Karl Barth

An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals

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Mark Galli
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Evangelical theologians for the last couple of decades have shown a strong interest in Karl Barth's work. Barth's theology is no longer anathema within evangelical circles, as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when his thought was rejected by eminent founders of the evangelical movement such as Cornelius Van Til, Carl F. H. Henry, and Billy Graham. It is for this reason that the author, Mark Galli, who serves as editor in chief of Christianity Today, a flagship evangelical periodical, provides confessional evangelicals (and others) an introduction into key themes found in the voluminous work of one of the most prolific theologians of all time. Galli's aim is to show evangelicals there is no need to be suspicious of Barth, and to help them find theological affinities as well as differences in the Swiss thinker's work as it relates to evangelicalism today (xiii). No concise introduction could begin to mine the various insights and concepts found within Barth's massive theological output. The book, however, makes this overwhelming task both manageable and informative. The author is to be lauded for skillfully accomplishing this difficult task in a concise fashion.

Because of the biographical nature of the book, the first few chapters provide a brief survey of Barth's early life and his decision as a teenager to become a pastor and theologian. There are also chapters devoted to Barth’s move from the role of pastor to academia, and his eventual settlement as a professor at the University of Basel. Such a survey is necessary for readers who know little of Barth except for his name. As a student, Barth realized his desire to study at the Universities of Marburg and Berlin, where his theological education was steeped in classic liberalism under the tutelage of Wilhelm Herrmann and Adolf Harnack. After embracing in full the tenets of liberal theology, Barth began ministry in Geneva before becoming a pastor in the Swiss village of Safenwil in 1911. During this period Barth developed a political "socialist” ideology he retained for much of his life.

As a pastor, however, he began to question the value of a theology rooted primarily in human experience. Barth's suspicion of liberalism was brought to a crisis with Germany's entrance into World War I, when the war declaration supporting the Kaiser's policy was signed by most of his theological professors. This marked the beginning of Barth's aversion to any form of "natural theology," or the German idea that God's will is immersed in the will of the state. Barth saw this same natural theology again present in the emergence of National Socialism in the 1930s. Chapters 8 and 9 detail Barth's opposition to German Christianity's cooperation with Adolf Hitler. The Barmen document, authored by Barth, is the most succinct statement of this opposition from the German "confessing churches" whereby any forms of God's revelation apart from the proclaimed Word of God is rejected (87).

Barth’s disillusionment with liberal theology drove him to discover the "strange new world" of the Bible (35-36), one that speaks not of the virtues of humanity but of God. From that point, his theology, ministry and life would never be the same. His now-famous Romans theological commentary, the second edition "that landed like a bombshell on the playground of theologians" (41), is a direct result of this encounter with scripture. Barth presents God as beyond the world, “wholly other,” and following the lead of Søren Kierkegaard, there exists an “infinite, qualitative distinction” between God and humankind” (43). Because God is distinct and unknowable from creation, natural theology itself is a human construct. Barth also attacks the concept of “religion,” particularly that which is Christian, as an idol draped in rituals, ethics, and tradition that substitutes for knowing God (yet this is not “religionless” Christianity). All human attempts to grasp God’s revelation are futile. Only God can reveal God and he has done so in the person of Jesus Christ, who remains veiled in human flesh but in whom God is revealed through faith.

Barth’s Romans built the framework for the themes he would expound on with incredible detail when he undertook his magisterial work, the 9000-plus page Church Dogmatics.

Galli concentrates on a pair of themes from the Dogmatics—Barth’s doctrine of the Word of God and his doctrine of reconciliation—because he sees these two areas as perhaps providing the greatest “resource for evangelical pastors and teachers.” These themes, however, may also prove to be the most controversial to evangelicals (108). The Word of God, for Barth, is preached, written, and revealed (in the person of Christ). Scripture serves as a “witness” to Christ and only has authority as it reveals who Christ is (110-11). Evangelicals will appreciate Barth’s emphasis on the dynamic nature of the Word as the Holy Spirit speaks through it. Barth’s refusal, however, to accept the propositional nature of scripture (including his rejection of biblical inerrancy and infallibility)—because assent to such a doctrine compromises God’s freedom—will continue to give evangelicals pause.

Barth affirms the Reformed doctrine of election, one also embraced by a significant number of evangelicals, but turns it on its head. In Christ’s death and resurrection, all humanity is “elected” in him. Christ’s pardon of the human being is “universal” and does not appear to depend on one’s faith response to him (119). The church’s task is to simply declare what has already been accomplished in Christ’s saving work. Although Barth denies the validity of the doctrine of universalism, it will be difficult for evangelicals to find that his approach to reconciliation results in a different conclusion.

The book serves as fine guide to helping evangelicals become acquainted with Barth and is creative in its presentation. Galli’s work is to be commended and read widely.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William T. Chandler III is a Pastor and Adjunct Professor of Theology at Liberty University Online.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Galli is editor in chief at Christianity Today and the author of many books, including Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God; Beyond Bells and Smells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy; and Beautiful Orthodoxy: The Goodness, Truth, and Beauty of Life in Christ.



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