Charles A. Maxfield
August 20, 1992
Revised, June, 1997

c. 1999 by Charles A. Maxfield
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  1. The Crisis
  2. The "Wholly Other" Theology
    1. Karl Barth
    2. H. Emil Brunner
    3. Rudolf K. Bultmann
    4. Martin Niem�ller
  3. Reverence for Life
  4. Other Responses to the War
    1. German-speaking theologians
    2. The Catholic Church
    3. The English Church
    4. Summary
  5. Criticisms, Responses, and Conclusions
    1. Criticism and Response--Karl Barth
    2. Criticism and Response--Albert Schweitzer
    3. Influence of the War on Theology


On November 11, 1918, the guns became silent. It was like when people go out from their houses after a storm to survey the damage; so Europe took stock of the damages of the War. Over eight and a half million soldiers in uniform had died. Over twenty-one million had been wounded. Over seven and three-fourths million had become prisoners or were missing. Of the sixty-five million persons who had gone off to war, over half (57.5%) fell into one of these three categories of casualties. The cost was higher for some: of German soldiers, 65% were casualties, for France 73%, for Russia 76%, and for Austria-Hungary 90%. In addition to soldiers, an estimated thirteen million civilians had died directly as a result of the conflict. 1

The old order was being swept away. The Tsar of Russia was gone; a Communist revolution took his place. The Emperors of Austria-Hungary and Germany fled, leaving revolution behind. The Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empires were being dismembered by formerly suppressed ethnic groups. What lay ahead was unclear, but it would surely be different from the past.

Cold statistics, even when overwhelming, cannot express the horror through which the people had passed. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), in a sermon at a memorial service for the dead, December 1, 1918, at Strassburg, attempted to put some of this horror into words:

How did they die? When the bullet tore into their bodies, they bled to death. They were trapped in barbed wire and hung there for days, famished and crying for help, and no one was able to come to their aid. They froze to death, at night upon the cold earth. Mines buried them or blew them to bits in midair. The gurgling current took its toll of ships in which they sailed. They fought the waves until they were exhausted or braced themselves against the walls of the ships hold in helpless panic. Those who survived injuries on the battlefield or in the water perished after suffering agonies for weeks or months in field hospitals, struggling even to go on living the life of a cripple. 2

Schweitzer was horrified not only by the suffering in combat, but also by the attitude of society that made the war possible:

Human life, that mysterious, irreplaceable treasure, was rated too low. People too glibly spoke of war and the misery it brings. We got used to risking a certain number of human lives, and we glorified our inhumanity in song. When the inevitable came, it was a thousand times more cruel than any of us had imagined. It was so ugly and horrible that we can no longer glorify it. Only suffering and terror remain. 3

Profound questions troubled those who survived the ordeal. J. H. Oldham (1874-1969), secretary of the continuing committee of the World Missionary Conference, wrote in 1916, "So complete an overturning of the established order cannot leave men's thoughts about Christianity unchanged." 4 Unitarian minister and Oxford University Professor Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844-1927) wrote of the war in that same year, "it has shaken the fundamental convictions of the righteous order of the world, and the significance of the whole evolution of humanity upon this globe." 5

Clearly, if the Christian church hoped to be heard by the survivors if the War, that church must speak with greater perception and depth. Oldham declared, "To a generation which is awake, and which has been brought into direct and immediate contact with the ultimate problems of existence religion must speak in tones of unquestionable reality if it is to win the ear and the devotion of mankind." 6 Gustav Kr�ger, a church history professor at Giessen, Germany, tried to interpret post-war European theological trends in a lecture at Union Theological Seminary of New York in 1926; he described the effects of the war on theological students, but what he said was true of many other veterans as well:

They fought and bled for honor, home and country. And then they came back, with hearts stirred with longing, and with a veritable hunger for religion. They had experienced the infinite, the unspeakable; the heights of enthusiasm and the depths of dejection, the tremendous and the trivial, the sublime and the hideous, things to confirm their faith and things to provoke despair. . . . Consciously or unconsciously, they recoiled from the mechanical civilization whose horrible excrescences they had constantly witnessed during the dolorous years of the war, and to whose disastrous effects they had themselves been forced to contribute. Had they really gone to war for such a civilization? and in the name of religion? Could one preach war in Christ's name?--this war, that had achieved nothing but destruction and devastation, that had brought the ruin of real culture, of all Civilization worth the name, and had torn to shreds the 'bands of pious awe' in both morality and religion? 7

The experience of war effected how people thought about God, about society, and about life. The survivors were no longer the same people they were before the war. They could not think, see, feel in the same way; and they were not content with the old answers to their questions. Karl Barth (1886-1968), pastor of a rural Reformed parish in Switzerland, declared to a meeting of Religious Socialists in 1919, "The fact that today our eyes are opened wider to life's realities is the very reason why we long for something else." 8 Young Lutheran theologian Friedrich Gogarten (1887-1967), expressed the bitterness of his generation to his theological elders in a 1920 article, "Between the Times." He wrote:

It is the destiny of our generation to stand between the times. We never belonged to the period presently coming to an end; it is doubtful whether we shall ever belong to the period which is to come. . . .
In our need we were often angry with you, because you left us alone--and because your words were so weak and so empty that they sank to the ground before they reached us. But mostly we cried out our question to you through all your answers to your own questions. . . .
Today we are witnessing the demise of your world. We can be as calm about all that concerns this decline as if we were seeing the extinction of something with which we had no connection at all. In fact, we are not connected with it. . . . We do not wish to lift a hand to stop it. . . . Is it any surprise that we have become distrustful right to our fingertips of everything which is in any way the work of man? 9

The clearest theological response to the religious crisis created by the war in Europe was that of Karl Barth. He was soon joined by others thinking along similar lines. Second was Albert Schweitzer in his Philosophy of Civilization. Third were a variety of other responses, generally not as profound, from other German theologians, the Catholic Church, and from England. Each of these responses will now be examined in its biographical context.


Karl Barth
Karl Barth was born May 10, 1886, at Basle, Switzerland. From the age of three he lived in Berne, where his father was a professor of theology. The younger Barth studied theology from 1904 to 1909 at Berne, Berlin, T�bingen, and Marburg. Berlin had been a compromise between the conservative father's choice of T�bingen and the liberal son's choice of Marburg. The student studied under Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930) at Berlin, and under Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922) and Adolf J�licher (1857-1938) at Marburg. He later recalled, "At the end of my student days I was second to none among my contemporaries in credulous approval of the 'modern' theology of the time." 10

The younger Barth, ordained in 1908, served as associate pastor of the German-speaking congregation in Geneva, 1909-1911. He then pastored at Safenwil, a small town in Aargau, 1911-1921. The young pastor became active in the Religious Socialist movement, led by Hermann Kutter (1863-1931) and Leonhard Ragaz (1868-1945). He read economics instead of theology, lectured at a 'Worker's Association' beginning in 1911, and joined the Social Democratic Party in January, 1915. When his old school friend Eduard Thurneysen (1888-1974) began serving the adjoining parish, they had frequent opportunities to share their theological pilgrimage.

Religious questioning triggered by the War began abruptly for Barth. He recalled vividly in 1957,

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. 11

Barth received a second shock when the various Socialist parties promptly set aside their ideals, and supported their national war policies. 12

Barth's two idols, liberal theology and social democracy, had been shattered in the opening days of the War. Where was he to turn? In what could he believe? Barth recalled, "In the midst of this hopeless confusion, it was the message of the two Blumhardts with its orientation on Christian hope which above all began to make sense to me." 13 Thurneysen introduced Barth to Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919). Christoph's father had been a Reformed pastor, who, following a faith-healing, became a magnet for others seeking healing. He had established a center at Bad Boll, something like a retreat center, where he offered spiritual counsel to all who came. Christoph continued his father's ministry. Karl Barth was a guest at Bad Boll, April 10 to 15, 1915.

