The PostBarthian
18Sep/140

Karl Barth’s Last Words in the Church Dogmatics

Karl Barth (source:kbarth.org)

Karl Barth with his wife Nelly, his son-in-law Max Zellweger and his second great grandson, June 1968. (source:kbarth.org)

Jürgen Moltmann once commented on Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics:

"Well, we have more than 8,000 pages of Church Dogmatics from Karl Barth. And a very friendly critic once said, 'the truth cannot be so long'. And indeed, his fundamental ideas, you can write down in a half page. And as you know, the praise of God has not beginning and no end. And that's Church Dogmatics. Doxology."

Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics may be  unfinished, but a Summae work is never done! But how did it end for Barth? What were his last words and what words were left unwritten? The final volume of the Church Dogmatics IV.4 is a fragment, and this amazing quotation from the preface to Vol. IV.4 gives us an exciting and depressing to answer to what may have come in the infamous, enigmatic and unwritten Volume V of the Church Dogmatics.  We have an outline of what was ahead in Volume IV.4 on the Lord's Supper and the Lord's Prayer, as well as more that may be said regarding Baptism, and Barth has said that Volume V would be a work of eschatology and the work of the Holy Spirit, but we do not know what may have come.

The following quotation are the last words that explain what has happened so far, what caused Barth to end his work of Church Dogmatics in a way very much like how Thomas Aquinas ended his Summa Theologica, with some hints of what may have come.

How often in the last years I have been asked about the non-appearance of the remaining parts of the Church Dogmatics which had been announced! As things are, in spite of its not inconsiderable bulk, the work is undoubtedly an opus imperfectum. I have been tackled with particular zeal on the question of the doctrine of redemption (eschatology) projected for Volume V. Even the fourth part of the doctrine of reconciliation—the ethical section corresponding to III, 4—is, however, still unavailable. Some of those who have questioned me I have put to confusion by raising the counter-question whether, to what degree, and with what attention they have read and studied the material already to hand. Others I have asked whether they have noted how much about the desired sphere of eschatology may be gathered indirectly, and sometimes directly, from the earlier volumes. Yet others I have reminded of the unfinished nature of most of the mediæval Summae as well as many cathedrals. To others again I have pointed out that Mozart's premature death interrupted work on the Requiem in the middle of the clause Lacrimosa, and that a particularly famous composition of Schubert is the Unfinished Symphony. Finally, I have called the attention of others to the fact that not only in Holy Scripture, but also in Church Dogmatics II, 1, perfection is the epitome of the divine attributes, so that it is better not to seek or to imitate it in a human work.

Naturally these were and are excuses, and rather presumptuous ones so far as the comparisons are concerned. They conceal the simple fact that I have gradually begun to lose the physical energy and mental drive necessary to continue and to complete the work which I had started. It should be remembered that when I began work on I, 1 I was forty- five years of age, and had already kept both printers and readers quite busy. When I had finished IV, 3, however, the forty-five years had become seventy-three. There is quite a difference. In the two years which followed I made a promising beginning of IV, 4, about which I shall have something to say later. But then I had to give up. It should also be considered that though the contents of I, 1 to IV, 3 all had their origin at my desk, soon after composition they formed the text of my academic lectures (in dogmatics or ethics) and they then became the material for my seminars in German, English and French, so that year in year out there was direct contact with the students. All this came to an end when I was made a professor emeritus (amusing word!) in 1962, and when it did so, as I only now saw, there ended with it an essential part of the impulse which lay behind my work thus far. Directly after this break, at the beginning of my seventy-sixth year (younger colleagues now do this much earlier and more often), I spent seven weeks in America, where I had to give lectures at different places in the east, west and centre of the continent, to engage in public discussions, and also to visit the most important of the battlefields of the Civil War (1861–65), in which I had long been interested. When this was happily behind me, there began an indisposition which gradually developed into a regular illness in the course of which I had several periods in hospital and many operations, and caused much trouble and concern to the doctors and nurses and also to my own family. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I look back on this time with thankfulness, and I was able to read a great deal, though not to write. It ended in the late autumn of 1965, when, reasonably restored to health, I was able to return to my desk.

Mention may be made of one notable incident. Shortly before Christmas 1964 I had a slight stroke which for half a day robbed me of speech—perhaps a sign in view of the much too much that I have said in my lifetime. Then, possibly in unconscious protest against the undue disparagement of the third Evangelist by ruling New Testament scholars, and certainly to the edification of the deaconness who was caring for me, the name Zacharias (Lk. 122) clearly passed over my lips in description of my state. Quite soon afterwards I was able to say more about the situation. Nothing like this has happened to me since—not yet!

It so happened that my faithful assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum, who had been indispensable from 1930 onwards, suffered an even more serious illness than mine (definitively from the end of 1965 and beginning of 1966), so that she was out of action in relation to the Church Dogmatics, in whose rise and progress she had played so great a part. Furthermore, I myself was now a little older. I celebrated my eightieth birthday in May 1966. Postponing for a while an autobiography which I had begun, I took an increasing interest in the results of the Second Vatican Council, and in September of this year I made the journey to Rome to hear and see for myself various matters relating to it. This stimulated me to return for a while to academic activity at least in the form of a small seminar. I mention these points here in order that it may be commonly understood why I could not think of carrying forward the Church Dogmatics to the appointed goal. For this “late Barth,” which I now am, it is indeed too late to do this in worthy fashion; he begs understanding and forgiveness.

Barth, Karl. "Church Dogmatics." (n.d.): n. pag. Bloomsbury Press. 2014. Web. 2014. <http://media.bloomsbury.com/rep/files/iv-4-usa.pdf>.

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