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Disruptive Grace

By George Hunsinger
Eerdmans. 2000. 375 pp. $39. ISBN 0-8028-4644-0

Reviewed by Robert C. Bankhead, Wilmington, N.C.


George Hunsinger apparently proposes an ambitious agenda for his book early in the introduction, declaring that he dreams of forging a merger between the classical theology of Karl Barth and the compassionate Christianity of Martin Luther King.

Each brings a majestic witness of genuine faith: Barth his matchless expression of traditional theology, and King his unparalleled spirituality of unconditional love. Hunsinger will form the union by using Barth’s theology of the cross to build a solid Christological foundation for King’s teaching that undeserved nonviolent suffering is redemptive.

I was prepared to read the series of essays, discovering how Barth’s academic theology forms the basis for King’s moral imperative. The book, however, moves in a different direction. The essays are a superb exposition of Barth’s Chalcedonian Christology, demonstrating how Barth towers over the church and its doctrine throughout the 20th century in a wide spectrum of themes. Barth stands with the few colossi of theological figures in the history of the church, those who defined and dominated theological doctrine for their century and the centuries that followed.

Hunsinger does not return to Martin Luther King to enunciate how he sees Barth’s theology strengthening King’s call for justice. One might wish that Hunsinger had written as the final chapter a new essay expressing his own understanding of how the legacies of these two great figures of 20th-century Christianity merge to give the church a vision for the future. Without question, Hunsinger, with sincere compassion for King and unmatched understanding of Barth, could write such an essay.

In form, the book consists of a collection of essays, written over a period of two decades but commenting on the course of theology for the last three-quarters of the 20th century. It is a virtual textbook of the history of theology. One is almost tempted to read the essays in the order in which they were written to trace Hunsinger’s developing thought as a Barthian scholar and a theologian in his own right. But to read them in relation to other essays in political, doctrinal and ecumenical contexts gives the careful reader an expanding vision of the genius of Karl Barth.

Reading the individual essays, the sixth chapter, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character,” is the most helpful, and also the most easily read. An excellent exposition of Barth’s theology, it serves well as an introduction to Barth and could be read profitably by seminary students or pastors wanting to learn the first principles of Barthian theology.

Almost equally helpful are Ch. 3, “Barth, Barmen and the Confessing Church Today,” which describes a seminal turning point in Barth’s life, and Ch. 4, “Where the Battle Rages: Confessing Christ in America Today.” In the latter essay, Hunsinger raises serious, provocative questions over the viability of a confessing church at the present time. This essay, perhaps more than any of the others, points to the continuing influence of Barth as we move into the 21st century.

This is an important book; it makes a significant and valuable contribution to the study of Karl Barth. The readership will most likely be limited, primarily to academics and persons doing research on Barth. The writing is highly technical, very academic and at times esoteric. It will be hard reading for seminary students and most pastors, but for those students of Barth who are willing to labor over their reading, it is a welcomed treasure.