Barth summed up what he found at Bad Boll in one word: hope. Christoph Blumhardt had been the first clergyman to join the Social Democrat Party, had served a term in the W�rttemberg legislature, and then withdrew from politics. Here was a man who believed in social democracy, but who came to see that no human agency could be a savior. Barth was impressed by Blumhardt's style of "hurrying and waiting"--that is, the combination of active involvement in this world's concerns with a quiet waiting for God to act. Barth found people living on the basis of the conviction that God takes the initiative. God, not humanity, was the starting point of theology. 14 Barth expressed his admiration for Christoph Blumhardt by reviewing favorably the latter's book of devotions in Der Freie Schweizer Arbeiter, September 15 and 22, 1916, 15 and by writing an article praising Blumhardt after his death, in Neuer Freier Aargauer, in 1919. 16

Soon after his return from Bad Boll, Barth wrote, perhaps autobiographically, "It is not the war that disturbs our peace. The war is not even the cause of our unrest. It has merely brought to light the fact that our lives are all based on unrest. And where there is unrest there can be no peace." 17

Barth had earlier been deeply effected by the death of his father, on February 25, 1912. His dying words to Karl were: "The main thing is not scholarship, nor learning, nor criticism, but to love the Lord Jesus. We need a living relationship with God, and we must ask the Lord for that." 18 Perhaps now Karl had responded to his father's concern, and had found peace at Bad Boll. The elder Barth had never become prominent in theology, perhaps because he never fell easily into one theological school of thought, liberal or pietist. The younger Barth admitted that--for a moment--some resentment towards the "theological establishment" crossed his mind. He said that when he was writing his first major work, Epistle to the Romans, "for a moment . . . the idea came into my head that now I could and would get my own back on those who had so put my father in the shade, although he knew just as much (but in a different way)!" 19

Barth and Thurneysen, the two young pastors, bicycled and hiked across the mountains to visit each other. They shared their questions, and their search for answers, as everything they had learned at the universities now came into question. They also shared their pastoral experiences, and their concern for discovering a theology that would speak to their pastoral concerns. Barth recalled from June of 1916, "It was Thurneysen who whispered the key phrase to me, half aloud, while we were together: 'What we need for preaching, instruction and pastoral care is a 'wholly other' theological foundation." 20

The German phrase ganz andere (here translated wholly other) has a double meaning. It can mean totally different--something unlike anything with which one is familiar. In reference to holy things, it can mean wholly other--sacred, radically different from anything in this common, profane world of ours. For Thurneysen and Barth both meanings applied. They felt compelled to develop a theology from scratch--totally different from what they had learned at the universities. This theology would be founded on a God who is wholly other--transcendent and radically unlike the Europe of trenches, gas and death.

To develop a totally different theology, the two young pastors turned to the Bible. The next day, Barth began reading Paul's letter to the Romans, writing down his thoughts. This evolved into a commentary, Epistle to the Romans, published in December, 1918.

Before Barth's Epistle was published, Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) advanced the idea of the "wholly other" in his book, The Idea of the Holy. Published in 1917 and widely read and discussed, it presented the "holy" as a universal element in all religion. The "wholly other" is the sacred (the holy), which is totally different from this profane world in which we live. 21

Barth and others used the phrase "wholly other" to point to the transcendent God of Biblical religion, as opposed to the immanent God of liberal theology. Although Otto and Barth belonged to different theological persuasions, different political parties, and different generations, Otto had inadvertently promoted the terminology with which Barth and others would articulate their faith.

Karl Barth is famous for his Epistle to the Romans, which is credited with beginning a new theological movement, neo-orthodoxy. But only 1,000 copies were printed, and they did not sell quickly. Only when Barth caught people's attention for other reasons, did they turn to his principle work, Romans, and by then it was usually his totally revised second edition of 1921.

Barth said of this work, "When I first wrote it . . . it required only a little imagination to hear the sound of the guns booming away in the north." 22 He understood this work, as others would, as a response to the theological crisis of the War. It was clearly his response to his own personal faith crisis.

Barth's Romans was innovative in that it was not a historical-critical commentary, but a theological commentary. While not rejecting the historical-critical methods of Biblical investigation, Barth set them aside, stating, "my whole energy of interpreting has been expended in an endeavor to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible." 23 By means of commenting on Romans, Barth blasted the foundations of nineteenth century liberal theology, and set out a positive foundation for a twentieth century Biblical theology.

Barth was soon busy reading Franz Overbeck, Ibsen, Dostoevski, and Kierkegaard, who are all evident in the second edition of Romans.

Karl Barth and his new theological perspective became known to the German theological community on September 25, 1919. On that date he took the place of Leonhard Ragaz, who could not attend, and addressed a conference of Religious Socialists at Tambach, in Thuringia. In his Tambach lecture, "The Christian's Place in Society," Barth presented his new conception of a "wholly other" God, and defined the limits of social activism. He declared,

The Divine is something whole, complete in itself, a kind of new and different something in contrast to the world. It does not permit of being applied, divided and distributed, for the very reason that it is more than religion. It does not passively permit itself to be used: it overthrows and builds as it wills. It is complete or it is nothing. 24

He drew a vivid contrast between the holiness of God and the degeneracy of the world. He warned the religious Socialists:

Today for the sake of social democracy, or pacifism, or the youth movement, or something of the sort--as yesterday it would have been for the sake of liberal culture or our countries, Switzerland and Germany--we may very well succeed, if the worst comes to worst, in secularizing Christ. But the thing is hateful to us, is it not? We do not wish to betray him another time. 25

Protests against evils in the social order must be made, and the suppression of protest has been a terrible evil, but no political movement can be equated with the kingdom of God. His theme was that of Blumhardt, active waiting.

Barth caught people's attention, and the second edition of Romans was widely read. In spite of the solid opposition of the older generation of liberal theologians, Barth spoke to the post-war generation. The response of Willem A. Visser't Hooft (1900-1985) (who would later lead the World Council of Churches in Process of Formation) is representative. At the time a theology student in the Netherlands, and active in the Student Christian Movement, he bought the second edition of Romans in 1922 and was "deeply impressed."

Here was a man who lived fully in the modern world, who knew his Nietzsche and his Dostoyevsky, a man, who had struggled with the problems of historical criticism and of modern philosophy--but who had rediscovered the authority of the Word of God. This was a man who proclaimed the death of all the little, comfortable gods and spoke again of the living God of the Bible. It was as if all the different elements in my religious development could now fall into place. This was the message for which I had been waiting. 26

Barth and Thurneysen were soon joined by others in a theological movement. Friedrich Gogarten, a young Lutheran theologian, published The Religious Decision in 1921, and joined Barth and Thurneysen in creating the religious periodical Between the Times in 1922. F. Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Reformed theologian in Zurich, who published Experience, Knowledge, and Faith in 1921, also cooperated with them. Rudolf K. Bultmann (1884-1976), who had been two years ahead of Barth in the universities, found considerable common ground with the growing movement, although he did make some criticisms, and continued to consider himself part of "liberal theology."

Karl Barth left the parish in 1921 to become a professor at G�ttingen, in Germany. Later he taught at M�nster (1925-1930) and Bonn (1930-1935). Here the situation was different. In stead of criticizing the theological establishment, he was compelled to lay the foundations and build the structure of his "wholly other" theology.

Karl Barth's second edition of The Epistle to the Romans was the bombshell that shattered liberal theology and established a new theological movement. The theme of this commentary could be summed up in one word: Nevertheless. Barth described the awesome holiness of the "wholly other" God. To this he contrasted the total sinfulness of humanity. Human efforts to bridge the chasm between God and humanity by means of religion only multiply the sin. Nevertheless--in spite of human sin--in spite of the great chasm between God and humanity--God chooses to bridge it through Jesus Christ. The great Nevertheless of God is grace. Religion, stripped of its idolatry, is the necessary but limited activity of humanity. Barth criticized and ridiculed his theological opponents--he even critiqued his own idols--in fact, he even had criticism for his own first edition of Romans--giving glory only to God.

A few excerpts will demonstrate these points. First was the awesome holiness of God and God's gospel:

GOD is true: HE is the Answer, the Helper, the Judge, and the Redeemer; not man, whether from the East or from the West, whether of Nordic stock or Biblical outlook; not the pious, nor the hero nor the sage; not the pacifist, nor the man of action; not even the Superman--but God alone, and God himself! 27

The gospel is not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. Salvation comes to them from Him, because they are, as men, incapable of knowing Him, and because they have no right to claim anything from Him. The Gospel is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended. The Gospel is the Word of the Primal Origin of all things, the Word which, since it is ever new, must ever be received and renewed with fear and trembling. The Gospel is therefore not an event, nor an experience, nor an emotion--however delicate! Rather, it is the clear and objective perception of what eye hath not seen nor ear heard. Moreover, what it demands of men is more than notice, or understanding, or sympathy. It demands participation, comprehension, co-operation; for it is a communication which presumes faith in the living God, and which creates that which it presumes. 28

Original sin was self-evident: "Is the doctrine of original sin merely one doctrine among many? Is it not rather . . . THE Doctrine which emerges from all honest study of history?" 29

Proclaiming "religion must die," 30 Barth colorfully condemned all efforts of religion as idolatrous, and took special opportunity to criticize Schleiermacher:

Nothing is so meaningless as the attempt to construct a religion out of the Gospel, and to set it as one human possibility in the midst of others. Since Schleiermacher, this attempt has been undertaken more consciously than ever before in Protestant theology--and it is the betrayal of Christ. 31

Our relation to God is ungodly. We suppose that we know what we are saying when we say 'God.' We assign to Him the highest place in our world: and in so doing we place Him fundamentally on one line with ourselves and with things. We assume that He needs something: and so we assume that we are able to arrange our relationship with Him as we arrange our other relationships. We press ourselves into proximity with Him: and so, all unthinking, we make Him nigh unto ourselves. We allow ourselves an ordinary communication with Him, we permit ourselves to reckon with Him as though this were not extraordinary behavior on our part. We dare to deck ourselves out as His companions, patrons, advisers, and commissioners. We confound time with eternity. This is the ungodliness of our relation to God. And our relation to God is unrighteous. Secretly we are ourselves the masters of this relationship. We are not concerned with God, but with our own requirements, to which God must adjust Himself. Our arrogance demands that, in addition to everything else, some super-world should also be known and accessible to us. Our conduct calls for some deeper sanction, some approbation and remuneration from another world. Our well regulated, pleasurable life longs for some hours of devotion, some prolongation into infinity. And so, when we set God upon the throne of the world, we mean by God ourselves. In 'believing' on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adorn ourselves. Our devotion consists in a solemn affirmation of ourselves and of the world and in a pious setting aside of contradiction. Under the banners of humility and emotion we rise in rebellion against God. We confound time and eternity. That is our unrighteousness. 32

Idolatry was also found in every endorsement made by the Church of the causes of this world:

Christianity is unhappy when men boast of the glories of marriage and of family life, of Church and State, and of Society. Christianity does not busy itself to support and underpin these many 'ideals' by which men are deeply moved--individualism, collectivism, nationalism, internationalism, humanitarianism, ecclesiasticism. Christianity is unmoved by Nordic enthusiasm or by devotion to Western Culture, by the visions of Youth or by the solid and mature wisdom of middle-age. Christianity sees no clear distinction between concrete and abstract idealism. It observes with a certain coldness the cult of both 'Nature' and 'Civilization,' of both Romanticism and Realism. It watches with some discomfort the building of these eminent towers, and its comments always tend to slow down this busy activity, for it detects therein the menace of idolatry. 33

Between God and humanity stretched the nevertheless of God--the grace of God--founded on the death of Jesus Christ.

The righteousness of God is that 'nevertheless' by which He associates us with Himself and declares Himself to be our God. This 'nevertheless' contradicts every human logical 'consequently,' and is itself incomprehensible and without cause or occasion, because it is the 'nevertheless!' of God. 34

There is no second or third or any other aspect of His life which may be treated independently or set side by side with His death. Neither the personality of Jesus, nor the 'Christ idea,' nor the Sermon on the Mount, nor His miracles of healing, nor His trust in God, nor His love of His brethren, nor His demand for repentance, nor His message of forgiveness, nor His attack on tradition, nor His call to poverty and discipleship; neither the implications of His Gospel for social life or for the life of the individual, nor the eschatological or the immediate aspects of His teaching concerning the Kingdom of God--none of these things exist in their own right. Everything shines in the light of His death, and is illuminated by it. 35

In spite of what Barth said about religion, it was part of the human condition. We cannot remove ourselves from "the dangerous ambiguity of religion," 36 and what we do with it is very important:

Our religion consists in the dissolution of religion. . . . Nothing human which desires to be more than a void and a deprivation, a possibility and a sign-post, more than the most trivial thing in the midst of the phenomena of the world survives; nothing which is not, like everything else in this world, dust and ashes before God. Only faith survives. 37

Let us be convincedly nothing but religious men; let us adore and tarry and hurry with all the energy we possess; let us cultivate, nurse, and stir up religion; and above all, let us reform it; nay more, revolutionize it. 38

H. Emil Brunner
H. Emil Brunner, a Reformed theologian at Zurich, was part of the new movement of theology led by Barth throughout the 1920s. Brunner identified Swiss Religious Socialism and Christoph Blumhardt as the sources of their common movement. Brunner spoke clearly to the post-war generation by proclaiming a radical discontinuity between God and this world. He declared the guiding intuition of the new movement to be: "This world is not God and God is not this world. Furthermore, this world in particular, this human society with its chaos and antagonisms, with its injustices and sufferings, with its stupidities and sin, is not God's World." 39

He commended as a healthy and hopeful sign in post-war Europe: "A hunger and thirst for something better, a sincere whole-hearted disgust with things as they are, a courageous uncompromising protest and earnest break with that which belongs not to God." 40

Brunner, like Barth, was not gentle in his condemnation of liberal Protestantism, declaring:

Where there is a harmless goody-goody optimism and an everlasting smile, trust in an evolution and superficial talk about progress, the attempt to build the kingdom with the forces of this world, much activity and little concentration, words without 'teeth,' there, be sure, is not the Spirit of God. It is certain that a church which identifies itself with the kingdoms of this world and which only murmurs tame and half-smiling suggestions on behalf of the present world-order has little in common with the 'Host of God' by which he builds his Kingdom. 41

Brunner was ready to give a death certificate to the liberal theology of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, Otto and Deismann, stating,

Gradually the Biblical dualistic concepts were replaced by a progressive, monistic, and optimistic idealism; the Biblical doctrines of salvation and revelation, by Stoic and Platonic ideals. The 'Son of God,' the Messiah, was changed into a religious genius and hero; creatio ex nihilo became creatio continua, i.e., evolution; salvation was identified with religious behavior and ethical betterment; judgment and forgiveness were resolved into subjective values of a sentimental kind. . . .
An age which has lost its faith in an absolute has lost everything. It must perish; it has no vitality left to pass the crisis, its end can only be--the end. 42

Brunner lifted up two doctrines for special emphasis: Revelation and Salvation. Historical criticism was not an issue in the rethinking of Revelation, but the 'Wholly Other' was. The sacred made itself known through Revelation. The supreme Revelation was not Scripture, but Jesus Christ, "the locus, where the divine forces pushed through the surface of natural history and revealed the full meaning and the full reality of existence, of life, of goodness, and of beauty." 43 Salvation had more urgency because the profoundly evil nature of humanity was now vividly evident, and the initiative for salvation lay with God. 44

Rudolf K. Bultmann
Rudolf K. Bultmann, the Biblical scholar, still counted himself part of liberal theology, and quoted extensively from Schleiermacher. However, he joined the new theologians in many of their criticisms of liberal theology. He affirmed the superiority of a belief in a "wholly other" to the moral reason of liberal theology. 45

In an article titled "Religion and Culture," published in Die Christliche Welt in 1920, Bultmann addressed one of the key post-war issues. Before the War, religion had been seen as part of culture, and accordingly gave its endorsements of that national culture's war. Bultmann noted that religion was, obviously, part of culture. But the central part of religion was a yearning that drew the believer beyond culture. Religion does not have to justify its existence to culture, but on the other hand religion must speak prophetically to culture. Bultmann concluded by paraphrasing the Gospel, "What would it help man to gain all of culture and still corrupt his soul." 46

Martin Niem�ller
Martin Niem�ller (1892-1984) was not a theologian, but was a veteran of the War who later played a key leadership role in the German Church. As commander of a submarine in the Mediterranean, he knew some of the deep ethical questions posed by the War. He also experienced the more profound questioning of the War. He recalled travelling under the sea, in total silence lest they be detected, and wondering,

Is there any peace anywhere? Will peace come to us . . . ? And we, as ever, faced the eternal questions: life, the universe and God? These questions are not prompted by curiosity--they force themselves upon us. All we know is that we have not found the answers to them. 47

A true patriot, Niemöller wanted to keep on fighting in 1918. He was disgusted with his country after the war, with their lack of courage, and their radicalism. Wanting no part of a military controlled by politicians, he went into training to be a farmer. In September of 1919 he decided to go into the ministry. He later reflected:

It was not so much the theological aspect which drew me; I had no particular liking for theology as a science for the solution of problems. But I had, in my own life, seen cases where the hearing of the Word and the belief in Christ as our Lord and Savior had made men live anew and become free and strong. This teaching was one I took with me from the home of my childhood days and I have clung to it through all the vicissitudes of life. For that reason I felt that I could serve my people with an honest and open heart, helping them better in their present hopeless state than I could by withdrawing to a farm and living the life I had intended to live there. 48

For Niem�ller, the crisis of the war, which caused deep questioning, was not the war itself, but its aftermath:

Then came the war with its honest enthusiasms and the awakening of all good patriotic instincts; then the great disappointment in that we possessed a great fighting fleet and failed to use it; then the period of bitter and desperate struggle against the over powering foe, and the time when our people's psychic and spiritual capacity to resist collapsed.
We young men went through all these phases without being rightly conscious of it. I accepted the horrors of the war as a matter of course and without being shaken to the depths of my soul. . . . What did shake my soul to the innermost depths and forced me to seek a clear and definite issue for myself was the revolution. 49

As a theology student, Niem�ller served in a volunteer anti-revolutionary military force that fought in civil war in past-war Germany. Niem�ller, who came from the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Religious Socialists founders of the new theology, found he could identify with that theology. Barth and other "neo-orthodox" were gathering broad support from a generation that would not be content with old answers.


