December 9 – Karl Barth

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Karl Barth, Christian thinker

Born on 10 May 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, Karl Barth grew up in the Swiss Reformed Church (in which his father was a pastor and a professor of New Testament).  He was ordained in 1908 — but on entering the pulpit of his church in Safenwil, he was overwhelmed by a sense that his seminary training had failed to prepare him for what he realised was the most important work of a pastor – proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people in his community.

Responding to this failure of 19th century liberal theology, Barth plunged anew into the study of the Scriptures, producing in 1919 his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans (with a revised edition in 1922).  In this study he identified that the divine revelation and salvation that come through Jesus Christ, Son of God, are entirely acts of God and that this dependence on God alone is the primary element of Christian faith. He developed this insight further in his most extensive work, Church Dogmatics.  For Barth, Jesus Christ is the “fountain of light by which the other two [persons of the Trinity] are lit.” (Barth, Dogmatics in Outline)

Barth was one of the Christian theologians who became deeply concerned about the policies promulgated in the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s.  He was a significant contributor to the wording of the Barmen Declaration, which opposed the development of a “German Christian” church. This Declaration asserts (among other things) that the church belongs solely to Christ, and neither the Scripture nor the church’s work may be controlled by any human organisation.

The Faith of the Church (one of the early documents of the Joint Commission on Church Union, before the Basis of Union) referred to the Barmen Declaration and contained a major quotation from Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  Though the Basis of Union itself does not refer directly to Karl Barth, there is no doubt that his way of describing Christian discipleship undergirds the foundation of the Uniting Church’s life.

It appears that Karl Barth always opened and closed his sermons with prayer.  As this prayer shows, he was convinced that it was only by God’s generous gift that people are able to enter into the life of faith.

O Sovereign God,

grant that we may know you truly

and praise you fully

in the midst of your blessings to us,

that your word may be proclaimed aright

and heard aright

in this place and everywhere that your people call upon you.

May your light enlighten us,

your peace be upon us. Amen

(Karl Barth, Prayer)


Graham Vawser