Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology

Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology


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Widely regarded as the twentieth century's greatest theologian, Karth Barth refocused the task of Christian theology and demonstrated its relevance to every domain of human life, from the spiritual to the social to the political. It is precisely the broad sweep of Barth's theology that makes a book like The Great Passion of such great value -- a succinct yet comprehensive introduction to Barth's entire theological program.

Of the many people who write on the life and thought of Karl Barth, Eberhard Busch is uniquely placed. A world-renowned expert on Barth's theology, he also served as Barth's personal assistant from 1965 to 1968. As Busch explains, one cannot fully understand Barth the theologian apart from understanding Barth the man. In this book he weaves doctrine and biography into a superb presentation of Barth's complete work.

Busch's purpose in this introduction is to guide readers through the main themes of the multivolume Church Dogmatics against the horizon of our own times and problems. In ten sections Busch clearly explains Barth's views on all of the major subject areas of systematic theology: the nature of revelation, Israel and Christology, the Trinity and the doctrine of predestination, the -problem- of religion, gospel and law, creation, salvation, the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

A distinctive feature of the book is the way Busch lets Barth speak for himself, often through surprising quotations and paraphrases. Busch also shows how Barth's writing should be read as a dialogue, constantly and consciously engaging other voices past and present, both inside and outside the church. Most important, The Great Passion demonstrates that Barth's thought is still remarkably helpful today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866547
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Eberhard Busch is professor emeritus of Reformed theologyat the University of Göttingen, Germany. A onetimestudent of and personal assistant to Karl Barth, he is also theson of one of the Barmen Declaration's original signers. Clickhere to visit the author'swebsite.

Darrell L. Guder is Henry Winters Luce Professor Emeritus of Missional and Ecumenical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. 

There is no author information available at this time.

Read an Excerpt


An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology
By Eberhard Busch

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-4893-1

Chapter One

His Profile


Barth respected the British for their democratic tradition, for their knowledge of humanity as displayed by Shakespeare, and for their lifestyle as described by the detective stories of Dorothy Sayers. He also liked the Germans and spent fifteen years of his life in Germany. In 1933 Emanuel Hirsch attributed his lack of nationalistic enthusiasm to the fact that he was not a real German from head to toe. In reply Barth stated that he knew why he was truly a Swiss, and he quoted Gottfried Keller, who had said: "Hail to us, for free people are still accustomed to free speech." It was an Alemanian who said this, who was critical of overregulation. Jacob Burckhard expressed the same thought in a saying his grandnephew liked to quote, namely, that "power in itself is bad." Barth's own dictum was that the Holy Spirit does not blow through mass assemblages. He strikes a similar note in Berlin in the fall of 1933 when he publicly quoted the Sempach fighters against an alien superpower: "Strike their spears, for they are hollow!" During the Hitler occupation his word to France was that "an ocean of reality does not signify a single drop of truth."

Barth was born on May 10, 1886. His birthplace was Basel, which a resident of Herrnhut had described as "the most fruitful place... in the kingdom ofGod." His parents moved in active Christian circles that had a "positive," not a liberal tradition. Basel, however, had a humanist tradition. Preachers in the Minster pulpit could look out on the grave of Erasmus. Nietzsche began attracting attention when at the university in 1886; Karl's father, Fritz Barth, had learned to respect him as his school teacher. A typical citizen of Basel secretly desired the radicalisms and extravagancies of others, and this attitude helped Karl during his student years to abandon the positivism of his family and to adopt an increasingly zealous liberalism. Mocking laughter was typical of Basel, and Barth related the "cutting speech of the Baseler" to the fact that the people here had always thought a great deal about the transitory nature of everything earthly. Barth always viewed himself as a citizen of Basel even though he went to Bern when he was four years old and did most of his schooling there.

