The Center for Barth Studies Celebrates 25 Years

Once a seemingly unattainable dream, the Barth Center is now a world-renowned depository, research institute, and convener.

The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (the Barth Center) launched in 1997 with two rooms in the library, a modest budget, and some direct goals: to digitize the work of heralded Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, curate a Barth collection, and raise funds for the Karl Barth Archive in Switzerland to continue editing Barth’s collected works. This month, the Barth Center celebrates 25 years, boasting the largest research collection in the world by and about Karl Barth. It is also home to a number of elite programs including a robust slate of conferences, a translation project bringing many of Barth’s works into English for the first time, and an intensive graduate student colloquium. “The Barth Center is a living, dynamic center,” says director Dr. Kait Dugan, MDiv ‘13. “It isn’t just a depository for the collection we have — which is, indeed, notable — but it’s also a place for anyone to engage with Barth’s thought and use his theology for their own questions, discourse, and struggles.”

Building the Collection

Markus and Karl Barth
Markus and Karl Barth

Within a few years of Karl Barth’s death in 1968, his son, Markus Barth, established a legacy commission in Switzerland to oversee the publication of his father’s collected works. Soon after, Markus began seeking an American partner that could engage with North American scholars and pastors, and ultimately help establish support not just for the publishing of Barth’s works, but also the formation of both a research center and a society.

Efforts to create this US-based research center failed until September 1997, when Princeton Theological Seminary opened the doors to its Center for Barth Studies. Thanks to a $1.2 million Lilly Endowment grant, the Center got to work digitizing Barth’s six-million-word Kirchliche Dogmatik and its English version, Church Dogmatics. The grant also allowed for microfilming and digitizing the manuscripts and photographs in the Karl Barth Archive in Basel, Switzerland — for the first time, there was more than a single copy of these aging materials. “As a show of gratitude for this work, the Barth-Archiv gave us a copy of everything they had,” says Dugan. “Today, we are home to the largest Barth collection in the entire world. It’s a treasure that people from all over the world come to use.”

In 2019, the Barth Center was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to begin translating Barth’s work into English. “Receiving a government-funded grant to support translating a Swiss theologian’s work is significant,” adds Dugan. “In addition to helping us translate more of Barth’s work, it lifts the prestige of the Center and the Seminary, because we have a vote of confidence from one of the most esteemed funding bodies within the humanities.”

Sharing Ideas

Barth Graduate Student Colloquium
Attendees at a Barth Graduate Student Colloquium

The theology of Karl Barth is alive and well in the various conferences hosted by the Barth Center. The Karl Barth Conference is a four-day event for scholars and graduate students to discuss a variety of topics and themes, and many of the conference proceedings become published book volumes. In 2015, the Center hosted its first Barth Pastors Conference, which connects issues pastors are facing today — pastoral care, preaching, prison ministry, and more — with Barth’s works.

Finally, the Barth Graduate Student Colloquium is an intensive student-led seminar. Ten to 12 graduate students from all over the world descend on Princeton Seminary and the Barth Center to share their research and network with other emerging scholars. “I’ve heard students say it's been one of the most formative experiences they’ve had,” says Dugan. “And, since it’s fully funded, it frees students to engage with the subject matter and their colleagues without worrying about how they’re going to pay for it.”

Looking Ahead

Kait Dugan
Dr. Kait Dugan, director of the Barth Center

The future of the Barth Center is bright. Dugan hopes to create a stronger global network by hosting international conferences in future years; for example, the Center, in partnership with the Center for Asian American Christianity and the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Seminary, is planning to organize a global conference on the theme of Asian Christian theology at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University in 2025. The Barth Center also co-manages the Barth Literature Search Project in cooperation with the Protestant Theological University in the Netherlands, and has various global partners to track Barth literature in many different languages. In an effort to bring the conversation to an ever–widening audience, a podcast is on deck for late 2022, which will examine pressing theological issues. And, the Center will begin hosting a pastor-scholar cohort to foster rich discussion and address current needs within the church today. Ultimately, Dugan hopes to establish an endowment to ensure that the Center expands and grows even further.

“The Barth Center is not a gatekeeper, but rather an open-ended resource and inspiration for new ideas and constructive thought,” she says. “The best moments we have are not necessarily about Barth, but rather, thinking through and witnessing to that which is beyond Barth — what God has done for the world in Christ.”

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Lindsay Clark, Class of 2018

“Trenton Psych was a fantastic place to work and learn, a seminal part of my Seminary experience and the most important thing I did at Princeton.”