Reading Scripture Theologically With Barth – In South Africa? Anecdotes for After Dinner

Comments delivered by Dirkie Smit (Stellenbosch University, South Africa) during an after dinner talk at the Karl Barth conference held at Princeton Theological Seminary in June of 2006.


"The generation to which I belong was, theologically speaking, dominated by Karl Barth… He was undoubtedly the greatest theologian of our age" – with these words, Willie Jonker, without doubt one of the greatest South African theologians of the past century, described the enormous influence of Barth in South Africa.

This does not, of course, mean that he was always appreciated. He was extremely controversial and his theology was at the heart of most of the major ecclesial, theological and public conflicts of twentieth century South Africa. To different people, he was important for different reasons.

Seeing that it should be in after dinner recollection-and-gossip-style, I promised to keep this talk anecdotal rather than reflective, and so I will only briefly recall five memories to illustrate some of the complexity and ambiguity of Barth's reception in South Africa. I even found some material in the Princeton Theological Seminary library to associate with each of these five recollections and to share with you.

A First Memory

Barth was regarded by many church and theological leaders as the most dangerous and misleading theological voice of all. In the very influential Theological Seminary of Stellenbosch his work was almost forbidden literature. This radical opposition against Barth came primarily from neo-Calvinist circles in South Africa, themselves deeply influenced by similar positions, viewpoints and theological figures at the time in the Netherlands. At stake was precisely the authority of Scripture and the question how to properly read Scripture theologically.

In 1963, the Stellenbosch theologian F. J. M. Potgieter gave the public lecture during the opening of the Stellenbosch Faculty radically rejecting Barth's view of Scripture. It was later published in the local theological journal and again as a separate booklet, in which form it was prescribed material for successive generations of Stellenbosch theological students, warning them not to read Barth at all.

In his own autobiography, the widely respected systematic theologian Jaap Durand would later remember that "Karl Barth was seen as, perhaps not quite the most important heretic of the twentieth century, but he came a close second to Rudolf Bultmann."

In practice, the warning did not have the necessary effect on some of the more theologically interested students, and many future theologians, like Jaap Durand himself, recall how they read Barth secretly, often under the desk in class, while the professors were dictating their lectures, and how they eagerly awaited the publication of each new volume of the Church Dogmatics.

Still, a whole generation of ministers would serve in the so-called white Reformed Churches for whom the name Barth – although they knew nothing more about him – stood for the living heresy of not respecting Scripture as the Word of God.

A Second Memory

There were others in the Reformed churches who keenly read Barth's theology but did not understand or share its ethical, social and political thrust at all – as if the ethical parts did not belong integrally to the content of the Church Dogmatics, as if his work on the Reformed confessions in the 1920s did not stress the role of ethics and the Christian life, as if Barmen had nothing to do with Barth's thought at all.

In the Hervormde Kerk, a self-consciously volkskerk, with close historical and theological ties with the Dutchvolkskerk and with a church order that until recently explicitly excluded people from different racial background, the doctrinal theology of Barth was quite popular.

In the Dutch Reformed theological Faculty of Pretoria, A. B. du Preez, Potgieter's counterpart in dogmatic theology, read the Church Dogmatics systematically with all his students, but he also supported the influential secret organization called the Broederbond and he strongly defended apartheid theologically, e.g. in a small brochure called Die Skriftuurlike Grondslag vir rasseverhoudinge (1955) and later in an extensive theological argument Inside the South African crucible (1959), in which Barth plays only a small role in two footnotes and Scripture almost not at all. He concluded this defense of apartheid, especially against the theological critique coming from the ecumenical church, with a prayer of Zwingli: "May God grant that the Divine Word may be preached faithfully amongst you; with it you will preserve your Fatherland, even if it should grieve the devil; for where there is piety, there is the help of God."

A Third Memory

There were some who gradually realized that it is impossible to study and share Barth's theology while ignoring the moral ontology it implied, that it was impossible to inhabit the strange new world of the Bible theologically, without simultaneously hearing the claim of this strange new world on our lives, churches and public life.

Nico Smith, a well-known missiologist likes to tell his own story. He studied with Du Preez and had the highest regard for Barth. He also believed in and supported apartheid, he wrote a doctoral thesis in missiology defending the existence of separate ethnic churches, he was invited and joined as member of the Broederbond and he was called to the Stellenbosch Faculty to teach missiology ahead of candidates like Jaap Durand and David Bosch, in what was widely seen as a Broederbond-influenced appointment.

