Friday, December 10, 2010

Remembering Karl Barth

Karl Barth died on December 10, 1968. He is arguably the 20th century's greatest theologian. His commentary on Romans called upon Continental scholars to take seriously the doctrine of justification and to embrace a more Word-centered theology.

Barth's 14 volume Church Dogmatics remains the gold standard for all other theological works (And evangelical's marvel over the size of Wayne Grudem's one volume Systematic Theology!).

Barth was booked two years in advance to come and give the annual lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary (Washington, DC) in 1969. He did not live to see the day. Along with the other MDiv students at Wesley, I was disappointed to hear that Markus Barth, a scholar in his own right, would substitute for his father. He stood at the podium and read his lecture, stopping to pencil-in occasional corrections along the way. At the time I was not impressed.

Since then, however, I have benefited greatly from Markus Barth's writings, particularly his books on the Lord's Supper and baptism. It was in terms of this last issue that the son influenced the father. Before his death Karl Barth testified that he changed his view of baptism. He explained: "In the face of the exegetical conclusions of my son's book [Die Taufe ein Sakrament?], I had to abandon the 'sacramental' understanding of baptism . . ." (Church Dogmatics, IV.4). In its place he embraced believer's baptism, but knew it would be costly to do so. Contemporaries such as Cullmann and Jeremias held staunchly to infant baptism. He stated that this shift "will leave me in the theological and ecclesiastical isolation." Knowing CD, IV.4 would likely be his last major publication before his death, he mused, "I am just about to make a poor exit with it. So be it!" He died one year later.

Karl Barth was a rare breed of scholar whose thirst for knowledge would not allow him to settle doctrinal issues in youth and never think about them again. He remained theologically curious his entire life. We could all learn from his example.


J. Brian Tucker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Brian Tucker said...

Great thoughts, I appreciate the thoughts with regard to changing one's views no matter the age, quite inspiring.