How Karl Barth preached the gospel in a time of crisis

The headlines spoke of nationalism and war. Barth proclaimed a living God who calls for repentance.

Karl Barth’s well-known story concerns his move out of liberal theology—which he had learned from his teachers Adolf von Harnack and Wilhelm Herrmann—into his own formulation of a dialectical theology of crisis. By liberal theology, he meant that his teachers had committed to modern reason and accepted historical criticism—moves that eventually meant accommodating the reasoning and requirement of the state. William Klempa provides a valuable reiteration of that story firmly situated in historical context.

Barth preached 13 sermons in his village church on consecutive Sundays in the summer of 1914, as Europe was heating up for war. Klempa provides a detailed correlation between Barth’s sermons (and other literary activity) and the events of the time. He shows how Barth was at work, as he so famously urged, between the meaning of Bible and the  content of the daily newspaper.

The defining preoccupation of these sermons is the outbreak of the war and the anxiety evoked in the Swiss populace sympathetic to the German cause. In the midst of that war fever, Barth critiques the war and counters it with the truth of the gospel. The primary preoccupation of the sermons is the rule of God, which simultaneously is filled with powerful grace and brings judgment. “In this war God’s judgment has come upon us.” Barth asserts that “God is not mocked,” and no doubt he saw the posturing of the European states in that moment as an act of mocking God. By staking out this claim, Barth rejects the benign accommodating God of liberal theology.