“A ducky and a horsie”

Since I began my project of reading all of Church Dogmatics on April 8 of this year, I have completed the 489 pages of volume one in the hardbound edition and I have reached page 215 in the second volume. So I’ve covered 704 pages of the most challenging work I’ve ever tried to read. Now I face the daunting task of getting my writing on Church Dogmatics to catch up with my reading.

Many times in the course of my grappling with the meaning of Karl Barth’s massive work, I’ve recalled one of my favorite “Peanuts” comic strips by the late Charles M. Schultz. After a brief search on the Internet, I found this comic strip which first appeared 1960. It features Lucy, Linus and good ol’ Charlie Brown outside lying on their backs and musing about the clouds floating overhead.

Lucy says: “If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you think you see, Linus?”

In the following frames, Linus says: “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of British Honduras on the Caribbean.”

Linus continues, “That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen…I can see the apostle Paul standing there to one side…”

In the next frame Lucy says, “Uh huh…That’s very good…What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?”

In the final frame Charlie Brown says, “Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!”

As I try to recall what I have seen so far in Church Dogmatics, I can identify with Charlie Brown. I suspect that there are profound philosophical issues and deep theological insights that I have missed, and that all I can report are some simple things I’ve observed. That’s what I intend to do in the following posts on this website. So don’t expect more than “a ducky and a horsie.”

For instance, I can report that the first two volumes of Church Dogmatics are entitled “The Doctrine of the Word of God.” One of the simple things I’ve observed early in my reading is that Karl Barth says that the Word of God comes in three forms: in preaching, in the Bible, and in revelation. In coming posts I’ll try to explain what the famous Swiss theologian says about these forms of the Word of God.

Church, Theology, and Science

“As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God.” That is Karl Barth’s headline as he begins Church Dogmatics in the first volume of what became an enormously long work. Under this headline are three words which form a title for the first section of the work: The Church, Theology, and Science. What does Karl Barth have to say initially about each of these terms?

Church
Barth writes that dogmatics is a theological discipline and that theology is a function of the Church. “The Church confesses God as it talks about God” (page 3). Barth says that the Church does this “first by its existence in the action of each individual believer. And it does so secondly by its specific action as a fellowship, in proclamation by preaching and administering the sacraments, in worship, and in its internal and external works of love among the sick, weak and those in jeopardy.” (page 3) To say that Church engages in theology means that it talks about God. The word theology comes from two Greek words: theos meaning God and logos meaning word. Barth also issues a cautionary word about the Church when he writes, “It realizes that it is exposed to fierce temptations as it speaks of God, and it realizes that it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks” (page 3).

Theology
In the broad sense of the term, everyone does theology in that everyone talks about God. But Barth writes that in a more narrow sense there are three overlapping specialized areas of theology:
1) Biblical theology, which is the question of the basis of theology,
2) Practical theology, which is the question of the goal of theology, and
3) Dogmatic theology, which is the question of the distinctive utterance of the Church. In small print Barth refers to Church history as “an auxiliary science indispensable to exegetical, dogmatic and practical theology” (p. 5)

In seminary I was exposed to each of these areas of theology, but I focused more on the first two. First, I concentrated on biblical theology including learning both Greek and Hebrew and hermeneutics which is the big word for Bible interpretation. Secondly, I focused on practical theology which included preaching and pastoral care. I now realize that since my graduation from seminary in 1970 I have neglected the study of systematic theology which Barth calls dogmatics. So for me reading Church Dogmatics is major corrective to my ongoing theological education.

Science
I am not accustomed to thinking of theology as a science. To me science deals in the material world with observable data and verifiable experiments while theology deals with intangibles of language and faith. So in what way does Barth consider theology a science? Using formal language Barth describes six characteristics of science. And at this point the editors step in to clarify these requirements which they list as
1) formal consistency,
2) inherent consistency,
3) openness to control through a community of verifiers,
4) antecedent credibility,
5) impartiality, and
6) formalisability.” (page 8).
In Barth’s words this last term means “the possibility of all the propositions being broken up into axioms and theorems and demonstrated on this basis.” (p. 8)

As I understand Barth’s use of the word science, it refers to a method of exploring data rather than the data itself. For Barth, the data of theology, of dogmatics, is the Bible and the writings of the Church over its two thousand year existence. This data can be studied in the same manner as a scientist studies a fish.

