The Teachings of Modern Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature - Vol. 1

By John Witte Jr.; Frank S. Alexander | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Karl Barth (1886–1968)

GEORGE HUNSINGER

Pope Pius XII once described Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed professor and pastor, as “the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.”1 Barth's enormous contribution to theology, church, and culture will take generations to assimilate and assess. As the principal author of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, he was the intellectual leader of the German “Confessing Church,” the Protestant congregations that resisted Adolf Hitler. Among Barth's many books, sermons, and essays, the great, multivolume Church Dogmatics—a closely reasoned, eloquently stated argument in nearly ten thousand pages—stands out as his crowning achievement. Of this work Thomas F. Torrance has written, “Most people regard Volume IV as the high point of the Church Dogmatics&[It] surely constitutes the most powerful work on the doctrine of atoning reconciliation ever written.”2

Barth's ecumenical importance has been widely recognized. “We have in Barth,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “two crucial features: the most thorough and penetrating display of the Protestant view and the closest rapprochement with the Catholic.” According to von Balthasars assessment of Barth, “in him Protestantism has found for the first time its most completely consistent representative.”3 During the last decade of his life, Barth was increasingly hopeful about the “astonishing renewal” in the Catholic Church initiated by the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).4 “I often sense in Catholicism,” he once said, “a stronger Christian life than in the Protestant churches.”5 After reading Hans Kiing's book Justification (1957), the thesis of which is that the teachings of Barth and Catholicism are compatible, Barth stated: “It occurs to me as something worth pondering that it could suddenly take place that the first will be last and the last first, that suddenly from Rome the doctrine of justification by faith alone will be proclaimed more purely than in most Protestant churches.”6

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