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.

Motivations

On April 8, 2015, I began reading Volume 1.1 of Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of the Word of God by Karl Barth. My intention is to read all fourteen volumes of Barth’s massive work which is reputedly over 9,000 pages long.

What motivated me to undertake such a task? Motivations are always elusive and sometimes we are not aware of our multiple motivations, but I can think of several things that moved me to take on this project.

One motivation came from knowing that a woman named Kathy Bruner has read the entire Church Dogmatics. Kathy is the energetic and outspoken wife of my friend and mentor Dr. F. Dale Bruner who is one of the foremost Bible teachers and writers in America. Dr. Bruner has taught at Union Theological Seminary in Manila, the Philippeans and at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, before retiring to settle in Pasadena, California, where he is working on a commentary on Romans and teaching an adult class Sunday mornings at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.

I have known Dale since my early days as a student at UCLA when I attended the “College Department” at “Hollywood Pres.” I have read all of Dale’s books with deep appreciation for his thorough scholarship, penetrating analysis, and useful observations. (In my view Dale’s two volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew is the best Bible commentary ever written, with his commentary on the Gospel of John being a close second.) More recently I have been able to attend some of his classes in Hollywood.

In the first class I attended, Dale and Kathy told of the first years of their married life and the challenges of living and studying in Europe. Kathy mentioned that one of the things that preserved her faith and sanity during this time was reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I would not have been surprised to learn that Dale Bruner has read the entire Church Dogmatics which he has. After all he is a professional theologian and professor. But I was impressed that his wife would take on this task and finish all volumes of this difficult work. So I was inspired by Kathy’s example.

I also understood that Church Dogmatics is spoken of as one of the most important theological works of the Twentieth Century.  It can rightly be called a classic. That reminds me of what Mark Twain said about such books: “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Another motivation is that I like a challenge that stretches my abilities. That’s why I once trained for several years to be able to run a marathon which I finally did in 1981 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It also why I keep taking cello lessons and performing when I get a chance even though I am not very good at it.

To be candid, another motivation for taking on this big project is to be able to brag about it. I imagine myself being able to say casually, “As I was reading in Barth’s Church Dogmatics the other day…” And if I am successful in reading the entire work, I can impress people by saying, “I have read all of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.” Of course this motivation could backfire if people discover that I understand very little of what I am reading or that I abandon the whole project because it is just too difficult.

Finally, my least selfish motivation is to be able to share what I am learning from reading Church Dogmatics and to enter into a conversation with readers of this blog who may to leave whatever comments they wish. I am sure there are folks out there who understand Barth much better than I do and who can significantly add to this discussion.

So I invite you to come along with me as I begin this project. In upcoming posts I will tell a little about Karl Barth and give you my impressions and insights from reading the initial volume of Church Dogmatics which I have now completed.