God Lets Loose Karl Barth

by Douglas Horton

Douglas Horton translated the earlier works of Karl Barth, thus introducing him in full-dress to an American public just becoming aware of this new giant on the theological scene.

This article was published in the Christian Century, February 16, 1928. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a vast company of folk in stations high and low who find Barth’s paradoxes singularly satisfying and alive. Barth, like Schleiermacher, and unlike many of the book-theologians of the last decades, has enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a pastoral contact with real people.

"Beware," warns Emerson, "when the great God lets loose a thinker in this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city and no man knows what is safe or where it will end.’’ Nothing less than conflagration appears to have broken out in the religious thought of Europe. Many incendiaries may be pointed to, but there is one whose torch seems to have burned more brightly and to have been applied more effectively than that of any of the others.

Five years ago one began to hear, at the tables of the student clubs and restaurants of Germany, the name of Karl Barth. A young theologian recently called from Switzerland had made an amazingly impressive debut at the University of Göttingen. His chair-- that of Reformed or Calvinistic theology-- was subsidized in part by American Presbyterians, and was not in itself sufficiently exalted to catch the eye of Lutheran Germany. This circumstance made only the more significant the number of students who soon crowded his lecture hall, and the number of students, professors and townspeople who filled and overflowed any church where he had been advertised to preach.

He was remembered by many as having been himself a student in Tübingen and Berlin little more than twelve years before. Even then he had been marked as a man of unusual, if not wholly conventional, vitality. Born in Basel, in 1886, he had returned at the end of his university career to be the minister of the church in the little town of Protestant Aargau, north of Lucerne; and there, during the war period, he had preached on Sunday mornings before the good peasant folk, to the antiphonal booming of guns in near-by Alsace. The sombre thought of guns and of the stricken and perplexed Europe, governed then by guns, gave him long hours in his study. He studied, dreamed and wrote, until, almost simultaneously with the armistice, was announced the publication of his commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. It was this which elicited his call to Germany.

Of all the commentaries which have appeared since the birth of biblical criticism, this is the weirdest. It is in reality 500 pages of pithy sermons upon the verses of the epistle taken in order. Of learned exegesis it is innocent, though not contemptuous. Of mighty feuilletons of etymology and textual apparatus there is no trace. It is a veritable Koran for paradox and want of sequence. But by the scholarly and lay world alike it was found fascinating. For four years, until his departure for his present eminent position at Munster, Professor Barth remained at Göttingen, and during that time he saw his theology, set forth in further books and in lectures and addresses, sweep through the universities of Germany, and today there seem to be hardly more than two classes of religious thinkers in the country, Barthians and anti-Barthians.

It is little wonder that Barth has been called by Count Keyserling the man who saved Protestantism in Germany. In the year that he took his seat on the faculty at Göttingen, no less than 246,302 nominal Lutherans, under the new laws of the support of the churches by taxation, professed atheism. Whether or not the work of Barth and his friends Gogarten, Thurneysen and others directly affected the drift of popular opinion in the republic, it is nonetheless true that the turn of the tide back toward the churches was almost synchronous with the beginning of the Barthian movement.

As for the world of thought, the very furor the young theologian has aroused in academic Protestant circles proclaims him a portent of the first magnitude. Harnack, the Zeus of the historical critics, has broken the seclusion his years would seem rightly to permit him to indite a series of essays against the new movement. Professor Troeltsch -- whose too-early death is lamented on every hand -- and Professor Julicher, two other Olympians of the last great generation, have treated Barth with seriousness and apprehension. For every critical Oliver, the Barthian theology has an admiring Roland. Young Germany hears the new gospel gladly. And Professor Lange, whose painstaking researches in Reformation and post-Reformation history make his utterance authoritative, does not hesitate to call Barth "the greatest man since Schleiermacher." Among Roman Catholic writers are found almost as many eager friends of the new thought as among Lutherans and Calvinists. In general they seem to accept it as far more cousinly to their own doctrines than anything else Protestantism has produced since the days of the Reformation.

But the crowning tribute to the man Barth is the almost universal acknowledgment of religious debt which even his critics have made to him. The acrimonious words which are likely to flash from any debate, and which have not been wholly absent from this, are smothered beneath the expressions of generous gratitude with which opponent after opponent prefaces his discussion.

One of the secrets of the swift access the new theology has found into the life of the Continent is that it takes its beginning from the scene in the local church rather than in the university library. Barth, like Schleiermacher, and unlike many of the book-theologians of the last decades, has enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a pastoral contact with real people. His approach to the problem of life and the beginnings of his "theology of crisis" were made when as a minister he first realized the utter impossibility of communicating to his hearers the faith by which he himself was animated.

According to Barth, man is safe upon the sea that lies between God and the world as we know it because the sea is God’s and he made it, but he persistently tries for the Godward shore, and is usually either expecting to reach it or deluding himself that he has already done so. Security is his aim and illusion -- economic security, religious security, moral security, intellectual security. But there is no way from man to God.

For man to attempt to know God and to solve the problem of life is to set sail upon this infinite sea. His best hope will be to beat back and forth into the wind, but what can it profit him? Philosophy is only an endless oscillation, a dialectic never finished.

