Karl Barth was an influential professor for over forty years. He began his teaching career at the University of Göttingen (1921-1925), went on to hold positions at the University of Münster (1925-1930) and the University of Bonn (1930-1935), before he eventually spent most of his career at the University of Basel with a special chair in theology until his retirement in 1962. Barth had numerous students who traveled from all over the world to study with him during his lifetime, some of whom are still living today. This page serves as an archive of testimonies from Barth’s former students. We hope that students, pastors, and scholars will benefit from discovering what it was like to learn from Barth and the impact he had upon his student’s lives.
If you were a student of Karl Barth and would like your story to be included on this page, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
William Rader studied with Karl Barth at the University of Basel in 1960-1961. He is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, and has a special concern for the relation of theology to the racial divide. William’s doctoral dissertation for the University of Basel, entitled The Church and Racial Hostility, was published in 1978. A new edition appeared in 2011. Rader has served two parishes in inner cities with majority African-American populations. He has taught part-time in the New Testament department of Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster PA. Translator of the book by Eberhard Busch, Der Freiheit zugetan: Christlicher Glaube heute im Gespräch mit dem Heidelberger Katechismus, he studied with the author under Karl Barth. He presently lives in Dauphin, Pennsylvania.
The following is William Rader’s testimony from his time as studying under Karl Barth.
An opportunity to study with Karl Barth came while I was serving a church in the inner city of Cincinnati. The most pressing problem in our neighborhood was racial conflict. Out of a desire to probe more deeply into this problem from a biblical and theological perspective, I was guided by faculty advisors of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, of which I was a graduate, to study in Basel, Switzerland for the academic year 1960-61.
For a university that had recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, the main building of Basel University seemed strikingly new. Next to a small, quiet green park filled with trees, the huge white rectangular building had its doors wide open to throngs of students. As they dispersed to various classrooms, I noticed that the group headed for the room where Karl Barth was to lecture was more diverse than the rest. Some appeared to be from Africa. Others were older than the average student. I soon learned that the lectures were open to all interested persons, and that some of the older attenders were pastors. We entered a large, semi-circular lecture hall, with ever-ascending rows of seats.
Finding a seat at a reasonable distance from the lectern, I settled in, opened my notebook, placed my German-English dictionary within easy reach, and waited expectantly. Scanning the bulletin board the day before, I had found the written notice by Karl Barth that he would be lecturing on Ethics. That made my heart jump. “This is why I came! I’m looking for theological help on an ethical issue—the racial divide in the United States.”
At the appointed time, a man in a gently rumpled suit, with gray hair a little unruly, entered and made his way to the lectern. This was my first view of Karl Barth in person. My only previous acquaintance had been with his writing. Because that seemed full of incisive vigor, I was a little surprised to see this rather grandfatherly figure. But I was more surprised by his opening words: “This semester I will be lecturing on the Lord’s Prayer.” I thought, “What? I thought these lectures were to be on Ethics!”
My disappointment began to lessen as Prof. Barth continued. He reminded us of the saying, “lex orandi, lex credendi”— [the guide for praying is also the guide for believing], and made an evocative further step: “lex orandi, lex vivendi”— [the guide for praying is also the guide for living]. It would not be long before I began to realize how much help I was receiving from these lectures for the questions I had brought with me from the inner city.
Before the next lecture, I happened to catch sight of Prof. Barth on his way to the university. He got off the tram, and accompanied by his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, slowly walked the half block to the university building. I can see him vividly yet today, probably because the scene was such a contrast to the one I had witnessed the day before. Then, the famous philosopher Karl Jaspers, arriving to give his farewell lecture, had been driven to the steps of the university building in a large black limousine. Stepping out of the vehicle, he had covered the short distance to the entrance in a few long strides, and disappeared into the building.
It may be that my impression of Karl Barth as grandfatherly arose in part because the first personal words about him came from his grandson, Peter. Peter was my roommate in the Alumneum, a house for theology students, a few of whom were Swiss, but most of whom came from a variety of other countries. Peter’s father, Markus Barth, who was teaching New Testament in the United States, depended on his father Karl to keep a supportive eye on nineteen-year-old Peter. It was clear to me from the first that Peter honored, admired, and loved his grandfather—as well as his grandmother. “More and more students have come from other countries to write their doctoral dissertations under my grandfather,” Peter said proudly, “Now that he’s close to retirement he’s not taking any more doctoral candidates, but many people are still coming to hear him.”
