Thursday, December 11, 2008

Karl Barth, Forty Years Later

The title of this post is borrowed from the T&T Clark blog which posted a brief tribute to Barth yesterday.

Earlier this year, T&T Clark published a revised edition of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (see an announcement here). The newly revised and digitized edition is the result of a close co-operation between Princeton Theological Seminary and T&T Clark Publishers.

The new version of the Church Dogmatics will be made available in three ways:

1. A fully searchable CD-ROM version from Logos Bible Software, available from April 2008.

2. As part of the Digital Karl Barth Library in German and English from Alexander Street Press.

3. A new paperback print edition in 31 volumes, presenting the text in a new layout, incorporating the translations of Greek and Latin texts in a student-friendly format, available from December 2008 through T&T Clark at an introductory price of $750/£449 (also available as ebook). [This set is due to be available in the US by mid February, 2009. Amazon (currently $648.78) | CBD (currently $425.00)]

I do not consider myself to be a Barthian, Neo-Barthian, or anything of the stripe, yet I enjoy reading about prominent figures from church history; so, herein lies my fundamental interest in Karl Barth. Shortly after I began directing book review, two years ago, I request a copy of Barth for Armchair Theologians from Westminster Jonn Knox Press. I quickly read this book, but sat on it, not quite sure of what to say about it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, finding it to be the an excellent read for someone who knows next to nothing about Karl Barth, like me. However, I feared that my readers would either be disinterested or offended simply because the subject was Barth.

Well, I hate that I have sat on this for so long because I am truly grateful for the generosity of WJK Press for sending me this review copy. At that, I nearly missed a great opportunity to mention this book. December 10th was the 40th anniversary of the passing of Karl Barth.

Karl Barth was born in the Swiss city of Basel on May 10, 1886 and died in Basel on December 10, 1968.
Barth for Armchair Theologians (WJK, 2006) is the seventh installment in WJK's Armchair Series. Each volume is illustrated by Ron Hill who adds energy, movement, and a lot of good-natured humor. These illustrations made this book even that much more enjoyable to read.

John R. Franke, professor of Theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA, offers a very readable and informative introduction to the life of Karl Barth; intermixed with ample contextual material describing the social, political, and theological backdrop of his life; along with an introduction to his major writings; and a statement regarding his legacy. Regarding Barth's life, Franke chronicles Barth's conservative upbringing, his interest in the scholasticism of the liberal schools, his pastoral ministry, his early commitment to theological liberalism, his move toward religious socialism, his subsequent departure and rejection of theological liberalism, and his attempt to pave a "new" way between conservatism and liberalism.

The journey is fascinating and extremely informative. John Franke is an excellent guide. What I found to be most informative was, first, Barth's humility--at least in this sense:

Barth was always somewhat amused by the amount of extended and detailed attention his theology received, as though its study and contemplation could be viewed as an end in itself.

"The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, 'Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!'--and they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh." (Karl Barth, quoted in Barth for Armchair Theologians, 165-66)
Second, reading this book provided me with a clearer backdrop, not only to Barth's theology, but also to the theology of many contemporary writers. Many evangelicals are quoting Barth frequently in there works. For instance, the renewal of Trinitarian studies is indebted to Karl Barth, and if you read very far into the literature you will surely be brought into contact with him. In his recently published, The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, Roderick Leupp argues that "Barth (1886-1968) is the chief instigator of and inspiration for today's trinitarian renewal, at least among Protestant theologians" (p. 29). Also, many evangelicals are espousing theological viewpoints that are Barthian at heart, yet they do not necessarily disclose this fact. Gaining a better understanding of Barth and his theology is helping me to be able to identify when this is happening.

Sure, Franke appears to be sympathetic to Barth and his theology, however, I came away from the book informed without sensing any pressure to conform. As I have already mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to those seeking a simple, informative, and enjoyable introduction to the life and writings of Karl Barth.

In Closing -
Yesterday, Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, posted a very helpful article, "Comments on Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack, and the Neo-Barthian View of Scripture" by William B. Evans (Erskine College, Due West, SC). In this article, Evans critiques the current revival of interest in the theology of Karl Barth. His conclusion is very perceptive:

I am also struck by the parallel to Friedrich Schleiermacher--a comment that will probably surprise those who hold to the conventional view of Barth as an implacable opponent of the "father of liberal theology." In the mid-nineteenth-century context Schleiermacher was trumpeted as a bridge from the barren rationalism of Kant to orthodoxy. The church historian Philip Schaff, for example, argued in this fashion (see his Germany: Its Universities, Theology, and Religion [Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857], 320). But bridges can be crossed in both directions, and while initially the preponderance of traffic over die Schleiermacherbrücke was toward more conservative forms of theology, the long-term story has been quite the opposite. I sense that the same is and will continue to be true of Barth.

Armchair Series