Of course Barth is aware that theology is not like other sciences, but he insists that it cannot submit to standards which are valid for other sciences. In a wonderful sentence about theology, Barth writes, “It cannot think of itself as a link in an ordered cosmos, but only as a stop-gap in a disordered cosmos” (page 10).

So in the opening pages of Church Dogmatics Barth announces these three major themes. In the following volumes he will concern himself with the Church and its distinctive talk about God. And he will do this with the painstaking completeness and precision of a scientist carefully and systematically dissecting a fish.

“Where are you going with this?

I recently discussed my Church Dogmatics project with a retired Presbyterian minister friend who asked me, “Where are you going with this?” I didn’t have an adequate answer and I still don’t. I hope to be able to complete my reading of Barth’s massive magnum opus and to write about my experience in a blog on my new website. I intend to share both the content of Barth’s theology and my subjective impressions of it. It would be great if I attracted readers who knew much more about Barth than I do who could offer helpful comments and make corrections of my attempts to understand what I am reading. However, I have to face the fact that I may give up this project in boredom or frustration. I also have to realize that I may not live to complete it.

With this in mind, I was encouraged to discover that Karl Barth never finished his major work. He had envisioned writing five volumes, but in spite of the fact that he worked on it for over thirty years, he never reached volume five and only partially finished volume four. The fact that Barth failed to finish Church Dogmatics inspires me to pursue my project even though I am in my retirement years.

At this stage in my life it is tempting to think I shouldn’t bother with challenging projects because I may never live to complete them. Nevertheless I have launched both short-term and long-term projects that I know I may not complete. I study the Arabic language and nearly every day have conversations via Skype with Palestinian friends in Gaza City and Hebron. I grow tomato plants on my balcony which I grew from seeds. I try to read one book a week. (So far this year I have completed 17 books.) I continue to take cello lessons from my wonderful teacher, Carter Dewberry. Last Saturday night I was thrilled to be allowed to play an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” on my cello in the worship service of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, California. Learning to play the celIo is a lifetime project. I recall reading that when the legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice at age 90, he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.” On social media and in person I try to be an advocate for two unpopular causes: justice for Palestinians and also civil rights and full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church.

Last Saturday for the first time I noticed a plaque in the entrance to the main sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Orange, California, (where New Hope Presbyterian Church currently meets). Over a list of donors to the building of the church were these words by Nelson Henderson: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

My Barth’s Church Dogmatics project may never be finished, but neither did Barth finish his great work. I find that encouraging.

Reflections on the term “dogmatics”

The term “dogmatics” in the title of Karl Barth’s magnum opus is a far more problematic term than the word “church.” Dogmatics suggests that the author will be rigidly opinionated and arrogant in asserting his ideas. I have an acquaintance who boldly and loudly asserts that homosexuality is a perversion. He refuses to consider the possibility that it is a normal human condition which is my view. When I asked him if he had read any books about homosexuality, he said that he hadn’t and didn’t need to. He just knew that he was right. It is futile attempt a meaningful discussions with such a dogmatic person. So who would want to read a book of dogmatics, especially one that is 9,000 pages long?

I can think of three reasons: First the word dogma simply means doctrine or teaching. According to Dictionary.com, dogma is “an official system of principles or tenets concerning faith, morals, behavior, etc., as of a church.” Synonyms include doctrine, teachings, set of beliefs, philosophy. Again according to Dictionary.com, “At the turn of the 17th century, dogma entered English from the Latin term meaning ‘philosophical tenant.’ The Greek word from which it is borrowed means ‘that which one thinks is true,’ and comes ultimately from the Greek dokein, which means ‘to seem good’ or ‘think.’” The term dogmatics is used in a narrower sense of the study of theological teachings of the Christian Church. Dogmatic theology emphasizes the importance of propositional truth over experiential, sensory perceptions.

