Date of Award

Spring 1989

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Terms of Use

© 1989 Amie Roosevelt. All rights reserved. Access to this work is restricted to users within the Swarthmore College network and may only be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes. Sharing with users outside of the Swarthmore College network is expressly prohibited. For all other uses, including reproduction and distribution, please contact the copyright holder.

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Religion Department

First Advisor

P. Linwood Urban


This paper considers Karl Barth's perspective of the political and social issues of his time as an expression of the extention of his theological thought to his social responsibility. First, I consider the issue that was central for all Europeans in the nineteen-thirties—the "Third Reich." Barth understood this phenomenon as a theological anomaly. His belief that the source of the Nazis' evil was religious compelled him too denounce them. They competed with the Church, and almost succeeded in replacing it with a substitute, Nazi Church. It was this realization which spurred Barth to take a leading role in the effort to resist the Nazis. This effort resulted in the Barmen Declaration of l-934, which helped stop the transformation of the Church into the religion of Hitlerism.

The following section explains the roots of Barth's social thinking. It offers a summary of the basic themes of Barth's commentary on The Epistle to the Romans. The appearance of this book was an affront to the tradition of "Liberal theology" and an impetus for renewed interest in "Dialectical theology." It was largely influenced by Franz Overbeck's criticism of theology for being too closely linked with changing ideologies. This association, he argued, prevented theology from addressing the eternal, unchanging aspect of Christian truth recorded in the Bible, and encouraged its compromise with cultural ideologies. The subsequent chapters focus on the role of the Church in preserving and proclaiming the eternal Word of God. First, I summarize Barth's views about the Church's relation to the State, and then discuss how Barth applied his understanding of this relationship to the situation in eastern Europe after World War II. During this period, a change in the historical status of the Church occurred. Previously, it had been supported by the established political powers. Now it had to deal with disinterest or even antagonism on the part of the State. Barth's opinions about this new situation were based on the idea that the Church needs neither material support nor ideological endorsement from the State in order to perform its duty and fulfill a significant function.

The last part of the paper examines Niebuhr and Tillich's criticisms of Barth, which were directed toward Barth's reluctance to formulate a systematic theology. In fact, neither of these contemporary thinkers had penetrating objections, because they did not understand that their points were automatically refuted by Barth's assertions about the distinction between theology and ideology as well as between theology and philosophy. The primary purpose of Barth's theological method was to be consistent with Scripture and to preserve the eschatological character of Christian faith. If Barth had yielded to their criticism, his theology might have been more directly reflective of contemporary thinking. However, it would not have retained its value of being free from the influence of the currently predominating schools of thought.