Peter was by no means my only source for information about his grandfather. Since all the students in the Alumneum were theological students, and since Prof. Barth wanted to be accessible to students, I heard a lot about him. Fellow students would go to his home with questions and problems, which he listened to patiently. The student who shared most about Prof. Barth with me, both in this first year and in later years in Basel, was Eberhard Busch. Eberhard was a doctoral candidate of Prof. Barth who was to become his personal secretary, and later his biographer. What I share in these pages, however, centers on direct personal relationship with Prof. Barth.
I was glad to learn that Prof. Barth not only gave lectures, where you could hear his Church Dogmatics unfold, but offered other learning opportunities as well. These included seminars, colloquia in English and French, and sessions for doctoral students. I signed up for the seminar he was offering that semester: “The Lord’s Supper in Catholic teaching.” For the seminar, I found my way from the Alumneum, close to the modern university buildings, to the old theological seminar building on the bank of the Rhine. Filled with thoughts of famous theologians who had taught there, I entered the door with awe. Mixed with anticipation for this new step was also fear. Now would be the first time to see Prof. Barth close up—and to be seen by him—perhaps to be questioned! And I’d have to answer in German—which added to my apprehension.
At the front of the seminar room, as I gave my name and the number of semesters of theology studied to his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Professor Barth said “Ah yes, Mr. Rader! Peter has told me about you. It’s good to meet you.” The expression on Prof. Barth’s face showed that he was not just using a formality. His bright blue eyes radiated warmth and thankfulness as though he were receiving a gift.
In the course of the seminar, I discovered that there was no need to fear being called upon. Prof. Barth’s approach was to work together with us to explore what Catholic teaching is and how it developed. It was clear he was convinced that as those who are one in Christ, we are called to do our best to understand and learn from one another. His questions to us, rather than being about matters of fact, were usually of a different sort: “How do you understand this phrase?”; or, “Is there something here I have missed?” The only direct question of fact he asked me was about the difference in meaning between the Latin phrases fides quae creditur (the faith that is believed) and fides qua creditur (the faith by which one believes). That was an easy one. But I made the mistake of speaking the Latin phrase instead of spelling it. The pronunciation taught in Latin courses in the US was different from that taught in Swiss schools. Alas! My answer sounded to Swiss ears as the opposite from what was in my mind. Though a slight cloud of disappointment passed over Prof. Barth’s face, he gently made sure that I had this basic matter straight so that our exploration together would not be hampered.
The English Colloquium studied the English translation of the Church Dogmatics. We met one evening a week in a restaurant. As customers, each of us ordered something from the menu. Professor Barth typically ordered a glass of beer, which at the end stood usually partly empty on the table. The Colloquium was working through volume II/2, “God’s Election of Grace.” Each week a different participant gave a written summary of a section, with analysis, questions, and possibly her or his own alternative view. My turn to lead seemed to come all too soon. I felt over my head, anxious, and overwhelmed. But Professor Barth affirmed ways in which I had understood what his writing meant, and helped me where he saw that I did not understand. He widened my view at those places where I had narrowed down too far. He interpreted my questions in ways that made them deeper, so that his answers opened up new understandings. I felt supported and appreciated. I wondered whether he might have been easy on me because of Peter. However, he seemed to work similarly with everyone. When you questioned or disagreed with something he had written, he listened carefully with appreciation. His appreciation was greatest when you offered some kind of alternate position.
Although he did not hesitate to let students know where he thought they, or other theologians, were on paths not fruitful, Prof. Barth did not take criticism of himself or his theology personally. He often responded to critical questions by asking another question. As we were studying a passage that contained considerable biblical material, a student asked a question often posed in those days: “But how can you make that understandable to modern man?” Prof. Barth responded. “You’re a modern man. Do you understand it?”