Second, we generally don’t mind listening to the dogmatic opinions of people who are well informed. When I go to my doctor I appreciate his certainty in diagnosing my symptoms. When I am a passenger in an airplane, I don’t argue with the pilot who announces that we need to fasten our seat belts due to the rough air conditions. I don’t want to go to an equivocal doctor or fly with a wishy-washy pilot.

Third, I have read enough of Church Dogmatics now to realize that Karl Barth is careful and fair in asserting his opinions. He writes at length about ideas that may differ from his own, but does not back away from clearly articulating his own convictions. A few days ago I was reading a section about the doctrine of the incarnation in volume two and encountered this statement: “Mariology is an excrescence, i.e., a diseased construct of theological thought. Excrescences must be excised.” No doubt about what Barth believes! But that statement is surrounded by a lengthy discussion of the role of the mother of Jesus, whether it is appropriate to call her “the mother of God,” the biblical references to Mary, and how the doctrine of the veneration of Mary developed historically.

So I have come to terms with the title which I understand as the teachings of the Christian Church.

The title of Church Dogmatics

I want to begin my comments on the content of Karl Barth’s massive work by considering the title. My hunch is that the words Church Dogmatics are more repelling than appealing, at least to American readers. If I were submitting a manuscript to a publisher, I would most likely avoid using the word church in the title and I would certainly not use the term dogmatics. The word church feels too limiting and the word dogmatics seems too negative. So I have pondered Barth’s choice of a title and want to share with you some of my thinking.

First of all, we have to realize that the book was written in German rather than English. The title in German is Die Kirchliche Dogmatik. (By the way, one of the primary translators and editors of the authorized English translation of Church Dogmatics was an Englishman named Geoffrey Bromiley who was a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary for nearly 30 years including the four years I attended Fuller.) Barth wrote primarily for German speaking readers who would be aware that church dogmatics was subject taught in universities in Germany and Switzerland. They would be familiar with the term. However, in America we tend to avoid the it. When I studied theology at Fuller, the term systematic theology was used rather than dogmatics.

Today I want to make a few comments on the word church. In my next post I will deal with the term dogmatics. Barth wrote primarily for the Christian Church rather than for the general public. Early in the book Barth writes, “Dogmatics is the self-examination of the Christian Church in respect of the content of its distinctive talk about God” (p. 21). Although Barth was a pastor in the Reformed Church of Switzerland, his writing encompasses the entire Church in the breadth of its denominational expressions and the depth of its history. He interacts with various theological views of his own time and carries on a dialog with Christian thinkers over the span of two thousand years. This is one of the great values of Church Dogmatics. Most books I read by Christian writers deal with the content of the Bible and attempt to apply the Scriptures to present day issues and concerns. They tend to jump from the first century to the twenty-first century ignoring all of the intervening work of thoughtful followers of Jesus Christ which shaped our contemporary views whether we know it or not.

For example when Christians today write or speak about God, they are referring to the Christian understand of God as a Trinity made up of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinitarian view of God is simply assumed by contemporary Christian writers who rarely reflect that this understanding of the nature of God developed over several centuries and that disputes over how to understand the Trinity were frequently quite contentious. In fact the first major split in the Church, the split between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, was over a disagreement of how to understand the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly there were political and social reasons for this division, but the theological reason had to do with how best to describe the Trinity.

In Church Dogmatics Karl Barth carries on a conversation with a long list of Christian thinkers of the past. Not only does he frequently quote Martin Luther and John Calvin, but he interacts with an enormous number of other writers. The last volume of Church Dogmatics has a General Index which contains almost all of the 1,000 names Barth references in the various volumes of Church Dogmatics. This astonishing list goes on for twenty pages referring thinkers from Peter Abelard to Huldrych Zwingli. I have to confess that most of these names were unknown to me. The scope of Barth’s knowledge of the work of Christian thinkers of the past is truly breathtaking. In reading the first volume of his work, I often felt as if I were listening to one end of a telephone conversation as Barth conversed with theologians of former times. I could hear what Barth was saying, but I often did not know the other side of the conversation.

My reading of Church Dogmatics so far has started to increase my understanding of the rich history of Christian thought in the Church universal.

In my next post I will share some thoughts on the second word in the title: dogmatics.

