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Karl Barth: A life in conflict, by Christiane Tietz, translated by Victoria Barnett

28 May 2021

Natalie Watson reviews a book that adds to the understanding of Barth

THERE is little doubt that Karl Barth (1886-1968) was one of the most important characters in the landscape of theology not only in the German-speaking world, but throughout the Christian West. The man who re-invented Protestant theology after the First World War and thereby influenced a whole generation of Evangelical pastors in Germany and his native Switzerland was, however, also a divisive figure, someone who frequently found himself at the centre of conflict and controversy, both theological and political. It is, therefore, appropriate that this remarkable new biography of Karl Barth is subtitled A life in conflict.

These conflicts and the theological texts that emerged from them mark the milestones in Barth’s life, beginning with the two rather different editions of his theological commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, published in 1919 and 1922 respectively, which are regarded as the beginning of Barth’s dialectical theology, followed by Theological Existence Today!, Barth’s commentary on the situation of the Church in Germany after the National Socialists seized power, published in the summer of 1933, and his responses to the Cold War, written from Switzerland to pastors in East Germany and Hungary.

Christiane Tietz follows Barth’s life chronologically, placing his work in context and in its relationship to his personal and political environments. It is, however, helpful that she devotes a whole chapter to the Church Dogmatics, that unrivalled and also unfinished recasting of systematic theological thinking. The first volume appeared in 1932 when Barth was professor in Bonn, and the final volume was published as a fragment in 1967. She also puts some of Barth’s more accessible texts, such as Dogmatics in Outline (English translation, SCM Press, 1949), in their contexts, and locates his theological friends (such as Eduard Thurneysen) and foes (such as Emil Brunner).

This is, of course, not the first biographical work to be published on Barth, but it is a necessary addition to what has been written so far. Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His life from letters and autobiographical texts was published within a decade of the master’s death by his personal assistant. Tietz has the advantage of access to a much wider range of material, but also of distance, not only from the subject himself, but also from his contemporaries. While Busch hints at the complexity of Barth’s relationship with his long-time assistant and leaves the reader to read between the lines, Tietz is able to be far more explicit about the ménage à trois between Barth, his wife, Nelly, and his co-worker and mistress, Charlotte von Kirschbaum.

If conflict is the key theme for Tietz’s work, then this is nowhere more explicit than in the two long chapters at the heart of the book which map Barth’s theological, personal, and political journey between 1930 and 1945.

AlamyKarl Barth in middle age

Chapter 10, “‘A Swissman in the Middle of Germany’: Bonn, 1930”, is a masterpiece in its own right. It maps Barth’s early engagement with the rise of National Socialism, his involvement in the Barmen Synod of the Confessing Church, and also his eventual return to his native Switzerland. This is followed by a chapter mapping Barth’s first ten years back in Basel and his engagement with and practical support of the Confessing Church in Germany.

Tietz is Professor for Systematic Theology at the University of Zurich. She presents Barth as a Swiss Reformed theologian who spent a substantial part of his working life in Germany. In many ways, Tietz’s book is a very German piece of work. It is meticulously researched and thoroughly referenced (Chapter 10 alone has 423 endnotes!) and will become a standard text for all engaging with Barth’s theology for generations to come. Yet this would not be possible were it not for the mediation of a highly competent translator, in this case Victoria Barnett, better known for her work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Barth’s theology can be described as epoch-making. Even if Tietz’s book does not necessarily explain why, it certainly sheds light on how this happened.

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian, editor, and writer based in Peterborough.


Karl Barth: A life in conflict
Christiane Tietz
Victoria Barnett, translator
OUP £25
Church House Bookshop £22.50

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