While wandering about on Facebook today I ran across a quote from Karl Barth that I have not heard before. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Barth he was born in Basel, Switzerland on May 10, 1886. He was a student in Berne, Tubingen, Marburg, and Berlin and studied with the great liberal theologians Hermann and Von Harnack. He pastored a small parish church in Safenwil, Switzerland and was later a professor in Gotingen, Munster, and Bonn. In my mind one of the most important biographical details of Barth’s life is his role as a foundational member of the German Confessing Church (Christians who actively opposed Hitler before and during WWII) and primary author of the Barmen Declaration. He was eventually fired from his position at the University of Bonn for refusing to begin his lectures with the requisite “Heil Hitler!” and for agreeing to take “the oath of allegiance to Hitler only with the qualification that all such allegiance is subordinate to the dictates of the gospel” (Grenz and Miller, Contemporary Theologies, 11). He died in 1968. He is without a doubt one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century and there are some theological discussions that simply cannot be explored without addressing his work. All of this as pre-amble to this quotation:
“In the last analysis what God required of man consists only in the demand that he should live as the one on whose behalf God required the very uttermost of Himself.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2, p.166.
What Barth means, of course, is that the way we act should be a response to the way that God has acted. Regardless of how poetic it might be this statement is powerful only in the hands of a person like Karl Barth. It is not theoretical theology but practical theology. It must be underpinned by action.
Barth’s own life demonstrated that he truly believed that God indeed “required the very uttermost of Himself” and consequently the very uttermost of Barth. Those of us who believe in the Cross of Christ must understand what this means. Our ethics must be driven not by logic or self-preservation or self-aggrandizement but by the actions of God. For a Christian all other ethical choices are absurd. We are and must be a people of the Cross. That is one of the most powerful and integral components of Barth’s theology. I noted above that Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. His intricate thought, creativity, and depth of analysis reserve him that honour without doubt.
It was his life, however, that made him not merely influential but great.