How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade: Part Two

by Karl Barth

Karl Barth has been the major force behind the revival of Protestant theology in this century. His personal war against Hitler is history, and his multi-volume Dogmatik is a theological landmark.

This article appeared in the Christian Century July 4-11, 1984 p. 684 (reprinted from the September 20, 1939 issue).. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In the past ten years I have been occupied approximately equally with the deepening and the application of that knowledge which, in its main channels, I had gained before. I have had to rid myself of the last remnants of a philosophical. i.e. anthropological (in America one says “humanistic” or “naturalistic”) foundation and exposition of Christian doctrine. My theological thinking centers and has centered in its emphasis upon the majesty of God, the eschatological character of the whole Christian message, and the preaching of the gospel in its purity as the sole task of the Christian church.


If I now attempt to judge how far I have actually changed in these last ten years with regard to my work, then it seems possible to put the case in a formula: I have been occupied approximately equally with the deepening and the application of that knowledge which, in its main channels, I had gained before. Both these developments have, of course, gone forward at the same time.

The deepening consisted in this: in these years I have had to rid myself of the last remnants of a philosophical. i.e. anthropological (in America one says “humanistic” or “naturalistic”), foundation and exposition of Christian doctrine. The real document of this farewell is, in truth, not the much-read brochure Nein!, directed against Brunner in 1934, but rather the book about the evidence for God of Anselm of Canterbury which appeared in 1931. Among all my books I regard this as the one written with the greatest satisfaction. And yet in America it is doubtless not read at all and in Europe it certainly is the least read of any of my works.

The positive factor in the new development was this: in these years I had to learn that Christian doctrine, if it is to merit its name and if it is to build up the Christian church in the world as she must needs be built up. has to be exclusively and conclusively the doctrine of Jesus Christ -- of Jesus Christ as the living Word of God spoken to us men. If I look back from this point on my earlier studies, I may well ask myself how it ever came about that I did not learn this much sooner and accordingly speak it out. How slow is man, above all when the most important things are at stake!

In order to see and understand the meaning and bearing of the change which therewith entered my work the first two volumes of my Church Dogmatics, which appeared in 1932 and 1938, will have to be studied to some extent. (You don’t want to read so much? To be sure. I exact it of no one. But at the same time I cannot say that I consider it “cricket’’ when people talk about something without having properly studied it.) My new task was to take all that has been said before and to think it through once more and freshly and to articulate it anew as a theology of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

I cannot pass over in silence the fact that In working at this task -- I should like to call it a christological concentration -- I have been led to a critical (in a better sense of the word) discussion of church tradition, and as well of the Reformers, and especially of Calvin. I have discovered that in this concentration I can say everything, far more clearly, unambiguously, simply and more in the way of a confession, and at the same time also much more freely, openly and comprehensively, than I could ever say it before. For before, I had been at least partly hampered, not so much by the church tradition, as by the egg-shells of philosophical systematics. I am well aware that this change did not by any means please a good many. I have been reproached with having completely withdrawn behind a “Chinese Wall” and consequently having become “extremely uninteresting.” This latter judgment came out of America! To such a statement there is scarcely anything for me to answer. But I cannot help saying that if viewed from my side the affair of the Chinese wall is “extremely enigmatical.” For, strangely enough, it has been precisely in this decade, and thus in the course of this change, that I have found time and disposition for things which quite patently have nothing to do with withdrawing behind Chinese walls. I have found time and disposition, for example, to occupy myself much more than formerly with universal Geistesgeschichte; on two journeys to Italy to let classical antiquity speak to me as it had never done before; to gain a new relationship with Goethe, among others; to read countless novels, a good many of them from those first-rate producers of the English detective novel: to become a very bad but very passionate horseman, and soon. I do not think that I have ever lived more gaily, in the everyday world, than precisely in this period, which brought with it for my theology what appeared to many to be a monkish concentration.

 . . . The fact is that the danger of falling into an abstract negation of the world -- into which some have apparently already seen me fall -- has never worried me less than today. I must rather set it down as fact that during these last ten years I have become, simultaneously, very much more churchly and very much more worldly.

The application I had to make was intimately connected with Hitler. Just about this same time of the year in 1928, I sat at this same desk in a small house of my own in Münster in Westphalia -- a Prussian professor and, after seven years spent in Germany, nearly on the point of becoming something like a “good German.” But seven years later, in 1935, during which time I had moved from Münster to Bonn, I had been discharged from my excellent teaching work there, and today I find myself, like a mariner temporarily rescued from the gale, here in my native city, Basel. A decade ago I should never have dreamed that such a thing could happen to me. Doubtless between that time and today a considerable change in my position and line of action has taken place, not with regard to the meaning and direction of my accumulated knowledge but rather with regard to its application. For this change I am indebted to the Führer!

What happened? First of all this happened -- and this one must keep clearly in mind while seeing the whole -- there was given me a gigantic revelation of human lying and brutality on the one hand, and of human stupidity and fear on the other. And then this happened: in the summer of 1933, the German church, to which I belonged as a member and a teacher, found itself in the greatest danger concerning its doctrine and order. It threatened to become involved in a new heresy strangely blended of Christianity and Germanism, and to come under the domination of the so-called “German Christians” -- a danger prompted by the successes of National Socialism and the suggestive power of its ideas. And it happened further that the representatives of the other theological schools and tendencies in Germany -- Liberal, Pietist, Confessional, Biblicist -- who had previously. in opposition to me, put so much weight on ethics, sanctification, Christian life, practical decision, and the like, now in part openly affirmed that heresy and in part took up a strangely neutral and tolerant attitude toward it. And it happened further that, when so many fell into line and no one seriously protested, I myself could not very well keep silent but had to undertake to proclaim to the imperiled church what it must do to be saved. . . . In that first series of pamphlets.

