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.