Barth thought it singular that throughout the years two portraits, one of Calvin and one of Mozart, should hang "at the same height" next to each other in his study. This tells us something about his character. From his early days and throughout his life two different sides contested with one another and intercrossed. On the one side was a bitter joy in battle, accompanied by laughter. We find this already in his younger days when he took part in children's street fights in which he always wanted to win. Later, when he was accused of always wanting to be right, he responded, "But I always am right"! At ten years old he could sublimate this impulse with enthusiasm for the works of Schiller, who inspired him to compose his own freedom-seeking plays. At fifty-four years old he voluntarily joined the Swiss army, ready to stand up for democracy against the Hitler hordes. He loved openness and abhorred deception. He found no place for compromisers. He pushed for decisions. He strove "beyond the unholy 'and' and 'at the same time', beyond the whole world of balance, which is untenable and intolerable" (CL 298 = 177). He could state, in the middle of his Dogmatics, that "a garden path may be circular. But a garden path is not a true way. A true way has a beginning and an end" (IV/1 622 = 558). He was impressed by trees because it was their destiny is "to stand upright" (III/1 173 = 155). As he said of himself in old age, he never vacillated. He liked to tackle hot issues, and he felt well in a storm. Opposition did not get under his skin. Nevertheless, he was against inopportune initiatives. He preferred to keep his powder dry and then use it at the right moment. He always had a good nose for scenting dangers so that he could counter them firmly early on. And throughout, he could be blunt. The question might have been put to him by his contemporaries, as Calvin's contemporaries put it to Calvin: "Could you not be... rather more palatable, rather more like ourselves?"

Yet there is also the other side, the gentle side, that loved peace and harmony and the beautiful. It was not for nothing that the ancestors of his mother, Anna née Sartorius, were related to the irenic reformer of Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger. A picture that did not hang straight irritated Barth. He was fond of the term "tender feelings." He said that a person "without imagination is more of an invalid than one who lacks a leg" (III/1 99 = 91). He himself had tender feelings. He was thus able either to laugh heartily or to cry, to listen, and to participate. He would place his visitors so that he could study them carefully, though he did not like to look in the mirror himself. As a five-year-old his feelings were roused by a profound encounter with the music of Mozart. In later years he listened daily to this music before getting to work. "He plays and never stops playing," even through dark periods. "Before composing, he first listened." "The subjective never becomes a theme...," similar to Botticelli, a painter he greatly admired. His style was that of a childlike immersion in subtle and mysterious things. He did not regard this immersion as either tragic or important. Just as a person should "work [and] stand for the right...," he should also "will to enjoy himself" (III/4 427 = 375). Part of a real sincerity is being able to "laugh at himself" (III/4 765 = 665). Barth was also a horseman, and it was his opinion that "a good horse-man is so completely one with his horse" that he "cannot possibly be an ungodly person" (III/4 400 = 352).

This "man with all his contradictions" was quickly absorbed into the world of Christian faith. He was much influenced by the self-evident way in which the hymns sung by his mother referred to the stories of Jesus as ones that "might take place any day in Basel" (IV/2 125 = 112). He achieved such certainty about the presence of Jesus that he spent a Palm Sunday, as a boy, watching for the entry of Jesus into his own city. When he described his family as mildly pietistic, this expressed a certain withdrawal from his background that came to light in his acceptance of historical criticism and of social questions and feminism. It greatly impressed the son that his parents took him out of Sunday school after too vivid a depiction of hell was presented. He was also impressed by the fact that he had to empty his piggy bank to give money to a sick man, which his father required him to do, citing the verse in James: "When we know what it is right to do, and do not do it, for us it is sin" (4:17). The Epistle of James was never for him a strawy epistle, as it was for Luther.

The Pointing Hand

This third aspect, which early on influenced his life, is illustrated by a painting that from his first theological beginnings hung above his desk. The picture was Grünewald's Crucifixion. Visible there "in an almost impossible way" was the pointing hand of John the Baptist, who said: "He must increase, but I must decrease." "It is this hand which is in evidence in the Bible." All proper theology in his view must be like this hand, with which a person does not point to oneself nor at some idea or program but towards the God who for his part completely turns to that person. He wanted his theology to be like that hand. This "man with all his contradictions" found himself under claim to do this one decisive thing, unceasingly and above everything else.

