Edited by Richard E. Burnett
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 242 pages.
Karl Barth was the twentieth century’s greatest theologian. A Christian in the Reformed theological tradition, this Swiss master wrote more pages of theology than anyone since Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages. But how does one wrap one’s mind around Barth’s massive “Church Dogmatics” and all else?
This splendid volume, edited by Richard E. Burnett of Erskine Seminary, is a major help for novices and scholars alike who want a clearer grasp of Barth’s important contributions. The Westminster Handbooks of Christian Theology series provides accessible entries of main topics in a theologian’s thought. Organized in alphabetical format, one can quickly turn to a theme and find an excellent discussion written by a top scholar. Editor Burnett has assembled a superb cast of contributors. They are Barth experts and many are specialists on precisely the topic of their entry. There is a combination of veteran names along with rising Barth scholars. With sixty-five contributors, the book becomes the largest joint scholarly venture ever for the study of Barth’s theology. So, if you need only one book to help you with Barth — this is the one to get!
Trying to summarize a book that summarizes Barth brings empathy for those who wrote these pieces. There are nearly one hundred entries here, from actualism to worship. Most are major theological terms including baptism, Bible, election, eschatology, gospel and law, Jesus Christ, prayer, reconciliation, Trinity, etc. A few pieces survey Barth’s relationship to key theologians: Calvin, Harnack, Luther, Schleiermacher. These help set Barth in the constellation of theological thinkers as do pieces on liberalism and the Reformed tradition.
Barth reinterpreted many traditional terms as understood in Reformed theology and drew them together in an interconnecting whole. A prime example is election. As John Webster indicates, Barth’s account of divine election in “Church Dogmatics” “breaks with the conception of a double divine decree, and instead focuses on Christ as himself both electing God and elect creature.”
Well-known is Barth’s theological focus on Jesus Christ who pervades all theology. “Theology, for Barth, is for the sake of preaching,” writes Thomas Currie. But “the church is called to preach the gospel, not theology. Yet there is no preaching of the gospel without theology.” Barth’s view of theology, says Currie, is “characterized by his careful and lengthy exegesis, always seeking to discern in the words of Scripture the Word made flesh.” To know God is to know “the incarnate God, who has drawn intimately near to us already. That is why, for Barth, theology is finally doxology, a gift in which our knowledge comes to speech in the happy praise and service of God.”
This theological volume guides us through the intricacies of Barth’s thought which always comes back to the conviction: “God’s revelation is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
DONALD K. McKIM is editor of These Days magazine published by Westminster John Knox Press. His recent books include “Living into Lent” and “Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions.”