All posts in “Barth”

Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1 (Review)

Book: Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1, 1959-1962 ed. by Eberhard Busch [Amazon link]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press [Publisher’s link]

Overview: A straight-forward, engaging collection of conversations, Q&As, and interviews, Barth in Conversation was a joy to read. This text is essential for students of Barth’s theology, whether you are new to it or already well acquainted with his work. Some of the most common questions asked about his theology receive direct, off-the-cuff answers, offering significant insight into his thought.


I’ve read a lot of books from Barth, but this one has earned a place among my favorites. I know I will be returning to it often.

This book collects interviews, conversations, and Q&A sessions which Barth gave between 1959-1962. This includes those from Barth’s visit to America. Notably, it records his Q&A sessions in Chicago and Princeton.

There is much to celebrate about this text, but I think its true value comes from the frank and direct answers Barth provides to some of the most common questions asked about his theology. These include answers to questions regarding universalism, hell, election, the Bible, communism, Billy Graham, Rudolf Bultmann, and the objective work of Christ.

To give you a taste, here are some notable quotes I enjoyed from the book:

[On Billy Graham:] I don’t think the Christian doctrine should be held like a pistol at man’s breast. Christian faith begins with joy and not with fear. Mr. Graham begins by making people afraid.

[On the Bible:] The Bible has proved and will prove itself to be a true and fitting instrument to point man to God and his work and his words, to God who alone is infallible. Since the Bible is a human instrument and document, bound and conditioned by the temporal views of nature, of history, of ideas, of values, it to that extent is not sinless, like Jesus Christ himself, and thus not infallible, like God.

[On the virgin birth:] I think I have good reasons not to discard Jesus’ virgin birth. But when someone is offended by it, I would not say, ‘You are, therefore, not a Christian.’

[On the experience of salvation:] I do not deny the salvation experience. I wouldn’t think of doing that! The salvation experience is that which happened on Golgotha. In contrast, my own experience is only a vessel.

[On politics:] There is no possibility for a Christian to retreat from the political aspects of life.

[On military service and the bomb:] In the first three centuries it was impossible for a Christian to become a soldier. Today we are not yet that far again, but we are underway toward this goal. It must start with the fight against the atomic bomb.

[On the horrid conditions of American prisons:] These small cages were, for me, the sight of Dante’s Inferno on Earth.

[On his “unorthodox” reading of Calvin:] Calvin is in Heaven and has had time to ponder where he went wrong in his teachings. Doubtless he is pleased that I am setting him aright.

[On existentialism and Bultmann:] If I had to choose between the liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and that of Bultmann, I would, without hesitation, return to Schleiermacher. If liberalism at all, then let it be as Schleiermacher understood it! […] Existentialism is an arid affair.

[On alternative careers:] If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. […] And perhaps it wouldn’t be so far from what I am doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go.

And this was probably my favorite quote from the volume:

I am not certain about my certainty; I do not believe in my own faith; rather, I believe in that which God has done in Christ. This is the great wonder, namely, that I am permitted to believe in something that stands high above me, something that came from God to me, never something that I have in my pocket. I can orient myself always and only on the cross on Golgotha.

I also spent the last few weeks writing a series of blog articles which discuss quotes from the book. These include:

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?”

Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall”

“The Bible is not Sinless”

As you can see, this volume is a treasure-trove of thought-provoking insights. The clarity and frankness of the text is also a great benefit for newcomers to Barth. The editors did a great job providing all the necessary background information, too. Overall, this book is a tremendous resource.


Conclusion: I highly recommend this volume. If you are at all interested in the theology of Karl Barth, then this book is an essential addition to your library. For an insightful look into Barth’s thought, but also for frank answers to some of the most common questions regarding his work, this is an incredibly valuable text. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Click here to purchase Barth in Conversation: Vol. 1

And keep an eye out for Volume 2, which is available for pre-order and out in September.

