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Karl Barth's study

Karl Barth’s study, in Basel, Switzerland.

In the last house where Karl Barth lived and worked and finally died, a charming residence on Bruderholzallee in Basel, there are several portraits that stand apart from the others. Portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, these stand out because they hang above several doorways instead of on the walls with everything else. Barth’s singular love of Mozart’s music is well known. Bach and Beethoven each get a cameo appearance in his Church Dogmatics, but it is to challenge the truthfulness of their texts, not to draw from the beauty and depth of their music. For Barth, ”the incomparable Mozart” was every bit as much theologian as composer, not because of any text he used, but simply in the music he composed:

Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. (Church Dogmatics III.3, p. 298)

If this is true, we might want to pull out a recording of The Magic Flute or the Clarinet Concerto, certainly the Requiem, works that Barth mentions by name. But this honor of and respect for, even devotion to, Mozart really says more about Barth himself. The question is not whether we might have been missing something in Mozart but whether we are really listening to Karl Barth.

Should we be listening to Karl Barth?

That Barth heard something in Mozart’s music, something deep and true, seems a mirror of the way he listened in doing his own work. With an almost encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of theologians and philosophers throughout the history of Christianity and in and through his knowledge of Scripture itself, Barth’s great mind heard and tuned in to a profound sense of God, of God’s Word, of God’s self. The Church Dogmatics offers a veritable parade of well-known and many lesser known theologians, philosophers and other historical figures. Barth leans heavily on Anselm, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Kant, Descartes, Schleiermacher, Ritschl (Barth is particularly tough on his own 19th-century forebears) and many others. He assesses this broad spectrum of theological material and assembles it in a way that both appreciates and questions it, that does it justice and at the same time offers a devastating critique. Whatever else it is, reading the Church Dogmatics is an education, a window into the history of theology and philosophy. It also includes thorough familiarity with and constant deference to Scripture and – though he never directly says it – a love for Mozart as deep as his love for Scripture.


Even more impressive is the way Barth discovers in and through all of this, especially in the testimony of Scripture, a single truth, an all-encompassing reality to which everything points and from which everything draws its own value, whether in a positive or negative way. For Barth, everything comes down to or wells up from the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ, or, more pointedly, God’s loving, gracious self-gift in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take long and doesn’t really matter at what point in the Church Dogmatics one starts reading. This deep and clear ostinato, to use a musical term, gradually begins to be heard and felt – underlying and supporting everything else. Mercy and judgment, reward and punishment, anger and patience – in other words, everything the Bible reveals about God – figure into the movement toward this truth.

A comparison with another great mind might offer some perspective. Albert Einstein’s genius is beyond dispute. This great mathematician and physicist understood and processed an unimaginable amount of data to perceive in it all and mathematically to prove his intuition, one single and memorable formula, one truth, so to speak, about the nature and action of physical reality. Einstein credited music with the inspiration for and assistance with his great contribution. He reportedly told the great music educator Shinichi Suzuki that the theory of relativity occurred to him by intuition and that music was the driving force behind this intuition. His discovery was the result of musical perception, particularly the music of Mozart.

Barth also displays this unique and powerful force of intellect – of intuition and perception – and brings to it a particular gift for writing. His ability to gather a staggering amount of material together and direct it toward a single and simple point of convergence, all in a style meant to be read by and to serve the church, is the quality of a truly great mind. When engaging the Church Dogmatics, the reader can actually hear what Barth himself heard in the great span of theology and especially in the inspired word of Scripture.


But there is something else to listen for in Barth. Through the Church Dogmatics there gradually emerges the certainty and reality of both God and humans, of God and ourselves. The difference between the two is infinitely great, a difference unequivocally present in the relationship of Creator to creature and demarcated even further by the presence of sin. He tolerates no natural theology, not one claim of acceptance on our part, not any idea of meeting God half- or even part-way. Humans are practically nothing (or worse!) compared with their Creator, and yet – and this is to me the magic of Barth – one comes away with a powerful sense of the certainty and reality of God and humans, of the power of the Word of God for us and of the force and irresistible love and grace given in Jesus Christ. To be human looms very large on this expansive theological landscape.

