In a 2 January 1952 paper written during his first year of doctoral studies at Boston University, Martin Luther King, Jr., criticized Karl Barth’s view that “God is the unknowable and indescribable God” (Papers 2:98). In his paper “Karl Barth’s Conceptions of God,” King wrote, “Most of my criticisms stem from the fact that I have been greatly influenced by liberal theology, maintaining a healthy respect for reason and a strong belief in the immanence as well as the transcendence of God” (Papers 2:104). King did, however, acknowledge that Barth’s view that “man is not sufficient unto himself for life” was “a necessary corrective for a liberalism that at times becomes all [too] shallow”(Papers 2:106).
Barth was a Swiss Reformed Church theologian born in Basel, Switzerland. His father, Fritz Barth, was a professor of the New Testament and early church history at the University of Bern. Barth studied at a number of universities between 1904 and 1909, including Bern and the University of Marburg in Germany. After his ordination as a pastor in 1908, and the publication of Epistle to the Romans (1933), which established his reputation as a theologian, he became a professor of reformed theology at various German universities despite never receiving a doctorate. In 1935 Barth was fired from his position at the University of Bonn and exiled from Germany for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.
Barth held that theology should be God-centered, based solely on the Bible, faith, and the figure of Jesus Christ—and not focused on individuals. As an adherent of liberal theology King defended personalism, the notion that God is knowable through the life of Jesus and through individual religious experience. Barth and King met briefly in 1962 while attending separate events at Princeton University. King was a keynote speaker at an annual civil rights conference and Barth preached at ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of Princeton Chapel. A photograph records their stroll on campus. Barth died in Basel at the age of 82.