Essay / Theology

Karl Barth's Methodist Cleaning Service

In a 1958 essay on the future of the Methodist tradition, E. Gordon Rupp insists, with all humility and caution, there there is “something needing to be said” in modern theology and Christian witness, “which our Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Anglican friends are not saying.” What he has in mind is the aggressive, culture-transforming edge of John Wesley’s way of preaching salvation by grace. But he gets to that point by telling this story:

When Karl Barth began to write his great Dogmatik he had a Methodist housemaid in his house in Basel, and one day he showed her the MS. of his first volume which begins so magnificently with the objectivities of revealed religion, with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. ‘Ah, Herr Professor,’ she said, ‘why do you spend your time on such things? Why don’t you write about the new life of the children of God?’

Rupp is well aware of the dangers of my-precious-savior pietism, of know-nothing born-againers, and of the kind of theological short-sightedness that could be bored with the Trinity while remaining endlessly fascinated by the ups and downs of today’s sweet spiritual experience. But Rupp traveled in mainline, denominational church circles, and knew that Protestant theology wasn’t dying from an excess of fervency. So he testified to the historic Methodist experience of heart-renewing grace, and voted for the cleaning lady. He also thought that Karl Barth might have been coming around at last:

And when, a few months ago in London, Karl Barth spoke of the new truths he had learned in recent years, he came very near to saying something which he might have learned from a Methodist housemaid who knew what it was to cry with Charles Wesley:

And shall the children of a King
Go mourning all their days?

I don’t have a comprehensive Barth biography with me, but in 1957-8, Barth would have been knee-deep in Church Dogmatics IV (parts 2 or 3), and probably would have been speaking in London about things like “The Humanity of God,” his late-career attempt to be sure he wasn’t leaving human transformation out of his theology of the word. Oh, and the Holy Spirit.

The hymn Rupp quotes, by the way, is actually by Watts, though the Wesleys loved it and included it in their hymnals.

Share this essay [social_share/]