Karl Barth was born 130 years ago today. It’s no secret that I greatly admire the theologian, so today I wanted to celebrate him by sharing some of my favorite quotes. But first, I’ll say a bit about why I admire Karl Barth as much as I do.
Karl Barth was a theologian of joy. He famously said, “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all.” Joy is essential to the work of theology, if sadly today few have learned this lesson from Barth. When I read Barth one of the most striking things about his work is how full of life and joy it is. He does not write as a man without hope, he writes of the living God, the God who is present with us, who is for mankind, the God of Jesus Christ. And because of all this, Barth writes with the most profound joy.
Karl Barth was a theologian of Jesus Christ. Central to his theology is Jesus. It’s a aptly applied joke about Barth to say: “The answer is Jesus, what’s the question?” Reading the Church Dogmatics especially highlights this christological focus. As one of his students, Thomas F. Torrance, puts it, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ.” This is central for Barth, and one of the aspects of his theology that I have learned from the most.
Karl Barth was a genius. This is obvious to anyone who reads even the smallest of his works. The stunning brilliance and creativity and discipline with which he was able to produce such an astonishing body of work goes without saying for anyone who’s studied Barth. It’s what makes him so difficult at times, but it’s also what makes him so profoundly simple.
I personally owe much to Karl Barth, as he’s helped shape my own thinking about God tremendously, but so does the church today. He has moved theology forward in tremendous lengths, and anyone who engages with theology in the future must also engage with Karl Barth.
But to all this talk of appreciation and of his greatness, Karl Barth would say, “Nein!” He was above all a humble theologian. He was not interested in calling himself great, though history will remember him this way. And this final point is why I respect him even more, he was humble, always realizing that to do theology meant above all else worshiping God and giving Him glory. His work always has this doxological characteristic to it, it is worship. As Jürgen Moltmann once said about it, when he was asked why Barth would write 9,000 pages in the Church Dogmatics, he responded that the whole Dogmatics could be summarized on half a page, yet, “The rest is worship.” 1
It’s hard to say what my favorite quotes from Barth are because there are so many, Barth was incredibly quotable. But here are just some of my favorites that I could find, and they offer a good insight into Barth in celebration of his birth. So happy birthday, Karl Barth!
“In the fourth place, the God of the Gospel is no lonely God, self-sufficient and self-contained. He is no “absolute” God (in the original sense of absolute, i.e., being detached from everything that is not himself). To be sure, he has no equal beside himself, since and equal would no doubt limit, influence, and determine him. On the other hand, he is not imprisoned by his own majesty, as though he were bound to be no more than the personal (or impersonal) “wholly other.” […] Just as his oneness consists in the unity of his life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so in relation to the reality distinct from him he is free de jure and de facto to be the God of man. He exists neither next to man nor merely above him, but rather with him, by him, and most important of all, for him. He is man’s God not only as Lord but also as father, brother, friend; and this relationship implies neither a diminution nor in any way a denial, but, instead, a confirmation and display of his divine essence itself.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 10-11)
“A quite specific astonishment stands at the beginning of every theological perception, inquiry, and thought, in fact at the root of every theological word. This astonishment is indispensable if theology is to exist and be perpetually renewed as a modest, free, critical, and happy science. If such astonishment is lacking, the whole enterprise of even the best theology would canker at the roots. On the other hand, as long as even a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, he is not lost to the fulfillment of his task. He remains serviceable as long as the possibility is left open that astonishment may seize him like an armed man.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 64)
“Whoever begins to concern himself with theology also begins to concern himself from first to last with wonders.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 65)
“The content of God’s Word is his free, undeserved Yes to the whole human race, in spite of all human unreasonableness and corruption.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 79)
“Theological work can be done only in the indissoluble unity of prayer and study. Prayer without study would be empty. Study without prayer would be blind.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 171)
“Without love, theological work would be miserable polemics and a waste of words.” (Evangelical Theology, P. 197)
“At the beginning of all theological perception, research, and thought—and also of every theological statement—stands a quite specific amazement. Its lack in even the best theologian will threaten the heart of the entire enterprise, while even bad theologians are not a lost cause in their service and their duty, as long as they are still capable of amazement.” (Insights, P. 3)
“The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the one who loves in freedom.” (Church Dogmatics II.2, P. 3)
“God’s eternal will is the election of Jesus Christ.” (Church Dogmatics II.2, P. 146)
“‘God with us’ is the centre of the Christian message—and always in such a way that it is primarily a statement about God and only then and for that reason a statement about us men.” (Church Dogmatics IV.1, P. 5)
“To say atonement is to say Jesus Christ.” (Church Dogmatics IV.1, P.158)
“I don’t teach universal reconciliation but I don’t not-teach it.”
“[Man] may let go of God, but God does not let go of him.” (Church Dogmatics II.2)
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