First Impressions

Before trying to articulate my understanding of the content of Church Dogmatics I want to give you my first impressions of the style of this massive work – a style that makes it one of the more challenging works I have ever read. Starting with the first page I encountered some of the elements that make it so difficult.

The first difficulty is that there are two font sizes – a normal size and a small size. It seems that the smaller font size is used for parenthetical comments, but it can stretch on for several pages. Although the smaller font is readable, it takes more concentration. I have not yet had to resort to using a magnifying glass to read the small print, but I may in the near future.

Also on the very first page is a small sample of another stylistic difficulty: Barth frequently quotes from other sources in Latin or Greek.
Here is what I encountered on the first page:

Theology is de divinitate ration sive sermo (Augustine, De civ.DeiVII, 1).
Θεολογος est ο τον εκ Θεον εκ Θεου εις δοξαναυτου λεγων
(Coccejus, Summa theol., 1699, 1,1).

This is not an isolated example. Barth often gives quotes in Greek or Latin. Since my hardbound edition of Church Dogmatics gives no translation of these languages, I decided to buy the study edition which is in paperback format and includes translations of all the Greek and Latin statements in footnotes. However I decided that I prefer the clear, dark print of my hardbound edition. So my method has been to read from the hardbound volumes and look up the translations of Greek and Latin in the paperback study edition. By the way, the translation of the above quotes is “Theology is argument or discourse on divinity” and “A theologian is someone who speaks of God, from God, before God to God’s glory.”

Another stylistic challenge in reading Church Dogmatics is Barth’s prose style. Often his sentences are brief and clear. However, just as often, they can run on and on with multiple modifiers, profusions of subordinate phrases, and anti-climactic conjunctions that take his thought in new directions which may or may not be clear upon the first reading or even the second reading of some highly complex, but seemingly important or crucial thought of the theologian. Often, in my first few days of reading, I would stop after few pages and ask myself, What did I just read? Many times I had to admit that I had no idea. Even after re-reading some paragraphs several times, I was still not clear about his meaning.

In my next post I’ll get into the content of Church Dogmatics which is no less daunting for me than Barth’s style.

Barth’s Later Years

Since I am eager to get on with the task of sharing my impressions and understanding of Church Dogmatics, I will conclude my sketch of Karl Barth’s life. I am continuing to read about him in Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts by Eberhard Busch. In the future I may relate incidents in his life that are particularly interesting and/or relevant to an understanding of Church Dogmatics. For now I want to summarize the events from his return to Basel, Switzerland, in 1935 until his death there in 1968 at the age of 82.

Soon after Barth returned to Switzerland, he was appointed Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Basel – a position he maintained until his retirement in 1962 at the age of 75.

During World War II Barth continued to speak out against Hitler and support members of the Confessing Church like the courageous German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After the war Barth dedicated himself to the rebuilding and restoration of Germany. In 1948 he delivered the main address at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Never one to hesitate to give his opinion on politics, he wrote that although he opposed communism he regarded anticommunism as a greater evil than communism itself.

From 1956 through 1964 Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates in the Basel Prison. He said that “there people need firm contact with real life; at the same time the Gospel becomes remarkably relevant and natural of its own accord.” Because the prison’s pulpit was one of the only pulpits Barth occupied late in life, some suggested that in order to hear the famous theologian preach, one had to commit a crime and be put in jail.

In 1960 the now famous theologian befriended Billy Graham in Switzerland and stood out in the rain in Basel to hear Graham preach. Barth liked the American evangelist, but was not favorably impressed with his sermon.

After his retirement, Karl Barth visited the United States for the first time. For seven weeks he traveled across the country giving lectures at various seminaries and universities. As part of his tour, he insisted on visiting Civil War battlefields. At Princeton Theological Seminary Barth had a brief meeting with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Karl & Martin copy

As an indication of Barth’s influence beyond academic and church circles, he was featured in the April 20, 1962, issue of Time magazine which put him on its cover.

Karl Barth died in 1968 in Basel, Switzerland.

