REVIEW: Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans: Retrospect and Prospect

Book: Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans: Retrospect and Prospect. Edited by Christophe Chalamet, Andreas Dettwiler, and Sarah Steward-Kroeker.

Publisher: De Gruyter, 2022. In the “Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann” series edited by Bruce McCormack, Friederike Nüssel, and Christoph Schwöbel.

Overview: One hundred years after its publication, Karl Barth’s Römerbrief continues to inspire and challenge. This volume collects essays on the two editions of Barth’s monumental book from scholars, theologians, philosophers, and historians. Like any collection of essays, there are standout chapters. Those by Bruce McCormack, Matthias Gockel, Amy Marga, and Anthony Feneuil were notable for me, but all of the essays are valuable contributions. Best of all, the book is open-access and can be downloaded from De Gruyter’s website. It is well worth checking out for serious students of Barth’s theology.

This book commemorates the centenary of Barth’s Römerbrief. The first edition was published in 1919, with a substantial second edition in 1922. These are commonly referred to as Romans 1 and 2. The papers collected in this volume were presented at an international conference hosted by the Theological Faculty at the University of Geneva in 2019. Interestingly, this collection was published in 2022, meaning that both the conference and the book correspond to the centenary of the first and second editions.

The diversity of the essays is a notable feature of this volume. The conference intentionally placed in conversation specialists from various disciplines. The book is divided into seven parts: 1) Barth as a scriptural theologian, 2) hermeneutics and metaphysics, 3) the historical context, 4) the first edition of Römerbrief, 5) themes of faith and resurrection, 6) ethics and politics, and 7) religion, liturgy, and theology. It should also be noted that several of the essays are in French and German, although most are in English. I only read the English essays, even though I translated the French and German abstracts to get a sense of what they were about. But I will only comment here on the English essays.

With every collected volume such as this, there are stand-out essays. But that is always a subjective claim. What stood out to me in this volume will perhaps leave no impression on others and vice versa. So I will only comment on what benefited me the most. Those essays were by Bruce McCormack, Matthias Gockel, Amy Marga, and Anthony Feneuil. This review will comment on the content of those essays. Still, I should also note that I thoroughly enjoyed the essays by Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Günter Thomas, and Brandon K. Watson.

McCormack’s essay has the striking title, “An Anti-Metaphysical Manifesto.” He deals with the critique of metaphysics in the second edition. McCormack clarifies that by metaphysics Barth means any theology that speaks of “God and the human on a basis other than Christology (i.e. cosmology or anthropology)” (109). He exegetes a passage where Barth comments on Romans 1:16-17. The essay argues that Barth’s category of a “wholly other God” is not a metaphysical category, meaning it “was not acquired by means of an abstraction reasoning which seeks to reason from the limitations of created being to the (alleged) perfection of uncreated being… ‘Wholly otherness’ here is not the consequence of an apophatic mode of reflection” (112). The form of Barth’s thought, rather, “consists in a faithful and patient ‘following after’ of God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ” (112). Thus, wholly otherness is tied to God’s self-revelation in Jesus; it is not the result of metaphysical abstraction.

This is all rather complex. But the benefit of this reading is to challenge the common notion of what Barth means by wholly otherness, which is undoubtedly a central motif in Römerbrief II. It has often been said that Barth’s God is totally uninvolved in history or humanity, purely a distant and removed divine figure. But McCormack stresses that Barth’s starting point is not metaphysical abstraction but the event of revelation in Christ. He writes, “[T]he ‘place’ in which [Barth] thought himself to find the true God and from which he tried to speak, was found in a definitive act of revelation through which a relation is established from God’s side to creaturely medium – a relation which preserves the ‘wholly otherness’ of God as the Self-revealing Subject who resists becoming directly intuitable” (112). The rest of the essay works out Barth’s anti-metaphysical stance. It is a helpful corrective to a common misreading. The essay also addresses the divine “being” in the act of self-speaking and the human being in the act of hearing.

