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.’”

Barth’s years as a theology professor in Germany 1921 – 1935

Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans with its attacks on humanism rocked the theological community. Eventually Barth revised the commentary an astonishing six times. That is one of the things I admire about Barth, that he was willing to change his mind in public. This is a mark of intellectual vigor and courage. In my reading so far in Church Dogmatics I’ve noticed that at times Barth will revise his earlier statements from the first volume of the work.

The Epistle to the Romans brought the Swiss pastor to international prominence. In spite of his lack of a doctorate degree, Barth was appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1921. My sense is that Barth was far more suited to be a university professor than a village pastor. I suspect that this new calling brought relief not only to Barth but also to his parishioners in Safenwil.

Barth later served as a professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis Münster from 1925 to 1930 and then as Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn from 1930 to1935. Three notable events took place in these years.

First, Barth began his first book of Church Dogmatics. The huge work grew year by year out of his class lectures. The first volume was published in 1932.

Second, in 1924 he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum (known as “Lollo”) who later became his long-time assistant and confidante. In 1929 she moved in with the Barth family. Although it is easy to imagine the strain this arrangement put on Barth’s marriage and the questions it raised about his reputation, it lasted nearly 35 years. This is the stuff of a Hollywood movie or at least a long running soap opera. Although there is no evidence of a sexual relationship between Karl and Lollo, many people including Dietrich Bonhoeffer strongly disapproved of their arrangement. Nevertheless there is speculation that von Kirschbaum not only provided secretarial assistance to Barth, but that she contributed significantly to the substance of Church Dogmatics.

In my research on Karl Barth’s life I found a revealing article dated July 11, 2009, by a pastor named Steve Hickey in which he relates discovering Karl Barth’s grave.  A photo of the gravestone shows that under the name Karl Barth are the names of Nelly Barth-Hoffman and also Charlotte von Kirschbaum.

Third, during the years that Barth taught theology in Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power. After many years of economic depression and high unemployment in Germany which no government in was able to solve, Hitler was named chancellor in January 1933. From his new leadership position Hitler skillfully played on people’s resentment of the humiliation of defeat in World War I and the fear of communism. As he consolidated his power, Hitler gave police the right to imprison people without trial, search private dwellings without a warrant, seize property, censor publications, tap telephones and forbid meetings. He outlawed all political parties except his own, broke up labor unions, purged universities, and replaced the judicial system with his own “People’s Courts.” He also began a systematic terrorizing of Jews. In spite of these totalitarian measures, Hitler was able to gain the support of most of the leaders of the German churches.

Most German Christians saw no conflict between the program of National Socialism and Christianity. Nationalism, militarism and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The ideal of a racially pure Arian nation appealed to most Christians in Germany.

Unlike the vast majority of German Christians, Barth opposed Hitler from the start. Alarmed by the religious syncretism and anti-Semitism of the German Church, Barth was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church and writing the Barmen Declaration in 1934. This statement (which was later added to The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, (USA) forcefully argued that the Church’s allegiance to the God of the Lord Jesus Christ compels it to resist the influence of other lords such as the German Führer.

Here is a short sample from the Barmen Declaration:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture,
is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which
we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could
and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation,
apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events
and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

In reading through the
Barmen Declaration in preparation for this post, I am impressed with its clarity and force. When events required it, Barth could write with simplicity and power.

Barth even had the audacity to mail the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally. It is no surprise that the Swiss theologian was forced to resign from his professorship at the University of Bonn in 1935 for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Barth was escorted back to Switzerland ending his teaching career in Germany.

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 ( 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 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.


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.