Of many theologians it is said that their passing marks the end of an epoch. But what is said hyperbolically of others is more literally true of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, whose death at the age of 82 removes a figure who has had a decisive and dominant influence on the most important developments of the century. The fact that his last years have been passed in retirement and failing health in no way lessens the significance of his passing.

Barth first came into prominence, and made perhaps his greatest immediate impact on theology, with his Epistle to the Romans at the close of the First World War. In many ways this work was a turning-point. Negatively it blew sky high the older liberalism in which Barth himself had been raised. Even the liberal himself acquired an awareness of being an anachronism as echoes of this great bell penetrated the halls of theological learning. Positively, this significant work helped to bring into fashion again, not merely the Scriptures in terms of content rather than historical circumstance, but the Reformers and many other thinkers whose writings had been neglected or disparaged in the age of liberal ascendancy. Positively again, Barth introduced a new vocabulary, new concepts, and a new bibliography as he engaged in a first and tentative effort at theological reconstruction. For the first two of these three services genuine theology can never cease to remember Barth with gratitude. The third he himself lived in some measure to regret, especially when the ghost of Barth past confronted him in the guise of Bultmann present. Although Barth never did fully return to the views of the Reformers on Scripture and at times seemed to open the door to universalism, yet we are grateful that he came back as far as he did.

The second great contribution of Barth was to provide a theological rejoinder to totalitarianism. This he did in the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which became the charter of the Confessing Church and an indictment of every form of ecclesiastical appeasement. Barth himself, as a Swiss citizen, suffered no more serious fate than deportation, but the extent of his service is not to be measured by the degree of suffering entailed. In the Barmen Declaration Barth brought to light the theological issues involved in the totalitarian conflict and showed their ultimate significance. Nor should Barth’s apparent reluctance in later years to apply the same principles to the situation under Communism blind us in the free world to the fact that the tolerating state can sometimes be no less a threat to the Church than the totalitarian state. Above all, however, Barth reminds us that “German Christianity” was after all only an acute form of the disease from which natural theology suffers in all its manifestations. For this reason the Barmen Declaration, however restricted in immediate relevance, will always have an honored place in the Church’s confessions.

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At the very time when Barth was breathing theological defiance to. Hitler he was already launched on his greatest project, the monumental Church Dogmatics. This was his second attempt at doctrinal reconstruction, but now in terms of a theology of the Word of God rather than a theology of crisis. Planned on a grandiose scale, moving steadily across the decades from its beginning under the Weimar Republic to its final abandonment in Basel, the Church Dogmatics has not had the dramatic impact of the Römerbrief. Indeed, as other forces have come into play, it might seem that Barth has been plodding a rather lonely course, and that the work designed to be his masterpiece has been something of an anticlimax. Yet this could well be an illusion. For quite apart from the eager interest of Roman Catholic dogmaticians and the more diffused influence on much of the Protestant world, the Church Dogmatics is a book of real theology that takes time to digest and could well play its biggest role long after its first appearance on the scene. As a whole it poses the challenge of its fundamental principle, namely, that theology has to be an objective presentation of God according to his self-revelation and its attestation in Holy Scripture. Ignorance of this principle, or resistance to it, could well be the real reason why the world of Church Dogmatics seems remote and alien to those who would prefer to exchange an old liberalism for a new. But who knows what pressures might not finally combine with Church Dogmatics (and authentic orthodoxy) to bring about the renewal of theological objectivity which will enable Barth’s greatest work to make a decisive impact?