Matthias Gockel examines Barth’s political theology in Römerbrief I, especially the socialist reading of Marquardt and the phrase “more than Leninism,” which Barth used to describe Christianity in the first edition. Gockel’s essay was my favorite from the volume, but that is probably because it overlaps with my own interest in Barth’s political theology. Gockel masterfully examines the relationship between socialism and theology in Barth. Marquardt controversially argued for the “inversion” of socialism into Barth’s theology, and Gockel finds that intuition to be largely correct but in need of “elaboration and clarification” (179). That is precisely what Gockel does and does very well.

Amy Marga’s essay constructively reads Barth’s Römerbrief I for its post-colonial impulses. I should disclose here that I personally know Amy Marga. She is one of my professors at Luther Seminary, and so that probably biases me to consider her essay one of the best from this volume. But it is a fascinating essay that brings out an underexplored but important aspect of Barth’s early theology. So, biased or not, it is a noteworthy contribution. In particular, Marga looks at Barth’s “rejection of hermeneutical norms and explores his critique of European historical optimism and its imperial ambitions” (349). The essay also argues for an anti-imperialist message at the core of Barth’s doctrine of the freedom of God. Like McCormack and Gockel’s essays, Marga’s work shows that Barth’s Römerbrief was not a treatise on God’s complete indifference to history and humanity.

Contrary to Tillich’s critique that Barth’s theology throws revelation like a stone from heaven, this demonstrates that Barth’s theology of divine otherness is at once a theology of divine relatedness. As Marga writes, Barth’s emphasis on the radical freedom of God recognizes “God as being equally near and far to all people” (353). That lays the groundwork for what could be a proto-post-colonial Christianity and anti-imperialism in Barth long before these ideas became commonplace in academia. The essay argues for this convincingly and suggests that the dual emphasis on divine creativity and freedom in Romans I liberates Christian theological imagination from the shackles of colonial and imperialist thought.

Finally, Anthony Feneuil concludes the book with his essay, which provocatively asks, “Did Karl Barth Put an End to Theology?” The main argument of this essay continues the theme that has emerged in the essays I have discussed in this review: Barth’s theology was profoundly related to his context and situation, contrary to the common assertion that he is purely doing theology without any relation to the human situation. Feneuil demonstrates this in his essay by suggesting Barth understood that “theology must always start again because it will always be interrupted, interrupted more specifically by the context in which it operates” (471).

Again, Tillich’s critique of Barth is contradicted here. Barth is not doing theology as if revelation is all that matters, thrown like a rock from the heavens. Instead, Feneuil argues that Barth’s approach to theology—perpetually beginning again at the beginning—reveals his concern for the interruptions of history, context, and situation. That explains Barth’s recommendation in the second edition: “[A] wide reading of contemporary secular literature – especially of newspapers! – is recommended to anyone desirous of understanding the Epistle to the Romans” (472; Romans, 425). This recommendation would make little sense if Barth’s theology were as unrelated as his critics have sometimes assumed.

Feneuil’s essay also deals with Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique (which I am unfamiliar with), arguing that it would lead to an atheistic theology. Feneuil convincingly argues that “Barth did understand theology in the Römerbrief as founded exclusively on context” (463). That leads to a lack of epistemological security, but it is not necessarily a move toward atheism and the end of theology as a discipline. Rather, this concept of “interruption” is important for how Barth thinks about the task of theology. It helps explain Barth’s emphasis that theology must always begin anew.

The four essays I address in this review reveal a common theme that this book has driven home for me. But perhaps that says more about my own interests in Barth than the volume itself. Either way, it demonstrates the value of this collection of essays. It was thoroughly thought-provoking, and the essays all displayed careful scholarship. I highly recommend any of these four essays, as well as the other essays collected here (especially those dealing with Barth’s biblical exegesis), which were valuable contributions.

My thanks to De Gruyter for a copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here.

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