As a young minister, he organized an opportunity to visit Barth's house, for a personal interview. At the end of the interview, after all his questions to Barth, the old man asked whether he could also ask one question, and then he asked Nico Smith whether he was free to preach the gospel, even when it contradicts public opinion, ideology and policies. At first he did not understand the question, and assured Barth that it could never happen, because there was nothing wrong with public opinion and national policy. But Barth insisted, asking what would happen if one day, perhaps, he would find that the gospel was indeed critical of what everyone around him, including his friends and family, believe? He replied that he would of course be free to proclaim the gospel, in such a situation, but repeated that it was highly improbable – but he left with a feeling of unease, he says, a feeling that stayed with him on the bus, and during the rest of his trip and in a way for the rest of his life. The question never left him, and many years later, when he publicly resigned from the Broederbond and from the Faculty to become a township minister of the black Reformed Church in Africa, it was still Barth's question about freedom to proclaim the gospel that haunted him, he often recounts:

Three times Barth had asked him, 'Are you free?' As he turned the conversation over in his mind Nico found himself thinking of the conversation Jesus had had with Simon Peter on the beach, after his resurrection.

A Fourth Memory

In the meanwhile, many others were reading Barth intensely and they were reading Scripture theologically, in ways inspired by Barth – people like Willie Jonker himself and Jaap Durand, who were influenced by Berkouwer, like several others, David Bosch, who studied in Basel with Cullmann and was following Barth in fundamental ways, Takatso Mofokeng, who studied with Gerrit Neven in Kampen, Douglas Bax, who studied here in Princeton, but also John de Gruchy and Russel Botman, who both studied in South Africa, as well as many others.

What did they learn from Barth? Jonker's recollections are helpful. To him and his generation, he says, Barth's theology "was a cause of joy." Why? Because it so clearly had a message, something to say, to proclaim, something negative and sharply critical of the world in which they lived, of the hubris of modern humanity and especially of religious humanity, of the theology of the day, of Christianity as social phenomenon and of the church, but this criticism obviously was the result of "the positive contents of his message about love and grace, the majesty and power of the living God about whose triumph over all the powers of sin and death Barth obviously had no shadow of doubt."

The content of this joyful message was, of course, Jesus Christ. "Barth could speak about Christ in such a way that one could not help becoming enthusiastic about Him and the gospel of which He is the content." This message was a message of joy, God is a word of joy, the gospel is proclamation of joy, theology is a cause for joy, and even Barth's own personal joyfulness struck many of those who met him.

(We) heard his central message about the grace of God, his stress on the objectivity of our salvation in Christ, and his radical rejection of neo-protestant subjectivism. Somehow Barth could formulate the crucial issues of evangelical faith in such a surprisingly new and convincing way, that we experienced it as a new dawn for Biblical theology. He obviously had so much pleasure in his explication of the gospel, that we believed him when he said that theology was a cause for joy. Those of us who had the opportunity to meet him were struck by his happiness and positive attitude towards life. There seemed to be no tension between his theology and his life. He succeeded in giving a joyous sound to the word 'God', helping us to understand that God is not only love, but also joy.

At the same time, however, according to Jonker, it was the critical element in Barth's theology that touched them in a special way. Why? Because they recognized that they were struggling in their own South African circles with variations of the same forms of natural theology and religious familiarity which Barth attacked so fiercely with his critical "no."

The complacency of the church, the self-satisfaction of some forms of neo-calvinist theology with which we were acquainted, the shallow moralism of Christianity as a whole, the self-deception of the pietistic, Arminian and Methodist preoccupation with personal holiness and perfection with which we were perpetually confronted within our circles – these were the things for which Barth opened our eyes.

Therefore, over against all self-confident theology, ecclesiology and moralism built on anthropology, on volk, on orders of creation and on interpretations of history, and over against all familiarity with God built on subjective spirituality and religious feelings and experience, they were inspired by Barth's theology of the Word. For them, this radical re-thinking of evangelical theology and this joyous news of the triumph of God's grace in Jesus Christ, was the really influential and controversial claim. For them, Barth offered a radical alternative to precisely the two popular and pervasive portrayals of the Christian faith in their own context, namely natural theology and subjectivist religiosity.

