Review: The Early Barth: Lectures and Shorter Works: Vol. 1, 1905-1909

Book: The Early Barth: Lectures and Shorter Works: Vol. 1, 1905-1909. Edited by Hans-Anton Drewes and Hinrich Stoevvesandt.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022

Overview: This collection of early writings from Karl Barth’s student years offers a fascinating look into Barth’s development. As such, it is striking how these texts feel both strange and familiar. Readers of Barth’s mature work will recognize similar tendencies yet be surprised to discover many fascinating differences. Unlike the Barth in Conversation series (by the same translation group), this collection is for a more specialized audience interested in Barth’s early period. But it nonetheless offers a profound look into Barth’s student days, and the editors masterfully place each piece into its proper historical context.

The Early Barth is a new publication from the Barth translation project of the Center for Barth Studies in Princeton, published by Westminster John Knox Press. The same group translated the three-volume Karl Barth in Conversation. This new collection puts into English for the first time several lectures and shorter works from Barth’s early period, found in section III of the German edition of the Gesamtausgabe (Collected Works). It is the first of a three-volume project, and this first volume covers the period of 1905-1909 when Barth was just 19-23 years old.

The volume was fascinating but, in contrast with the previous project (Barth in Conversation), it will likely interest scholars researching Barth’s early development more than casual readers. Still, that does not mean it is any less valuable as a project. On the contrary, it translates some remarkable material into English for the first time and will likely lead to a new understanding of Barth’s early period. Notably, the volume reveals the variety of Barth’s interests as a student, the extent of his liberalism (including a fascinating paper on Acts under the influence of Harnack), and remarkable early traces of his disillusionment with liberal theology. Typically, that break with liberalism is said to begin in 1919. Still, ten years prior, in 1909, Barth published a critique of how modern theology often leaves students unprepared for the pastorate (see below).

The editor’s introductions and copious notes are excellent and give vital insight into the texts and their relevance. Since many of these texts are from Barth’s student years, the editor’s introductory remarks help locate the context of each work, which is especially helpful for those written for a particular seminar or class Barth was taking. For example, the editors explain that the fascinating 1905 piece on the Stigmata of Francis Assisi was written for Barth’s Father’s class on Church History and that Barth’s “Harnack semester” led to his enthusiastic work on the book of Acts (1907). The editors wonderfully interweave quotes from Barth’s letters to give the full context of what Barth thought about his writing.

The editor’s introduction to “Zofingia and the Social Question” was especially valuable, given the unique context of the Zofingia fraternity. That lecture, from 1906, is also fascinating as an early example of Barth’s concern for social thought, which reveals a trace of the concern that would later earn him a reputation as the “red pastor from Safenwil.” It also reveals that, already in 1906, Barth was reading Ragaz (quoted on page 52), critiquing reformist movements in the Christian Social Party, and distinguishing sharply between social causes and the Kingdom of God. The text also demonstrates a self-consciousness in Barth, the awareness of his social privilege as a student and member of the Zofingia, and he argues that the main purpose of the fraternity should be “Awakening and strengthening the sense of social responsibility in the individual” (57). That is in contrast with those who hoped it would be a purely social club. The text is also fascinating because it reveals Barth’s awareness of the “class problem” (58) and presents an early critique of Mammon and Moloch, demonstrating that Barth was already thinking along socialist lines as early as 1906. Barth was later elected as the president of Zofingia in the Bern chapter during the summer semester of 1907.

Another fascinating early work is Barth’s study of Christ’s descent into hell, written during the winter semester of 1907-08 at the University of Tübingen. Barth thoroughly traces the doctrine from the New Testament until Origen in the third century. Even though Barth claimed, in a letter, that the work “contains not a syllable of my own dogmatics” (175), it remains a fascinating early work. Most of all, it demonstrates Barth’s early research capabilities, which are also clear from the other works in this volume. Barth’s student years clearly show the beginnings of a great theological mind.

The final piece of interest is the work previously mentioned, which hints towards Barth’s later break with liberalism, entitled “Modern Theology and Work for the Kingdom of God.” At twenty-three, Barth dared to challenge modern theology for failing to adequately prepare students for missions or the pastorate. He critiques modern theology’s religious individualism and historical relativism and fascinatingly refers to a piece by G. Mix, which recommended throwing “the whole modern school satchel overboard” (251). The full quote that Barth references here is even more direct: “The first thing to be done by the young pastor entering into ministry in the current situation is to throw overboard as soon as possible the unnecessary weight of the satchel of his university teaching…” (251n11). Barth’s article received public responses from Ernst Christian Achelis and Paul Drews, both reprinted in this volume. It is a fascinating piece and demonstrates that Barth was already beginning to question the trajectory of modern theology.

Overall, this volume offers a fascinating window into Barth’s early development. While I would not recommend it for a causal reader of Barth (it is not a good introduction to Barth, in any case), for those interested in Barth’s theological development or are just curious about what sort of work Barth was doing during his student days, it is a valuable text.

I want to thank Westminster John Knox Press for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here. 

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