Theological Formation in Bern

  • 1st Picture for document

Karl Barth, the first child of Anna Katharina and Johann Friedrich Barth, was born on May 10, 1886 in Basel. His father, a licentiate of theology, had just been appointed a docent at the theological seminary there, which saw itself as a strict alternative model to liberal theology. Both of his parents came from pastors’ families and were deeply rooted in the city’s orthodox Reformed milieu.

In 1889, the family had moved to Bern where his father succeeded the New Testament scholar Adolf Schlatter. The church historian Adolf Harnack and he were occasional guests in those days. Religiously, Karl Barth was formed by confirmation class, however, and not by school, which he always found irksome.

On the evening of the day of my confirmation [March 23, 1902] I audaciously resolved to become a theologian, he said later, [...] in the hope of attaining on this path of study an objective understanding of the creed that I dimly discerned. The issue of the confession of faith became the theme of his life.

Barth started studying theology in Bern in 1904 and continued after his intermediate exam (Propädeutikum) in Berlin where he oriented himself strongly toward Harnack, the most prominent liberal theologian of the day. His father consequently sent him to the University of Tübingen to Schlatter so that he would get to hear something proper about positive theology.

That failed. Barth claimed he was appalled by Schlatter’s talent to sidestep difficulties elegantly without treating them thoroughly. In 1908, he therefore switched to Marburg where he became assistant editor at the “Christliche Welt”, the organ of liberal theology edited by Martin Rade, after his exam.

The manuscript pictured here is an early testament of Barth’s self-assured theological humor. Seventeen-year-old “Ulichen”, as he was called, declared himself the new pope – evidently impressed by the election of Pius X, which had just taken place. (1903).

Now prevented from attending school by his new office, Barth pronounced his blessing on the family he left behind and sealed the document with his own likeness. His ironic proclamation of himself to “Pontifex” reveals both his pride in his Reformed faith as well as his self-assured propensity for witty expression, too.

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