I remember Jonker telling us that the books in his study which he read most often, were the small print exegetical sections in the Church Dogmatics. There he would often find the inspiration for his own inspiring preaching, over many decades. I remember for example many sermons on the rich young man who did not see his way open to follow Jesus' call, and many sermons on the splangnizomai of the synoptics, how Jesus' was inwardly moved with compassion at the sight of human suffering and misery.

I also remember a day in Jonker's sitting-room, visiting with Allan Boesak and an American editor of a church journal, for an interview. Why was he not more explicit and direct in his political critique?, Jonker was asked. Because he sincerely believed that the theology he was teaching a new generation of ministers would change church and society from within, he responded, by which he meant reading and proclaiming Scripture Christologically, no longer in terms of nation and culture. It was as if Barth himself was speaking, assuring us of the power of the truth of the gospel.

Over decades, Jonker and Durand published a series of systematic theological works called Wegwysers in die Dogmatiek in which Barth was clearly the principal discussion partner. This was without doubt the most serious and sustained reception of Barth in South African scholarly and church circles. Of course, these changes took time. Jonker told the story of these slow and painful changes in his moving autobiographical account, Selfs die kerk kan verander.

A Final Memory

In South Africa, Barth's influence was in fact more pervasive in church circles and in public life than in academic, scholarly theology. His work indirectly inspired and still touches many people who may never have heard his name or know nothing about him. It was in a way more a kind of barthian theology, his wirkungsgeschichte, the impact of his life and work in the German Church Struggle, in the Confessing Church, in Barmen, together with the impact of the life and work of Bonhoeffer that had this enormous impact, than merely his scholarly work as such.

This was clearly illustrated in the volume of essays On reading Karl Barth in South Africa published in 1988. Here, several people were writing who had perhaps never before seriously read and studied Barth himself, but who were inspired by Paul Lehmann – like Allan Boesak – or by Beyers Naudé and the work of his Christian Institute, who very consciously stood in the tradition of the Confessing Church. "I have often recognized in Barth's writings a strangely contemporary ring," Allan Boesak would write, expressing this sense of immediacy and relevance when Barth was read in the South African reality over many decades.

In the circles of black theology, for example, the well-known Itumeleng Mosala at the time openly attacked theologians like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak for reading Scriptures as the Word of God. Mosala himself very deliberately and explicitly, almost cynically, used the Bible for ulterior ideological and political purposes, but simply because the so-called masses in the churches (still) believed the Bible, while he personally rejected any notion of the Word of God. Tutu, Boesak and many others were not moved at all by this criticism.

For the black Reformed churches the Bible was the Word of God and the message of this gospel as they heard it, about the unity of the church, the reconciliation in Jesus Christ and God's compassionate justice for those in need contradicted the theology justifying apartheid on Biblical principles.

When the black Dutch Reformed Mission Church decided in 1982 to declare a state of confession, following the decision of the WARC in Ottawa, thereby claiming that the truth of the gospel itself was at stake, someone read in Synod from Barth's discussion of a status confessionis and a moment of confession in the life of the church in the Church Dogmatics. The seriousness of Barth's words led to moments of total silence in the synod meeting in the Belhar township, and then it was proposed that, in the light of what Barth says, the Church should draft a new confession, which became the Confession of Belhar.


In short, Barth was extremely influential in South African church and society, but not because everyone appreciated him. Different people responded in different ways.

For some he was important as probably the most dangerous living heretic. For some he was an inspiring theologian, but with no consequences for life in church or society. For some he presented a challenge to their conscience, their loyalties, their practices. For some he proclaimed the joyous gospel of God's wonderful "yes," but implied in that also a radical "no" over against powerful assumptions in church and society, that moved them to witness and action. For some, he changed their lives in dramatic ways, although they have perhaps never heard his name, a form of reception that is still continuing, but that is another story.

It should be clear that, in all of these diverse receptions, what was ultimately at stake in South Africa was the way we see and read Scripture, theologically.


  • Potgieter, F J M, 1963 Die teopneustie van die Heilige Skrif met besondere verwysing na Karl Barth, Kaapstad: NGKU.
  • Du Preez, A B 1959 Inside the South African crucible, Kaapstad: HAUM.
  • Jonker, W D 1998 Selfs die kerk kan verander, Kaapstad: Tafelberg.
  • De Saintonge, R 1989 Outside the gate. The story of Nico Smith, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Villa-Vicencio C (ed), 1988 On reading Karl Barth in South Africa, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.