Albert Schweitzer was born January 14, 1875, at Kayserberg, Upper Alsace. In a few weeks the family moved to G�nsbach, which remained their home for life. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Schweitzer entered the University of Strassburg in 1893. He received a Doctoral degree in Philosophy in 1899, and a Licentiate in Theology in 1900. Throughout this time he was also studying the organ.

Schweitzer became one of the pastors of St. Nicholas Church in Strassburg, in December 1899. In 1902 he also became an instructor at the University.

Schweitzer's first major work was published in 1902, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus' Messiahship and Passion. Using the latest skills of the historical-critical method, and the insights on eschatology from Johannes Weiss, Schweitzer investigated Jesus' understanding of his mission. He concluded that when Jesus sent out the disciples to preach, he had expected the coming of the Kingdom of God before their return. Then, Jesus anticipated that his atoning death on the cross would bring in the Kingdom. His expectation was of a supernatural intervention initiating a new age. Jesus was wrong.

His second theological book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1906, expanded on the thoughts of his first book. Schweitzer gave in The Quest a history of efforts to interpret Jesus, showing, "each successive epoch of theology found its own thoughts in Jesus . . . each individual created Him in accordance with his own character." 50 Schweitzer's research showed that Jesus was much more Jewish, and much more a child of his time, than anyone had imagined.

Clearly Schweitzer's theology was liberal--yet he possessed a piety that was very traditional. He wrote,

The satisfaction which I could not help feeling at having solved so many historical riddles about the existence of Jesus, was accompanied by the painful consciousness that this new knowledge in the realm of history would mean unrest and difficulty for Christian piety. 51

Schweitzer took comfort in words of Saint Paul encouraging us to always seek the truth. Furthermore, Schweitzer believed that the Jesus of Faith, that is, the Jesus of personal devotion, was not hurt by this research:

Even if the historical Jesus has something strange about Him, yet His personality, as it really is, influences us much more strongly and immediately than when He approached us in dogma and in the results attained up to the present research. . . .
Anyone who ventures to look the historical Jesus straight in the face and to listen for what He may have to teach him in His powerful sayings, soon ceases to ask what this strange-seeming Jesus can still be to him. He learns to know Him as One who claims authority over him.
The true understanding of Jesus is the understanding of will acting upon will. The true relation to Him is to be taken possession of by Him. Christian piety of any and every sort is valuable only so far as it means the surrender of our will to His. 52

Never content to concentrate his endeavors in one field, Albert Schweitzer also wrote in French J. S. Bach, the Musician-Poet, published in 1905, and The Art of Organ-building and Organ-playing in Germany and France, published in 1906.

In 1904, Schweitzer glanced at the June issue of Journal des Missions Evangeliques of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society. In an article on needs in the Congo mission, concerning the need for medical personnel, he read, "Men and women who can reply simply to the Master's call, 'Lord, I am coming,' these are the people whom the church needs." 53 Schweitzer knew immediately that he had to respond.

Schweitzer entered the medical school at Strassburg in 1905, while continuing to lecture at the University, preach at the church, and research another book on Bach. He applied to the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society. The Board of the Society was reluctant to accept him as a missionary because of his liberal theology. Schweitzer made two concessions in order to go under their oversight. (1) He promised to be a physician only, and not to preach. (2) He promised to solicit funds to totally fund his hospital without burdening the Society.

In a sermon preached January 6, 1905, Schweitzer outlined his understanding of missions. The sermon was a scathing attack on the supposedly civilized states of Europe. He called them "robber states:"

Oh, this 'noble' culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of a different color. . . . This culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights. 54

People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people subserviated to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic 'gifts.' 55

Missionary work was for Schweitzer not an act of benevolence so much as an act of atonement, "For every person who committed an atrocity in Jesus' name, someone must step in to help in Jesus' name; for every person who robbed, someone must bring a replacement; for everyone who cursed, someone must bless." 56 Albert Schweitzer's entry into missionary work was a sharp judgment against the evil of European Civilization. He was in a secondary sense motivated by love, but primarily by guilt. He went to atone for the sins of his "civilization."

Albert Schweitzer and his new wife, who had completed nursing training, left for Africa in March, 1913. They expected to return on furlough in two and a half years.

On August 5, 1914, the Schweitzers were informed that France and Germany were at war. As German citizens in a French colony, they were prisoners of war.

Ever since 1899, Schweitzer had been of the opinion that European civilization was in decline. He had often thought of writing a book on that. Now that the decline had born the fruit of war, his thoughts returned to that idea for a book. Not allowed by the soldiers to practice medicine, Schweitzer began to work on this project, his "Philosophy of Civilization," on the morning of the second day of his internment. The ban on his practicing medicine was lifted in time, but he continued to work on his book.

Because of the War, the Schweitzers could not return home as scheduled, but had to remain in Africa. Schweitzer observed the conflagration in Europe from a distance. He was constantly struck by the contrast between the barbarity of European "civilization" and the ways of the supposedly uncivilized Africans. He often repeated the story of the African who had heard that ten white men known in the area had died in the War; the African found it hard to believe that with so many casualties--ten--the powers of Europe did not meet to make peace. 57 Schweitzer wrote to his supporters at Christmas, 1914:

We are, all of us, conscious that many natives are puzzling over the question how it can be possible that the whites, who brought them the Gospel of Love, are now murdering each other, and throwing to the winds the commands of the Lord Jesus. When they put the question to us we are helpless. . . . How far the ethical and religious authority of the white man among these children of nature is impaired by this war we shall only be able to measure later on. I fear that the damage done will be very considerable. 58

The War marked the failure of organized religion to have any ethical impact on its culture. In a 1934 lecture, Schweitzer declared that religion was no longer a force in the life of the age, reflecting,

Religion was powerless to resist the spirit through which we entered the war. It was overcome by this spirit. It could bring no force against the ideals of inhumanity and unreasonableness which gave birth to the war, and when war had broken out, religion capitulated. It became mobilized. It had joined in helping to keep up the courage of the peoples. . . . In the war religion lost its purity, and lost its authority. It joined forces with the spirit of the world. The one victim of defeat was religion. 59

In Schweitzer's judgment, European Civilization was collapsing in the War primarily because its philosophy had failed to provide an ethical foundation to that civilization. On this theme he busied himself in his new book.

In September, 1917, the order was issued that the Schweitzers be taken to France and be placed in a camp for prisoners of war. They were taken to Bordeaux where they spent three weeks interned in temporary barracks. Here both Schweitzers were ill, Albert with dysentery. Then they were taken to a prisoner of war camp at Garaison, in the Pyrenees. In March, 1918, they were placed in a prisoner of war camp just for Alsatians, at St. Remy. Throughout this period, Albert Schweitzer continued to provide medical care to those around him, to work on his Philosophy of Civilization, and to struggle with his own weakened and ill condition.

