Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Jehle, Frank. Ever Against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968.


Jehle, Frank. Ever Against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968.


 (Toronto Journal of Theology Fall 2003)

Jehle, Frank. Ever Against the Stream: The Politics of Karl Barth, 1906-1968.

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. Pp. vi + 117. Paper, us$22.00. ISBN 0-80828-4944-X

   “A silent community, merely observing the events of the time, would not be a Christian community,” wrote Barth in 1944 as he reflected on his decade-long political struggle in Germany and Switzerland. Jehle relates how Barth exemplified his conviction that Christians, caught in political treachery, may and must act politically just because God’s grace alone lends the state its legitimacy and informs it of its task. So far from being thanked for his contribution here, Barth was never acclaimed in his native land. Four days after his death (December, 1968) a memorial service to honour him was held in the Basel cathedral, with no representative of the federal Swiss government attending. Three months earlier the funeral of Karl Jaspers, Basel’s famed philosopher, had seen many politicians on hand.

The book begins with Barth’s 1906 admission to Zofingia, Switzerland’s oldest student union. Already the twenty-year old was theologically astute and politically alert, thanks to the Swiss Reformation legacy of Zwingli, Oecolampadius and Calvin. Informed by them Barth’s political criticism quickly became diverse and discerning, comprehending a socio-economic arrangement whose “glass ceiling” kept able students out of university on account of their working-class background, as well as Germany’s “unbearable militarism” and Russia’s “Cossack terror.”

In 1907 Barth met Christoph Blumardt (the younger) and owned the latter’s awareness that the entire creation is “sighing for redemption”, and therefore can never itself be the kingdom of God. Soon his exposure to Harnack found him both profiting from the giant’s brilliance and disagreeing with his rapprochement between kingdom and culture. The historical criticism of Harnack’s liberal school was insufficiently critical, Barth concluded, mesmerized by the mystery of documents rather than by the mystery of their subject matter.

While World War I had sealed Barth’s departure from liberal theology, nascent fascism quickened his penetration of that anti-Semitism which he ever after maintained to be its “innermost centre” — never a mere feature of it. As early as 1922 he pronounced German anti-Semitism a “Christian impossibility”, even as church leaders were actualizing it and Barth was telling them they were re-paganizing church and nation alike. In 1925 he denounced Lutheran Theologian Paul Althaus’ sacralization of politics, finding no surprise in Althaus’ subsequent adulation of Hitler as a “pious and faithful sovereign.” In the face of even the theologically sophisticated who announced, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler”, Barth persevered: the enemies of the Jewish people are the enemies of Christ. For this reason he fumed when the Pastors’ Emergency League sought to protect clergy of “non-Aryan descent” but failed to protect Jewish people in general, and then had to oppose benefactor Georg Merz (who had underwritten the publication of Barth’s 1922 Romans) when Merz supported the law forbidding Jews to assimilate, assimilation being an Enlightenment degeneracy. Barth faulted the Confessing Church when its Bishop Wurm commended the minister of justice for the latter’s fight against a Judaism that was inherently subversive morally, religiously and economically. By now he was isolated theologically and politically.

Deported to his native Switzerland, Barth continued to lecture on theology and the state until, in 1941, his telephone was tapped. His outspokenness was thought to threaten Swiss neutrality — even as Emil Brunner’s bathetic bromides were left untouched. At war’s end Barth campaigned for the humane treatment of Germany, never hesitating to endorse its guilt yet insisting that grace always entails a new beginning — only to be accused of harshness when he labelled Nazi depredations “inhuman.”

As World War II gave way to the Cold War, Barth didn’t carry the fight to communism as he had to Naziism. Jehle readily admits a measure of naiveness in Barth. Barth had said that communism was so far from Naziism’s brutalities that “they shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath.” Stalin couldn’t be compared with Nazi “charlatans.” Barth defended himself: communism aimed at something good, however awry it went; Naziism had aimed at nothing good. Still, Jehle insists that Barth never romanticized communism and soon recognized its hideousness.

Unquestionably the exploration of Barth’s correspondence with East European theologians is a major strength of this book. As vigorously as he opposed those who wanted to make Naziism an article of Christian faith, Barth wrote Bereczky, a pro-Communist Hungarian theologian that no political arrangement can be made such an article. And when Hromadka (Czech) proffered a theological endorsement of communism, Barth wrote that his “theology” was really a “particular kind of philosophy of history” that had been seen in the German Christian theologians as early as 1933.

At least one topic in the book is theologically provocative and should prove fruitful: Jehle maintains that Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, pilloried for abetting Germany’s political accommodations, is virtually indistinguishable from Barth’s theology of politics. Both thinkers wanted to desacralize politics, thus freeing Christian obedience in the political realm.

The book brings readers face-to-face with Barth’s discernment, wisdom, realism and energy; above all, however, with his courage — much needed since, according to Jehle, “He never said what others wanted to hear.” Barth strikes this reviewer as a megaphone for the cry of Zwingli, Barth’s Swiss predecessor: “Not to fear is the victory.”


Text of review (excluding publishing details at top): 855 words.


Victor Shepherd

Tyndale Seminary