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

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Barth: “I Have Never Upheld Universalism and I Never Shall” (Barth in Conversation)

Karl Barth so consistently and passionately proclaimed God’s unmerited grace that it is no surprise he was (and still is) sometimes charged of universalism. This is in spite of his consistent denial of it. But it is perhaps to be expected given the shape of Barth’s work, which strongly emphasized the unconditional grace of God in Christ for all.

In my last post, I shared about Barth’s No! No! No! to the question, “Does hell have a place in the proclamation of the gospel?” This naturally brings up the question of universalism, so it will be fitting to examine another section from the same interview (which comes from the recently published volume, Barth in Conversation). Here Barth explains his unique approach to universalism.

Barth writes:

I have never upheld this theory [universalism] and never shall. On the other hand I should certainly not uphold the converse: I should not say that the end will be as we see it portrayed in the early paintings: some people in heaven and the rest in hell. But what we can do is realize that complete reconciliation and salvation are prepared for all men in Christ, that all men are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, that all men will one day have to appear before Jesus Christ as their judge, and the judge will be free to pass judgement. We should not presuppose that the judge will put these people, these awful people, on one side, and on the other the good, who will then march white-clad into heaven, while the yawning mouth of hell swallows up the others. We cannot say that because we know that he has overcome hell, but he has the liberty to decide to whom he will give the benefit of this victory over hell. Neither can we say, according to the apokatastasis theory, that all will be saved. We shouldn’t try to solve this problem of the future automatically, but can only say: there is full salvation for all men in Christ; we are invitied to believe in him, we want to do the best we can, and it shall be revealed to us before his judgement throne (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10) what we have done in our mortal life, good or bad. 1

While we cannot put too much weigh on every word of Barth’s response (since it comes in an informal, non-dogmatic setting), it is nevertheless a helpfully succinct summary of Barth’s unique answer to the question of universalism. (See this post for another example; also see chapter 5 in my book, where I deal with Barth/universalism at length).

We might derive three points from this:

  1. While Barth denies universalism, the door is not absolutely shut. The possibility remains, because it is a problem that will not be resolved until the resurrection.
  2. At the same time, Barth denies a dualistic vision of the end, in which there will be a great divide of the saved and unsaved in heaven and hell. But this, too, remains a possibility.
  3. Thus, while both dogmatic universalism and dogmatic particularism (the heaven/hell dichotomy) are rejected as definite, presupposed solutions, we may hope and pray for the redemption of all. Ultimately, the question of salvation is God’s question and problem, which will be resolved only in the final consummation of all things. Until then we hope and pray, never shutting the door on anyone or giving up hope.

The question of universalism is often spoken of in hush tones and with great suspicion. The result has been a Church culture that refuses to even entertain a conversation about its possibility. Barth’s approach to the question is extremely helpful. We have been so disabled by the fear of falling into “heresy” that we have lost all hope in the possibility of universal salvation. The very mention of the term, or even the slightest hint towards it, often leads to ex-communication from the evangelical Church (Rob Bell!). But this simply should not be the case. Barth sets an example for how we might honestly and faithfully proclaim the Gospel with hope for the salvation of all. Are we not at least stimulated by the Scriptures that hint towards this end, such as Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:10-1? The possibility should not escape us completely. As Barth writes above: since the future belongs to God, we are forbidden from solving the problem automatically. Neither dogmatic universalism nor dogmatic particularism can stand, although we hope and pray for the salvation of all without proclaiming it as a presupposed conclusion.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1967.

Herr Barth, “Is Hell Part of the Gospel?” (Barth in Conversation)

“Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel?”

Karl Barth’s response to this question has been recorded in the recently translated volume, Barth in Conversationwhich I am currently reading (and will soon be reviewing). It is often stressed, especially in evangelicalism, that we must proclaim the “bad news” of hell before we can properly explain the “good news” of Jesus. But is this how the great theologian from Basel thinks we must preach the gospel?

