Choice Quotations: Karl Barth to a Theological Student

In this letter, Karl Barth proceeds to rip this poor student a new one (a new what will be left to your own imaginations), and rightly so. May Barth’s censure in this letter stand as a warning to all who aspire to a professional life in theology. If we do not ourselves feel and fear the specter of that which Barth harangues against here, then we are indeed in dire danger of it.

(Letter #11 in Karl Barth: Letters 1961-1968).

When I then at your request recommended you for a Reformed Churches grant I simply assumed that you intended to improve your English in Edinburgh and especially to gain some acquaintance with the Anglo-Saxon theology represented there. If I had suspected you could now ask me, What shall I really do in the land of John Knox? I would certainly not have given my name in support of your application. Is it clear to you that you will bring censure on me – not to speak of others – if you do not do there what you proposed, and do it properly? If you do not do this, but proceed to spin a heap of straw into gold, to use your own expression, then it would be better for you to give up the grant so that it may be passed on to someone more modest.

The same applies to your dissertation plan, regarding which, strictly formally, I would draw your attention to the fact that with us (and other Swiss faculties to the best of my knowledge) you cannot become a doctor without passing the “state examination.” So then, even if you think you have the most brilliant academic future, I advise you to face first and to prepare very seriously for the eschaton of the state examination.

This counsel coincides, however, with the only responsible thing I can say to you regarding your plans for theological reformation. I have read your letter twice and have to confess that my head spun worse the second time than the first. Your enterprise…has neither head nor tail and where one looks for the middle there is darkness. Before one can say (or meaningfully ask) anything, one must first listen, and before one can write anything, one must first do proper reading. If you cannot or will not learn this, you had better keep your fingers out of not merely academic theology but theology in general. Why should you not be able or willing to learn it? But to do so you must now make this, in the form of practical exercises, your own most urgent task, taking precedence over everything else, and I particularly mean over all high-flying plans for the reformation of dogmatics.

Dear [student], your present mode of theological, Christian, and human existence worries me as it comes out in your letter – so much so that I can only beg you to take a big sponge, wipe out everything, and begin again at the beginning which, as we know, consists in the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.

With warm greetings and good wishes, Yours, Karl Barth.


A firm, gentle rebuke from KB. What an honor! The point about listening before writing is an important reminder to me. The beautiful thing is that Barth practiced what he preached to this student: wiping everything, only to begin at the beginning again.
Ben Myers said…
"Your present mode of theological, Christian, and human existence worries me" -- I love the frightening comprehensiveness of this! There ain't nothin' about this student that doesn't worry Barth....
Shane said…
jeez dude, this is pretty harsh.

Barth never minced words. If you have the time, check out the Appendix to God in Action, which is the Q&A session following the final lecture on "The Christian as Witness." He begins his response to the second question with, "The objection which we have just heard is the exact antithesis of what I said this morning ..."

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1