Reading Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”

karl-barth-youngBy Fr. Adam S. Linton

Beginning in May 2009, I embarked on a major continuing education project: reading, in its entirety, the Church Dogmatics of Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century and arguably the greatest theologian since the Reformation. I want to tell you a bit about Barth, his voluminous work, why I’m studying it, and provide a bit of an update.

Barth was born May 10, 1886 in Basel, Switzerland.  His father was a professor of New Testament at the University of Basel, and Barth himself studied the liberal theology of the late nineteenth century in preparation for the ministry.  He served as a pastor from 1911-1921.  World War I disillusioned Barth with theological liberalism, forcing him to rethink his entire understanding of Christianity in the light of fresh study of the Bible and classic theologians.  In 1919 he published his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which he completely rewrote and republished in 1922.  That year he began teaching theology in Germany.  With the rise of Hitler in 1933, Barth became a spokesperson for the Confessing Church, German Christians who in the Barmen Declaration (1934) denounced Hitler’s attempt to subjugate German Protestantism to the Nazis’ racist and nationalist ideology.  Opposing the Nazis cost Barth his teaching post in 1935, so he moved to the University of Basel, where he taught until his retirement in 1962.  He died December 10, 1968.

Barth began writing his Church Dogmatics in 1932 and continued working on it until near the end of his life.  The work consists of four major parts: the doctrines of the Word of God, God, creation, and reconciliation.  Each part in turn consists of subparts consisting of chapter-length sections, seventy-three in all.  The English translation was originally published in fourteen thick hardback volumes.  T & T Clark, a distinguished publishing house in Scotland, released in 2009 a new study edition of the Dogmatics in thirty paperback volumes, with index.  A useful feature of this new edition is that it translates Barth’s many citations of theologians from the fourth to the seventeenth century in Latin, Greek, or French that appear in the small-print excurses of the work.  The new work totals about 6900 pages; reading it will be a project of some years.  Is it worth it?

I think so, obviously—for several reasons.  First, Barth wrote very intentionally out of the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation (though he cites Luther more often than Calvin). In reading the Dogmatics, I continue a trajectory I began with my study, some years ago, of Richard Hooker’s magnum opus, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in which he defended the religious settlement of Elizabeth I and the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.  Recent historical study has found the Elizabethan Church to be more Reformed than the nineteenth-century High Church party in the Church of England was willing to grant.  I found the same to be true, in important ways, of Hooker, and I believe that a fuller appreciation of the Reformed dimension of our heritage would much benefit the Episcopal Church.

The second reason I’m studying Barth is that he’s a preacher’s theologian.  As noted, Barth began in parish ministry, and he continued to preach throughout his academic career.  A sound knowledge of Christian doctrine is therefore not an end in itself but directed toward improving “the Church’s Sunday sermon,” which Barth named as the main object of dogmatic inquiry (1.79).   I am reading Barth to become a better theologian and so a better preacher—a deeper grounding leading, I trust, to richer expounding.

A third reason I’m reading Barth is that he challenges all those who wrestle with him to think theologically.  There are many modes of human thought, to be sure.  One way or another, the church needs to deal with all of them.  But I’ve been concerned for some time that the present day American church is losing its aptitude for specifically theological engagement.  (And I’d say that this is true both of “conservative” and “liberal” churches.)  A part of this is cultural; in part, also, a matter of education.  We tend, presently, to more social and political modes of discourse.  This is partly understandable:  We inhabit both of these—and we are meant to do so precisely as God’s People.  However, if all we do is to reflect back at the world its own stuff—Well; why bother?  “Why should [we] use up the ground?”  (Luke 13:7)  I worry, also, that we often don’t even make substantial contributions either socially or politically—but rather settle, too often, for the sentimental.  In the end, does the world really need the Church’s help for its anthropological project?  Barth requires that we ask ourselves—and ask at the primary level:  What is it that we, uniquely as the Church of Jesus Christ, have to say and do?  Why, after all, do such things need to be said and done?  These are theological questions, for which the world has no good answers for us.

For those curious about where I am at present (writing these words on March 1, 2013), I am finishing the seventh volume of the thirty volume set:  specifically, at the 1562nd page of the whole.  (But who’s counting?)  My pace is modest, but serious; with some pauses and re-starts, too.  After all, Barth took decades to write the  Dogmatics.  He is not an author to “speed-read.”  He requires pondering, savoring.  Skimming won’t do it.  It takes some while to enter into the architecture of his arguments.  He is challenging, bracing—and has a way, over time, of getting inside one’s spiritual DNA.

I’d mention, additionally, that I am working with a study and research partner, a lay theologian of considerable acumen—and a good friend:  Dr. Mark LeTourneau, Professor of English at Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah.  We have a phone conference about once a month to discuss what we’ve covered in our reading schedule, probe the issues, and explore the applications of our project.

To be sure, no one theologian has all the “answers”—and every theologian, even among the best, Barth certainly included, will always have some serious limitations.  However, the more I study the good Doctor Karl, the more I am convinced that he offers the Church—specifically our own Church at this present moment in our history—a much needed challenge and inspiration.

I was very pleased that a commemoration of Barth (on December 10) was included in Holy Women; Holy Men, our Church’s updated version of its Lesser Feasts and Fasts.  Here is the Collect:

Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge:  We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will.  Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages.  Amen.

I’ll conclude by sharing a remarkable paragraph from the most recent section of the Dogmatics with which I worked.  It follows Barth’s radical (and I’d say quite effective) critique of “natural theology.”  We might identify “natural theology” as the program, so to speak, in which we start with the human, and then from there try to build up to God.  Barth will have none of it!  He insists that all our possible knowing of God is based on God’s loving break-through to us in Jesus Christ.  Even the confession that God is hidden to us—if that confession is authentic—is not a matter of human negation, but is, itself, the result of God’s good and gracious gift.

Barth’s style is—putting it mildly—distinct.  Be prepared to read the passage slowly, more than once, maybe out loud, and perhaps even meditatively.  Let it go work—and see what happens.

“Where we really confess God’s judgment, we also confess God’s grace.  The assertion of the hiddenness of God is not, therefore, to be understood as one of despairing resignation, but actually as the [starting point] of our real knowledge of God, as the fundamental and decisive determination, not of our ignorance, but of our cognizance of God.  It affirms that our cognizance of God does not begin in ourselves, since it has already begun in God; namely, in God’s revelation and in faith to Him.  The confession of God’s hiddenness is the confession of God’s revelation as the beginning of our cognizance of God.  Only in a secondary and derived sense is it also a confession of our own incapacity.  The emphasis in the confession of God’s hiddenness is not primarily that of humility but first and decisively that of gratitude.  Because God forgives us our sins we know that we need forgiveness, and that we are sinners.  And because God views and conceives Himself in His Word we know that He is not viewable and conceivable in any other way, and that therefore we are incapable of viewing and conceiving Him of ourselves.  The negation is only to be understood from this “position.”  The moment the confession of the negation becomes indispensable to us, we are separated by an abyss from all resignation and skepticism.  The moment we have unreservedly to confess God’s hiddenness, we have begun really and certainly to know God.   As an assertion of revelation and therefore of faith, as a confession of our grateful responsibility to the God present to us, the insight that God is hidden from us is the infallible indication of the fact that it is by God Himself—namely, by His revelation—that we are led to the knowledge of Him, that we and our knowledge do not stand outside and afar off but in the very presence of God Himself.”  (II.1, 27.1, pp. 187-188 [192])

(Substantially adapted, expanded and updated, with permission, from an original article by Dr. Mark LeTourneau)

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s