To this question, Barth offers a fierce Nein! He writes:

Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us. There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ! 1

But lest we think Barth takes hell lightly, he continues by saying:

So please understand me. I would not take a light view of hell: it is a very serious thing, so serious that it needed the Son of God to overcome it. So there is nothing to laugh about, but there is nothing to fear, and there is nothing to preach. What we have to preach is fearlessness and joy in God, and then hell remains aside. 2

Whenever we proclaim the gospel—and especially this week, for Holy Week—Barth’s response acts as a timely reminder: we do no proclaim hell, but Christ, who overcame it! Hell is serious only in its defeat. It should never be used as a manipulative tool for scaring people into belief.

In Church Dogmatics II/2, on the doctrine of election, Barth takes up a similar line of reasoning that explains his point a bit more clearly. He writes here about Christ as both the electing God and the one elected man, and therefore as the one rejected man in our place. (For more on Barth’s doctrine of election, see chapter 5 in my book, Karl Barth in Plain English.) Thus, there is only one person whom we can say suffered the fate of hell: God Himself in Christ bearing our rejection on the cross. Barth writes, “[W]e must not minimise the fact that we actually know of only one certain triumph of hell—the handing-over of Jesus—and that this triumph of hell took place in order that it would never again be able to triumph over anyone” (CD II/2, 496). Barth continues:

Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves. From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God. We certainly cannot deny its reality. But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ in His humiliation, His descent into hell, on the basis of the handing-over which fell on Him. We can thus ascribe to it only a reality which is necessarily limited by faith in Jesus Christ. In this faith we shall never cease to leave wholly and utterly to Him the decision about us and all other men. In faith in Jesus Christ we cannot consider any of those who are handed over by God as lost. We know of none whom God has wholly and exclusively abandoned to himself. We know only of One who was abandoned in this way, only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And He was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from Him. 3

This further clarifies Barth remark about hell and its exclusion from the gospel proclamation. We do not deny the reality of hell, but we must limit everything we say about its reality under the greater reality of Christ’s descent into hell, and of Christ’s bearing our rejection and judgement. We only know of one person who suffered hell, Jesus Christ, and only in the light of his rejection and election can we understand and proclaim hell as truly overcome. 


So far I have been thoroughly enjoying Barth in ConversationLike I said, I will eventually write a full review of the book, but I also plan to publish a number of shorter pieces from the book. So stay tuned for more insights from the frank conversations in this volume. Buy a copy yourself by clicking here.

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Notes:

  1. Barth in ConversationKindle loc. 1948-57.
  2. ibid., loc. 1957.
  3. CD II/2, 496.

Divine Interpretation by T.F. Torrance: a Review

Book: Divine Interpretation: Studies in Medieval and Modern Hermeneutics by Thomas F. Torrance (edited by Adam Nigh and Todd Speidell) (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf&Stock) (PUBLISHERS LINK)

Overview: Released only this month, this collection of essays by Torrance is a valuable addition to his current body of work. While the two essays on Barth stood out as the high points of the book, each essay was a masterful piece of scholarship.


Undoubtably, the great benefit of this book is the republication of two important essays on Karl Barth written by Torrance and published in the now out of print (and therefore very costly) volume, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical TheologianI’ve wanted to read this book for some time now, but the near $100 price tag has prohibited me from getting my hands on a copy.

The essays “Karl Barth and the Latin Heresy” and “Karl Barth, Theologian of the Word”, were naturally the high point of the book for me. Yesterday I posted an article examining several quotations from the first essay. Reading my article from yesterday will give you a taste of this essay, which you can do so by clicking here.

Continue Reading…

Fortress Press Kindle Sale (Barth, Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, and more)

Fortress Press is currently running their eBook sale on Amazon. Every year I have benefited tremendously from this sale and thought this year I should publish a list of some of the best titles up for grabs. Particularly notable books are marked with an asterisk (*). Enjoy!

