Karl Barth was a theologian of Swiss descent who lived from 1886 to 1968. He produced a large body of work over the course of his lifetime, most notably his 13-volume treatise on Christian theology entitled Church Dogmatics. Barth strongly opposed Nazism and was a leader in the Confessing Church in pre-war Germany. In that role Barth vigorously worked to prevent the absorption of the Christian church into the German state. There has been much discussion about Barth’s beliefs among Christians who find it difficult to come to a consensus: was he orthodox, heterodox, or some combination of the two? His work is so vast and spans so many decades that it is difficult to form any concise statement concerning the man’s theology. In any case, there is no doubt that Karl Barth was a great intellectual. He is generally understood to be one of the greatest Protestant theologians of modern times.
Karl Barth asserted God’s sovereignty and His “otherness” from man and man’s culture. He emphasized God’s rule and supremacy and His ultimate control over the events and course of human history, taking comfort in that fact. Barth’s theology is remarkably Christo-centric. Barth argued that God’s saving work in Christ supersedes all other doctrines, even to the point of rendering them moot. For example, Barth seems to see both salvation and damnation as focused on the cross. Jesus is the recipient of all God’s wrath and all God’s favor, and we who are in Christ also receive God’s favor. The logical conclusion of this understanding is that no one but Christ is ever a recipient of God’s wrath. For this reason, Barth has sometimes been accused of leaning toward universalism. In fact, Barth himself taught that people should hope for the salvation of all, even those who reject God.
At the same time, Barth believed that universal salvation would limit God’s freedom and that, ultimately, we cannot be dogmatic on this issue. While much of Barth’s theology is sound, this openness to universal salvation is a departure from Scripture. Jesus said that we are to “fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell,” referring to God the Father (Luke 12:5). Jesus also said that everyone who acknowledges Him before men will be acknowledged before the Father, but “whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). No Christian enjoys the idea of unbelievers going to hell, and Barth’s hope for the salvation of those who reject Christ is understandable. However, universalism is clearly refuted by Jesus’ own teaching about hell.
Another important aspect of Karl Barth’s theology is his view on inspiration and illumination. Barth believed that the Bible becomes the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit illuminates it to the heart. That is, the Bible is not the Word of God in itself, and it need not be inerrant in all that it says; its job is to point people to the true Word, Jesus Christ. This teaching, more than any other, has brought stern disagreement from many evangelicals, including Dr. Francis Schaeffer. Many label Barth a neo-orthodox theologian.
Coming to a comprehensive understanding of Karl Barth is difficult, even for those scholars who have tried. Cornelius Van Til, the scholar and critic of Barth who wrote Christianity and Barthianism in an attempt to sort out Barth’s theology, was told by Barth that he had completely misunderstood him. Indeed, it seems that Karl Barth was careful to frame his beliefs in a way that would make it impossible for anyone to pin him down finally upon any doctrine whatsoever.
In Barth’s teachings there is a troubling vagueness or duality. His writings and ideas are fascinating and thought-provoking, and for decades he contributed much to theological discussions. His influence is still being felt in the emergent movement, neo-orthodoxy, and neo-evangelicalism today.