(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Kung, Hans. Great Christian Thinkers. Translated by John Bowden. New York: Continuum, 1994. This influential German theologian terms Barth a postmodernist. Assesses the importance of Barth’s break with liberal Protestants whose excessive reliance on modernist rationality led them to an uncritical acceptance of Hitlerism in the early 1930’s.

Smart, James D. The Divided Mind of Modern Theology: Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, 1908-1933. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967. A careful analysis of the differences between the first and second editions of the Romans commentary with particular attention to the new influences of Franz Overbeck and Søren Kierkegaard.

Tillich, Paul. Perspectives on Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Protestant Theology. Edited by Carl E. Braaten. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. This collection of lectures by an influential theologian highlights Barth’s most important conceptions: the otherness of God, the need to disassociate Christianity from social movements, and the universal crisis existing between the eternal and temporal worlds.

Webster, John. Karl Barth. 2d ed. London: Continuum, 2004. Comprehensive, concise, and readable account of Barth with an excellent explanation of Romans.