**This sale is no longer current as of June 1, 2018. I will update for next year’s sale.**


Click here to see the full sale

Jürgen Moltmann

Primary sources:

The Crucified God — $6.99*

Collected Readings — $4.99

The Coming of God — $4.99*

The Trinity and the Kingdom — $4.99*

The Spirit of Life — $4.99*

The Way of Jesus Christ — $4.99

Ethics of Hope — $4.99

Jesus Christ for Today’s World — $4.99*

In the End—the Beginning — $4.99*

The Source of Life — $4.99

Experiences of God — $4.99

Sun of Righteousness Arise — $4.99

On Human Dignity — $4.99

The Future of Creation — $4.99

Passion for Life — $4.99

Science & Wisdom — $4.99

Secondary sources:

God Will be All in All (includes an essay from Moltmann) edited by Richard Bauckham — $4.99*

The Kingdom and the Power by Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz — $4.99

Don’t forget to check out my new book on Moltmann, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English

 

Karl Barth

Primary sources:

The Call to Discipleship — $4.99

Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom edited by Clifford Green (selections from Barth’s writing) — $4.99*

Secondary sources:

The Sign of the Gospel by W. Travis McMaken — $4.99*

Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation by Stephen Long — $4.99

Citizenship in Heaven and on Earth: Karl Barth’s Ethics by Alexander Massmann — $6.99

A Theology of the Third Article: Karl Barth and the Spirit of the Word by Aaron T. Smith — $4.99

Resurrected God: Karl Barth’s Trinitarian Theology of Easter by John L. Drury — $4.99

Triune Eternality: God’s Relationship to Time in the Theology of Karl Barth by Daniel M. Griswold — $6.99

The Spirit of God and the Christian Life: Reconstructing Karl Barth’s Pneumatology by JinHyok Kim — $4.99

Playful, Glad, and Free: Karl Barth and a Theology of Popular Culture by Jessica DeCou — $4.99

Also check out my book on Barth, Karl Barth in Plain English

 

Thomas F. Torrance

Secondary sources:

Theology in Transposition: A Constructive Appraisal of T.F. Torrance by Myk Habets — $4.99*

Also check out my book on Torrance, T. F. Torrance in Plain English

 

N.T. Wright

Primary sources:

Paul and the Faithfulness of God — $4.99*

The New Testament and the People of God — $4.99

Jesus and the Victory of God — $4.99

The Resurrection of the Son of God — $4.99

Christian Origins and the Question of God (complete series, four volumes) — $19.96

Paul and His Recent Interpreters — $6.99

Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 — $4.99

The Contemporary Quest for Jesus — $4.99

 

Friedrich Schleiermacher

Primary sources:

Friedrich Schleiermacher (Making Modern Theology) (selected writings) — $4.99*

Secondary sources:

Deus Providebit: Calvin, Schleiermacher, and Barth on the Providence of God by Sung-Sup Kim — $4.99

Embodied Grace: Christ, History, and the Reign of God in Schleiermacher’s Dogmatics by Kevin M. Vander Schel — $4.99

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Primary sources:

Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible — $2.99*

The Bonhoeffer Reader ed by Clifford Green and Michael DeJonge — $4.99

Discipleship — $4.99

Creation and Fall — $4.99

Ethics — $4.99*

The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — $4.99

Life Together — $4.99

Letters and Papers from Prison — $4.99*

Act and Being — $4.99

 

Rudolf Bultmann

Primary sources:

New Testament & Mythology — $4.99

Rudolf Bultmann (Making of Modern Theology) (selected writings) — $4.99

 

Making of Modern Theology Series

G.W.F. Hegel — $4.99

Gustavo Gutierrez — $4.99

Reinhold Niebuhr — $4.99

Dietrich Bonhoeffer — $4.99

 

Kathryn Tanner

Primary sources:

Economy of Grace — $4.99

Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology — $4.99

Spirit in the Cities: Searching for Soul in the Urban Landscape (editor) — $4.99

Secondary sources:

The Gift of Theology: The Contribution of Kathryn Tanner ed. by Rosemary P. Carbine and P. Koster — $6.99

 