There is a popular, but not entirely substantiated, story that during Barth’s tour of the United States, a student once asked the visiting theologian if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence. Barth allegedly said something like “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”

Barth’s years as a theology professor in Germany 1921 – 1935

Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans with its attacks on humanism rocked the theological community. Eventually Barth revised the commentary an astonishing six times. That is one of the things I admire about Barth, that he was willing to change his mind in public. This is a mark of intellectual vigor and courage. In my reading so far in Church Dogmatics I’ve noticed that at times Barth will revise his earlier statements from the first volume of the work.

The Epistle to the Romans brought the Swiss pastor to international prominence. In spite of his lack of a doctorate degree, Barth was appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1921. My sense is that Barth was far more suited to be a university professor than a village pastor. I suspect that this new calling brought relief not only to Barth but also to his parishioners in Safenwil.

Barth later served as a professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis Münster from 1925 to 1930 and then as Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn from 1930 to1935. Three notable events took place in these years.

First, Barth began his first book of Church Dogmatics. The huge work grew year by year out of his class lectures. The first volume was published in 1932.

Second, in 1924 he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum (known as “Lollo”) who later became his long-time assistant and confidante. In 1929 she moved in with the Barth family. Although it is easy to imagine the strain this arrangement put on Barth’s marriage and the questions it raised about his reputation, it lasted nearly 35 years. This is the stuff of a Hollywood movie or at least a long running soap opera. Although there is no evidence of a sexual relationship between Karl and Lollo, many people including Dietrich Bonhoeffer strongly disapproved of their arrangement. Nevertheless there is speculation that von Kirschbaum not only provided secretarial assistance to Barth, but that she contributed significantly to the substance of Church Dogmatics.

In my research on Karl Barth’s life I found a revealing article dated July 11, 2009, by a pastor named Steve Hickey in which he relates discovering Karl Barth’s grave.  A photo of the gravestone shows that under the name Karl Barth are the names of Nelly Barth-Hoffman and also Charlotte von Kirschbaum.
(See stevehickey.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/the-hunt-for-karl-barths-grave/.)

Third, during the years that Barth taught theology in Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power. After many years of economic depression and high unemployment in Germany which no government in was able to solve, Hitler was named chancellor in January 1933. From his new leadership position Hitler skillfully played on people’s resentment of the humiliation of defeat in World War I and the fear of communism. As he consolidated his power, Hitler gave police the right to imprison people without trial, search private dwellings without a warrant, seize property, censor publications, tap telephones and forbid meetings. He outlawed all political parties except his own, broke up labor unions, purged universities, and replaced the judicial system with his own “People’s Courts.” He also began a systematic terrorizing of Jews. In spite of these totalitarian measures, Hitler was able to gain the support of most of the leaders of the German churches.

Most German Christians saw no conflict between the program of National Socialism and Christianity. Nationalism, militarism and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The ideal of a racially pure Arian nation appealed to most Christians in Germany.

Unlike the vast majority of German Christians, Barth opposed Hitler from the start. Alarmed by the religious syncretism and anti-Semitism of the German Church, Barth was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church and writing the Barmen Declaration in 1934. This statement (which was later added to The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, (USA) forcefully argued that the Church’s allegiance to the God of the Lord Jesus Christ compels it to resist the influence of other lords such as the German Führer.

Here is a short sample from the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,
is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which
we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could
and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation,
apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events
and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.


In reading through the
Barmen Declaration in preparation for this post, I am impressed with its clarity and force. When events required it, Barth could write with simplicity and power.

Barth even had the audacity to mail the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally. It is no surprise that the Swiss theologian was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Barth was escorted back to Switzerland ending his teaching career in Germany.

Pastor Barth 1909 – 1921

Today I want to continue my short sketch of Karl Barth’s life with a little information on his years as a pastor from 1909 – 1921.

In 1908, even before completing his academic studies, Karl Barth was ordained into the Swiss Reformed Church by his father. He initially served for two years as assistant pastor in a church in Geneva. In 1911 he was appointed as pastor in the picturesque little village of Safenwil in the northern part of Switzerland. There Barth saw the struggles of his working-class congregation and became involved in supporting unions and the socialist movement.

As a young pastor Barth focused his energies on his sermons and confirmation classes. He meticulously typed out his sermons which were like academic lectures. His parishioners were not impressed with these academic sermons and the congregation slowly decreased in size.