Early in the semester, Peter invited me to come along for supper in the Barth home in Bruderholz, a residential section of Basel. We sat around the table in the kitchen—Prof. Barth, Mrs. Barth, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Peter, and I—enjoying a simple meal. Because Peter was only beginning to teach me the dialect of Basel, which is what families spoke among themselves, our conversation was in German. I remember feeling warmly accepted, not as a stranger whom they were checking out to see if he was all right to be Peter’s roommate. Peter was eager to tell about the “Himmelbett” he had constructed for me by adding posts to my bed in our room in the Alumneum and fastening a sheet around them to form an enclosure so that his staying up late at night would not keep me from sleeping. The family was impressed by Peter’s thoughtfulness and ingenuity. After the meal, there was a devotional time. The text was Matthew 11:7-15, in which Jesus talks about John the Baptist, beginning with the words “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?” Prof. Barth did not take the part of a teacher here, but simply read the words slowly and thoughtfully.
I found out about Karl Barth’s love for the music of Mozart early in the semester when Peter said “My grandparents want to go to a Catholic church this coming Sunday because they’ll be having a mass by Mozart, and my grandfather loves Mozart. They invite us to go along with them.” When Peter and I met his grandparents and Miss von Kirschbaum in front of the church, Prof. Barth’s face showed his anticipation, and as we sat together in the pew, it showed rapt attention. When we came out of the church it was clear that the service had deeply satisfied him.
Responsibility for Peter was much on the minds and hearts of Prof. and Mrs. Barth. Sometimes after a seminar or colloquium, Prof. Barth would ask me, “How do you think Peter is doing?” My response usually went along these lines: “He’s doing well. He’s eager to learn, somewhat impetuous, and extremely warm-hearted.” Prof. Barth said, “I’m concerned about him. His parents have both been deeply involved in so much that I’m not sure Peter has received all the parental
guidance he needs.” It may be that Karl Barth was really giving voice to some of his own feelings about being so busy that he did not have as much time as he would have liked to be with Peter.
On Easter Sunday, after taking part in a dawn service in another church, I went with Peter to the Titus Church, near the Barth residence. Prof. Barth was also at this service, sitting in another part of the church. Later, Peter said to me “My grandfather asked why you did not take communion.” I answered, “Because I took it at the dawn service, and didn’t know if it was all right to take it again the same day.” (The congregations I grew up in had communion only four times a year.) I did not take Prof. Barth’s question as a critical one. Rather, it seemed a sign that Prof. Barth had the heart of a pastor and that he took the Lord’s Supper very seriously.
By the middle of the summer semester, I was so deeply involved in Karl Barth’s theology that I decided to buy the entire set of the volumes of the Kirchliche Dogmatik that had been published to that point. The practice of bookstores in Basel was that you could purchase an author’s book at a steep discount if you got a note from the author personally. So I went to Prof. Barth’s home and said “May I have your signature so that I can buy the Church Dogmatics?” His face lit up almost like that of a child getting a birthday gift. “Oh yes, gladly!” The tone of his voice and the expression on his face radiated with thankfulness that I found his work so helpful as to make this commitment.
Near the end of the summer semester, Peter said “Would you go with me to my parents’ cabin in the Alps for a week after the semester ends?” “Sounds like a great idea,” I said. When Peter asked permission from his grandparents, they responded, “You may go only if Bill goes with you.” I imagine this was not an easy decision for the Barths, especially since years before they had lost a son by a fatal fall in the Alps. The three of us talked together about the idea. Hearing my assurance to be with Peter the whole time, they said to me, with deep concern, “Please do not let him trying anything too daring.” I gave my promise, for which they were very thankful, and on the basis of which they gave their permission. It was an adventuresome week, sometimes in territory dangerous enough that we tied ourselves together with a length of rope. But all went well, and Peter could go safely back to Basel, while I went back to the United States in August of 1961.
Hearing that Karl Barth was coming to the United States, and that he would give the Warfield Lectures at Princeton in April 1962, I arranged to drive from my home in Allentown, PA to hear him. A fellow pastor, the Rev Charles Zweizig, asked if he could go with me. By the time we arrived, the huge Princeton University Chapel was almost full, and the places we found were far from where Prof. Barth was to speak.
