Karl Barth and the Jews

Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) has been called many things. His views on Israel and the Jews have been considered everything from anti-Semitic to supportive of the Jewish people. I find his analysis of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism fascinating, which is why I chose it for my master’s thesis.

Karl Barth’s theology was of great importance in the 1930s in Germany. Hitler knew that the European Church was a dangerous opponent to him and his vision. In order to keep his enemies close, he made an agreement with the Catholic Church to secure peace with that camp. With the Protestants, though, things were a bit more difficult. Hitler appointed a Reich Bishop to be the supreme authority of Protestantism and its 28 different churches. Throughout all this, Karl Barth, together with a number of other theologians, spoke out against Hitler’s actions. They met in 1934 and wrote the so-called Barmen Declaration to ensure the Church’s independence from the State.  Karl Barth began writing more and more critically about the situation, and as a result was put on trial the same year. His case was eventually dismissed. Barth traveled back to Switzerland and wrote several significant papers against Nazism and anti-Semitism while working as a professor.

Karl Barth emphasized the covenant God made with Israel, which led to an emphasis on the Old Testament as a whole. He was of the opinion that the full biblical narrative must be told, as it is the foundation for everything that happens with Christ and mankind. “In order to be elect ourselves [Gentiles], for good or evil we must either be Jews or belong to this Jew” (CD 3/3, 225). Israel is, to Barth, a people who must live out the covenant. Israel is to draw people to God. All this is happening for the sake of the covenant until the new covenant, as prophesied by Jeremiah, arrives. This new covenant cannot be broken by Israel like the previously broken covenants. Only through this new covenant, fulfilled in Christ, can a new, irreversible foundation be laid. (Barth’s Christocentric theology is a reason that he has been called an anti-Judaist. In particular, his negative perspectives on the synagogue and rabbinic Judaism have led critics to accuse Barth of leaning towards a supersessionist theology.) Barth gave the entire Old Testament a role in his Christology; he accused many people in church history (e.g. Schleiermacher and Marcion) of neglecting the Old Testament. He believed that you cannot understand who Jesus is without looking at him through the lens of the Old Testament.

“There is one thing we must emphasize especially. … The Word did not simply become any “flesh.” … It became Jewish flesh. … The Church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that [Jesus’ Jewishness] comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental. The New Testament witness to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, stands on the soil of the Old Testament and cannot be separated from it. The pronouncements of the New Testament Christology may have been shaped by a very non-Jewish environment. But they relate always to a man who is seen to be not a man in general, a neutral man, but the conclusion and sum of the history of God with the people of Israel, the One who fulfills the covenant made by God with his people” (CD 4/1, 166).

The word did not only become flesh, it became Jewish flesh. Karl Barth emphasized that Jesus was a Jew. One reason for this position is that the covenant is a core for his theology and Christology.
Another possibility was that this book (CD 4) was written in 1963, and Karl Barth wanted to raise his voice about the Holocaust. In his view, the Holocaust was nothing less than crucifying Jesus once again. For Barth, anti-Semitism was not only a humanitarian disaster, but also a theological disaster. This emphasis on Jesus being a Jew was a theologically motivated attack on anti-Semitism. Barth was among the first theologians to put forth the idea that Israel and the Jews still have a role in God’s plan after Jesus. Barth believed that the present tense in John 4:22 is still valid. He saw the Jews as a people with a special status, a kind of parallel to the Christians as God’s people.

There are many different views on Barth and this makes it a very interesting subject. I’m very glad I had the chance to explore it here in the wonderful library at Caspari Center prior to finishing my master’s thesis.

This article was written by our summer volunteer, who is currently working on her Master’s degree in Theology.