In July, 1918, the Schweitzers were released in a prisoner exchange. When Albert reached his home town of G�nsbach, in Alsace, he found it to still be in the sphere of military operations,

There were dull roars from guns on the mountains. On the roads one walked between lines of wire-netting packed with straw, as between high walls. These were intended to hide the traffic in the valley from the enemy batteries on the crest of the Vosges. Everywhere there were brick emplacements for machine guns! Houses ruined by gun-fire! Hills which I remembered covered with woods now stood bare. The shell-fire had left only a few stumps here and there. In the villages one saw posted up the order that everyone must always carry a gas-mask about with him. 60

Schweitzer was soon back to work, preaching at St. Nicholas Church, practicing medicine at Strassburg's municipal hospital, and writing his Philosophy of Civilization. But he was a sick man. He would have surgery twice in the next couple of years, as he still suffered from the consequences of his internment in prisoner of war camp. He was also sick at heart--depressed over the plight of his people. And what of his personal future? Unable to raise funds to pay the debts of his missionary hospital, could he ever go back there again? Of this period up to 1920, Schweitzer said, "Ever since the war I had felt, in my seclusion at Strassburg, rather like a coin that had rolled under a piece of furniture and had remained there lost." 61

In his first sermon at St. Nicholas after his return, on October 13, 1918, he tried to speak pastorally to the efforts of the people to make sense out of the tragic events. He no doubt spoke for himself as well: "A good deal remains in our private lives as well as in public events in which the senseless has not acquired meaning, nor the evil turned out to be a blessing in disguise." 62

Preaching offered to Schweitzer the opportunity to begin to share some of the ideas he was developing in his Philosophy of Civilization. In his sermons, these ideas blended with outrage over the War. Life must never be treated so cheaply again! A Reverence for Life must be the foundation of ethics. Somehow, it must not be just words, but a law written on our hearts. At a memorial service for the dead, on December 1, 1918, he shared these developing thoughts:

Disregarding all barriers of nationality we remember today those human beings who were sacrificed to the spirit of heartless cruelty. We humiliate ourselves before these dead, and we promise that the heartless spirit in which they were sacrificed shall be destroyed. The frame of mind in which this generation grew up must be destroyed, for the enormity of its sinfulness caused the suffering of the world. We shall teach our children what we have learned and leave to them, as our legacy, the commandment 'thou shall not kill,' for we now know its meaning has far deeper relevance than our teachers and we ourselves ever dreamed of. Those millions who were made to kill, forced to do it in self-defense or under military orders, must impress the horror of what they had to endure on all future generations so that none will ever expose itself to such fate again.
Reverence for human suffering and human life, for the smallest and most insignificant, must be the inviolable law to rule the world from now on. In so doing, we do not replace old slogans with new ones and imagine that some good may come out of high-sounding speeches and pronouncements. We must recognize that only a deep-seated change of heart, spreading from one man to another, can achieve such a thing in this world. 63

While Schweitzer was in this despondent state, Nathan S�derblom (1866-1931), Archbishop of Sweden, invited him to deliver some lectures at the University of Upsala. This gave him new energy, and an opportunity to present the ideas he was developing in his Philosophy of Civilization. Schweitzer spoke at Upsala in April, 1920. At S�derblom's suggestion and encouragement, Schweitzer began a tour, giving organ recitals and talks on his mission, in order to raise money to pay off his debts. Schweitzer said,

I came to Sweden a tired, depressed, and still ailing man. . . . In the magnificent air of Upsala, and the kindly atmosphere of the Archbishop's house, in which my wife and I were guests, I recovered my health and once more found enjoyment in my work. 64

From 1920 to 1923, Schweitzer traveled across Europe, offering recitals, popular lectures on missions, and academic lectures on philosophy and theology. His Philosophy of Civilization, the essence of which he had articulated at Upsala, continued to be expanded and elaborated in lectures, until it was finally ready for print. Schweitzer published his Philosophy of Civilization in two volumes in 1923: (i>The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, and Civilization and Ethics.

Schweitzer intentionally chose the title, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization as a rebuttal of Oswald Spengler's Decline and Fall of the West. Like Spengler, Schweitzer analyzed the decline of European Civilization; however, unlike Spengler, Schweitzer had hope.

In the Preface to Decay, Schweitzer laid out the three basic convictions behind his analysis of the situation.

For Schweitzer, the "golden age" was the eighteenth century. Rationalism brought about a moral civilization. Like any system, Rationalism needed reform, but in the nineteenth century it was abandoned completely.

But about the middle of the nineteenth century the mutual understanding and cooperation between ethical ideals and reality began to break down, and in the course of the next few decades it disappeared more and more completely. Without resistance, without complaint, civilization abdicated. 68

Schweitzer then analyzed the moral decline of Europe. Urbanization, industrialization, colonialism, the over-organization of public life, and nationalism, all contributed to the suppression of individuality, the treatment of people as things, and consequently the tolerance of inhumanity. The person had ceased to be an individual, and had become part of various groups. This was a danger to morality, as only individuals think; groups function by public opinion. Schweitzer complained, "The majority renounce the privilege of thinking as free personalities, and let themselves be guided in everything by those who belong to the various groups and cliques." 69 Overstress led people to seek superfluous entertainments and relationships. All of these factors contributed to the realpolitik that created the War.

Schweitzer argued that European civilization must develop a world view that is rational, spiritual, optimistic and ethical. In his second volume, Civilization and Ethics, he undertook that task.

Schweitzer went back to the beginning of Rationalism: Descartes' declaration, "I think, therefore I am." Schweitzer proposed to replace this with a new statement on which to found rational thinking: "I am life which wills to live in the midst of life which wills to live." 70 This was Schweitzer's fundamental insight:

This is not a cleverly composed dogmatic formula. Day after day, hour after hour, I live and move in it. At every moment of reflection it stands fresh before me. There bursts forth again and again from it as from roots that can never dry up, a living world- and life-view which can deal with all the facts of Being. A mysticism of ethical union with Being grows out of it. 71

Schweitzer had found his new world view, which was both rational and spiritual. For him, this Reverence for Life shaped not only his actions, but his thinking, his being. He concluded, "Ethics consists, therefore, in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do to my own. 72

Reverence for Life was an ethic that showed respect for all life, human, animal, and vegetable. It did not mean that Schweitzer would never step on an ant. It did mean that any such act required calculating the necessity and weighing the options.

Albert Schweitzer created a new philosophy of life as a result of the War. Thinking and writing while under house arrest in central Africa, in prisoner of war camps, on his own sick bed, and as a preacher and physician in the midst of the ruins of war, Schweitzer analyzed the sickness that lay behind the horrendous symptom called War. He recovered, convinced that civilization must be founded on a reverence for ALL of life. In 1924 Schweitzer returned to Africa, to continue to apply his ethics in real life.


In the light of these two profound responses to the crisis of the War, the responses of Barth and his associates, and Schweitzer, one might expect to find still more approaches. A survey of other theologians and religious leaders in Europe, excluding Russia, at the close of the War, shows no other responses comparable in depth to the two we have just surveyed. The War certainly made an impression, and almost everyone had something to say about it. We will now survey these other responses.

German-speaking theologians

Adolf von Harnack was the father-figure of German liberal Protestantism. Both Barth and Schweitzer had studied under him. Both emphatically articulated their differences from him. A supporter of Germany's war, he was perceived by English church leaders in 1916 as the German church's "most bitter of anti-English spokesmen." 73 In a Christmas sermon in 1928, Harnack expressed himself on the evils of war:

War is the battle of everyone against everyone in the literal sense: all men, women and children; war is the suspension of all ethical rules, the surrender of all moral values; war is the campaign of slander and lies throughout the entire earth; war is hunger; the destruction of culture, chaos and annihilation. The World War has also taught us how war comes about: no previous summons to hate is necessary, no conspiracy of malice, no plunderous avarice, but 'only'unrestrained nationalism, unrestrained pride and thoughtless indiscretion. 74

Harnack concluded that an international organization of states was necessary to preserve peace. Also, it was not enough to know what was the right thing; repentance was needed.

Leonhard Ragaz, a Swiss Reformed theologian, was an active leader of Religious Socialism, the movement out of which Barth and many others like him came. The War did not produce a great change in Ragaz' thinking. It confirmed his thinking, and convinced him that the times were critical.

Some of Ragaz' themes were echoed by Barth. Both drew a sharp contrast between religion and God. Religion was the creation of people, a tower of Babel, and not the way to God. In a 1917 meditation, "Not Religion But the Kingdom of God," Ragaz warned,

We must become more and more distrustful of religion; we must keep an ever-stricter eye upon it. Again and again we must distinguish between religion and God. Religion is a human creation, often magnificent and wonderful, but just as often contaminated with everything that is inhumane and subhuman. But God is--God. 75

Organized religion was deeply implicated in the War. Ragaz said regarding war,

For a long time churches and theologians have cast their luster upon it. They have fought most passionately against the peace movement. They have promoted that 'religious elation' which was part of the great madness by which the world was thrown into the abyss. And today they are the great propagators of nationalism and militarism. Some of them are bloodthirsty villains. Only they could get the idea of putting Jesus in a trench or behind a machine gun. One can perhaps go even farther and say that it is religion that lies at the root of war. 76

For Ragaz the great evil was the alliance between religion and earthly power. True religion was spiritual; it was founded on the power of God, who was "the only power." When religious leaders sought alliances with earthly power, it was a sign of their lack of faith. 77

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) had come from an authoritarian German background. He later recalled,

The First World War was the end of my period of preparation. Together with my whole generation I was grasped by the overwhelming experience of a nationwide community--the end of a merely individualistic and predominantly theoretical existence. I volunteered and was asked to serve as a war chaplain, which I did from September 1914 to September 1918. The first weeks had not passed before my original enthusiasm disappeared; after a few months I became convinced that the war would last indefinitely and ruin all Europe. Above all, I saw that the unity of the first weeks was an illusion, that the nation was split into classes, and that the industrial masses considered the Church as an unquestioned ally of the ruling groups. 78

Tillich became a Religious Socialist, and sympathized with the socialist side of the revolution in Germany. As a theologian, he attempted "to relate all cultural realms to the religious center." 79

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church, unlike German Protestantism, did not pass through deep questioning as a result of the War. The Catholic position was unique: Church leaders in various countries supported their national war efforts, while the Pope stood above it all, lamenting the tragedy of war.

Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922; Pope 1914-1922) expressed "bitter sorrow" over the war from the beginning. In the encyclical "Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum," issued November 1, 1914, he lamented:

Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? . . . Sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases. . . . We implore Kings and rulers to consider the floods of tears and blood already poured out, and to hasten to restore to the nations the blessings of peace. . . . Unless God comes soon to our help, the end of civilization would seem to be at hand. 80

The Pope outlined four conditions in society that created an environment conducive to war:

  1. absence of mutual love, evident in class and race hatred;
  2. contempt for authority;
  3. class conflict;
  4. materialism. 81
These underlying causes needed to be addressed. The Pope was persistent in seeking diplomatic avenues to peace.

Over the past thirty years, the Church had contested a struggle for power with the states of Europe. The Catholic Church wanted control over culture, including a role in education and marriage, and independence of the Church from State control. So the Catholic Church had already established some distance between itself and the States, which was not the case with German Protestantism. Relations between the Catholic Church and several anti-clerical states continued to be difficult until the War. As a result of simply providing pastoral care and the sacraments in conditions of enormous suffering and death, the Church was reconciled to the State in countries such as France. 82

Also, Catholicism had no need to develop its own theological response to the War; Catholic theologians were soon reading Karl Barth. Barth has had a strong influence on Catholic theology. 83 One theologian put it this way:

With Barth, Protestant theology had been made again--and perhaps for the first time since the XVIth Century--an authentic discussion partner for Roman Catholics. 84

The English Church

Adrian Hastings stated in A History of English Christianity: 1920-1985:

There was no genuine religious revival during the war nor after the war, nor was there a pastoral or theological revival. 85

The suffering of England was not as great as that of Germany and France. During and after the War, the government took steps to expand civil rights to women and the poor. Trade unions were growing, education expanding, and employment insurance established. The working class did not bear a larger burden of suffering from the War than the upper classes.

Randall Davidson (1848-1930), Archbishop of Canterbury, counselled against war. In a sermon on August 3, 1914, he said,

What is happening is fearful beyond words, both in actual fact and in the thought of what it may come to be. . . . This thing which is now astir in Europe is not the work of God but the work of the devil. 86

Although not sharing in war fever, once the War began he felt powerless to oppose it.

William Temple (1882-1944), who became a key leader in the ecumenical movement between the wars, had little to say about the War. In 1916 he was involved in a National Mission of Repentance and Hope, holding meetings around the country, which accomplished little. In 1917 he became involved in the "Life and Liberty" movement, to gain for the Church of England independence from the control of Parliament. This movement achieved some of their goals in 1920. 87 In an article on the War in 1919, Temple called for an international organization to preserve peace, and the need for repentance. 88

J. H. Oldham, secretary of the continuing committee of the World Missionary Council, wrote to his counterpart in the United States, John R. Mott, in August, 1914:

We need not trouble about the distribution of responsibility. We need to get behind that to the fundamental fact that Christian Europe has departed so far from God and rejected so completely the role of Christ that a catastrophe of this kind is possible. 89

In 1916 Oldham addressed "The Challenge of the War" in the first chapter of his book, The World and the Gospel. He repeated the theme that the blame for the war is collective. He contended that the Church had failed to communicate its Gospel in Christendom.

The serious question, therefore, which concerns us as Christians is not that the state of the world has proved to be so bad, but that in a world such as ours the Christian witness has been so feeble and ineffectual. The problem that has to be faced is how a religion asserting such lofty claims as Christianity should in practice count for so little. 90

Oldham identified the need to develop a deeper appreciation of "the reality, power and depth of sin." 91 Sin must be understood not just as an individual thing: social systems can be sinful, too. The Church must address with the Gospel, not just individuals, but the social order as well. Oldham did not want to be misunderstood as saying that the Church's efforts should be confined to preaching a social gospel:

It is only in the measure that the Church has a hold of eternal things, a clear vision of a spiritual world of truth and beauty, and an unwavering trust in a God of Love and Power, with whom nothing is impossible, that it can hope to regenerate human society and lead mankind into a richer and fuller life. The greatest need of our age is a deepened sense of the living reality and transcendent majesty of God. 92

Joseph Estlin Carpenter, Unitarian minister and Oxford professor, published in 1916 a collection of articles by several authors, Ethical and Religious Problems of the War. The various essays attempted to address the serious issues on people's minds. In "Aspects of Fatherhood," Carpenter sympathized with the feelings of horror over the War, but declared that though they were different in size, they were not different in nature, from the many smaller tragedies people experience and accept. 93

In another essay, "A Question That Should Not Be Asked," Lawrence P. Jacks said that we should not try to harmonize the events of the War with our religious faith, because the War was evil. 94

In another essay, "Is Our Faith Shaken," W. Whitaker said that the War was sin, and it was because of sin that we needed religion. 95

These various religious commentators on the War were all saying things that had to be said, although they may not have been as theologically profound as Barth and Schweitzer.

To sum up all of the attitudes expressed after the War, as described in this chapter:


In previous chapters, Karl Barth and his associates, and Albert Schweitzer, were allowed to present their views as much as possible in their own words. We now turn to criticisms of their views, and their responses to these criticisms.

Criticism and Response--Karl Barth
The first criticism of Barth was that he had no business writing a commentary on Romans and completely disregarding the historical-critical method. A series of open letters between Barth and Harnack appeared in Die Christliche Welt in 1923, in which they succeeded in talking past each other. Harnack, advocating historical-critical method, said, "I see in this scientific theology the one possible way of mastering an object through knowledge." 96 Rudolf Bultmann wrote in 1920, with Barth's Epistle to the Romans in mind, "The modern direction of piety, in its turning away from historical work, has been characterized as Gnosticism." 97

In the Preface to his second edition of Romans, Barth replied to his critics,

I have been accused of being an 'enemy of historical criticism.' . . . I have nothing whatever to say against historical criticism. I recognize it, and once more state quite definitely that it is both necessary and justified. My complaint is that recent commentators confine themselves to an interpretation of the text which seems to me to be no commentary at all. 98

Barth described historical criticism as "a prolegomenon to the understanding of the Epistle," but a true commentary must deal with the "subject matter" of the Epistle. 99

In the Preface, Barth also replied to the charge that he was a 'Biblicist.' He quoted the criticism of Wernle,

No single aspect of Paul's teaching seems to cause Barth discomfort. . . . There remain for him no survivals of the age in which Paul lived--not even trivial survivals. 100

Barth replied that he felt much discomfort, but that as a loyal interpreter he felt compelled to wrestle with the difficult points, rather than dismiss them. He said,

When I am named a 'Biblicist,' all that can rightly be proved against me is that I am prejudiced in supposing the Bible to be a good book, and that I hold it to be profitable for men to take its conceptions at least as seriously as they take their own. 101

Leonhard Ragaz criticized Barth's theology in a 1937 pamphlet, Reformation Forward or Backward? Much of this was a discussion of how to correctly interpret Kierkegaard. Ragaz said that the Gospel was organic, not presenting a sharp contrast between faith and works. Ragaz' opinion was:

Not faith or works, grace or action, but the Kingdom and its pursuit. One of the main points of the new reformation must be the restoration of the importance of works. 102

This comment moved in the direction of one of the most common criticisms of Barth: he became apolitical. This Socialist lost interest in the social issues of the world. He abandoned ethics for dogmatic theology. Tillich recalled the environment when he taught at Marburg University, 1924-1925:

During the three semesters of my teaching there I encountered the first radical effects of neo-orthodox theology on theological students: Cultural problems were excluded from theological thought; theologians like Schleiermacher, Harnack, Tr�ltsch, Otto were contemptuously rejected, social and political ideas were banned from theological discussions. 103

In 1934, Albert Schweitzer commented on Karl Barth:

In recent times a tendency has appeared in dogmatic religion which completely turns its back on thinking and at the same time declares that religion has nothing to do with the world and civilization. It is not its business to realize the kingdom of God on earth. This extreme tendency in mainly represented by Karl Barth.
Karl Barth, who is the most modern theologian, because he lives most in the spirit of the age, more than any other has that contempt for thinking which is characteristic of our age. He dares to say that religion has nothing to do with thinking. He wants to give religion nothing to do with anything but God and man, the great antithesis. He says a religious person does not concern himself with what happens in the world. The idea of the kingdom of God plays no part with him. He mocks at what he calls 'civilized Protestantism.' The church must leave the world to itself. All that concerns the church is the preaching of revealed truth. Religion is turned aside from the world. Yet Karl Barth--whom I, personally, value greatly--came to the point where he had to concern himself with the world, which in theory he did not want to do. He had to defend the freedom of religion against the state. And he did it with courage. But it shows that his theory is false! It is something terrible to say that religion is not ethical! Karl Barth is a truly religious personality, and in his sermons there is much profound religion. But the terrible thing is that he dares to preach that religion is turned aside from the world and in so doing expresses what the spirit of the age is feeling. 104

In this passage, Schweitzer criticized Barth on three counts, criticisms that were echoed by others:

  1. he was a-ethical and a-political, turning aside from the world;
  2. e was anti-intellectual, having "contempt for thinking;"
  3. he was inconsistent.
When Hitler rose to power in Germany, and tried to impose his ideology on the Church, Barth became very political. He was a key leader in the "Confessing Church" and wrote the Barmen Declaration. Schweitzer alluded to this activity.

Barth addressed the subjects of his political involvement and change in an article in Christian Century in 1939, part of a series by different religious figures titled, "How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade." Barth said emphatically that he had not changed:

People have been very astonished about the 'change' in my stand. . . . They were astonished, first, when I began to become what they called, 'church-political,' and later they were more astonished when I began to become out-and-out 'political.' But I should like to be allowed to say that anyone who really knew me before should not now be so very much astonished. 105

Barth argued that he had not changed, the world had. And his message, which had been apolitical, suddenly found itself being political:

At that time [1933] I said rather just what I had always tried to say, namely, that beside God we can have no other gods, that the Holy Spirit of the Scriptures is enough to guide the church in all truth, and that the grace of Jesus Christ is all-sufficient for the forgiveness of our sins and the ordering of our lives. But now, suddenly, I had to say the same thing in a situation where I could no longer have the slightest vestige of an academic theory. Without my wanting it, or doing anything to facilitate it, this had of necessity to take on the character of a summons, a challenge, a battle-cry, a confession. 106

Karl Barth's son, Markus Barth, has argued that his father was always politically involved, but in different ways at different points in his career. He pointed to regular discussion meetings with students throughout the 1920s, the supposedly apolitical period of his career.

As far as consistency was concerned, Markus Barth asked the rhetorical question,

Is it necessary and feasible to discover a unity or uniformity that permeates not only Karl Barth's complete theological work, but also an essential harmony between his teaching, life, and character? 107

Karl Barth's style was one of overstatement, and so it is easy to find inconsistencies and change. For example, in Romans he declared "Religion must die," 108 and a few pages later asserted, "Let us be convincedly nothing but religious men." 109 Barth believed in a world of paradox, and is misunderstood when his comments on only one part of the paradox are lifted up.

However, it is hard to argue that Barth was consistent, as his son recognized. Through the 1920s Barth withdrew from significant political involvement or public comment. His priority was to develop his "wholly other" theology. When he became re-involved in the 1930s, it was not just to protect the church from totalitarianism. He also spoke and acted against other abuses of National Socialism ("out-and-out political," as he called it). In 1919 at Tambach, Barth had conceded that there were times when Christians had to protest the social order, "and there have been dark, blundering, godless times when this moment of protest was suppressed and hidden." 110 Barth could not repeat the blunders of the German theologians of 1914. The rise of Hitler did bring about a change of emphasis for Barth. His "apolitical" phase was over.

Schweitzer had also charged Barth with "contempt for thinking," and for saying that religion was not ethical. For Schweitzer, reason and ethics were two key foundations of his world view. But it was Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy, who had first argued that the universal element in religion was non-rational and non-ethical.

Schweitzer understood thinking as an eighteenth century rationalist would. The problem was not that Barth didn't think, but that Barth did his thinking within a different world view from Schweitzer's. The transcendent God, essential to Barth's world view, was absent from Schweitzer's. Barth had contempt only for that thinking which was not founded on a consciousness of the transcendence of God--which is the beginning of wisdom.

Although Barth went through an apolitical phase, he had ethics. Barth was reacting (over-reacting?) to the moralizing tendencies of nineteenth century theology that reduced Christianity to nothing more than ethics.

Barth's style was one of over-statement, and perhaps over-reaction. Although in 1916 he praised Blumhardt for seeing God in nature, 111 in the 1930s he viciously attacked Brunner for trying to find a place for natural theology in his theology. On the issue of the transcendence or immanence of God, Barth appears to have left his sense of paradox behind, and opted totally for transcendence.

Criticism and Response--Albert Schweitzer
When A. G. Hogg reviewed Schweitzer's Philosophy of Civilization for the International Review of Missions in 1925, he expressed a common quandary. Schweitzer's theology was so liberal, that Hogg questioned if he was "one of us." 112 Yet Hogg also read of Schweitzer's work as a missionary physician bringing health to the sick in the name of Jesus. According to the Scriptures, he could not speak ill of one who does wonders in Christ's name. Schweitzer's remarkable combination of liberal theology and conservative piety has been a puzzle for many. Schweitzer was most often criticized for having a world view that did not include God.

Schweitzer was a liberal. He explained away the miracles, was suspicious of visions, and did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Immortality and the after-life did not enter into his beliefs. 113 He believed in a God that was immanent, that is, a basic essence of life, and not transcendent. His conception of Reverence (Ehrfurcht) for Life could easily be seen as pantheism--a worship of all things as God. In some ways his Reverence for Life replaced Christianity, if not as a religion, then as a world view. People who believed in a transcendent God seriously questioned whether Schweitzer was "one of us."

In a letter to Oskar Kraus in 1924, Schweitzer spoke to some of these concerns:

I never speak in philosophy of 'God' but only of 'the universal will-to-live,' which comes to consciousness in me in a two-fold way; first, as creative will perceived as manifestations in observable phenomena external to me; and secondly, as ethical will experienced within me. . . . When I must use the language of traditional religious idioms, however, then I employ the word 'God' in its historical definiteness and indefiniteness. . . .
In the language of experience (i. e., philosophy) and the language of religion the content remains absolutely the same. In both idioms I renounce final knowledge of the world and I affirm the primacy of the universal will-to-live experienced in myself. . . .
I am not able to get around the renunciation of all metaphysical knowledge of the world nor beyond the conflict:pantheism--theism. 114

For Schweitzer, philosophy and religion were two languages with which one could speak about the same things. His Philosophy of Civilization was philosophy, and not theology. Therefore, the world view which he presented there did not mention God by name. If God is understood to be the same as "universal will-to-live," then Schweitzer's God was immanent, but in no way transcendent.

Schweitzer was criticized by Bertrand Russell (quoted by A. G. Hogg) as having circular logic, simply proving his assumptions. 115 Because Schweitzer's reasoning was highly intuitive, that charge was difficult to refute. Schweitzer explained and supported his insights with reason; but one can rarely "prove" insights.

Karl Barth met Albert Schweitzer in 1928, and reported,

I told him in a friendly way that his views were a 'fine specimen of righteousness by works' and that he was a man of the eighteenth century. After that, we talked and on the whole got on very well. There is no point in wanting to quarrel with him. He sees himself, like everything and everyone else, in relative terms, and it is certainly true that one should be compassionate. He gives us a great deal to think about. 116

The comment about being a "man of the eighteenth century," was no doubt an insult on the lips of Barth, but a complement in the ears of Schweitzer. But Barth's chief criticism was that Schweitzer's ethic was works-righteousness. Schweitzer's motivation for going into missions was one of guilt, and of atoning for the sins of his civilization. Reverence for Life was an ethic of obligation and duty. In contrast, Reformed ethics had been action motivated by gratitude to God. For Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism, ethics was our response to the saving grace of God. For Schweitzer the theme was not gratitude, but internalizing a principle. It is true that both approaches can be overlaid with layers of obligation and duty.

Schweitzer can also be criticized for being individualistic. He did not address the sin in the "system" but sought to change society the old-fashioned way--by changing individuals. For Schweitzer the answer to that charge was simple. Only individuals think. So only individuals can be moved to right-thinking.

