A Student Remembers Karl Barth
Reminiscences of Dr. Peter R. Doyle and his wife Sally Ann.
(Note: My older brother Peter studied with Barth in Basel in the early 1960s. He introduced me to Barth’s theology. I have recently contributed an article on Barth to the 2019 Yearbook of Chinese Theology, published by Brill, “The Theology of Karth Barth: An Evangelical Evaluation.” Though my article is mostly critical, I refer to Barth’s personality as one reason why some Evangelicals like him, and give a link to this post, in which Peter and his wife Sally Ann recall a few encounters they had with Barth.)
Peter Doyle Remembers Karl Barth
While Barth avoided giving center place to culture as a source of theological truth, Barth was exceedingly effective in applying Biblical insight to culture. He gives the most serious attention to intellectual movements and their influence upon Christian teaching. He was a master at absorbing and recalling faithfully the writings and influences he cited. At an international symposium to honor Mozart around the year 1962 he was asked to deliver a lecture (his love for the Mozart seemed to be a matter of international knowledge!). Barth gave the audience a delightful talk, ending with his assurance that when the angels’ orchestra played around the Throne in Heaven, they obviously played Bach. But when they then stepped down, and gathered in informal session, they played immediately from the treasures of Mozart. And then, Barth told them, the Lord leaned down, bent an ear, and was pleased!
He was delightful in conversation, giving others total attention. He wanted truly to hear and understand those with whom he spoke. The first week that Sally Ann and I went to his lecture at the University, we found him on the same streetcar with us on the way home. I introduced her to him, and right away he asked how she was liking living in Basel. Then he told us that he had just recently been interviewed by the British Broadcasting Company: they had asked him, “Professor Barth, what would you have liked to do had you not chosen to become a theologian?”
Our streetcar had stopped, and out the window we could see the traffic policeman in a light blue uniform, long white gauntlets, and official white helmet, standing in the middle of the intersection and controlling traffic with every move of his arms. “What would I want to do?” Barth repeated the question. “Why, of course, a traffic policeman! Look at that man. He holds up his hand, and traffic halts at once. He waves his hand, and traffic resumes. I, however, am theologian. I write many books – but no one pays attention to me. I think I would like to have been a traffic policeman had I not been a theologian!” And he laughed.
Karl Barth was a delightful and kindly Christian man, a true gentleman. On one occasion he served as one of the examiners at a doctoral exam for an American student who was struggling in the area of church history. To help out, Professor Barth asked the student about the significance of that present date. The student struggled even more. Finally Barth said, “Why this is July 4, the birth day of your great country!” He made the man laugh at that, and this seemed to ease his way through the rest of the exam.
My wife and I lived with a wonderful group of Mennonites in Basel before we found our own apartment. We were not far from Barth’s home. I was on the way home from Germany where I had attended a two month language course. That day, Sally Ann heard that students of Basel University were gathering at Professor Barth’s home to give him the honorary torchlight celebration given outstanding teachers. Sally Ann and the Mennonites walked a few blocks to Barth’s home, and joined several hundred students and citizens. A men’s fraternity in formal suits held torches while one of them gave an oration of praise to Prof. Barth. They all sang the famous academic song, “Gaudeamus igitur”.
Professor Barth and his wife were on the front steps of their home, and when the honors were over, he thanked and praised the crowd, and the speaker, then told them to go immediately to the Bruderholtz restaurant a block away and have a beer on him! They talked a while as folks pressed forward to shake his hand, then proceeded to the Bruderholz – torches and all! - for a joyful celebration and songs. Sally Ann had a wonderful time at this great occasion. Sadly, I arrived an hour too late.
His brilliant mind and heart and soul were joyfully captive to the revelation of the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ and described for us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.