Robert W. Jenson

Primary sources:

Christian Dogmatics vol. 1 — $4.99

Christian Dogmatics vol. 2 — $4.99

Secondary sources:

Dogmatic Aesthetics: A Theology of Beauty in Dialogue with Robert W. Jenson by Stephen John Wright— $4.99

 

Dorothee Soelle

Primary sources:

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance — $4.99*

Suffering — $4.99

Theology for Skeptics — $4.99

 

Other notable books

Systematic Theology: Volume 1, the Doctrine of God by Katherine Sonderegger — $6.99*

Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink — $4.99*

The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann — $4.99

Disruptive Grace by Walter Bruegemann — $4.99

Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination by Walter Brueggemann — $4.99

Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed by John B. Cobb — $3.99

Douglas John Hall: Collected Works — $4.99

 

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The Final Written Words of Karl Barth

From the back cover of “Final Testimonies” by Karl Barth.

In my book, Karl Barth in Plain EnglishI wrote the following:

Karl Barth died in his sleep on the morning of December 10 [1968], having spent the evening listening to Mozart and writing yet another theology lecture.

Barth left that lecture unfinished. His last written words abruptly end mid-sentence. What could be more testimonial to Barth’s career than this unfinished sentence? He remained engaged his entire life, even in his later years, with so many social and political issues right alongside the many theological issues of his time. His work remains unfinished, but breathtaking still, like Gaudi’s majestic Sagrada Família in Barcelona. It is this enduring faithfulness and diligence to the Word of God which makes Barth one of the most productive and inspiring theologians who ever lived. 1

I wanted to share that unfinished sentence, Barth’s final written words, for anyone who might be interested in it.

Barth was invited to attend an ecumenical week of prayer in Zurich, and to give a special address to a group of Reformed and Roman Catholic believers. It was this address that Barth worked on before his death. He gave it the title, “Starting Out, Turning Round, Confessing”.

It is only about eight pages long and remains in an unrevised state; but regardless, even in this brief sketch Barth was characteristically focused on Jesus Christ, writing, “He, Jesus Christ, is the old and is also the new. He it is who comes [to the church] and to whom the church goes, but goes to him as him who was. It is to him that it turns in its conversation.” 2

In the final paragraph, Barth seems to have in mind the need for the church to listen attentively to the fathers who have gone before us. Busch rightly notes in the epilogue that Barth himself should be counted among those we should listen to attentively. But without further ado, here are the final written words of Karl Barth (brackets contain Busch’s corrections):

In the church that is in the process of turning round the saying is true that “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” “All live to him,” from the apostles to the earlier and later fathers. They have not only the right [but also the relevance] to be heard today, not uncritically, not in automatic subjection, but still attentively. The church would not be the church in conversion if, proud and content with [?] its sense of the present hour, it would not listen to them, or would do so only occasionally, loosely, and carelessly, or if it were to rob what it has to learn from them of all its effect by [accepting] what they want to say to it . . . 3

Busch thinks Barth’s sentence might have been finished like this: “…by accepting what they want to say to it, perhaps with much reverence, but only as a statement of the insights of their own day.” 4

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Notes:

  1. Page 12
  2. Final Testimonies, 59; LINK
  3. Ibid., 60
  4. Ibid., 63

“Karl Barth in Plain English” – Table of Contents

Karl Barth in Plain English is now available on Amazon Kindle, and soon in paperback format.

I’m incredibly excited for this book, which has been the product of years of reading and studying Karl Barth. In this book I hope to present a clear and concise overview of Barth’s major ideas; written for beginners, by a beginner.

The book resolves around the eight major ideas I’ve chosen to focus on from Barth’s thought. In between the major chapters on these ideas, I present “Sidebar” chapters and “Sermon” chapters. The sidebar chapters are the clarify a difficult aspect of Barth’s thought, or to engage him with contemporary issues. The sermon chapters include quotes from Barth’s sermons, which I have found helpful in understanding his theology.