There remains finally the contribution of the man himself. Perhaps it is the humor that strikes us first. Even the ponderous rhetoric of Church Dogmatics cannot wholly subdue this. It finds more ready outlet in the prefaces and smaller works. To appreciate it fully, however, one had to hear the spoken word. The humor was allied to a lively mind that for good or ill adorned and developed all that it took up. Barth could see implications which the ordinary scholar misses, and part of the delight of reading his greater works is to watch present themes and past writings springing to life and taking on new significance. In earlier life this able and original mind could be impatient of opposition, and with his mastery of words Barth was a formidable antagonist. But, as he himself realized, there came a mellowing during the calmer and more constructive years of the Church Dogmatics, and the even-tempered maturity of the later Barth stands in pleasant contrast to the pugnacity or superciliousness of many theologians. This maturity is closely related to the humility which so strongly characterizes the older Barth. Accepting true theological objectivity, Barth came to see that there was no sense in making Barthians but only in attempting and commending a study of God as he is according to his self-revelation by Word and Spirit. This humility, then, was at heart a reverence before God, exemplified first in the renewed stress on the divine transcendence, but then with greater depth and content in the grasping and outworking of the real meaning and theme of theology. It is in virtue of this reverence of spirit that the Church Dogmatics can so easily shift to a devotional key, and that the whole of Barth’s dogmatic work has finally a doxological orientation.

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What will be the final contribution of Barth? Will his work take on lasting significance like that of an Aquinas or Calvin? Will it work ultimately for good by virtue of the stronger elements, or for ill by virtue of the weaker? Will the main thrust of Barth prevail, or are we to be condemned to another confused period of subjectivist domination? To these questions there can be only speculative answers. But, as Barth himself so eloquently proclaims, when a human word has been launched, so that the speaker can no longer control it, it still remains in the sphere of the divine concursus. “He will decide concerning it … after I have uttered it.… It is under the judgment of God. It is quite literally at the disposal of God. It is wholly subordinated to the context of His wider purpose. It is, therefore, in good hands.”

For Barth himself the time has now indeed come to which he looked forward in another fine passage: “Theology, instruction and research will then be outmoded. Demythologising will no longer be required. There will be no further scope for the investigation of a correct hermeneutics and debates concerning Law and Gospel etc. No more volumes of Church Dogmatics will be written. There will be no further need for the furor theologicus. Not because all these things are vain and futile, but because their worth and worthlessness will be weighed on the eternal balances.”

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A Book To Read

For anyone who wants to find out what life was like under Stalin for those who got in wrong with the Communist regime, there is no better book than The First Circle, written by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn and published by Harper & Row. It is a chilling yet thrilling account of the valor of people who were “slaves of the most pervasive tyranny modern history has known, deprived of every human right, their wives and families persecuted.” The author himself was sentenced to eight years of forced labor for “derogatory remarks about ‘the man with the mustache’ made in a letter to a friend.” It’s worth reading.

Twice-Born Men

One of the great Reformation affirmations is justification by faith alone. The stress given to this pivotal truth has, in some measure, obscured another and equally great truth that goes hand in hand with justification. It is the truth of regeneration, or the new birth. Jesus said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Justification is objective and occurs in heaven when the claims of the law have been met, the penalty paid, and the debt canceled. Regeneration is subjective and occurs within the heart of man. Justification has to do with man’s standing before God; regeneration has to do with man’s nature. Faith is essential to both justification and regeneration. It is the key that opens the door to heaven and to the new birth. We are saved by Jesus Christ through faith in him.

The Christian is a twice-born person. His first or physical birth connects him with humanity. His second or spiritual birth connects him with God. His physical birth brings him human life; his spiritual birth brings divine life, now and eternally. It has been said that the once-born man dies twice: he dies as all men die, and then he suffers the consequences of his sins forever. The twice-born man dies only once. He dies as all men do, but he lives eternally with God.

Scripture has something to say about the benefits that come to those who have been regenerated. They are called the sons or children of God. Paul says, “You are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:26). They are new creations, “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). They become “partakers of the divine nature” and have the promise of “escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion” (2 Pet. 1:4). They also share Christ’s victory over sin and the temptations of the world, as John proclaims: “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4).

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No man has spiritual life in and of himself. Yet all men need this birth from above if they are to inherit the kingdom of God. Through Jesus Christ, God has provided the gift of life, and he freely offers this to all who come to him. When all is said and done, life’s supreme question is: Do I have God’s gift of eternal life?

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