Professor Barth’s ethics are such as to delight the realist without disturbing the idealist, the search for the morally right being a form of hopelessness, but a thoroughly sanguine form. Its object is always attainable but never attained. Here Professor Barth is the embodiment of the continenta1 reaction to associating Christianity with a particular social movement, whether it be "kultur," pacifism, socialism or anything else. His part of Switzerland had been heavily under the influence of Ragaz of Zurich, the blazing prophet of social Christianity who, like his friend Walter Rauschenbusch, saw in the labor movement the greatest single contemporary salient of the advancing kingdom of God. Barth gathers the questionings of his friends into one gigantic interrogation point, and flings down to ethical theory the demand that it base itself not upon the conscious will of man but on the uncertainly, though actually, felt will of God. The truest rallying cry that can be used by any leader, he would say, is that suggested by Carlyle for Margaret Fuller, "I don’t know where I am going; follow me!"

There is a trend in morality which corresponds to the dogmatic movement in thought. We become superior, and if we are honest with ourselves we will recognize our superiority -- but the shorter name for conscious superiority is pride.

Pride being the hatefullest of the virtues, the human spirit now turns away from this certain-sure morality, though it has nothing else in particular to turn to. It begins to ride loose to all current ethical forms. It loses squeamishness about the decencies. It extols freedom as an end in itself. It becomes emancipated. It bobs its conscience. It blows ideals as smoke rings. It hates Eighteenth Amendments because they are constitutional. It will maintain its emotional integrity. It will follow its own desire. But no mood is more perfectly unsatisfactory to the morally in earnest. They do not wish to follow their own desire; they wish to follow God’s.

There is nothing left but to fall back on paradox -- to seek God’s will zealously with the conclusion foregone that God’s will cannot be found -- to join the contemporary crusades for righteousness with the conviction that they will be one day proved, like the great Crusades, to have been ill advised and wrong! This is not discovering God’s will, but it is, after all, acknowledging it.

Professor Barth’s animadversions upon worship are the very dissidence of dissent. To him the ordinary service of the church is the maddest of all man’s efforts to reach God. One can expect from it only an unedifying oscillation between fictitious spiritual tranquillity and honest skepticism.

Shall one then enjoy God in worship, when the naked essence of such worship is a selfish self-hypnosis? -- or shall one, in want of any certainty, eschew the life of prayer entirely? The paradox, once more, is our refuge: let a man realize at once his infinite need for finding God, and the infinite futility of his search, and in the clash of those two infinities within his soul, the God of the infinities will be adumbrated -- but only adumbrated

Many of his critics have harassed the young professor of Münster for what they name his desperate pessimism. "There is no way from man to God." They forget his other theme: "There is a way from God to man." It is in this thought that his paradoxes are ultimately resolved; since any attempt to use God, even for purposes of describing him to others, throws us into dilemma, we must allow him to use us.

"There is a way to come into relation with the righteousness of God. This way we enter not by speech, nor reflection, nor reason, but by being still." God, in a word, takes the initiative and reveals himself. Allow him then to do so, preaches Barth. It is only when you are agonizedly aware of the failure of your own effort that God begins to move upon you.

Karl Barth, in a word, is a reincarnation of John Calvin. His message, in nuce, is the Sinaitic sovereignty of God. Only when you ultimately confess the poverty of your own thought, only when you acknowledge yourself a bewildered sinner in his sight, only when you know yourself, even at the gate of death, to be the shadow of a breath, will the vast Transcendence make you miraculously aware of himself in you. He will come to you as strange content of reality, rather than form, for form is only your manner of adopting him. Give him form, and his presence shrinks back into a hint. Add nothing to him, and he will remain to you the dreadful Perfect.

To the German people, stunned by the war and the consequences of defeat, their former optimism shattered and spent, shuddering to contemplate the debt-darkened years of the future, Barth in the phase of his dreadful insight into the futility of all search for security must seem a veritable Jeremiah, and his teaching an evilly perfect rationalization of their indigence and perplexity. But in the phase of his harking back to the perfect sovereignty of the ruler of this world and all worlds, his words must seem an embodiment of their one hope.

Professor Barth has recently been introduced personally to a paradox which he is not the first man in history to have discovered: he now knows that the people stone their prophets. On the occasion of his being called to succeed the venerable Doctor Ludemann in the chair of systematic theology in Bern, such a storm of protest arose from an articulate group of Bernese churchmen as would have dismayed the doughtiest. There is "culture-Protestantism" elsewhere than in America. Its devotees in Switzerland do not relish this theologian’s suggestion that the modern worship of the state or even of the family, instead of God, has the same effect as the worship of the "beast of the bottomless pit" or of some "voracious idol." They join with others in their own country and in Germany in condemning his thought as "desperado-theology." To Barth, being such a one as saith among the trumpets, Ha Ha! the very protest must have made the call more tempting; but he declined.

As an immense counterblast in his behalf, the voice of the friends of the new viewpoint was lifted up throughout the German-speaking world. There is a vast company of folk in stations high and low who find his paradoxes singularly satisfying and alive. They feel in them a hint of "Reality" -- of a Reality which we cannot reach but which can reach us. Among this company many of our English poets and thinkers would, I am persuaded, have numbered themselves. This is hardly strange in view of the long-standing influence of Calvin among us.