The significance of the world and the humans in it is more problematic for Barth than is the question of the existence of God. In his thought, our existence is utterly dependent on God’s being and work, and God’s existence doesn’t in any way need our faith or affirmation. Yet the two basic realities (there just is not another word to describe them) are God and humans. Everything else, Scripture included, is brought to bear on these two realities. This theme is persistent and convincing. One cannot read and listen to Barth without coming to the affirming conclusion that God is real and so are we.

There are reasons to avoid reading Karl Barth, to bypass his contribution to theology or to push him to the side. The Church Dogmatics, not to mention some of Barth’s individual sentences, seems unbearably lengthy: “Too many notes!” to borrow a line from Amadeus, the movie about Mozart. Because he wrote during the 1940s and ’50s, Barth’s style lacks inclusive language, which can be an obstacle to contemporary readers, and this is even more pronounced in the English than the German.

Others label Barth as a monist or a universalist – either of which might provide a convenient excuse to keep him on the shelf but neither of which comes close to distilling the foundation and direction of his thought. Some have seen as problematic his move from theology to ethics, exploring what he understands to be the great and single command of God. Barth’s view of Scripture as a “witness to revelation” (not revelation itself) has kept many from listening to him, but it doesn’t take long to be caught up in the insightful and inspiring way Barth actually interprets the Bible. The Scriptures breathe in Barth’s hands (see 2 Timothy 3:16). He carefully but pointedly shows how Scripture sifts through and discards our pride in ourselves and our misconceptions about God, how it directs us clearly and powerfully through and beyond itself to the God who is really God and then to ourselves, who are really human and who live coram Deo, in the presence of God. At every point along the way Barth listens to Scripture, engages Scripture, submits to Scripture.


So, should we be listening to Karl Barth? Listening seems to be the right approach. Listening allows us to hear this unique and comprehensive explanation of everything that is of greatest importance to us – God, Jesus Christ, Scripture, ourselves and our world – without having to determinedly accept or reject it, without writing Barth off or, worse yet, becoming “Barthians” ourselves. Barth heard something in the Bible and in the great theological writings of the church, and there are good reasons for the church to listen.

Should we be listening to Karl Barth? Karl Barth is a Reformed theologian in the best sense of what that identity means. And yet some of the most stinging criticism of Barth came from this very quarter. We can hear how he bore this criticism with wry humor:

This gives me occasion to say something rather sharp in passing. That the Neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands and elsewhere are not among my well-wishers is something that I have been forced to recognize at all stages of my path so far. Let us not blame them for this, nor for accusing me of being a “monist,” which they have recently proceeded to do. But it is going too far that in their attacks, obviously to offend me the more, they so far forget themselves as to use unrepeatable terms in disparagement of W. A. Mozart. In so doing they have, of course, shown themselves to be men of stupid, cold and stony hearts to whom we need not listen. (Church Dogmatics III.4, preface)

There is one other portrait in the house on Bruderholzallee that occupies a privileged place above a doorway along with Mozart. This one is a familiar profile of John Calvin. It is located in Barth’s study as though Barth realized that Calvin was keeping an eye on him while he worked. Barth’s respect for Calvin and also the high regard with which he held the Heidelberg Catechism should be enough to get our attention. Listening to Karl Barth is a rich, satisfying and engaging way to do theology; there is something very postmodern about it. At a time when the church’s theology seems stuck in the past and ill at ease in the present, Karl Barth might be worth a hearing.

One cannot read and listen to Barth without coming to the affirming conclusion that God is real and so are we.

Image: “Karl Barth Church Dogmatics” by ThinkingLeaders ; licensed under public domain via Commons.