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How To Start Reading Karl Barth

May 25, 2012

With props to Travis McMaken’s classic post on this topic (you should check it out), I think I’ve become close enough friends with Karl Barth (1886-1968) that I can suggest a strategy for budding young theologians to find entry into his work.  Barth is rightly called the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, and even since John Calvin.  His work is of monumental significance and, agree or disagree with what he has to say, he is a conversation partner who simply must be engaged.

Barth’s published corpus, however, is equally monumental.  With a 14-volume Church Dogmatics (Barth’s incomplete magnum opus), two earlier “false starts,” numerous biblical commentaries, lecture series in historical theology, and countless essays and sermons, it’s certainly daunting to know where to begin.

Since Travis’s post is so good, I’m going to shamelessly crib from his interrogative approach and extend it a bit with some additional background and context.

I’m brand new to Barth. Where do I start?

The volume I recommend to get a good overview of the way that Barth does theology, and how he talks about particular doctrines, is the short volume Dogmatics in Outline. This is one of three or so trips that Barth made through the Apostle’s Creed — it is not an abridgment or summary of the 14-volume Church Dogmatics. For that, look for the easily-confused Church Dogmatics — the paperback with the red and white cover — a selection of readings assembled by Helmut Gollwitzer. (A newer and similar volume of selections is R. Michael Allen’s Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader.)

Most students of Barth will recommend you ease your way into the pool with Evangelical Theology, a collection of thematic lectures Barth gave during his visit to the United States in the 1960s.  This work generally strikes me as more rhetorical, spoken reflections and as less doctrinal in nature.  I actually find this material not all that representative of Barth — either his genius or his style.  In both respects, Dogmatics in Outline is better for newbies. (Evangelical Theology was actually the first Barth I ever read, and it turned me off Barth for years.)

How is the Church Dogmatics organized?

It’s helpful to understand the overall shape of the Church Dogmatics and the nomenclature used to reference it. (“KD” is a reference to the original German edition, die Kirchliche Dogmatik.)  Barth set out to write five major “volumes,” covering the doctrines of the Word of God (I), God (II), Creation (III), Reconciliation (IV), and Redemption (V).  All the various loci of theology, from Scripture to election to justification to ecclesiology to sacraments to eschatology, fit strategically within that outline. These volumes are broken down into multiple part-volumes (the individual hardcover or paperback book): two for volume I, two for volume II, four for volume III, and five for volume IV — with IV/3 split into IV/3.1 and IV/3.2 because of its length. (The fourteenth volume is an index with topical aids for preachers.)

Within each part-volume are “paragraphs,” the major chapter designations denoted by the § symbol. These paragraphs are further divided into sub-paragraphs, e.g. §15.2 (“Very God and Very Man” in CD I/2).  What Barth calls “Chapters” in the table of contents gathers multiple paragraphs under a broad theme (these are less commonly cited in secondary literature).

To confuse you even further, after nearly 80 years of publishing the Dogmatics in 14 volumes, in 2009 English publisher T&T Clark released a 31-volume paperback Study Edition. This is the same material but with the Greek, Latin, and French citations now translated, and includes the old page numbers in marginal notes for tracking purposes, but divides up the volumes into smaller chunks (particularly for students who won’t be reading an entire part-volume for a course).

Barth developed his dogmatics in the classical style of classroom lectures, later expanded and prepared for publication with the aide of his assistant, Charlotte “Lollo” von Kirchbaum.  KD I/1 was first published in 1932, and the project continued until Barth’s death in 1968. Unfortunately, he passed away before volume IV was completed, leaving fragments of the last part-volume in IV (now published).  Volume V was never begun.

OK, I’m ready to brave the Church Dogmatics.  Where do I begin?

Well, what do you care about?  The very best way to read and appreciate Barth is to make a connection with him (whether or not you find yourself agreeing with what he says).  Identify a doctrine about which you know something and are passionate, and track down Barth’s largest sustained treatment of it.  If possible, don’t read any fewer than 50 consecutive pages — I find that’s usually how long it takes for him to come full circle on something (before he spends the next 200 doing additional passes from other directions!).

Heard about his innovative approach to the doctrine of election?  Head for CD II/2 (that’s where I was hooked) and don’t give up early.  Wondering where Jesus Christ and atonement fit into all this?  Look in CD IV/1, and especially §59. Scripture? CD I/1 and I/2.  The attributes of God?  CD II/1 (Barth has reasons for calling them “perfections” instead).  The Holy Spirit? CD … well, let me know and we’ll talk about that one.

