The acceptance
of Karl Barth’s work in France

In the mid-1920s Karl Barth’s writings were already known in France. Pastor Pierre Maury and the “Fédé” (The French Federation of Christian Students’ associations), played a major role in circulating them. The Theologian’s work kept being translated into French, taught, meditated and criticised. Since he died in 1968 though, and despite the large number of his disciples, his work is sometimes questioned.

Acceptance in the students' sphere

The FUACE (Universal Federation of Christian Students’Associations) and itsFrench branch called the “fédé”, notably under the leadership of pastor Jean Bosc (1910-1969) played an important role in the acceptance of Karl Barth’s work. In 1895, the FUACE was created as a branch of the UCJG Young Men’s Christian Union, by the American John Mott. The aim of the lay man, who committed himself, was to evangelise the university sphere. Thanks to its international meetings, the FUACE soon played an essential role in the development of the ecumenical movement. After 1925 pastor Wilhem Visser’t Hooft became its secretary general in Geneva, and also the first secretary general of the Ecumenical Council of the Churches (COE) in 1948.

During these international or national meetings, many prominent figures were trained in and integrated ecumenical life, and later accepted responsibilities in the Churches, often making true friends which ignored national borders. Such was the case for several part-takers in the German confessing Church, but also for orthodox figures such as Nicolas Berdaieff. One can say that the FUACE enabled the creation of a sort of powerful international association which greatly eased the required reconcilement after the war, and the communion within the Ecumenical Council of the Churches that grew deeper. The reference to Karl Barth’s theology was a major factor, though not the only one. We should underline the essential role of Suzanne de Dietrich, as the leader of the biblical Renewal movement that developed between the two wars.

The role of pastor Pierre Maury

  • Karl Barth et Pierre Maury
    Karl Barth and Pierre Maury © Collection Privée

Pastor Pierre Maury who had been Secretary General of the French “fédé” from 1919 to 1925, was one of the first to discover Karl Barth’s early writings during his ministry at the Ferney-Voltaire parish. Between the two men a strong and theological friendship existed and grew. Later on during his ministry with the FUACE, and then with Passy-Annonciation in Paris, alongside Visser’t Hooft (1931-1956), but mainly through his teaching of dogmatics at the Protestant theology faculty in Paris (1943-1950), Pierre Maury never stopped spreading the teachings of his master and friend in his own extremely pastoral way. He published the French translation of many of Barth’s texts, especially in the magazine Faith and Life, which he managed between 1930 and 1939, and with the publishing company “I serve”. One can say that his preaching, his teaching and his publications deeply ingrained Karl Barth’s theology into pastors and lay people in French protestant churches over several generations. Thanks to him some of them, such as Georges Casalis, André Dumas and Henri Hatzfeld could benefit directly from Barth’s teaching in Basel. It was also because he was committed to these theological proceedings that Pierre Maury was the interlocutor of some catholic theologians such as father Yves Congar.

The effervescence between the two wars

  • Letter from Karl Barth on the death of Pasteur Pierre Maury © Collection privée

A true theological effervescence was specific to the thirties. It was mainly focused on Karl Barth, but also on the struggle of the confessing church in Germany, and more generally against the rise of fascisms in Europe.

One of the most vehement actions was the creation of the magazine Hic et Nunc, a truly provocative pamphlet, of which eleven issues were published by a few young and highly pugnacious “barthians”, between November 1932 and January 1936. Among them were Roland de Pury, Roger Breuil, Henri Corbin, Denis de Rougement and Albert-Maris Schmidt also deeply impressed by the newly discovered existential philosophy thanks to authors such as Kierkegard, Dostoievski, Heidegger. In their contributions to the magazine, they vehemently and aggressively denounced violence, injustice, treason and neglect that characterised the world in which they lived. It should be remembered that the world was then irrevocably approaching World War II and raised contradictory passions.

After 1945

During WWII the personality of Barth, who had already written two letters to the French Protestants, in December 1939 during the “phoney war” and after the defeat in 1940, seemed irrefutable. But later on when the situation was less tense, there was a change in the understanding of the theologian’s work. Pierre Maury died prematurely in 1956. His students had already become pastors in charge of parishes. Though each new volume of his dogmatics was quickly translated into French, they did not necessarily have the time to read it. The debate drifted away from Barth’s arguments and became more superficial and polemical as people called themselves barthian or antibartian, or accused themselves of being bartian. This specific characteristic was supposedly associated with political commitments considered alternately too far right- or left-wing and controversial at any rate, as they might alter the image of the church in their wake.

In fact the ethical requirements Barth never stopped worrying about, seemed to many people to require reformulation in a world characterised by the East/west conflict, and by independence wars in the Third-World. Tensions appeared especially during the war in Algeria.

In addition some worried about a too authoritarian dogmatic order calling for a commitment without subtlety, too similar to the Roman magisterium. Conversely, others worried about trends advocating Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s criticism of religion, which could advocate God’s death.

The debate over the masterly construction of the Basel dogmatician is far from ended.

Bibliography

  • Books
    • BARTH Karl et MAURY Pierre, Nous qui pouvons encore parler, Correspondance éditée par REYMOND Bernard (1928-1956), L'Age d'Homme, Lausanne, 1985
    • VISSER'T HOOFT Willem Adolf, Le temps du rassemblement, mémoires, Le Seuil, Paris, 1975

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