After presenting the lecture, later published as one of the chapters in Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth disappeared through a door that led to the sacristy. Rev. Zweizig said “I want to go up and talk with him.” I replied, “I don’t think we can do that. It looks like half the Princeton football team is standing guard to keep anyone from going into that room.” I understood very well that everyone responsible for Prof. Barth’s visit to the U.S. wanted to be extremely careful to conserve his strength. But Rev. Zweizig persisted. “I just have to talk with him!” “All right,” I reluctantly replied, “we can
try making our way down the aisle.” I was sure our effort to go against the stream of people would be in vain.
But while we were yet quite a distance from the front of the chapel, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who had not yet entered the sacristy, suddenly waved her hand and called out, “Oh, Mr. Rader! How good to see you!” I was astonished that she noticed me amid all those people and remembered, almost a year after we had last seen one another. “Please come, Prof. Barth will want to see you—and bring your friend with you.” As Ms. von Kirschbaum ushered us into the room, we saw Prof. Barth sitting there alone. It almost seemed that he felt a little strange, and in a way, lonely, being all by himself after having spoken to so many. “Oh, Mr. Rader, how good of you to come—and to bring a friend!“ I introduced my colleague, who launched into an account of his Swiss roots, in which Karl Barth was genuinely interested. He seemed thankful and happy to have the chance to chat with us. The contrast with the cordon of stern-faced football players was striking. My friend was in seventh heaven, and on the way home he could not get done thanking me for introducing him to Karl Barth.
Having decided to do further work on theology and race, I returned to Basel in the summer semester of 1963. My wife Clara and I had just married. Peter Barth welcomed us back happily, and arranged for the three of us to have an evening with his grandparents. Prof. Barth asked “What do you see going on in theology in the US now?” “Well,” I ventured, “there seems to be a lot of emphasis on experience.” “Hmm, that would confirm the impression I’ve been getting,” the professor mused, “It may be that Friedrich Schleiermacher will be the theologian of the twentieth century as well as of the nineteenth.”
He then asked about my work on a dissertation. When I spoke about theology and race, he said “If you had told me when you first came that you wanted to work on this, I would have made an exception and been your doctoral advisor. As it is, I’ll do all I can to help you.” Moved by his concern, I responded, “I’m so thankful for your offer, and will come back as soon as I can.” Prof. Barth smiled gently and said, “It may be that I will no longer be here.” I was struck by the perspective he seemed to be taking. He was thinking first of all about me, and how I would proceed with my dissertation. Thinking about his death was secondary. This was in keeping with what I had already experienced of Karl Barth. He was eager for the study of theology to make progress, so he wanted to help younger theologians in every way he could. He was thankful that students wanted to learn from him, and wanted to help equip them to think theologically in order to serve faithfully in the church and the world.
One morning before the beginning of the seminar session, a student brought to Prof. Barth an article that had appeared in that morning edition of the Basel newspaper. The heading read, “Karl Barth—a Man From Yesterday?” Prof. Barth looked at the heading, held it up in front of the gathered students, read the headline in a loud voice, and then quoted from a hymn by Paul Gerhard:
Alles Ding währt seine Zeit,
Gottes Lieb’ in Ewigkeit
[Everything has its time; God’s love is eternal]
Clara and I were able to come back to Basel in 1967, in order to finish my dissertation. We lived in the Agape House, a Mennonite center just down the street from the Barths. Not long after our arrival, Prof. and Mrs. Barth invited us over for an evening. Prof. Barth said that his visit to the U.S. five years earlier had been fascinating, and that he would have liked to have more time to get acquainted with congregational life. He’d like to hear something about our experience. We told him and his wife a little about our time in Christ United Church of Christ, Elizabethtown, PA. One event was a meeting of community pastors with the superintendent of schools. The superintendent told us there was a pressing need for a fifth grade teacher, and that he had received an application from an excellent candidate. “But,” he said, “I’m not going to submit it to the school board.” “Why not?” we asked, almost in unison. “Because she’s black—and I don’t want to be crucified.” When we recounted this experience to Mr. and Mrs. Barth, they gasped, finding it hard to believe that racial attitudes were still so strong even in the northern part of the country. Clara and I went on to tell another revealing experience. An African-American friend and his wife came to visit us from a distance. When after a happy evening that lasted late, they declined the invitation we had already given before they came, to stay overnight, we were puzzled. It was only later that we realized the town was not only against black people living there, but that there was an unwritten rule against their even staying overnight. We, in our world of white privilege, had no idea about this, but our friends knew. Especially unforgettable is Karl Barth’s capacity for listening carefully, watching with his blue eyes opened wide, and fastened on us as though we were the only people in the world who mattered just then. He spoke about meeting Martin Luther King briefly when he was in the U.S. and of his deep admiration for him and his ministry. He mentioned being troubled that theological students who came to Basel from the southern part of the United States, when they returned, sometimes still seemed to be conservative.