If you don’t have a particular topic on your mind, you can’t do much better than CD IV/1.  Volume IV is so comprehensive and brilliantly structured that it has been called a “mini-dogmatics” in its own right, and it really is Barth at his theological, rhetorical, provocative best.

I want to read the whole Dogmatics. Should I start at page 1?

Three different strategies commend themselves:

1)  The obvious approach is to read the CD straight through as Barth wrote it, with the doctrine of the Word of God (volume I) laying the groundwork for theological speech and proceeding to the doctrines of God (CD II), creation (CD III), and reconciliation (CD IV).  That’s a fine way to read Barth, of course — but bear in mind two caveats.  First, you should only do this if you are seriously committed to finishing, and doing so in a relatively short span (i.e. this isn’t a 10- or 20-year reading plan).  If you doddle or end up quitting early, you risk some misunderstanding — and you won’t have seen Barth at his best.  (Barth was often misunderstood and subject to summary judgment in the English-speaking world after CD I/1 was translated in 1936, because the War caused a 20-year lag before the arrival of the next volume.)  Second, you should attend along the way to where you think Barth may be developing, clarifying, or changing his mind. Remember, the Dogmatics was written over a nearly 40-year period, and so discussions of Barth’s thought are often rightly occupied with questions of his development.

2) Volume IV is so important to Barth’s fully-matured theology that some have suggested a strategy of actually reading the Dogmatics in reverse.  Start with IV/1 and proceed through the IV/4 fragments, then hit the doctrine of creation (III/1 to III/4), then the doctrine of God (II/1 to II/2), and finish off where Barth began.  I rather like this idea, since IV/1 is my favorite volume and I find I/1 (Barth’s third attempt at a prolegomena) to be a bit of a slow and awkward start.  If you choose this route, of course, bear in mind that you are going backwards in time — so what you read later may need to stand under qualification by what you read earlier.

3) Bounce around according to topic.  It’s perfectly acceptable to read Barth in a more piecemeal fashion, as your interests dictate. When most students encounter Barth in a formal classroom setting, that’s how they get to know him: one professor will assign pages from CD II/2 for a course on election, another will ask you to read IV/2 for some formal Christology, and later a friend will suggest you read some of III/1 to see that Barth is working with a covenant view. There’s nothing wrong with this, so long as you bear in mind that caveat about Barth’s theological development over the Dogmatics‘ 36-year span.

In short: There’s really no wrong way to the read the Church Dogmatics.

What are the most important secondary sources about Barth’s theology?

I’ll leave this question for a second post some time down the road.  In the meantime, Travis already has you covered on the most important books about Barth and his thought.  If you want a reliable introduction to Barth’s theology in a compact form, you can’t do better than John Webster’s Barth (now in its second edition).

Barth scholarship in English is in a resurgence, so there are also a number of topic-specific volumes that have come out in the five years since Travis’s bibliography was written.

None of this is helpful to me. What should I do?

OK, if you don’t have patience for all of the above, here is a suggested reading list:

From there you will have a strong enough sense of Barth to move on to his more difficult texts (the Romans commentary, the Anselm book, etc.), or his sermons and occasional essays, as well as the often conceptually demanding secondary literature.

Seriously, go read Travis’s post.  David Guretzki has also written an excellent primer on the Church Dogmatics. To see a lay of the land with respect to Barth’s publications, their English translations, and the major events in his career, check out my Karl Barth Timeline.

Happy reading!

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2012 4:17 pm

    Great stuff Darren. One resource that might be helpful for those wanting to dive into Church Dogmatics is Fuller New Testament prof Daniel Kirk’s blog, Storied Theology. Kirk is blogging his way through the Dogmatics, scheduled to finish II.1 and begin II.2 in June http://www.jrdkirk.com/karl-barth-reading/. I found it extraordinarily helpful to have discussion partners for my first time reading through one of the volumes (I began with IV.3.1) and Kirk’s blog can be helpful in that regard. It isn’t coming from a Barth expert or even a systematic theologian – it isn’t really a very helpful guide, but more just as a conversation partner to read along with.

    Let me also say that for those interested in Scripture, as I am, its really gonna be §§ 19-21 in CD I.2, rather than I.1, that is best consulted.

