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The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth



 The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (John Webster, ed. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp xiii+312. ISBN: 0 521 58560 0)


Already recognized for his studies in Barth, Webster has only confirmed the reputation he gained from his earlier discussions (see his Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation [1995], Barth’s Moral Theology [1996], and Karl Barth [2000]) in the collection of essays he has introduced and edited.

The book will do much to expose those to whom Barth is unknown with the substance, rigour and significance of his theology. It will also help dispel many of the myths that continue to circulate about him (e.g., that his theology is time-worn and reflects a preoccupation with issues that are obsolete today and may even have been in his era.) At the same time it will enhance conversations that look back to him in order to gain theological weight and look ahead from him in order to engage contemporaneity in his spirit.

As expected, the book treats Barth’s articulation of topics that will always be discussed just because they are the essential “building blocks” of the Christian faith: Trinity, scripture, providence, salvation, among others. In addition, however, it engages issues in light of his theology that more recent developments have rendered unavoidable: feminism, religious pluralism and postmodernity.

Some of the authors whom Webster includes are familiar to those involved in current systematic theology generally or Barth studies particularly: Alan Torrance, Colin Gunton, Bruce McCormack, Trevor Hart, George Hunsinger. Others are lesser known:, William Werpehowski, Katherine Sonderegger, J. Augustine di Noia. The roster is chiefly Protestant but does include several Roman Catholics. (In this regard it is important to note that Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1986), the major Roman Catholic commentator on Barth, is deemed throughout the book to be a worthy interpreter.)

While it is widely recognized that Barth opposed the Nazi menace, forfeited his teaching position at the University of Bonn, and was deported to his native Switzerland, many non-Europeans failed at that time to grasp how important Barth was in forming, informing, equipping and encouraging beleaguered pastors, parishioners and leaders amidst the trials of the Reich and its Zeitgeist. Without him the Barmen Declaration would never have appeared; with him hope arose in the wake of the newly-exposed insufficiency of liberal theology, ascendant from Schleiermacher (whose ability, if not his orientation, Barth admired) to World War I. In the wake of Hitler’s defeat English-speaking theology discerned his importance for those he had helped, honoured him by reading him and recognizing his role in the “Biblical Theology” movement of the 1950s and 60s, and then quietly set him aside as the newer voices of Moltmann and Pannenberg were heard, not to mention the more radical cries of Liberation Theology and special interest groups. While the Torrance family seemed almost single-handedly to keep Barth from disappearing entirely in the English-speaking world, Barth’s work began to recover a hearing amidst, for instance, the faculty of theology at King’s College, London. Now it appears that the Swiss thinker’s work is regaining appreciation as magisterial in a way that reflects the recognition rightly accorded the Sixteenth-Century Reformers. Webster’s book can only expand this development as the essays highlight the need constantly to rethink the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in light of present-day challenges and rearticulate that faith in contemporary thought-forms and vocabulary. Barth, of course, never pretended that he had said the last word, wanting only, like the donkey that assisted Jesus, to be of service to his Lord through the church’s proclamation. At the same time, the content of these essays will leave readers knowing that any theology which ignores Barth’s “word” will always lack the density and resilience needed to help the church out of its current malaise.

In his introductory chapter Webster points out the fact and manner of Barth’s putting theology on a new footing and pointing it in a new direction, adding that “The significance of Barth’s work in his chosen sphere is comparable to that of, say, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Freud, Weber and Saussure in theirs, in that he decisively reorganized an entire discipline.” Webster then identifies crucial points in Barth’s formation: his disillusionment with his liberal teachers who deemed theology to legitimate national self-aggrandizement (his disillusionment ultimately giving rise to the “bombshell” Romans commentary), his work on Anselm with its concern to explicate the understanding of the faith that believers always seek, his confessional orientation wherein he saw that theology didn’t need extra-theological considerations to legitimate it or facilitate it. Here (and in other books) Webster differs from many overviews of Barth, insisting that there wasn’t a “turn” in Barth’s work that neatly divided it into two disparate parts, an earlier “dialectic” and a later “dogmatic.” Instead Webster maintains that there were certainly differences in emphasis, but not in substance: Barth’s dogmatic concerns were evident from the start, while his dialectical style he retained to the end. By way of illustrating his point Webster maintains that the earlier Barth underlined, “How is God God for us?”, and the later Barth, “How is God God for us” as Barth’s work on the covenant came to the fore.

The book concludes with Alasdair Heron’s appreciation, “Karl Barth: A Personal Engagement.” Here he indicates his debt to Barth even as he identifies matters that he thinks need to be addressed: Barth’s non-interaction with natural science in a century when scientific concerns were dominant, Barth’s formal recognition of historical-critical biblical exegesis accompanied by his material non-deployment (virtually) of it, and the proclivity of Barth’s ecclesiology towards individualism and congregationalism.

In between these “book-ends” much is found to inform, edify and delight the careful reader. Christoph Schwoebel’s essay, “Theology,” holds no surprises but faithfully, patiently, and profoundly explores the logic of Barth’s work. Francis Watson, a New Testament scholar from Aberdeen, will startle many with his claim that Barth’s use of scripture aids and abets the recovery of theological exegesis when so much biblical scholarship preoccupies itself with theological vacuity. (Critical minutiae are featured, says Watson, when scripture isn’t understood in terms of the economy of God’s self-utterance and self-bestowal.)

The most startling essay appears to be George Hunsinger’s discussion of Pneumatology. While Barth has frequently been criticized for a preoccupation with Christology whose one-sidedness moves him in the direction of doctrinal scholasticism, Hunsinger defends Barth not weakly by reminding us that Barth died before his Church Dogmatics were completed but aggressively by exposing and exploring the dynamic interconnectedness of Barth’s thought; e.g., “Whereas from the standpoint of reconciliation the work of the Spirit served the work of Christ, from the standpoint of the redemption the work of Christ served the work of the Spirit.” Hunsinger follows this with his essay’s manifesto: “A comprehensive discussion would show that, in Barth’s theology, the saving work of the Spirit is trinitarian in ground, Christocentric in focus, miraculous in operation, communal in content, eschatological in form, diversified in operation, and universal in scope.” He then proceeds to develop most of these themes. If his exposition is correct, the accusation against Barth concerning Pneumatology has to be reconsidered.

Colin Gunton, however, upholds the customary accusation in “Salvation,” the essay that appears to be the sharpest disagreement with Barth in the book: “It is here [i.e., participation in Christ] that we become particularly aware of the relative underweighting of the pneumatological and ecclesial dimensions of Barth’s way of speaking of the appropriation of salvation….It simply cannot say all that a doctrine of the Spirit is supposed to say.” Gunton goes on to fault Barth for collapsing Christ’s ascension into his resurrection, for expounding Christ “as a kind of Platonic form of humanity” so that salvation is already achieved and people need only to be informed of it, for restricting the scope of salvation to humans, for understanding the priesthood of Christ in terms on his divinity but not his humanity.

The essay that will do most to vindicate Barth through correcting a misapprehension (especially among North Americans) is Wolf Kroetke’s “The Humanity of the Human Person in Karl Barth’s Anthropology” wherein he highlights Barth’s understanding of the human not in terms of the natural or the religious or the cultural but simply that partner whom God wills not to be without and therefore cherishes eternally.

At his eightieth birthday celebration Barth remarked, “As a theologian one can never be great, but at best one remains small in one’s own way.” In the upside-down (better, capsized-but-righted) world of the Kingdom, the small are rendered great. Webster’s book will find the reader assenting to this gospel paradox concerning the man commonly regarded as the greatest theologian since the Reformation.

Victor Shepherd, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.