Karl Barth, who lived from 1886–1968, was perhaps the most influential theologian of the twentieth century. Church Dogmatics, Barth’s monumental life-work that consists of more than 6 million words, was written over the span of 35 years. In it, Barth covers in depth the great doctrines of the Word of God, God, Creation and Reconciliation. He made it his task “to take all that has been said before and to think it through once more and freshly to articulate it anew as a theology of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
If you have an interest in theology, you should own Barth. Barth’s dogmatic theology is loaded with engaging and provocative ideas, which will challenge you for years to come. Two characteristics that define Barth’s theology are his emphasis on the person of Christ (Barth “works from Christ outward”) and his insistence that ethics and theology cannot be separated. Barth taught that “theology is ethics,” since knowing God entails doing his will.
Barth’s theology was shaped by his experience of living and teaching in Germany during the rise of Nazism. By 1934, Barth had become a leader in the Confessing Church movement, which stood in courageous opposition to Nazism at a time when the German Protestant church had largely endorsed National Socialism. This stand cost him his professorship at Bonn University and he was forced to flee the country in 1935.
Barth has been called neo-orthodox, evangelical, and Reformed. Indeed, his views developed remarkably over his lifetime as he moved from a liberal position to one of dialectical theology (theology founded on paradoxes or tensions). Later in life, Barth abandoned the views of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, and the liberal tradition. He argued that God was not made in man’s image but is instead “Wholly Other.”
Barth is probably best described as “ecumenical” since his work is read by Protestants and Roman Catholics, mainstream and evangelicals. Indeed, Barth was described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas, and his work continues to be a major influence on students, scholars and preachers today.
Please note: this page has been updated to better reflect the content of this resource, but no changes have been made to the resource itself. It contains the 31-volume Study Edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.
[Barth] undoubtedly is one of the giants in the history of theology.
[There are at least three key ideas in [Barth’s] early thought critical for his later writings. The first is the absolute transcendent sovereign God in contrast to sin-dominated mankind. Second is a dialectical theological method which poses truth as a series of paradoxes. For example, the infinite became the finite; eternity entered time; God became human. Such paradoxes create tension, in which one finds both a crisis and truth. The crisis, the third idea, involves humans. The individual discovers in the tension of the dialectic a crisis of existence, judgment, separation, belief/unbelief, acceptance/rejection of the ultimate truth of God concerning mankind as revealed in the Word.
—Biographical entries from Evangelical Dictionary of Theology
[Barth’s greatest influence was theological, with his emphasis on God’s sovereignty placing him firmly in the Reformed (Calvinistic) tradition. He differed radically from the mainstream of continental European theology, rejecting both its subjective emphasis on religious experience and the prevalent idea that Christian doctrine is subject to, or limited by, its historical origins. By reaffirming what Kierkegaard had called an ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between God and humankind, Barth rescued theology from captivity to anthropology—that is, he reasserted God’s reality and sovereignty over human knowledge or imagination.
[Future generations of theological students will have to reckon with Barth’s work just as they have had to come to grips with Augustins, Aquinas, Calvin, and Schleiermacher...The chief merit of his work lies not in the doctrinal positions he has taken—though they are important—but in the challenge to a fresh hearing of God’s Word in Scripture by all who are concerned for pure doctrine in the preaching of the church.
—Interpretation, 11.1, review of volume 1, part 2
…this volume is a mine of sensitive, Biblically illuminated insight into the problems of human life with which it deals. This is its greatest value for all readers, including those who are not theologians by passion or instinct.
—Theology Today, review of volume 3, part 4
…if you as a preacher or teacher of the Word open yourself to the theological depths of this preacher’s theologian, your hearers will begin to notice the difference.
—Arnold B. Come, San Francisco Theological Seminary, Theology Today, review of volume 5
Karl Barth (1886–1968), a Swiss Protestant theologian and pastor, was one of the leading thinkers of twentieth-century theology, described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. He helped to found the Confessing Church and his thinking formed the theological framework for the Barmen Declaration. He taught in Germany, where he opposed the Nazi regime. In 1935, when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler, he was retired from his position at the University of Bonn and deported to Switzerland. There he continued to write and develop his theology.
Barth’s work and influence resulted in the formation of what came to be known as neo-orthodoxy. For Barth, modern theology, with its assent to science, immanent philosophy, and general culture and with its stress on feeling, was marked by indifference to the word of God and to the revelation of God in Jesus, which he thought should be the central concern of theology.