Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals, by Mark Galli (Eerdmans 2017),176 pp.
Karl Barth stands as not only one of the most important theologians the church has produced, but also one of the most heavily criticized by the evangelical church in America. It is no secret that Barth stands at odds with conservative evangelicals on a number of important theological issues, some of which strike at the heart of Christian faith and doctrine.
Therefore, the question is: what are we to do with Barth? Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater—essentially consigning him and his work to the depths of hades—or, is there a place where Barth’s theology can be appreciated by evangelicals without a wholesale acceptance of every jot and tittle? It is here, at the intersection of rejection and acceptance, that Mark Galli offers a third approach to the theology of Barth, one that both appreciates his rejection of the liberalism of his day without likewise affirming his more neo-orthodox theology.
Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals is a wonderful look into the life, thought, and theology of the great Swiss theologian. Galli offers insights into the academic, pastoral, and personal life of Barth, all of which helped shape him into the theological juggernaut that we know today. Galli begins by exploring the relationship that evangelicalism has had with Barth and Bonhoeffer. While evangelicals have mostly been positive towards Bonhoeffer, his teacher has not enjoyed the same type of affection, even more so among American evangelicals.
After surveying Barth’s family upbringing, we get a sense of what led him to embrace the German liberalism of his day, along with the teachers he had that helped shape him into their image. Galli helpfully introduces us to these teachers, giants like Adolf von Harnack of Berlin and Wilhelm Herrmann of Marburg, and shows their impact the young Barth’s theological development.
Soon after his theological indoctrination of German liberalism, Barth had an awakening. Barth came to the realization that instead of the Bible being a book primarily about men and women, the Bible was a book about God, or more specifically, the Word of God incarnate: “We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s Sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not a human standpoint but the standpoint of God” (p. 35). From this conversion out of liberalism came Barth’s commentary on Romans, more a manifesto against liberalism than a commentary on the text of Romans. Nevertheless, this work remains one of the most important theological works of the last century.
From here, Galli moves on to examine Barth’s time as a professor in Germany. It was during this time that Barth was faced with the rising tide of Nazi Socialism and its influence and on the academy and the church in Germany. What we learn about Barth here is important for how we understand his later theological work, especially his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics. Whereas Bonhoeffer has received praise for his resistance towards Hitler and the atrocities of his regime, Barth likewise made a strong stance towards Nazism and paid a price professionally for doing so. Barth was critical towards what he saw taking place in the university as well as in the church, so much so that he helped draft the famous Barmen Declaration. Eventually, Barth was dismissed from his teaching post in Germany and returned to Basel, where he took a post and continued teaching. While this most certainly was a professional setback for Barth, it would so happen that in Basel Barth would publish his theological masterpiece, a masterpiece that still has an enormous impact on theological thinking.
Galli has done evangelicalism a great service by reintroducing Karl Barth to a new generation of readers, thus making his life and theological impact accessible to a new audience of inquisitive men and women who desire to understand his place within the landscape of modern theology. Galli is likewise careful to straddle the line between praise and criticism of Barth’s theological thinking. While he does highlight the places where Barth’s theology provides a way forward, he also provides criticism where Barth seems to stray from the path of orthodoxy, specifically as it relates to Barth’s teaching on reconciliation and universalism. Barth’s neo-orthodoxy notwithstanding, there is still much that evangelicals can learn from the great Swiss theologian, as Galli has so helpfully shown in his brief biography.