Join me on Tuesday, June 13th for a Facebook Live celebration of the book, where I will answer questions, read excerpts, and discuss writing the book!

Here then is the table of contents for my new book:

Introduction

Biography

The Structure of Barth’s Church Dogmatics

CHAPTER 1: Nein! to Natural Theology

SIDEBAR: God’s Humiliation and Natural Theology

SERMON: The Great “But”

CHAPTER 2: The Triune God of Revelation

SERMON: God Without Jesus

SIDEBAR: Mode of Being

CHAPTER 3: The Threefold Word of God

SIDEBAR: Biblical Inerrancy

SERMON: They Bear Witness to Me

CHAPTER 4: There is No Hidden God Behind the Back of Jesus Christ

SIDEBAR: The One Who Loves in Freedom

SIDEBAR: No Hidden Will of God

CHAPTER 5: The God of Election

SERMON: Preaching Election

SIDEBAR: Universalism

CHAPTER 6: Creation and the Covenant

SIDEBAR: Non-Historical History

SERMON: The Fear of the Lord

CHAPTER 7: Reconciliation

SIDEBAR: Limited Atonement and Calvin’s “Horrible Decree”

SERMON: The Divine Life

SERMON: Have You Heard the News?

CHAPTER 8: The Church and Ethics

SERMON: You May

God With Us and For Us: a Closing Reflection

Books to Continue Your Study 


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God is Love in Himself (Karl Barth CD I/2)

Here’s a wonderful little quote from Karl Barth; enjoy!

“We will now try to give the briefest possible outline of what the love of God is which is the real basis of our love to God, determining its character. One thing is certain, that according to Holy Scripture it has nothing to do with mere sentiment, opinion or feeling. On the contrary, it consists in a definite being, relationship and action. God is love in Himself. Being loved by Him we can, as it were, look into His ‘heart.’ The fact that He loves us means that we can know Him as He is. This is all true. But if this picture-language of ‘the heart of God’ is to have any validity, it can refer only to the being of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that God’s love for us is an overwhelming, overflowing, free love. It speaks to us of the miracle of this love. We cannot say anything higher or better of the ‘inwardness of God’ than that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and therefore that He is love in Himself without and before loving us, and without being forced to love us. And we can say this only in the light of the ‘outwardness’ of God to us, the occurrence of His revelation. It is from this that we have to learn what is the real nature of the love of God for us.”

(CD I/2, 377)

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Karl Barth on Separating Christians from Non-Christians

In a moving yet brief portion of Barth’s life from autobiographical texts, compiled and edited by Eberhard Busch, Barth had this to say in response to a question regarding non-Christians attending his lecture on systematic theology:

“Several times during these weeks I was asked, ‘Aren’t you aware that many people at these lectures are not Christians?’ I always laughed and said, ‘It makes no difference to me.’ It would be quite dreadful if the faith of Christians aimed at separating men and cutting them off from each other. It is in fact the strongest motive for bringing men together and uniting them.‘” (pp. 337-8)

This was during Barth’s guest lectures in Bonn, directly following WWII. These lectures were on “Dogmatics in outline, following the Apostles Creed”, and began on May 17th, 1946. These would later became what I consider to be one of the best introductions to Barth’s theology, the book Dogmatics in Outline

Here Barth is candid on the central fact that the gospel is not about splitting humanity up into Christian and non-Christian camps, but about uniting all humanity in Jesus Christ. Just as we have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, likewise we must be reconciled to our fellow man in Jesus Christ. This, of course, does not removed the distinction there is between a Christian and a non-Christian, but it absolutely removes the division. Both are sinners saved by grace, both are those for whom Christ died, both are the objects of His eternal love and election in Jesus Christ! We should remember this. Whenever we think to separate ourselves from our non-Christian brothers and sisters and neighbors, we have forgotten the very gospel itself!