Two important events happened during Barth’s years as a pastor. One was his marriage to a talented young violinist named Nelly Hoffman. Barth had met Nelly when she was a seventeen-year-old member of his first-year confirmation class in Geneva. They were married in 1913 when she was not yet twenty-years-old. They would eventually have five children, fifteen grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

The other major event during Barth’s years as a pastor was the outbreak of war in 1914 which became known as World War I. Pastor Barth was disappointed to discover that his former teachers supported German militarism. Dismayed with what he saw as the moral weakness of the theology he had studied as a university student, Barth plunged into a study of the Bible which focused on Paul’s letter to the Romans. The notes that he took as he read Romans became a commentary which Barth published in 1919. This commentary was a clear departure from a theology which had domesticated God into the patron saint of human institutions and values. Instead Barth stressed the absolute sovereignty of God in his initiating his revelation in Jesus Christ.

Today, May 10, is Karl Barth’s Birthday!

I love to read biographies and often find that a person’s early years are the most fascinating. I knew little about Karl Barth before doing some initial research. I was aware that he was a famous Swiss theologian who opposed Hitler, that he had served as a pastor before becoming a theology professor and that he wrote a famous commentary on the book of Romans as well as Church Dogmatics. In my reading, I discovered that Karl Barth was a much more interesting character than I had imagined. In this post I want to tell you about Barth’s early years. In following posts I’ll tell you about his work as a pastor and professor.

Barth’s Early Years
Karl Bart (pronounced “bart”) was a Swiss theologian who is regarded by many as the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century. By a happy coincidence, today, May 10, is Karl Barth’s birthday! He was born in Basel, Switzerland May 10, 1886 and died there on December 10, 1968.

Barth was the oldest of five children born to Fritz Barth, a Swiss Reformed minister, and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth.  (The term Reformed refers to the branch of the Protestant Church that follows Calvin rather than Luther – the Evangelical branch as it is called in Europe. The most prominent Reformed church in America is the Presbyterian Church in all its varieties.)

Barth grew up in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, where his father was a professor of New Testament and early church history. I was surprised to read in a Karl Barth website (kbarth.org) that young Karl was a “troublesome child” and that he didn’t like going to school. For some time he was the leader of a roving street gang and engaged in feuds at school and in the neighborhood. Another source (The Existential Primer at tameri.com) says that young Karl found fighting exhilarating. My observation is that Barth remained a fighter all his life although in much more constructive ways than leading a street gang.

Although he avoided getting into serious trouble in school, his academic performance was mediocre. However he developed a passion for words and as a teenager he founded a club he called the “Renegade Poets.” He wrote a number of poems and plays and acted in several of them. (This reminds me of one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society, staring Robin Williams which was first shown in 1989.)  Barth’s early love of writing helps me understand how he later became such a prolific writer.

A major turning point in young Barth’s life was his confirmation class in the Swiss Reformed Church. Like many denominations which baptize the infants of believers, the Swiss Reformed Church held confirmation classes for young people who wished to confirm their baptism and participate as members of the church. Young Karl attended this class from 1901 to 1902. Barth’s Confirmation teacher was a man named Robert Aeschbacher who taught that scientific materialism (such as found in the works of Marx) was not going to answer the most important questions about life. Aeschbacher taught that faith in science was misplaced because science could not explain the riddles of the universe. It was Aeschbacher, rather than Barth’s father, that persuaded young Karl to consider the inspiring life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Existential Primer states that on the eve of his Confirmation, Karl Barth made a personal choice to embrace Christianity. In his diary entry of March 23, 1902, Barth wrote, “I made a bold resolve to become a theologian: not with preaching and pastoral care and so on in my mind, but in the hope that through such a course of study I might reach a proper understanding of the creed in place of the rather hazy ideas that I had at that time.”

When Barth was eighteen years old he started to study theology at the University in Bern. Later he moved to Germany and studied at the universities of Berlin, Tubigen, and Marburg. In Berlin he took classes from the famous professors of the day such as Adolph von Harnak who taught a form of optimistic Christianity that focused more on “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” rather than on the person and work of Jesus Christ.