Grace and Gratitude: Letters from Barth

December 19, 2017 by Joe Small

Karl Barth is known to most of us by his Church Dogmatics, four volumes in 13 books, taking up two feet of shelf space! Other, smaller books and journal articles add to his oeuvre. The sum of all is the most significant theological work of the 20th century.

But Barth did not only write books. Like his predecessor John Calvin, he was a prolific letter-writer. Some of his many letters are collected in Karl Barth Letters 1961-1968 (Eerdmans, 1981). The first in the collection is a circular letter to the many who wrote to congratulate him on his 75th birthday. The letter is evidence that grace and gratitude were not mere concepts for Barth, but a regular feature of his daily life. An excerpt:

… Many have thanked me for what they suppose they have received from me. Understandably this has moved and comforted me, especially when pastors told me I gave them courage and joy in their preaching. But I can only pass on these thanks to Him to whom alone I myself owe each and every thing. Indeed I am sometimes frightened when I see the amount of free and unmerited grace that has ruled over and in my life, action, and work. It has been almost like something alien, in strange contrast to my own life day by day and year by year in which I have smoked my pipe and have sometimes indulged other appetites, and have rather wheezily thought and written and spoken what seemed to follow next, although always under the impression that I was some distance behind what was really happening. I have always had in mind the many who have worked just as hard as I have, or harder, but whose days, unlike mine, have been lived out in obscurity or semi-obscurity. To be “famous” is all very pleasant. But who will finally be praised? … I commit these things to God, who knows better than you and I do what is needful for you and possible for me. Our whole office is to praise him from the depths as best we may.

May our days and the days of our congregations be marked by awareness of God’s free and unmerited grace in our lives, and may we give thanks to Him to whom alone we owe each and every thing.