Theologische Existenz heute, published in June 1933, I still had nothing essentially new to say. At that time I said rather just what I had always tried to say, namely, that beside God we can have no other gods, that the Holy Spirit of the Scriptures is enough to guide the church in all truth, and that the grace of Jesus Christ is all-sufficient for the forgiveness of our sins and the ordering of our lives. But now, suddenly, I had to say the same thing in a situation where it could no longer have the slightest vestige of an academic theory. Without my wanting it, or doing anything to facilitate it, this had of necessity to take on the character of a summons, a challenge, a battlecry, a confession.

The thing that has changed, therefore, has not been me, but the situation in which I have spoken and the resonance with which I have had to speak. That has changed tremendously. Accordingly, the ensuing repetition of my doctrine and teaching became -- of its own accord and paralleling its deepening because of this new situation --  practice, decision, action. And so one day, to my own surprise most of all, I found myself standing in the very midst of church politics, engaged in collaboration in the deliberations and decisions of the Confessional Church which had been assembling since 1934. . . .

What was and what is at stake? Simply this, to hold fast to and in a completely new way to understand and practice the truth that God stands above all gods, and that the church in Volk and society has, under all circumstances, and over against the state, her own task, proclamation and order, determined for her in the Holy Scriptures. Despite the fact that even today many in the Confessional Church will not see and admit it, there could have been no other outcome than that this truth of the freedom of the church, despite the claims of National Socialism, should come to signify not only a “religious” decision, not only a decision of church policy, but also and ipso facto a political decision. A political decision, namely, against a state which as a totalitarian state cannot recognize any task, proclamation and order other than its own, nor acknowledge any other God than itself, and which therefore in proportion to its development had of necessity to undertake the oppression of the Christian church and the suppression of all human right and freedom.

Behind this heresy, which I saw penetrating into the church, there stood from the very beginning the one who soon stepped out as the far more dangerous adversary, the one hailed at the beginning -- and not least by many Christians -- as deliverer and savior: Hitler, himself the personification of National Socialism. The church-theological conflict contained within itself the political conflict, and it was no fortuitous happening that it revealed itself more and more as a political conflict. Because I could not hide this fact from myself and others, because I could not very well begin my lectures in Bonn with the salutation to Hitler, and because I could not very well swear an unconditioned oath of allegiance to the Führer, as I should have to do as the holder of a state office, I lost my position in the service of this state and was forced to quit Germany.

Meanwhile the anti-Christian and therefore antihuman essence of National Socialism revealed itself more and more distinctly. At the same time its influence over the remainder of Europe alarmingly increased in proportion. The lies and brutality, as well as the stupidity and fear, grew and have long since grown far beyond the frontiers of Germany. And Europe does not understand the danger in which it stands. Why not? Because it does not understand the First Commandment. Because it does not see that National Socialism means the conscious, radical and systematic transgression of this First Commandment. Because it does not see that this transgression, because it is sin against God, drags the corruption of the nations in its wake.

So it came about that despite my desires I had to persevere in my opposition to National Socialism even after I had returned to Switzerland, for the sake of the preservation of the true church and the just state. On that account I am labeled a sort of “public enemy number one” in Germany, and must see all my writings put on the index of forbidden books. During the Czechoslovakian crisis I sent a letter to Professor Josef Hromádka in Prague, in which I wrote that at the Bohemian frontier not only the freedom of Europe but also that of the Christian church was to be defended. This letter has brought down upon me manifestations of wrath, or of anxious “discretion,’ from many countries, and especially of course from Germany. I hope that we will not wake up too late and too painfully from this sleep in which, in company with many others. Christian circles in the countries of Europe still think they are allowed to indulge themselves.

People have been very much astonished about the “change” in my stand, and not least in so far as the “change” has been of this latter sort. They were astonished, first, when I began to become what they called ‘church-political,’ and later they were more astonished when I began to become out-and-out “political.” But I should like to be allowed to say that anyone who really knew me before should not now be so very much astonished. In particular I have never been ready to call good that ominous Lutheran doctrine according to which there belongs to the state a ‘‘right of self-determination” (Eigengesetzlichkeit) independent of the proclamation of the gospel and not to be touched by it.

Since, as well as before my change, my theological thinking centers and has centered in its emphasis upon the majesty of God, the eschatological character of the whole Christian message, and the preaching of the gospel in its purity as the sole task of the Christian church. The abstract, transcendent God, who does not take care of the real man (“God is all, man is nothing!”), the abstract eschatological awaiting, without significance for the present, and the just as abstract church, occupied only with this transcendent God and separated from state and society by an abyss -- all that existed, not in my head, but only in the heads of many of my readers and especially in the heads of those who have written reviews and even whole books about me. That I have not always succeeded, in former times and also today, in expressing myself in a manner comprehensible to all is a part of the guilt which I certainly impute to myself when I see myself surrounded by so much anger and confusion.

Does the change in me represent anything more than this: that the practical relevance, the struggle and the confessional character of my theological teaching have become visible to many, and now for the first time to most, against the background of a time which has taken shape at the hands of National Socialism?.

Sometime or other in the future (perhaps even soon) Hitler will no longer be with us. Then also my attitude and function will no longer need such a luridly contradictory and opposing character as it needs must have today. And will I then have to prepare some sort of new surprise for my friendly and unfriendly judges? Or shall it then be possible for me belatedly to make clearer to them what to them seems so full of contradictions in what I did yesterday and am doing today’? I do not know. This way or that, I hope that it may still be given to me tomorrow, under perhaps once more very changed circumstances, to be immovable but also movable, movable but also immovable. . . .