If, over the lengthy course of his way as a theologian, he would often start over again, making many twists and turns, then the profound reason was that he believed that he must constantly attempt, in ever new ways, to carry out the ministry of this pointing hand. And if there was an enduring constant in these twists and turns along his way, then it was most profoundly the fact that he never departed from the one to whom John was pointing. If he had one predominant concern in his time, it was always at root to invite, beseech, press, strengthen the church and theology, whether by criticism or encouragement, to imitate the Baptist. Today, if there is any reason beyond merely historical interest to recall his theology, and if in the future "there will be times in which many will rediscover his message with joy," then it will be the legacy expressed in this picture.

Barth never spoke about his own conversion to the calling of a Christian theologian. "I and my personal Christianity do not belong to the kerygma to be declared by me" (IV/3 776 = 677). Why did he study theology? Briefly, he said, out of "curiosity" in face of this "sphinx!" Theologically he was still totally a liberal when he began his pastorate at Safenwil in the Aargau at the age of twenty-five. Yet his distinctive message was already there when he told his people "that I am not speaking to you of God because I am a pastor. I am a pastor because I must speak to you of God." The inversion of thought and the stress upon the divine must were typical of him. A member of the congregation with whom the young pastor took his meals would relate some decades later that on Sundays, before preaching, he came to breakfast very pale, silent, and highly tensed and focused, as before the explosion of a thunderstorm. He would pick up a cup of tea, stride round the table, and then hasten away without eating a thing. The young Bonhoeffer also said, after first meeting Barth, now a professor, in his seminar, that "Barth was even better than his books." "He has a frankness, a willingness to listen to criticism, and at the same time such an intensity of concentration on the subject, which can be discussed proudly or modestly, dogmatically or tentatively, and is certainly not primarily directed to the service of his own theology." Even at seventy-five years of age Barth could speak of the great passion by which those who know God are "filled, impelled, guided, and ruled" (CL 180, 184 = 113).

The fire of this passion burned within him. It fed upon the fact that the word "God" is no empty concept. This word is filled with a living and moving reality, the all-decisive reality. This word is filled with a force that will carry not just the church but the world as well. It is a word of infinite gravity, not because we ascribe it that, but because it is so intrinsically.

Who is God? This was the question in a 1917 sermon. "He is not the fifth wheel on a cart, but the wheel which drives all the other wheels. Not a sanctuary off to the side, but the one who drives with force in the midst of all that is. Not a dark power in the clouds over against which a person can only be a slave, but the clear force of freedom that must be honored above and in all things, and in humanity first of all. Not an idea or an opinion, but the power of life that overcomes the powers of death. Not an ornament of the world, but a lever that penetrates the world. Not a feeling with which one can play, but a fact that must be taken seriously, a fact on which we can stand with both feet in every circumstance, a fact on which we can feed as we do on daily bread, a fact into which we can retreat as into a fortress, and then break out like those who are under siege, to risk sallies in every direction." That is what it means to say "a living God." Let there be no saying, "that we 'have' him, as we often like to put it. What is the attempt to speak of him but helpless sighing and stammering!"

As early as 1914 Barth stated, "The little clause 'God is' signifies a revolution." For this reason sighing and stammering belong to theology as the Amen does to the church. That "little clause" constantly confronts our stubborn ways of thinking as we grapple with divine things and try to make them serve our own views and purposes. It is truly revolutionary. It sets us before the "new world" of God, a world that reaches out to us in order to put us in his service. How could such a theology whose talk about God constantly hastens back to that other way of thinking, how should such a theology which is dependent upon God's making himself known, do its work properly without such sighing and stammering? In 1933 the Jewish theologian H. J. Schoeps regarded Barth's theology as extraordinary because it was permeated by a sense of the danger of one's own talking about God. The result is that we always "have to tremble for the correct expression of the truth." And for that reason, "Barth, in the first hundred pages of his dogmatics, reflects solely about wanting to say anything at all about God's Word."

