Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, Mark Galli. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2017.
Summary: An succinct overview of the life and theological relevance of Karl Barth, particularly for contemporary evangelicals.
By most estimates, Karl Barth is considered perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. He commentary on Romans challenged the liberal consensus of his day focusing attention on the sovereignty of God rather than human standpoints. In his insistence on the sovereign initiative of God and Christ’s reconciling work, he clashed with Emil Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. He stood as courageously as Bonhoeffer against Nazi totalitarianism, formulating the Barmen Declaration, and eventually losing his faculty position in Bonn when he could not swear loyalty to Hitler. He lived for the rest of his life an exile in Switzerland.
Yet evangelicals have often been uneasy about Barth. From the early opposition of Cornelius Van Til down to present day concerns about Barth’s view of scripture and fears of the universalist implications of his soteriology, many evangelicals have wanted to hold Barth at arms length. Mark Galli, as editor in chief of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, gets that, and yet offers in this slim volume a sketch of Barth’s life, and theological work, and what evangelicals might learn and gain from this, even if they retain their reservations.
Galli traces the theological development of Barth in the liberal protestant tradition shaped by Schleiermacher and his mentor Adolph von Harnack. He describes the “conversion” of Barth from a young social activist and socialist pastor through his study of Romans, and how the publication of his commentary on Romans rocked the theological world as he reasserted the centrality of God rather than human initiative, and God’s gracious action rather than even the best of human religious impulse. We trace his continued theological development as a professor first at Gottingen and then Bonn.
Galli shows us both the courageous and human side of Barth. He was one of the first to recognize the dangerous pretensions of Nazism and its insidious foothold in the German Church, and led the resistance to this in the formulation and promulgation of the Barmen Declaration, affirming the precedence of the sovereign God over any human sovereignties and that the church could not relent to political captivity to any ideology. This led to Barth being stripped of his teaching position, and his emigration to Basel, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life.
The human side was what Galli concedes was his “emotional adultery” with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, his research assistant for many years. Despite the strains this placed on his marriage, he was unwilling to break off this relationship, and it seems that Barth and his wife Nelly eventually reached some kind of understanding. Even after Karl’s death, Nelly regularly visited Charlotte, an Alzheimer’s victim. This may say something of Nelly, about whom I wish Galli might have told us more.
It is impossible in a book of this length to adequately summarize the Church Dogmatics. Galli focuses on the two aspects that have often been of concern to evangelicals, and while not removing them as cause for reservation, he points out aspects from which evangelicals might learn. With regard to scripture, he acknowledges the problems of Barth’s position of God’s authoritatively revealing himself through a fallible scripture, yet he observes Barth’s Bible-centered practice, how extensively he cited scripture, and always with a view to it’s authority as God’s witness, not in criticism of its faults. He also tackles Barth’s ideas of “universal reconciliation.” He contrasts the Reformers “If you repent and believe, you will be saved” with Barth’s “You are saved; therefore believe and repent.” He sees in this a position that may have the promise of ending the impasse between Calvinist and Arminian positions, while acknowledging the further work that remains.
Finally, Galli takes up what he sees as a fundamental challenge to contemporary evangelicalism. In Barth’s unflinching commitment to the initiative of God, he sees a challenge to an evangelicalism at once focused on subjective experience and on human activism in doing good. He sees in these trends a theology not unlike that of Schleiermacher, even while clinging to evangelical affirmations. He trenchantly observes
“The point is not to make a sweeping condemnation of evangelicalism, as if it were the epitome of nineteenth century liberalism. The point is not to look to Barth as our theological savior. The point is to suggest that the theology Barth eventually found bankrupt, and so ardently battled, is a theology we understand and identify with at some level. That we imbibe it unthinkingly is a problem, because as Barth’s theology demonstrates, it is an approach that brings with it a host of problems, problems that undermine not only the church’s integrity but especially its evangelistic mission” (p. 145).
Galli gives us a succinct biography that leaves us much to consider. Would we have Barth’s courage to stand against a compromised church and a powerful regime? What place does the “strange world of the Bible” have in shaping our world? How central in our thinking is God’s initiative in salvation? In Barth’s “no” to the natural theology of Brunner, and nineteenth century liberalism, do we also hear a “no” to our own generation’s human pretensions? Galli, a skilled editor, also serves us as a skilled writer, using few words to give us much to consider.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.