Karl Barth was born in Basel, Germany, on 10 May 1886. His father, theologian Fritz Barth, took the family to Berne in 1889 when he took up the university chair as Professor of Church History and New Testament Exegesis. Fritz’s position and interests meant that Karl was exposed to theological enquiry from an early age.
At the age of sixteen Barth decided to become a theologian, and in 1904 (at eighteen) he began his studies at the University of Berne, initially taking instruction from his father. By the time Barth had completed his studies in 1909, he had studied at some of Germany’s finest institutions, spending time at Berlin, Tübingen and Marburg, in addition to Berne. In 1906, while at Berlin, Barth came into contact with Adolf von Harnack, whose advocating of the ‘liberal theology’ had an enormous impact on Barth’s thinking over the ensuing decade. Barth became an apprentice pastor in Geneva in 1909 and then pastor of the Swiss village Safenwil in 1911. He spent many of his years preaching in accordance with von Harnack’s teachings. However, he came to reject the reformed and liberal tendencies, finding them unsuited to the problems of his parish and to his own personal journey. As Barth saw it, the tendency in natural theology is to reach for the best views of modern science and philosophy and bring Christianity into reconciliation with them. This evaded what Barth saw as most essential and positive in theology, that is, the task of developing its appeal through word and example (action), a matter more apt to the pulpit. His Epistle to the Romans (1919; trans. 1933) was testament to his changing views.
During the 1920s Barth taught theology at the University of Göttingen and later at the University of Münster. Much of his work there sought to challenge von Harnack’s teaching, placing it, at best, as preliminary to the highest end of theology, which Barth identified with preaching. Barth took up such themes in his Gifford Lectures ‘The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation’ (delivered in Aberdeen, 1937–1938). Despite the high regard and recognition that those appointed to deliver the Gifford lecturers in any particular year were immediately afforded, Barth was more famous for his Church Dogmatics, a fourteen-volume work which he continued to develop throughout his life and which remained incomplete at his death. In 1930 Barth had taken up a chair at the University of Bonn. His outspokenness against the Nazi party in 1934 meant that he was forced to leave Germany, and he returned to Basel (1935) where he taught theology until his retirement in 1962. His work was highly influential worldwide.
Barth was married in 1913 and had five children (four sons and a daughter). He died in Basel on 10 December 1968.
Some of his works include: Epistle to the Romans (1919; trans. 1933); Die Christliche Dogmatik in Entwurf (1927); The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928); Church Dogmatics (1932); The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Reformation (1938); ‘No!’, in Natural Theology (1946); Dogmatics in Outline (1949); Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum. Anselm’s Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme (1960); The Humanity of God (1961); and Evangelical Theology (1963).