On another evening, most of the conversation was about Shakespeare. Prof. Barth had been reading much by the great writer—not only the plays, but also the sonnets. He had learned that Clara, who had a degree in English from Yale Graduate School, was deeply interested in Shakespeare. And we knew that Barth had been involved in drama from his early youth. One point in the conversation stands out clearly in my memory. Eagerly sharing his convictions about some of the characters in the dramas, Prof. Barth lifted both hands in the air and cried out “Ach, diese Figuren!” [Oh, what strongly depicted figures!]
The last seminar, (now called colloquium) Prof. Barth led was in the spring of 1968. The text was Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers. Since eager participants were in their seats well before beginning time, I had plenty of opportunity to become acquainted with my neighbors. On my right was a Buddhist scholar, on his way to teach in California. He was excited to hear what Karl Barth had to say about religion. I had the sense that this scholar might not realize that the professor’s attitude toward religion was ambivalent. On my left was a man who said he was a secretary in the Swiss Communist party.
As always, Prof. Barth’s method involved very close reading of the text. He repeatedly asked if there might be other ways to understand Schleiermacher’s words than he had understood them up to now. Sometimes when students would oppose a statement of Schleiermacher, Prof. Barth would take Schleiermacher’s side. Particularly vivid in my mind is what took place when we came to the section toward the end of the second speech, which presents a lengthy quotation from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Prof. Barth told about a day when as an early teenager he had come across a book by Spinoza in his father’s library. He recalled being so fascinated by one passage that he read it out loud to his younger sister. He then asked a student to read aloud the Spinoza selection contained in Schleiermacher’s work. At the end of the reading, Prof. Barth thanked the student. Then he said “Please read it again; this time, with feeling!”
After one of the sessions of the colloquium, Prof. Barth came to me holding several sheets of paper. “I want to show you a funeral sermon that Peter has given,” he said. Peter had completed his studies and was now pastor of a congregation to the east of Basel. “It’s good, don’t you think?” Prof. Barth said, beaming. It was clear that Prof. Barth was proud of his grandson, and joyfully thankful that Peter was doing well in his first parish.
Prof. Barth hoped to give a colloquium in the winter semester of 1968, but was physically not up to it. In times when Eberhard Busch and his wife Beate got together with Clara and me, we heard from them about how Prof. Barth was doing. Often, they told us that even in the midst of his physical ills, Prof. Barth often made them laugh. As much as possible, Prof. Barth responded to letters, and requests for articles. In November of 1968, the Southeast Journal of Theology asked him for a brief article summing up what he believed the task of theology is today. Since the article was to be published in English, Eberhard brought it to Clara and me so that we could render it into good English. After an evening of careful reading and discussion, all three of us were satisfied, and Eberhard left with the completed work. None of us thought that this might be the last article of Prof. Barth, though it turned out to be so. On the second day after that, Eberhard came with word that Prof. Barth was completely satisfied with the article, was deeply thankful for our help, and had sent it to the Southeast Journal of Theology. In his hand, Eberhard carried a package. Unwrapping it, we found a copy of Karl Barth’s Epistle to
the Romans. It was the sixth edition, which Oxford University Press had just issued for the first time in paperback. On the flyleaf, in Prof. Barth’s own handwriting, we found the words “In heartfelt thanks for your efforts about Southeast Asia—from Karl Barth, in November 1968.” Clara and I were surprised and delighted by this wonderful expression of thankfulness. What we had done seemed a relatively small matter. As we reflected on the gift from Prof. Barth, we were aware again that thankfulness was an important part of who Karl Barth was. As thankfulness was an integral and dominant part of Karl Barth’s theology, so it was of his life.