by Bill Reed
It has always struck me as an act of extraordinary providence that two of the greatest men and Christians of the twentieth century died on the exact same day, December 10, 1968. In retrospect, they are among the short list of the outstanding Christians of the twentieth century. They are Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. They are also, appropriately, celebrated as Advent saints in the Book of Common Prayer, as they were shining witnesses to the light of the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. These men witnessed to Christ not only in what they wrote, but in what they did.
Karl Barth was the renowned author of the multi-volume Church Dogmatics, which is credited as the greatest work of theological genius since Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. This work encompasses the whole range of theological topics from the doctrine of God the Trinity to Jesus Christ, to creation and redemption, justification, sanctification and eschatology. His scholarship in the history of theology throughout this systematic theology is breathtaking. His theology is a rich mine for those seeking to understand the mysteries of faith in Christ.
Barth is also remembered and rightly esteemed for his early, strong, and consistent voice against Nazism and Hitler. Though a Swiss citizen, he taught in German universities as the Nazis rose to power. He helped to organize the German Confessing Church, which opposed the state co-opting the Church for its purposes, to which, sadly, most German Christians acquiesced. Barth is acknowledged to be the chief author of the famous Barmen Declaration which denounces the German state or any state which puts itself in the place of God and His Church. The nation state and civil society should, at best, have relative claims on our allegiance and not become idols in place of God. “Jesus Christ is the one Word of God which we have to trust and obey in life and death. (He is) God’s mighty claim upon our whole life.” Nationalist, political, and cultural idols should never replace the sovereignty of God over all created life. Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, the Christmas season reminds us. Karl Barth was a theologian and prophet for his time and for ours.