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Book review of Karl Barth biography by Eberhard Busch

Karl Barth by Eberhard Busch

5.0 out of 5 stars The most important book to read about Karl Barth, March 23, 2009

Andrew D. Rowell (Durham, NC) - See all my reviews

Eberhard Busch who became Karl Barth's assistant in 1965 until the day he died in 1968 wrote this authoritative and fascinating biography of Barth's rich life (1886-1968) in 1975. Busch also has a highly acclaimed survey of Barth's theology: The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology Every reader of Barth should read some work by Barth himself (one can begin anywhere but I would recommend the brief and readable God in Action: Theological Addresses [See my review at Book Review: Karl Barth's God in Action--passionate, short, readable theology] or the early book that made him famous The Epistle to the Romans [See my reflections at Theology of Karl Barth course with Willie Jennings]) and then dive into this biography. There is no better way to understand Barth then to read Busch's masterly crafted account of Barth's life punctuated by Barth's own candid and self-deprecating comments. Of course those already intrigued with Barth will most easily devour the biography but there is also something fascinating about learning how the person who wrote the most pages about God in the 20th century lived his own life. His magnum opus Church Dogmatics (31 vols) is about 8,000 pages. This 500-page biography flies by in comparison to Barth's own deliberate style.
Barth had a rich life--here are just a few tidbits to whet your appetite. He felt compelled to speak out about issues that concerned him--against natural theology, Nazism, the demonizing communism, nuclear weaponry, and infant baptism. But he also depended on friendships and interaction with others to fuel and guide his passion. As a pastor from age 25 to 35, he struggled with preaching--"the depressing ups and downs" (89) and found some relief at being able to talk about it with his lifelong friend and fellow pastor Eduard Thurneysen (73-74). "We tried to learn our theological ABC all over again, beginning by reading and interpreting the writing of the Old and New Testaments, more thoughtfully than before. And lo and behold, they began to speak to us" (97). After Barth was rumored to have spoken up about a political issue "four of the six members of his church committee resigned" (106). Then Barth was denied a pay raise--he had been working at almost the same salary for 7 years (107). Finally, it was increased but "with 99 dissenting votes" (107). He was considered for two other churches but they did not offer him a position (122-123). Eventually, after Barth's Epistle to the Romans was published, he was offered a professor position--but since he had no dissertation, it was an honorary one in Reformed Theology--to which he admitted he knew little about. "I can now admit that at that time I didn't even have a copy of the Reformed confessions, and I certainly hadn't read them" (129). Often he did not get along that well with other faculty at the schools where he taught. Other faculty were hired to "cancel out" his influence and his successors usually had theological views that were polar opposites to him. His completely rewrote his first attempts at the books Epistle to the Romans and Dogmatics because of his unhappiness with them. He had a female theological assistant and close companion Charlotte von Kirschbaum who was by his side for almost his entire career (from 1928 on) yet he remained married and his wife ended up caring for him in his old age (185-186, 472-473). Barth clashed vehemently and publicly (and usually reconciled personally later on) with all of his theological contemporaries. He loved the music of Mozart; was banned from speaking in public in Nazi Germany (259); helped and criticized the Confessing Church; praised and critiqued Roman Catholicism and John Calvin; regularly preached in a prison; saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham preach; corresponded with popes and even had the current pope Joseph Ratzinger sit in and help answer questions in one of his seminars (485); and enjoyed his four children, 15 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.
If you've heard about Karl Barth, read this book--you will then have a much better idea where he is coming from when you read his work.

I have also enjoyed biographies of other figures: