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.’”

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