Karl Barth on Children

The Barth House

The Barth House

According to Hans Frei, what distinguished Karl Barth (1886-1968) as a theologian was the ‘startlingly consistent’ identification of ‘universal divine action with divine action in Christ alone’.[1] ‘Here God is present and known to us, and the only logical presupposition for this presence and this knowledge is – itself. For this unique thing there can be no set preconditions; it creates it own. No natural theology, no anthropology, no characterization of the human condition, no ideology or world view can set the conditions for theology or knowledge of God’,[2] and, by implication (after Calvin), for knowledge of creation.

This is where Barth begins. Indeed, there can be, for Barth, no other starting point than the eternal decision of God to be God for us – that God, in Jesus Christ elects to be humanity’s covenant partner and redeemer. We cannot understand humanity apart from this eternal decision of God to become incarnate for our sakes. We cannot understand personhood apart from the sovereign God’s decision to make covenant with God’s ‘other’.

While Barth wrote little directly regarding children,[3] Eberhard Busch has observed Barth’s great love for children, and his commitment to them, even when work pulled him away from home, and from his wife Nelly who assumed the major role in bringing up the Barth children. Busch records that around the time Barth was finishing writing the second edition of Der Römerbrief, Barth ‘watched his children … growing up, with care and delight. He still had time, for example, to comb his son Christoph’s hair every morning, “more for my own pleasure than for his gain and satisfaction”‘.[4] Busch also reports how Barth, during his years as pastor in Safenwil (1911-21), immersed himself in his confirmation and pre-confirmation classes, ‘told Bible stories to the twelve- to fourteen-year-olds in the so-called “children’s class” on Sunday after a sermon’, and held weekly meetings for young people already confirmed. He also had strong ideas about the form that these meetings should take: ‘It cannot merely be teaching and learning: we must discover each other personally and become good friends’. He also confessed that these weekly meetings ‘were always a dreadful worry for me’, that he often stood ‘awkwardly in front of bored faces’, and that he usually ‘simply ran out of steam, even in the most well-known things’.[5]

On comparing Augustine with Barth on children, consider these words from Augustine:

Who can recall to me the sin I did in my infancy? For in thy sight no one is clean of sin, not even the infant whose life is but one day upon earth … What, then, was my sin? Was it that I cried for more as I hung upon the breast? … Even in my infancy, therefore, I was doing something that deserved blame, but because I could not understand anyone who blamed me, custom and reason did not allow me to be blamed … It is clear, indeed, that infants are harmless because of physical weakness, not because of any innocence of mind.[6]

Augustine believes that all of us are born with evil tendencies by virtue of original sin. Indeed, he somewhat ‘fused biological ideas of heredity with the idea of the juridical liability of humanity’.[7] This view constitutes the mainstream Christian tradition.

Barth rejects this (negative) view, stressing instead that children are bearers of God’s gracious promise to make them – and indeed all humanity – his covenant partners in Jesus Christ.

Barth also presents three interrelated thoughts about children:

1. Children are needy beginners. They are ‘inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature’, but as such they may humbly acknowledge their need and assume a ‘sheer readiness to learn’.[8] Barth, like Calvin, makes a lot of the correlation between children and the life of filial reality before God:

In invocation of God the Father everything depends on whether or not it is done in sheer need (not self-won competence), in sheer readiness to learn (not schooled erudition), and in sheer helplessness (not the application of a technique of self-help). This can be the work only of very weak and very little and very poor children, of those who in their littleness, weakness, and poverty can only get up and run with empty hands to their Father, appealing to him. Nor should we forget to add that it can only be the work only of naughty children of God who have wilfully run away again from their Father’s house, found themselves among swine in the far country, turned their thoughts back home, and then – if they could – returned to their Father … Christians who regard themselves as big and strong and rich and even dear and good children of God, Christian who refuse to sit with their Master at the table of publicans and sinners, are not Christians at all, have still to become so, and need not be surprised if heaven is gray above them and their calling upon God sounds hollow and finds no hearing. The glory, splendour, truth, and power of divine sonship, and of the freedom to invoke God as Father, and therefore the use of this freedom – the Christian ethos in big and little things alike – depends at every time and in every situation on whether or not Christians come before God as beginners, as people who cannot make anything very imposing out of their faith in Jesus Christ, who even with this faith of theirs – and how else could it be if it is faith in Jesus Christ? – venture to draw near to his presence only with the prayer: “Help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Mark well that this has nothing to do with Christian defeatism. It describes Christians on their best side and not their worst, in their strength and not their weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).[9]

That children are ‘beginners’ does not mean that they should be kept in dependence upon their elders. Rather, it implies that they may mature before the covenant God with a spirit of courage and cheerfulness.

