The Swiss Karl Barth is considered the theological genius of the 20th century. He exerted a major influence on the Confessing Church – even in places where his radicalness was not adopted. Although he was a rigorously Reformed theologian, he played a leading role in the Protestant “Kirchenkampf” beyond denominational boundaries, initially as a professor of theology in Bonn and later from Basel where he remained the most prominent source of counsel for many members of the Confessing Church.
Born on May 10, 1886, Barth was firmly rooted in the religious milieu of his hometown of Basel. He attended school and began studying theology the University of Bern and then continued at the universities in Berlin, Tübingen and Marburg. Following a vicarage and his exams in 1908, he worked as an assistanteditor at the magazine “Die Christliche Welt” published in Marburg. His first parish in Safenwil in the Swiss Canton of Aargau in 1911, where he encountered the social problems of everyday working class life, left a lasting impression. During this period of intensive teaching and preaching, Barth broke with liberal theology for good and initiated a new theological model – manifested in the “Epistle to the Romans” (1918-19), which he wrote there. This book is considered the founding document of dialectical theology, which stresses the infinitely great distance between God and humanity. The second version, which Barth wrote in 1922 as an honorary professor in Göttingen, was even more influential. He and friends there launched the journal “Zwischen den Zeiten” as the voice of their new school of thought. He held a professorship in Münster from 1925 to 1930 and in Bonn from 1930 onward, where he began his decades of labor on “Church Dogmatics”.
Following the Nazi seizure of power, Barth rapidly became one of the leading authorities in the Kirchenkampf. His publication “Theological Existence Today!” (1933) was instrumental in the decline of nationalism among Protestant clergy and their return to the Bible and Confessions. He played a major role in the “Theological Declaration of Barmen” (1934). Nonetheless, sizeable factions of the Confessing Church soon had no desire to follow Barth’s radical rejection of Nazi policy toward the church and the Hitler state in general with the rigorousness he demanded. When Barth was subjected to disciplinary proceedings for his refusal to take the Hitler oath, public protest from the Confessing Church never materialized. Upon being forced into early retirement in 1935, Barth withdrew to a professorship in Basel. The “Swiss voice” thenceforth strongly encouraged the Germans to engage in active resistance.
After the war, Barth resumed his theological work, above all his “Church Dogmatics”, which he was never able to complete, however. He remained one of the most sought-after authorities on Protestantism until his death on December 10, 1968.