Barth’s advice to a pastor

“But if I had to begin anew for myself as a young pastor, I would tell myself every morning, well, here I am; a very poor creature, but by God’s grace I have heard something. I will need forgiveness of my sins everyday. And I will pray, God, that you will give me the light, this light shining in the Bible and this light shining into the world in which humanity is living today. And then do my duty.”

Karl Barth, from KYRIE ELEISON: Karl Barth and the Pastorate


Karl Barth, December 10

I was surprised by the appearance in Holy Women, Holy Men of a commemoration of Karl Barth. Not that he isn’t important, mind you. No, what took me aback was his presence in a volume produced by politically-correct Episcopalians in the twenty-first century. I would be curious to know about his presence in the syllabi of theology courses offered at Episcopal seminaries.

Barth was an important stage on my own theological journey. I read the Commentary on Romans as an undergraduate, then worked through the German original of the second edition. His insistence on the utter transcendence of God and the centrality of Christ were revelations to me and helped me move away from the theology of my upbringing. His resolute opposition to Hitler and his sharp criticism of his teachers and 19th century liberal theology were helpful as well.

Thinking about Barth today reminded me of how far I have come theologically in the last thirty years. I don’t know that I’ve read anything of his since the very early 80s. Certainly at Harvard in that era Barth was mostly a foil for critique, almost a straw man. We were certain we had moved beyond him.

The write-up on Barth for Holy Women, Holy Men provides a standard biography and some sense of Barth’s place in twentieth-century theology. It makes no mention of his impact on Anglican theology and I suspect for most Anglicans with advanced training, their indebtedness to Barth is relatively slight. He was a Calvinist after all, and although he had a deep Incarnational theology, he was also convinced that there was a chasm between God and God’s creation. This meant that he was suspicious of reason. To put it in more positive terms; for Barth, the Word of God was the only certain knowledge.