Dialectical Theology’s Star Professor

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The “Epistle to the Romans” catapulted Barth to the top of German-language theology. He was even selected as one for a picture book (“Menschen der Zeit”) of the one hundred most important figures of the Weimar Republic published in 1930. What about this Bible commentary and its author fascinated contemporaries?

Barth had written and published a first version of his commentary in 1919 while still in Safenwil. On the very first page, he claimed to look beyond the historical into the spirit of the Bible, which is the eternal spirit. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul proclaims not a truth, but rather the Truth. Barth was concerned with the revolutionary, life-changing way this truth of God’s broke in from the other world into our world.

A completely new version of the “Epistle to the Romans” (1922) and the Tambach lecture “The Christian in Society” (1920) he had given in the meantime radicalized his approach more: God is in heaven and you on earth. Barth stressed the infinitely great distance of God, of the wholly Other who breaks through to humans perpendicularly from above as it were.

That was a rejection of every attempt to localize stated views about God in culture, a rejection of “liberal theology”. Barth was only able to accept a discourse about God through dialectical statements between above and below, God and world. People therefore soon spoke of “dialectical theology”.

The “Epistle to the Romans” and the “Tambach lecture” soon made the Swiss village pastor” one of the most prominent theologians of his day. Barth was appointed a supernumerary professor in Göttingen in 1921 and a professor in Münster in 1925 and in Bonn in 1930.

In Bonn, he began work on his “Church Dogmatics”, which he continued over three decades but never completed. His journal “Zwischen den Zeiten” became the publishing organ of this new school of thought. The absoluteness of God’s claim on Christians’ lives became central to Barth’s later conception of resistance.

Source / title

  • Karl Barth: Der Römerbrief. Munich 3rd Ed. 1923 / Private collection / © Photo: Tim Lorentzen