“Barth was brilliant and irresponsible as usual.”


I have been reading some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s letters, published in Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr (HarperCollins, 1991). They are written to his dearly loved wife, Ursula, with whom he would frequently engage in theological discussion. A particularly amusing letter, to me at least, was written from Basel in 1947, after his meeting with Karl Barth. Here it is:


Two of your letters forwarded from Geneva were handed to me by Karl Barth on my arrival here. He came down to the station and I have just had four hours with him from luncheon through tea. I’ll report on that first.

He is, of course, a very charming man but also very honest, and we had some very searching discussions the upshot of which was that he criticized me for trying to make a new wisdom out of the foolishness of the Gospel and I accused him of forgetting that the Gospel was really the wisdom as well as the power to them that believe. This involved the whole question of the relation of faith to philosophy on the one hand and to ethics and politics on the other. I found it most stimulating and helpful. I was too much of a preacher not to look for points of contact between the truth of the Gospel and the despair of the world. He was surprised that I preached, and I told him that you accused me of preaching like Schleiermacher on religion to its intellectual despisers. This pleased him very much and he repeated, “Did she say that, really?”

He, like all the Swiss and all the continental Calvinists, has no sense for liturgy and was indifferent toward my criticism of the barren confirmation service I attended on Sunday. He depends upon the sermon to maintain faith. I do not think that is enough though it is just as good as a liturgical service with no real sermon. That is I suppose a kind of dividing line between us as it is between England and the Continent. I am continental of heart and faith but not so (after being corrupted by you) that I could stand these services long. Another thing about Karl Barth. He has developed curious sectarian tendencies having thrown the church in an uproar here by his criticism of infant baptism. Now he is on the Congregational tack, insisting that the real church is only in the simple community of faith in the congregation and that theologians, bishops, secretaries imagine they are the church. I went after him on these issues pretty hard though I must grant he is right in regard to the emphasis that faith, hope, and love in the life of believers are the real substance of the church and that all else is superstructure.

I am staying here tonight and going on tomorrow to Zurich and will spend Thursday and Friday with the Brunners. …Emil Brunner is becoming a good friend. Barth told me several times that he recognized that Brunner and I were closer together than I to him or than Brunner to him, and I acknowledged this. Then he said, “But in reading your books, I can see you have read me and learned some things from me, or, of course, it is just possible that you have rediscovered the Reformation as I did.” Then he added slyly that he thought I was in my spiritual development where he was when he wrote the commentary on Romans. “I thought,” he said, “that I had to beat the people over the head with divine judgment. Now I know they do not repent unless they know the divine grace.”

Basel, Switzerland – April 2, 1947

[Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 238-239]

I would actually side with Niebuhr on the liturgical matters — aesthetics, sacraments, and the like — though I admit that it is difficult (as church history illustrates) to value the visual media without diminishing the proclamation of the Word. Barth, of course, was all about the Word!

In the following year, Niehbuhr attends a conference in Holland, where C. H. Dodd and Karl Barth gave speeches:

Barth and Dodd had the opening speeches yesterday in the presence of royalty. Dodd was superb on the Bible and the church. Barth was brilliant and irresponsible as usual.

Amsterdam, Holland – August 18, 1948

[p. 257]

You gotta love that. Brilliant and irresponsible as usual!



  1. I like seeing things like this that show Barth as a real churchgoer – it’s easy to think of him as an ivory tower academic, but this really shows that he wasn’t – his throwing the church in an uproar is my favourite part.

    • Yes. There is no doubt that Barth was unrelenting in his quest for reforming the church and establishing it unapologetically upon its one foundation. Very Protestant of him. Having said that, I share Niebuhr’s concerns about “sectarian tendencies,” as did T. F. Torrance.

  2. One thing that was caught in my craw:

    “I would actually side with Niebuhr on the liturgical matters — aesthetics, sacraments, and the like”

    That’s not necessarily right to lump these together. I think it’s good to have a high view of the sacraments but a pragmatic and low view of “liturgy” and aesthetics. I see nothing wrong with worshiping together in the midst of the Table with the Lord’s Body and Blood, but doing so in a barn.

    Besides that, I enjoyed this post. Interesting to see public intellectuals as real people having tea, not just names attached to ideas.


    • Nothing wrong with worshiping in a barn, but we need our imaginations shaped — especially in our sterile age of scientific naturalism.

      I will forever and unabashedly lump aesthetics and sacraments together. The sacraments are the Word made visible, and the “visible” necessarily requires us to consider aesthetics — even in a barn.

      I am basically a Calvinist, but the Reformed tradition was dead wrong in its iconoclasm. That is one part of the Reformed confessions that I have no problem with objecting against. I completely understand their arguments and motivations (especially in the context of late medieval idolatry), but they were wrong. And Barth was wrong — on this. Throughout his career, Barth was consistently iconoclast.

  3. “Brilliant and irresponsible as usual”. That is indeed a great quote. I love it!

    I guess Barth, Dodd and Niebuhr (and many others) were probably in Amsterdam because of the founding of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam, August 23, 1948.

    • Ah, I didn’t think of that. That must be right. I was skimming through the letters, so Niebuhr probably mentions the WCC and I didn’t notice.

  4. Stand out comment from Barth: “Now I know they do not repent unless they know the divine grace”. The book sounds like it will be a good read.

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