Sunday, September 16, 2012


So, I'm planning to write a blog entry with the title "Why I'm not a Barthian." And I've come up with four theses. But then I realize: Defending them is going to take some doing, so I better do my research. That entails digging into Karl Barth's work in a serious way.

My grad school advisor one said that beginning a project on Barth always involves starting at the beginning. I've tried that, many times. Why is this so difficult?

So, let's pretend I'm teaching a seminar on Barth (and you half dozen readers are my guinnea pigs: Fortunately for you, it's completely free). Let's make it a five-year seminar to make sure it's adequately thorough. Where would I begin?

How about this question: What is the ONE book I'd assign my students to read as background to reading Barth?

Here are the candidates:

1.) Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion. After all, Barth's own teacher, Hermann, thought this was the most important theological book since the New Testament, and Barth expends considerable energy refuting the Berlin theologian's classic text.

A schoolmate once quoted Prof. Brian Gerrish as saying: "All roads lead to Schleiermacher."

But I'm not sure Barth was as really troubled by this book as he let own. I think, actually, the early Schleiermacher is something of a straw man for the early Barth (I don't mean the early-early liberal Barth or the late-early German university Barth, but I mean the middle-early dialectical Barth, the Barth of the second Romans commentary).

2.) Maybe, given the overall shape of Barth's Dogmatics, we should look at Schleiermacher's own dogmatic treatise, whose title is anemically translated in English as The Christian Faith. (Incidentally, my favorite conservative theologian, Michael Horton, has written a book with the same title. It's much more readable than Schleiermacher's text.)

Well, I won't diminish the importance of Schleiermacher's dogmatics, but reading that would require a seminar of it's own. Some scholars out there now are trying to show a deeper affinity between Barth and Schleiermacher than has previously been acknowledged. I'm withholding judgment for now.

3.) Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Please, please, not this! I'll quit Barth forever if he turns out to be an Hegelian.

4.) Marx's Capital.  Interesting idea, no? Well, this is probably not the the best choice: I do think, after all, it was God Barth was trying to write about. But we're getting warmer than you might realize. (I just gave you a big hint about where I'm headed.)

4.) Calvin's Institutes. I might be inclined to do this, if only to annoy the Young-and-the-Restless Reformed folk. But I think it isn't the best choice, even though Barth offers probably the most important response to Calvin in modern times. (No, silly you, Barth was a more important interpreter of Calvin than Max Weber was!)

5.) Luther's .... everything! The collected works. The whole 55 volumes (is it?) in the American Edition. See the problem here? There's no single definitive Luther book. "I don't see how anybody works on him," a smart teacher once told me.

Barth liked Luther. We'll just leave it at that.

6.) Aquinas' Summa -- if even the shorter Summa, just to be a little more reasonable. Well, if we went this route, we probably should read Thomas instead of Barth. Just raise the white flag and throw in the towel like Bruce Marshall and so many others have. Swim the Tiber.

But that's not for me. I'll try to read Thomas again only after I have some glimmer of a hope of arguing he was wrong on the fundamental moves. That is, only after I've read Barth, which will probably consume the rest of my natural life. So I'll read Thomas in heaven while he and the angels laugh at me.

Fortunately, my choice for the one book to read in preparation for our Barth seminar is much easier and more straightforward than all these other options. Even a first year undergrad can grasp the basic idea this author had. It's a book one might even potentially plow through in a week, even while riding the bus to work. (If you commute by car, I think you're out of luck, for this one has never been put on tape.) This is the book, I think, with which Barth was most obsessed.

But I better reread it myself before I tell you what it is.

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