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.

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.

Why Bill DeQuill?

Before I start my comments about Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, let me explain how I chose my domain name. For several years I have used the name “Bill DeQuill” as a pen name. I chose it because it is both intentionally pretentious and descriptive. Of course it roughly means Bill of the quill (the old writing instrument made of a feather). I know that in Spanish and perhaps other languages the little word “de” means “of” and it is a separate word. I purposely chose to make it part of the name to show that I’m an English speaker who is not well acquainted with Spanish. I also chose this name because it rhymes. Another reason I chose this name is that it is unique. If you do a Google search for this name, the only reference you will find is to my Twitter account. Nobody else has this silly name. Since the name is unique, I was able to use it for my domain name which is now officially registered.

So Bill DeQuill means Bill the Writer.  I intend to use this website/blog to write about many things that interest me.  I hope that what I write will be of interest to you as well.  My first writing project will be comments about the massive, fourteen volume Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth.  In the near future I will begin that project.  So I hope you will return to my site and interact with me as much as you want.