misleadingly I think, as a sudden “break” or “conversion.” Typically, Barth’s disillusionment with Protestantism in 1914–15 is explained as the result of the publication of a manifesto signed by leading intellectuals in support of German war policy at that time. This event is highlighted because most scholars rely on Barth’s own comments to this effect, in the Busch “biography” and elsewhere. Barth claimed that the “ethical failure” on the part of his theological teachers (for signing such a document) led him to the subsequent conclusion that these men were also theologically bankrupt. “I suddenly realized,” Barth recalled, “that I could not any longer follow . . . their ethics and dogmatics. . . . For me, at least, nineteenth-century theology no longer held any future.”[3] Neat and tidy as this may sound, the historical record is far more complicated. In actual fact, Barth was somewhat selective in whom he dismissed for supporting the war effort. Adolf von Harnack, his former teacher, for example, was roundly criticized. Meanwhile other signatories, such as Adolf Schlatter, also one of Barth’s teachers, escaped criticism, and in fact Barth grew in appreciation of the latter both during and after the war. At the very least, then, it must be said that not all of Barth’s teachers were theologically bankrupt, nor did he dismiss “an entire world of theological exegesis” (33–34) as he once claimed. Furthermore, and this is a more delicate point to raise with loyal Barthians, one wonders if the maintaining of a strict calculus of moral failure and theological bankruptcy doesn’t in fact open Barth himself to the charge of applying a double standard. I, for example, have always wondered with some perplexity how Barth’s own marital infidelity and long-term adulterous relationship with his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, is rarely considered as a comparable incident of moral failure indicative of theological bankruptcy. It seems inconsistent to condemn some German theologians for supporting a war policy in 1914, a policy which, on the surface of it, might plausibly have generated a number of interpretations and responses, while not asking the same question about moral failures all along the line.[4] Regarding the “plan with the secretary,” as Barth’s mother called it, refusing for a time to mention the woman by name, Galli does an adequate job of flagging the ethical disaster the situation entailed and fully acknowledges that the relationship, in Barth’s words, caused the family, not least Barth’s wife, “unspeakable suffering” (68). And yet, the war manifesto story is passed on from one generation to the next, and is frequently used to prop up the narrative of a radical turn from liberalism to some new, sui generis theological position. While Barth may have experienced 1914–15 as a world-changing moment, a dispassionate account would identify a gradual progression of shifting loyalties within Barth’s theological context. In the end, I suspect that Barth’s own account of 1914 was deeply, and I suppose understandably, influenced by subsequent history, namely the kind of nationalism that Barth witnessed in Nazi Germany from 1933 on.

Regarding the middle years of Barth’s life, chapter 7 rehearses the theologian’s rising reputation in Europe in the 1920s, including his appointment to teach Reformed theology at Göttingen. Here, Galli recounts Barth’s discovery of John Calvin and the post-Reformation tradition of Protestant orthodoxy. Engaging these sources, Barth came to believe that the object of theology must be God as he has revealed himself in his Word, and not faith itself, nor any other religious experience, as in Friedrich Schleiermacher, the founder of Protestant liberalism (64). Chapters 8 and 9 then offer a very concise treatment of Barth’s role in the Confessing Church movement, which opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches. This is perhaps the best part of the book, as Galli elegantly simplifies a complicated narrative. Barth’s actions at this time are described as bold and theologically motivated, which they were. He is rightly remembered for seeing clearly the threat that Hitler posed to the church and the world. In chapter 10, the Swiss theologian is returned to Basel and Galli concludes his account of Barth’s political theology while setting the stage for a brief exploration of Barth’s magnum opus, the monumental Church Dogmatics. Almost as an appendix, chapter 13 describes Barth’s physical appearance and late life, including his relationships to his children and former friends, his enjoyment of preaching in the Basel prison, and how he occupied his time in retirement (Mozart!).

