by Raymond Kemp Anderson
Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, Maine. 438 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES CUBIE
A real gift has unexpectedly come to us in this book by Raymond Kemp Anderson. Anderson is an emeritus professor and former chair of the philosophy and religion department at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. He also served the Presbyterian Church as a teaching elder and in various leadership roles. Amderson received his Th.D. from the University of Basel, where Barth taught until the end of his career. Anderson — among the last of Barth’s American doctoral students — does not describe himself as a Barthian, however, and this makes his portrait of the man and his thought during these last years all the more poignant. There is a gracious distance, which loves its subject in these thoughtful and very well written pages.
And this is as it should be: Karl Barth was no fan of Barthians and always wanted his work to form the basis for deep, rigorous and ultimately joyful conversation about God’s grace as supremely shown in Jesus Christ. Anderson’s memories are, at once, a kind of table talk and record of a life’s journey thinking with some of the most consequential parts of Barth’s thought. It is also an account that includes a wide range of well-known lights from the theological firmament: from Von Balthasar to Ratzinger, to Bultmann and Tillich. The book begins, however, at a very personal place and is all the better for it: We are taken immediately into Anderson’s life story and learn how he was first drawn to Barth’s work as a student at UCLA. The story of how Anderson entered Barth’s orbit and Anderson’s commitment to pursue his own research interests with Barth make fascinating reading. And what we find, especially when contrasted to the celebrity culture of German academia of the time, is that Barth knew himself to be a forgiven sinner and was therefore able to step outside of the kind of roles that could unhelpfully distance student from teacher.
This superb volume — which will be of real, lasting interest to scholars, ministers and lay persons — is a commentary on a conversation Anderson had with Barth toward the end of his doctoral studies. Anderson was concerned that he had gone through several post-graduate scholarships and still was not finished. Anderson felt guilty for being so financially dependent on others, and to this Barth responded: “Herr Anderson … Alles ist Gnade!” (“Mr. Anderson … All is grace!”) What a relief this must have been to the young Anderson. It must have put all of his work, until that point, into perspective, and — at the same time — established Barth as a thoroughly humane person because he knew God’s grace so well and so could apply it to a student in need. Such teachers are rare and always command the kind of affection we find in Anderson’s book. Anderson’s account is possessed of the same grace and well worth the attention of those who love and are fed by Barth’s life and thought.
JAMES CUBIE is a member of the Company of Teachers of The Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington.