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.