Karl Barth - Early Life and Education

Early Life and Education

Born on 10 May 1886 in Basel, Switzerland, to Johann Friedrich "Fritz" Barth and Anna Katharina (Sartorius) Barth. Fritz Barth was a theology professor and pastor who would greatly influence his son’s life. In particular, Fritz Barth was fascinated by philosophy, especially the implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories on free will. Barth spent his childhood years in Bern. From 1911 to 1921 he served as a Reformed pastor in the village of Safenwil in the canton Aargau. In 1913 he married Nelly Hoffmann, a talented violinist. They had a daughter and four sons, one of whom was the New Testament scholar Markus Barth (6 October 1915 – 1 July 1994). Later he was professor of theology in Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930) and Bonn (1930–1935) (Germany). While serving at Göttingen he met Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who became his long-time secretary and assistant; she played a large role in the writing of his epic, the Church Dogmatics. He had to leave Germany in 1935 after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and went back to Switzerland and became a professor in Basel (1935–1962).

Barth was originally trained in German Protestant Liberalism under such teachers as Wilhelm Herrmann, but reacted against this theology at the time of the First World War. His reaction was fed by several factors, including his commitment to the German and Swiss Religious Socialist movement surrounding men such as Hermann Kutter, the influence of the Biblical Realism movement surrounding men such as Christoph Blumhardt and Søren Kierkegaard, and the effect of the skeptical philosophy of Franz Overbeck.

The most important catalyst was, however, Barth's reaction to the support most of his liberal teachers had for German war aims. The 1914 "Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World" carried the signature of his former teacher Adolf von Harnack. Barth believed that his teachers had been misled by a theology which tied God too closely to the finest, deepest expressions and experiences of cultured human beings, into claiming divine support for a war which they believed was waged in support of that culture–the initial experience of which appeared to increase people's love of and commitment to that culture. Much of Barth's early theology can be seen as a reaction to the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher.

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