Karl Barth’s Angry Letter to Helmut Gollwitzer on the Book of Job

In 1959, Karl Barth wrote an exposition of the Book of Job that he divided into four long small-print sections weaved into the end of the Church Dogmatics IV/3.1. Helmut Gollwitzer was Karl Barth's personal assistant in the 1960's after Charlotte Von Kirschbaum became ill. And in 1966, Gollwitzer realized that these small-print sections on Job may be extracted from CD IV/3.1 and read independently, so he edited them into an independent exposition on the Book of Job. Unfortunately, he made a huge mistake, and did not include the fourth and final small-print section on Job by mistake.

Karl Barth received a copy of this book on Job that Gollwitzer had edited and was livid when he saw that the fourth small-print section was missing. Barth was so angry that he wrote back and told Gollwitzer he had committed a "wicked act" and that "irreparable damage . . . has been done" and that he desired to "publicly protest somewhere against this". Gollwitzer rectified the error by publishing the fourth section separately.

Barth's letter to Gollwitzer was published in Karl Barth's Letters: 1961-1968, and I was taken back by how harsh this letter was when I first read it, and was surprised that Barth would write such a letter. However, reading posthumously published letters is similar to reading a person's emails after they had died, and everyone sends an angry email from time to time. I revisited this letter after recently reading Barth's exposition of Job in CD IV/3.1, and realized that he wrote this harsh letter to his close friend and personal assistant, which I had not realized previously. The letter reminds me that world famous theologians are people like everyone else, and everyone writes an angry email from time to time that should never have been sent. This book of Barth's letters is an intimate view into Barth's private life, and demonstrates that my heroes can be arrogant jerks once in a while!

For the sake of background, Barth's exposition on Job appears in four small print sections in CD IV/3.1: According to the older English Translations, part 1 is on pp. 383-388, part 2 is on pp. 398-408, part 3 is on pp. 421-434, and part 4 is on pp. 453-461 (n.b. The T&T Clark Study Edition divides IV/3 into three parts, so §70 is in CD IV/3.2 instead of CD IV/3.1). Here are a few quotes from CD IV/3.1 that provide a glimpse of Barth's exposition on Job: Barth says that in Job "the figure of Jesus Christ as the true Witness unmasking the falsehood of man is delineated in it in distant, faint, fragmentary and even strange yet unmistakable outline"[1]. The beginning (Job 1-2) and end (Job 42), Barth describes as a "folk-story concerning the rich Job who was sorely tried but remained faithful to God and was finally justified and blessed by Him. They constitute the framework for chapters 3-31, which are a poetical account of the speeches of Job and his three friends". And the remaining chapters are later additions constituted of "poetical speeches of Elihu (32-37), the poem of Behemoth and Leviathan attributed to Yahweh in 40-41, parts of 38-39" (etc.) I highly recommend it!

The angry letter that Karl Barth sent to his assistant Helmut Gollwitzer after Barth's exposition of the Book of Job had been published without the fourth and concluding section mistakenly:

To: Helmut Gollwitzer, Berlin
From: Karl Barth, Basel

23 April, 1966

Dear Helmut,

Yesterday evening the parcel arrived with complimentary copies of "our" book on Job. I thank you sincerely for your dedication and for the great amount of work you have done a second time on my behalf. I also admire your skill in seizing on what is important as this comes to light in your introduction and the transitions. Your account of the very different book on Job by Bloch naturally interested me too. But—yes, but! I know, Helmut, that one should not look a gift-horse in the mount. But what if one finds that the gift-horse has only three legs instead of four? You wanted to give people my exposition of Job as such. But where are pp. 522-531 [ET 453-461]; where are my illuminating elucidations of the theology of the three friends?! An able scholar like you could hardly fail to see that the whole point is to be found on these pages. And now you leave them out, although in your version on p. 68 you expressly refer to the fourth time that I turn to the book of Job. And no hint as to the reason for this omission! I really cannot think what reason there could be. Helmut, how could you? Nelly can bear witness that all through our mid-day meal I was complaining about you and your wicked act. And if you were not you, I would publicly protest somewhere against this being regarded as my exposition of Job. I can still only weep quietly at the irreparable damage that has been done.

Well, in spite of it all, in friendship and therefore with warm greetings,


Karl Barth[2]


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[^1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. IV/3.2. Vol. 28. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 384. Print. Study Edition. [Original ET is CD IV.3.1,  page 384]

[^2] Barth, Karl, Jürgen Fangmeier, Hinrich Stoevesandt, and G. W. Bromiley. Karl Barth Letters, 1961-1968. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. 204-05. Print.Letter #210


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  1. To be fair, Barth’s “angry letter” is still well put together and considerably more gracious than anything I could’ve written had this have happened to me.

  2. Paul wrote a few “angry” letters too……… not to talk about Christ assessment of the Pharisees’s ministry. their errors were probably more damning and damaging than Golliwitzer… hence Christ public rebuke . Sometimes anger has its place.

  3. Do we know anything about a response from Gollwitzer?

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