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Robert Jenson’s Alpha and Omega: a Review

Book: Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth by Robert W. Jenson (Amazon link)

Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002 (Publisher link)

Robert W. Jenson’s book, Alpha and Omega, is an excellently clear, and precise study in the theology of Karl Barth. Jenson asks how it is that the historical event of Jesus’ life might be the decisive reality of our present life, calling this question “the chief problem of modern theology.” (13) Jenson holds Barth’s theology up as a “grandiose and pioneering answer to this challenge [of modern theology].” (16)

With clarity and precision, Jenson examines some of the most difficult aspects of Barth’s thought, including Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, of creation, of election, of salvation, of history, of the incarnation, and of God. The overarching question behind these inquiries is the relationship between Jesus’ historical existence and our present lives, but along the way I found myself attending a masterclass in Barth’s doctrine of election, creation, and providence. I can’t recall reading anything nearly as erudite in secondary literature as Jenson’s presentation.

The three specific questions that Jenson asks of Barth’s theology are as follows. First, “To what end does God rule human history, and what is the course of the history of salvation?” Second, “In what sense does God have a history, and what is the relation between this history and ours? That is how does God guide human history?” Third, “What is the reality to which talk in the Church bears witness?” (17-8)

Of God’s plan for history and the mode of God’s rule in history, Jenson notes that these questions are, for Barth, never asked separately. For Barth, “The coming of Christ to sinners is absolutely determined from all eternity and is the purpose of all that happens.” And furthermore, “Christ’s life, as a movement of God’s eternal will, is itself the basis of its appearance in time.” (113) These for Barth are one of the same proposition, according to Jenson.

In other words, Jenson shows that for Barth, God’s plan for history and His rule in history are one and the same: the life of Jesus Christ. This event is the event of all history and existence, the plan God determined before creation. Jesus’ life is then, for Barth, the central event of all history and of creation. This is the core of Barth’s doctrine of election, that God determined Himself to be God for us in Jesus Christ, to be the God of sinners, to reconcile us to Himself.

The brilliance of this position is shown in how sharply it contrasts with other common presentations. Often the incarnation and salvation of Christ is portrayed as the reaction of God to human sin, placing God in a kind of “hail Mary” position in the face of evil. But Barth reverses the order. If Jesus Christ’s life is the epitome of all history, than this event precedes even the creation of the cosmos. The choice to reconcile human beings to Himself, to become man in Jesus Christ, is an eternal choice in the Triune life of God. Salvation wasn’t an afterthought, God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ was the basis for His act of creation. The difficulties in this position are apparent, but Jenson navigates them masterfully and with clarity.

To the final question, of the reality to which the church bears witness, Jenson turns to Barth’s inclusive Christology. Jenson writes of this reality: “We are what we are in Him. Our existence is ‘virtually accomplished’ in His. In that He has kept the covenant, we have kept the covenant. In that He has obeyed God, we have obeyed God. Our existence is enclosed in His from all eternity. … This history, the history of the man Jesus with God, is our real history.” (132-3)

This inclusive Christology is the reality the church proclaims. The reality of Jesus Christ, who is our obedience, our relationship with God—who is the covenant with God and all humanity—is the proclamation of the church. We proclaim: Look to Christ, here is your history, the basis for your existence as a human, this man with God is all mankind with God! “Our history is participation in Christ’s history.” (136) “Jesus Christ as God and man is the one great history of the eternal covenant between God and man[kind].” (139)

To conclude the book Jenson gives a helpful summary of Barth’s doctrine of election, followed by some final reflections on Barth’s theology. Jenson outlines many areas where he agrees with Barth, but he also offers some insightful criticisms.

Summary:

This book was surprisingly easy to read, written with a clarity often absent from many studies of Barth’s theology. The precision of this study will be of tremendous value to any student of Barth’s thought. Jenson doesn’t dance around the difficult questions, but masterfully navigates through its many challenges. Instead of walking away confused by complex jargon and paradoxical images, I left this book with a better, clearer understanding of Barth’s thought. An excellent book, one I highly recommend.

My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work. 

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