Karl Barth (1886-1968) led a very event-filled life. He started off as a pastor in a Swiss village, concerning himself with the daily lives of his congregation. He then observed the devastation and horrors of World War I. Years went by and he watched with shock the rise of Hitler and Nazi ideology. Eventually becoming a professor of theology, he publicly opposed the Third Reich by signing the Barmen declaration in 1934. Then there followed World War II and its aftermath. One of Barth’s peers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be executed for his opposition to Hitler.
One has to assume Barth was asked many questions both in his capacity as a pastor and as a professor of theology. Where was God as the horrific events of the twentieth century unfolded? How could God allow such things to happen? Such questions reverberate to the present day. There are better ways of framing the questions, of course. For example, we might ask: how could the human race have allowed these things to happen? How could people once again fall into the trap of false idol worship? The rise of fascist leaders in World War II is, after all, surely an insidious example of false idol worship, something warned about from earliest biblical times.
Barth wrestled with these implicit questions in theological terms. One way to understand him is to see his movement away from liberal assumptions as the basis for theology. One historian summarizes some of the progression of Barth’s thinking as follows:
“He had spoken of transcendence; but now he feared that he had not yet escaped from the liberal and romantic tendency to find God in the best of human nature. Also he had not sufficiently stressed the contrast between the Kingdom of God and all human projects. He was now convinced that the Kingdom was an eschatological reality, one that comes from the Wholly Other, and not out of human construction. This led him to renounce the theology that had led him to join the Social Democrats. Although still a socialist, and still convinced that Christians ought to strive for justice and equality, he now insisted that none of these projects ought to be confused with the eschatological Kingdom of God.”
Scholars interested in the connections between theology, politics and history will of course find countless ways of discussing and analyzing Karl Barth. Does Barth, however, have anything to offer the average Christian in his daily walk of faith? The answer, I believe, is a resounding “yes.” We might look, for example, at a few comments regarding that multi-dimensional word—faith:
“This remarkable Word in which faith believes is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in whom God has spoken His Word to man once for all. So faith means trust. Trust is the act in which a man may rely on the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds and that what He demands He demands of necessity. ‘I believe’ means ‘I trust.’ No more must I dream of trusting in myself, I no longer require to justify myself, to excuse myself, to attempt to preserve and save myself… I believe—not in myself—I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. So also trust in any sort of authorities, who might offer themselves as trustworthy, as an anchor which I ought to hold on to, has become frail and superfluous.” Faith means trust, and in times of personal crisis we of course must trust wholly in God. In our despair, we might read a psalm, or perhaps we might hear someone singing a psalm:
Psalm 25:1-3 (ESV):
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
Let me not be put to shame;
Let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
They shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
There will be times when we discuss reasons for faith; or evidence for faith (see Meditation #84 as an example). There surely are appropriate ways of doing this, but Barth gives us a very interesting warning of sorts:
“The glory of faith does not consist in our being challenged to do something, in having something laid upon us which is beyond our strength. Faith is rather a freedom, a permission. It is permitted to be so—that the believer in God’s Word may hold on to this Word in everything, in spite of all that contradicts it. It is so: we never believe ‘on account of’, never ‘ because of’; we awake to faith in spite of everything.”
Let us think deeply about this: the more faith we think we have, the more we realize we are gifted by God with that very faith. How could it be otherwise? To God goes the glory.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
Teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
For you are the God of my salvation;
For you I wait all the day long.
This leads us to yet another observation about faith. Barth states:
“Faith is not an opinion replaceable by another opinion. A temporary believer does not know what faith is. Faith means a final relationship. Faith is concerned with God, with what He has done for us once for all. That does not exclude the fact that there are fluctuations in faith. But seen with regard to its object, faith is a final thing… Everyone who has to contend with unbelief should be advised that he ought not to take his own unbelief too seriously. Only faith is to be taken seriously; and if we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.”
These are encouraging words—if we lack confidence in our ability to have faith, we need not doubt God’s ability to be faithful and eventually to bring out the best in us.
Remember your mercy, O Lord,
And your steadfast love,
For they have been from old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
According to your steadfast love remember me,
For the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
Yes, the Lord is good! May we trust and rejoice always!
In faith and fellowship,
 Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Volume 2, (New York: HarperCollins), 1985, pp. 361-367.
 Gonzalez, page 363.
 Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, (New York: Harper& Row), 1959, pp.18-19.
 Barth, pp.19-20.
 Barth, pp.20-21.
Leave your comment