In the early twentieth century, Karl Barth radically changed the direction of Protestant theology. He was disenchanted with liberal modernism, represented by such theologians as Friedrich Schleiermacher, which promoted rationality and religious individualism. Modernistic theology assimilated with culture, science, and a belief in progress rather than promoting God and his revelation in Jesus Christ. In an address from 1916, “The Righteousness of God,” Barth argues that to conflate a country or civilization’s progress with the will of God was a fallacy and an evasion of the real will of God. To Barth and his associates, proof that this anthropocentric Christianity was morally bankrupt lay in the ease with which many churches in Germany accepted German nationalism in both world wars. Liberal theology made it possible to see both Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler as God-appointed leaders bringing unity to the German people. In 1933, Barth led a rebellion against the uncritical acceptance of Hitlerism, creating the Barmen Synod of the Confessing Church. As a result, he was expelled from his teaching position in Germany and returned to his native Switzerland.
Although educated in the modern liberal tradition, Barth reacted against it and developed what many who have studied him call a theology of neo-orthodoxy: a return to orthodox opinions of the Reformation. Theologian Hans Kung terms Barth’s position as postmodern in that it is a reaction against excessive reliance on human reason and involves a belief in the unreasonable, essentially incomprehensible nature of God, a God who is completely “other” than humanity. Barth rejected the idea that humans can discover in themselves and their own activities God’s relationship to them. Rather, that relationship is solely and freely determined by God in his own way and time, and the result of such a relationship is more likely to disorient humans and call them away from their accustomed activities than it is to reassure them and legitimize those activities.
The Epistle to the Romans was the first major work in which Barth developed his alternative to the reigning theology. It is fitting that he chose the New Testament book of...
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