Commemorating Karl Barth’s Death (1886-1968)

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It was on this day exactly 40 years ago, on December 10, 1968, that Karl Barth died. So, I come out of hiding today briefly to pay tribute to this date.

I’ve been asked to give a guest lecture in a “History of Modern Evangelicalism” class this Friday on “Karl Barth and Evangelicals.” As I planned for this, I was reminded of Barth’s final written words, found on a manuscript he  was working on the evening before. I think that what Barth wrote here is entirely fitting to be applied in tribute to him.

In the church that is in the process of turning round the saying is true that ‘God is not the God of the dead but of the living.’ ‘All live to him,’ from the apostles to the earlier and later fathers. They have not only the right [but also the relevance] to be heard today, not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively. The church would not be the church in conversion if, proud and content with its sense of the present hour, it would not listen to them, or would do so only occasionally, loosely, and carelessly, or if it were to rob what it has to learn from them of all its effect by [accepting] what they want to say to it . . . {The sentence breaks off here, incomplete}

-Karl Barth, Final Testimonies, ed. Eberhard Busch, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, 1977, p. 60.

Karl Barth was not, to put it mildly, overly impressed with American evangelical/fundamentalist critics who denounced his work. Fortunately, there were a few exceptions such as E. J. Carnell of Fuller Seminary who was the only “evangelical” theologian allowed to ask a question of Barth at his Princeton lectures in 1962. And though Carnell did so respectfully, it was, to use Barth’s own words above, “not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively.”

I believe this is how evangelicals need to hear and read Barth today. Not uncritically, and not in automatic subjection to this theological giant, but with an attentiveness to learn. We need not agree with everything that Barth said, and we can even loudly disagree with him where we need to, but listen we should.

Thank you, Dr. Karl Barth, for the evidence you left of your belief in the truth that God is a God not of the dead, but of the living. This is especially meaningful to me as I remember my own father’s passing in December 2003. My Dad also believed in this God, and I, too, confess my belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So thank you, Dr. Barth, for your magnificient vision of the self-revealing God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as we find it in your Church Dogmatics. The angels may laugh when they remember old Karl’s wheelbarrow of Dogmatics, but we who remain marvel still at their breadth, depth, and insight. Thank you. And to cite a favour epilogue of your own: Veni Creator Spiritus!

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