Nevertheless, even with such sighing and stammering, God makes himself known to us. "Man knows God in that he stands before God" (II/1 8 = 9). This is a basic thesis of Barth. It is not this sighing and stammering that makes our theology false. That happens when it does not take its position "before God," perhaps because it already knows what it intends and only uses God after the fact to affirm its good intentions, or perhaps because it believes that it has already comprehended enough and now only considers how the content it already grasps can be applied or passed on. Theology can depart from its position "before God" only if it overlooks or forgets how it came into this position. It was not by a deliberate resolve to place itself there. It was simply by reason of the fact that God for his part stands before us and indeed introduces himself to us. Only in this way is a person placed before God, before this God. One cannot put oneself before God on one's own, nor can one leave this position on one's own without losing everything that would make one a Christian theologian. When it becomes clear to us that we are standing "before God," then we know God.

No Bungling

From the time he began his life as a theologian, Barth had been in conflict with the church and theology because he saw them attempting to deal with God without really standing before him, and constantly standing before him. He was in conflict with them, we might say, because he heard them talking about God without passing through that transformation of thinking. He was struggling against an attitude that enabled the church and theology to put a hold upon God whereby he could be integrated into our own preconceived and preformulated ideas and goals, or whereby he could be regarded as a commodity to be handled by the church and its theologians in any way they wanted to.


Excerpted from THE GREAT PASSION by Eberhard Busch Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

IPointers - Toward An Understanding of this Theologian
1His Profile3
The Pointing Hand6
No Bungling9
Theology in the Service of God13
Constant Beginning16
The Word That Leads to Thinking23
The Church Conflict31
Renewal and Reconciliation35
3Primary Work39
The Church Dogmatics39
What Must Be Said First42
Faith in the Creator48
Faith in the Reconciler50
IIInsights - the Themes of His Theology
1The Wonderful Beginning - The Doctrine of Revelation and of the Knowledge of God57
God's Beginning with Us61
Rejection of Natural Theology67
Thinking After76
2The Fulfilled Covenant - Israel and Christology82
The Question of God82
The Human God86
The God-related Human90
God's Covenant with Israel95
Jesus Christ99
3The Divine Freedom - Trinity and Predestination106
Threatening and Threatened Freedom106
God's Self-Determination for Coexistence112
The Destining of the Human for Freedom116
God's Unique Freedom121
4The Disconcerting Truth - The Problem of Religion128
Difficulties with the Truth128
What Is Truth?132
The Power of Illusion136
The Deceptiveness of Religion141
Witness to the Truth145
5Exacting Exhortation - Gospel and Law, Ethics152
The Connection of Gospel and Law152
The Antithesis of God and Mammon156
Fulfilled Law159
Christian Action in the "World"170
6The Good Creation - Its Basis and Preservation176
The Peril of Thinking of the Creation as Godless176
The Covenant God as Creator180
God's Constant Yes to His Creation186
The Creature191
7The Critical Reconciliation - The Doctrines of Sin and Justification199
Repressed Sin199
The Sympathetic Judge203
"The Justice of Grace"209
The Validity of Reconciliation214
8The Prevailing Spirit - Pneumatology219
Forgetting the Spirit?219
The Deity of the Spirit223
The Presence of the Spirit228
Moving Out238
9Moving Out Together - The Doctrine of the Church242
The Church's Predicament242
The Church That Is the Church246
The Church's Fellowship253
The Mature Community256
The Open Host259
10Limited Time - Time and Eternity, Eschatology264
The Loss of Time264
The Eternal One Has Time268
The Gift of Real Time272
The Gracious Restriction of Time276
Christian Hope279
Works of Karl Barth289
Secondary Works292
Scripture References301

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