Karl Barth and “The Theology of Crisis” -- By: J. Gresham Machen

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 53:2 (Fall 1991)
Article: Karl Barth and “The Theology of Crisis”
Author: J. Gresham Machen


Karl Barth and “The Theology of Crisis”*

J. Gresham Machen

* A paper read to a small group of ministers in Philadelphia, April 23, 1928.

Karl Barth, the leader of the movement about which I am venturing to say a few words today, is a man of about forty-two years of age, having been born in 1886 in German Switzerland. After study at a number of the German universities, he entered into the pastorate in his native country. For a number of years he engaged in what seems to have been a kind of socialistic endeavor; but then, becoming convinced that such effort was merely an affair of this earth and did not touch the real issues of life, he launched forth into the remarkable course of teaching and writing that has so profoundly influenced the youth of Germany and that bids fair to make itself felt throughout the world.

Closely related in the character of their teaching with the leader of the movement are Iduard Thurneysen, Friedrich Gogarten, and Emil Brunner. The two first names of these, with Barth himself, are frequent contributors to the journal Zwischen den Zeiten, which is the organ of the school.

There are differences between these individual teachers; Brunner, in particular, does not, I am told, have the complete endorsement of the other leaders of the movement. But these differences will not here be taken into account. All that I can hope to do is to present a very rough composite picture, using now one and now another of the four writers that I have named and even now and then some less prominent or less regular adherents of the same general point of view. I am fully conscious of my incompetence for such a task. The Barthian teaching is by no means altogether a simple thing; and it is quite possible that my present understanding of it might have to be radically modified if my knowledge of it were more complete; I can only give you my present impression for what it is worth.

The teaching of Karl Barth and his associates is commonly called “the theology of crisis.” The “crisis” or “decision” that is meant in this title is the one that is forced upon a man when he is placed before the dreadful antinomy between time and eternity, the world and God. That antinomy is at the root of the Barthian teaching. At the very foundation of everything that Barth says is the conviction of the awful transcendence of God, the awful separateness between the created world in which man lives and the boundless mystery of the Creator. Away then, say these writers, with all efforts to find God in the world itself! Away with the mysticism of

Schleiermacher, discovering God in one particular area of the human soul, in the feeling of absolute...

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