A portrait of Mozart in Barth's house

A portrait of Mozart in Barth's house

2. Being a child is characteristically to be at play. Here Barth draws upon Mozart, whose playing reflects the sheer absence of self-preoccupation. Mozart is not focused on personal confession (as is Beethoven); nor is he about ‘business’ or communicating doctrine (as Barth reads Bach as doing). Mozart just ‘sounds and sings’ with an objectivity that includes ‘an intuitive, childlike awareness of the essence or center – as also the beginning and end – of all things. It is from this center, from this beginning and end, that I hear Mozart create his music’.[10]

3. Being a child is about the opportunity to realise ‘freedom in limitation’. We respond to God’s call as those under the limitations of creation – space and time – and as those elected by God to particular vocations and places of responsibility. The call by the Word of God means freedom. That that same call comes to creatures means limitations. To be a child is to realise this two-fold truth, and to press in various directions in order to identify the boundary between the two – i.e. to step into freedom. This stepping requires what Barth calls a ‘youthful objectivity’.

Youth is the capacity and will to devote oneself to an object without considering or intending that the manner of this devotion should be specifically youthful, but rather in suppression of any such consideration or intention and with the serious aim of rivaling the objectivity of those who are older. He who wants to be a child is not a child; he is merely childish. He who is a child does not want to be a child; he takes his play, his study, his first attempts at accomplishment, his first wrestlings with his environment, in bitter earnest, as though he were already an adult. In so doing he is genuinely childlike. This is what it means to accept the command of the particular hour in true loyalty to its specific determination, to be free in its distinctive limitation.[11]

Directly and indirectly, Barth helps us to ask a number of questions that are pertinent for those in pastoral leadership:[12]

  • Do I treat children as gifts who are promised God’s friendship, and not as corrupt or neutral objects who exist for the sake of my control and fashioning?
  • Does my care for them communicate hope and possibility rather than a sense of failure and ruin?
  • Am I moved to witness good news to other children not my own who need to and by grace may hear it when they have enough to eat, or when they have an opportunity to learn and develop their own powers for responsible life with others?
  • And with my own children, do I really place first their relation with God and my summons joyfully to invite them to rejoice with me in God, rather than first insisting that they mimic my life history or ‘make something of themselves’?

Just before his eightieth birthday, Barth sketched a ‘Rule of life for older people in their relationship with the young’. Eberhard Busch recounts Barth’s words:

You must make it clear that our younger relations have the right to go their own way in accordance with their own principles, not yours … In no circumstances should you give them up: rather, you should go along with them cheerfully, allowing them to be free, thinking the best of them and trusting in God, loving them and praying for them, whatever happens.[13]


[1] Hans W. Frei, Theology and Narrative: Selected Essays (ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher; New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 228.

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology (ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher; New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1992), 154.

[3] Here I am drawing on an essay by William Werpehowski, ‘Reading Karl Barth on Children’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 386-405.

[4] Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (trans. John Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 121.

[5] Ibid., 64-66.

[6] Augustine, Confessions (trans. Rex Warner; New York: New American Library, 1963), 23-4.

[7] Henry Chadwick, Augustine (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 111.

[8] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV.4: Lecture Fragments (trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 79, 80.

[9] Ibid., 80.

[10] Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. C.K. Pott; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 16.

[11] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4 (trans. A.T. Mackay, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), 609.

[12] These questions are adapted from Werpehowski, ‘Barth on Children’, 405.

[13] Busch, Karl Barth, 476.

8 comments

  1. Please check out a radically different way of teaching, or rather enabling children of all ages, to get in touch with, and feeling and thus BEING the mystery.

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  2. Hey Jason,

    First of all thank you sincerely for posting your research into the insights of these great Christian thinkers on the child. (are you working towards developing a ‘theology of childhood’?). Do you know of anyone (in the blogging world) who is working similarly to share theology’s insights on those with disability (autism, down syndrome, asperger’s syndrome etc.)?

    Like

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