It should be noted that although the book is not intended as an intellectual biography, a reader who is new to Barth will nonetheless become familiar with the broad strokes of his theology from all the chapters. Providing more focus, however, chapters 5 and 6 explore Barth’s ground-breaking commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, wherein the famous “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man is explored, along with Barth’s insistence on the priority of the divine initiative in revelation and salvation. Chapters 11 and 12 then explore two themes from the Church Dogmatics, namely the Word of God and Barth’s concept of universal reconciliation. In none of these sections does Galli champion Barth on controversial points. In fact, he is appropriately descriptive and cautious. As such, I would recommend the book to church laypeople who may be curious to read something non-academic on this important figure.

Barth and Evangelicalism

In bookend sections, Galli attempts to “use Barth to help evangelicals think about our life together as evangelicals” (xv). Galli is surely on target when he argues that “in many evangelical circles, we have begun to equate our experience of Christ with the gospel, and not something that comes as a result of the gospel” (144, original emphasis). Following in the liberal tradition (consciously or not), Galli suggests that many evangelicals “give more authority to what happens inside us than to the clear, objective teaching of God’s Word in Scripture” (144). In this way, “many of us have become . . . disciples of Schleiermacher, the great apostle of religious feeling. Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism” (144). Galli’s intention, as he states carefully, “is not to look to Barth as our theological savior” (145). Rather, the point is to be willing to learn from Barth’s insightful critique of liberalism and apply it to our own context.

But do we need Barth for this critique of liberalism as evangelicalism? Have we really understood Barth’s theological development and his place in theological history? What ought officers in NAPARC churches to think about Barth and his legacy? These are good questions to ask, and I don’t propose to answer them here. Doubtless there is much to be learned from Barth on a variety of fronts, and this introduction may help towards that end. However, the book did leave me with one lingering thought. Ironically, Galli’s attempt to appropriate Barth for a critique of evangelicalism can’t avoid bringing us face-to-face with the Achilles’ heel of Barth’s own theology, namely his understanding of revelation and the Bible. As other scholars have noted, Barth’s “dynamic concept of revelation . . . tends to locate the Word, not any longer in the Bible, but in man’s experience of faith.” The view is of course “worded in terms of an act of God’s self-disclosure, not of religious self-consciousness, but the end result is not very different.” Pressing the point, “Not much is gained by putting the Word at the center [of one’s theology] if the ‘Word’ turns out to be an elusive and mystically present ‘something’ behind and beyond the words of a book.”[5] And therein lies the difficulty of using Barth to fix what ails American evangelicalism; in the end, it isn’t quite so clear that Barth escaped pietistic liberalism after all.


[1] Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1976).

[2] For example, on a common understanding universities are often assumed to have been liberal while preachers’ colleges (or homiletical seminaries) more conservative; liberal theologians, meanwhile, are supposed to be predictably liberal and “positive” theologians relatively more conservative. “Pietism,” a term that Galli capitalizes throughout, is virtually undefinable other than with some reference to an experiential, heart-centered approach to religion that is, presumably, semi- if not fully-Pelagian. And yet, history complicates all this and records that Barth’s father, a supposed “positive,” in actual fact denied the virgin birth and was for this reason occasionally rejected for teaching in a university context; instead, he taught at the Basel Preachers’ College. Examples like this expose assumptions about categories of modern theology as misconceptions.

[3] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans. Thomas Wieser (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 14.

[4] The document in question, “Appeal to the World of Culture,” included six “It is not true…” assertions, such as: “Germany is not at fault for the war and did not violate the neutrality of Belgium”; “German troops did not infringe on the rights of civilians, were not brutal, and did not violate international law,” and so on; see George Rupp, Culture-Protestantism: German Liberal Theology at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Missoula, MT: Scholars’ Press, 1977), 11.

[5] Colin Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 1995), 66–68.

Ryan Glomsrud is an ordained elder at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California (URCNA), serving as an associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2018.

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