Influence of the War on Theology
Barth and his neo-orthodox theology have had a tremendous influence in the twentieth century. Theological students in the post-war generation, like Visser't Hooft, Niem�ller, and Bonh�ffer found the message for which they had been waiting. Perhaps it should be expected that a theology of paradox will be filled with paradoxes.

On the basis of the influence of the movement, Karl Barth can be acclaimed as the most important theologian of the twentieth century.

Albert Schweitzer's influence is more difficult to evaluate. Like most saints, he is praised more than he is imitated. Human movements for liberation, and a greater concern for the sanctity of life and for human rights have characterized the twentieth century. Environmental concerns force themselves upon us. To what extent Schweitzer is responsible cannot be measured; that he has in some way contributed is certain.

The War had a profound effect on how Europeans thought about matters of faith for the rest of the century. Christians struggled with questions of the impotence of the Church, the relation of Christianity to Culture, the power any mystery of sin, and the ethics of institutions. In reaction to the Culture-Protestantism that endorsed the war, a distancing between Christianity and Culture has taken place. Questions of ethics relate directly today, not simply to human life, but to the survival of all life on our planet.

The trauma of the War in Europe initiated a deep searching for spiritual truth, which has shaped the religious history of this passing century.


1.The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1989 ed., 29:1008.

2.Albert Schweitzer, Reverance for Life, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Harper & Row, 1969),101-02.

3.Ibid., 103.

4.J. H. Oldham, The World and the Gospel (London: United Council for Missionary Education, 1916), 1-2.

5.Joseph Estlin Carpenter, Ethical and Religious Problems of the War (London: Lindsey, 1916), v.

6.Oldham, 2.

7.Gustav Kr�ger, "The 'Theology of Crisis,'" Harvard Theological Review 19 (1926): 231-32.

8.Karl Barth, "The Christian's Place in Society," in The Word of God and the Word of Man, trans. Douglas Horton (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), 273.

9.Friedrich Gogarten, "Between the Times," in The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, ed. James B. Robinson (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1968), 277-79.

10.Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 51.

11.Karl Barth, "Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century," in The Humanity of God (Richmond, Va.: John Knox, 1966), 14; see also Busch, 81.

12.Busch, 82.

13.Ibid., 84.

14.Busch, 84-85; Karl Barth, "Action in Waiting for the Kingdom of God, in Action in Waiting, intro. Arthur Wiser (Rifton, N.Y.: Plough, 1969), 12-40; Karl Barth, "Past and Future: Friedrich Naumann and Christoph Blumhardt," in Robinson, Beginnings 1:41-44.

15.Barth, "Action," 19-45.

16.Barth, "Past and Future," 37-45.

17.Busch, 85.

18.Ibid., 68.

19.Ibid., 98.

20.Ibid., 97.

21.Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford Univerrsity, 1968), 25-30.

22.Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (New York: Oxford University, 1968), v.

23.Ibid., 1.

24.Barth, "Christian's Place," 277.


26.W. A. Visser't Hooft, Memoirs (London: SCM, 1973), 16.

27.Barth, Romans, 80.

28.Ibid., 28.

29.Ibid., 85-86.

30.Ibid., 238.

31.Ibid., 225.

32.Ibid., 44.

33.Ibid., 462-63.

34.Ibid., 93.

35.Ibid., 159.

36.Ibid., 254.

37.Ibid., 110.

38.Ibid., 254-55.

39.H. Emil Brunner, "The New Religious Movement in Switzerland," American Journal of Theology 24 (1920): 428.

40.Ibid., 434-35.

41.Ibid., 434.

42.H. Emil Brunner, The Theology of Crisis (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929), 6,8.

43.Brunner, "New Religious Movements," 431.

44.Brunner, Theology, 54-56.

45.Rudolf Bultmann, "Ethical and Mystical Religion in Primitive Christianity," in Robinson, Beginnings, 234.

46.Rudolf Bultmann, "Religion and Culture," in Robinson, Beginnings, 219.

47.Martin Niem�ller, From U-Boat to Pulpit (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1937), 95-96.

48.Ibid., 139-40.

49.Ibid., 184.

50.Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Process from Reimarus to Wrede, trans. William Montgomery (London: A. & C. Black, 1931), 4.

51.Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, trans. C. T. Campion (New York: Henry Holt, 1933), 65.

52.Ibid., 70-71.

53.Ibid., 106-07.

54.Schweitzer, Reverence, 53.

55.Ibid., 55-56.

56.Ibid., 56; see also similar thoughts in Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, trans. C. T. Campion (London: A. & C. Black, 1924), 172.

57.Schweitzer, On the Edge, 151; Life and Thought, 171-72.

58.Schweitzer, On the Edge, 138.

59.Albert Schweitzer, "Religion in Modern Civilization," Christian Century 51 (Nov 21, 1934): 1483.

60.Schweitzer, Life and Thought, 210-11.

61.Ibid., 217.

62.Schweitzer, Reverence, 97.

63.Ibid., 103-04.

64.Schweitzer, Life and Thought, 218.

65.Albert Schweitzer, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, trans. C. T. Campion (London: A. & C. Black, 1932), vii.

66.Ibid., viii.

67.Ibid., ix.

68.Ibid., 4.

69.Ibid., 31.

70.Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, trans. C. T. Campion (London: A. & C. Black, 1929), 246.



73.G. K. A. Bell, Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury (London: Oxford University, 1952), 919.

74.Adolf von Harnack, "Christmas<" in Adolf von Harnack: Liberal Theology at Its Height, ed. Martin Rumscheidt (London: Collins, 1989), 316-17.

75.Leonhard Ragaz, "Not Religion But the Kingdom of God," in Signs of the Kingdom: A Ragaz Reader, ed. and trans. Paul Bock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), 33.

76.Ibid., 38.

77.Ragaz, "The Kingdom of God and Clericalism," in Signs of the Kingdom, 39-42.

78.Paul Tillich, My Search for Absolutes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 38-39.

79.Ibid., 44.

80.Pope Benedict XV, "Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum," in The Papal Encyclicals, 1903-1939, ed. Claudia Carlen (Wilmington, N.C.:McGrath, 1981), 144.

81.Ibid., 144-46.

82.Georges Goyau, "The Church of France During the War," Constructive Quarterly 6 (1918): 510.

83.Philip J. Rosato, "The Influence of Karl Barth on Catholic Theology," Gregorianum 67 (1986): 660.

84.Emilien Lamirande, "The Impact of Karl Barth on the Catholic Church in the Last Half Century," in Footnotes to a Theology: The Karl Barth Colloquium of 1972, ed. Martin Rumscheidt ([N.p.]: Corporation for the Publication of Academic Studies in Religion in Canada, 1974), 113.

85.Adrian Hastings, A History of English Christianity: 1920-1985 (London: Collins, 1986), 47.

86.Bell, 735.

87.F. A. Iremonger, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury: His Life and Letters (London: Oxford, 1956), 210-74. Comments from Reginald Fuller in a letter, Sept. 22, 1992, point out that the movement fell short of its goals.

88.William Temple, "The World's Need of the Church," Constructive Theology 7 (1919): 1-10.

89.quoted in Hastings, 46.

90.Oldham, 6.

91.Ibid., 16.

92.Ibid., 22.

93.Carpenter, 86.

94.Ibid., 127-28.

95.Ibid., 135-39.

96.Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth, "The Debate on the Critical Historical Method: Correspondence Between Adolf von Harnack and Karl Barth," in Robinson, Beginnings, 171.

97.Bultmann, "Ethical and Mystical Religion," 230.

98.Barth, Romans, 6.

99.Ibid., 7.

100.Ibid., 11.

101.Ibid., 12.

102.Leonhard Ragaz, "Reformation Forward or Backward?" in Signs of the Kingdon, 100.

103.Tillich, 42.

104.Schweitzer, "Religion in Modern Civilization," 1484.

105.Karl Barth, "How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade," Christian Century 56 (1939): 1134.

106.Ibid., 1133.

107.Markus Barth, "Current Discussion on the Political Character of Karl Barth's Theology," in Rumscheidt, ed., Footnotes to a Theology, 81-82.

108.Barth, Romans, 238.

109.Ibid., 254.

110.Barth, "Christian's Place," 298.

111.Barth, "Action," 24.

112.A. G. Hogg, "To the Rescue of Civilization," International Review of Missions 14 (1925): 45-46.

113.James Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: A Biography (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1975), 131.

114.Ibid., 303-04.

115.Hogg, "Rescue," 49.

116.Busch, 183.


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