  2. Kevin Davis permalink
    May 25, 2012 4:57 pm

    I think it is worth pointing-out to newcomers that the Study Edition is not just “the same material” in smaller volumes. The significance of the Study Edition is the translations provided for the Latin, Greek, French, etc. which is left untranslated in all other editions of the CD. These translations are considerable helps in nearly all of the excursuses, which frequently feature a string of quotes in Latin and Greek.

    Yes, in an ideal world, all theology students would have these languages mastered, but that’s not the world we live in. I have three semesters of Greek, and I still find the translations to be very helpful and time-saving. Also, I would change the link from Amazon to CBD, since the latter is selling it for $499, not $865.

    Also, the newcomer should be directed toward R. Michael Allen’s recent publication, with T&T Clark, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader. Webster has endorsed it, and I was thoroughly impressed by Allen’s Reformed Theology, also with T&T Clark. This should become the standard reader of Barth’s CD, not Gollwitzer’s.

    By the way, I’m glad you recommend going to II.2. It really is foundational for everything else in the dogmatics. Plus, the debate over election is still going strong in American evangelical circles, so II.2 will properly challenge the presuppositions that evangelicals will bring to the text of Scripture.

  3. May 25, 2012 6:03 pm

    Thanks, gents — I’ve incorporated all of the above suggestions.

  4. May 25, 2012 8:03 pm

    No exegetical work, eh? 🙂 Romans is, of course, over-recommended as a start, for a whole host of reasons. I’m inclined to recommend The Resurrection of the Dead for general reading, instead; and Philippians and the bit of John for those more inclined to take up pieces that are clearly structured as exegetical commentaries.

    You’ve clearly taken the “climb the mountain any way you can” approach, and there’s value to that. The mountain must be climbed, and the only wrong way to climb it, is not to. But when asked how to read Barth, I tend to put off the Church Dogmatics and recommend making an acquaintance with Barth’s voice and personality through smaller occasional works, first. It’s quite nice that The Word of God and Theology is available in an updated version that gives more context, though it isn’t always as typographically sound as the old one. And the sermon collections Come, Holy Spirit and Deliverance to the Captives give an accessibility to this man preaching gospel — which, after all, is the point of the Dogmatics.

    Then, if one is going to gear up to climb the Dogmatics, I recommend one of the lecture courses from Gottingen particularly, to give a sense of what this man is like in the classroom, as well as where he starts his own ascent. And that’s the Theology of the Reformed Confessions. Let the reader remember that each CD volume was a course once, before it became a book. (And, God love you, don’t crack the Anselm book until you’re well into the climb with Barth and you have the questions it answers!)

    And of course, Dogmatics in Outline is a valuable piece, as its own sort of model of what the dogmatic task looks like done as landscape survey.

    • randy j hall permalink
      August 3, 2017 1:44 pm

      Thank You , I am somewhere between intrigued and scared to death , of finding myself in the deep end of the pool … so I think I will pursue ” Come, Holy Spirit and Deliverance to the Captives” if you do feel it’s a good place to start ,

  5. May 25, 2012 10:15 pm

    I would have to second Matt’s recommendation of Barth’s ‘Theology of the Reformed Confessions’, this is my favorite work of Barth!

    I have actually read more of Barth’s smaller pieces (and “Gottingen Dogmatics”) more than his CD; and thus far I have benefited immensely from this approach.

    Anyway, nice post, Darren. I’m sorry you don’t like his “Evangelical Theology,” but I’m not surprised sense I’ve heard you voice these same concerns previously on FB somewhere. I still think this is a helpful entree into Barth, myself, especially for those less technically inclined.

  6. May 25, 2012 11:39 pm

    OK, I’ll say it: While incredibly important, Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions is tedious. And not representative of Barth’s own creative engagement with the tradition he surveys there. In no way should a beginner pick up that text.

    Matt, I like the approach of different paths into Barth for the more exegetically minded, versus the more historically, or the more systematically. Maybe what we need is a series of posts here!

  7. May 26, 2012 2:32 am

    @Darren, I’ll grant the “not representative” point — one has to read several of his courses across the years to see his developing engagement. And I wonder about correspondence volumes — enough of his correspondence with Thurneysen is captured in Revolutionary Theology in the Making to make it an important introductory window on the developing scholar who taught that course and also the “Gottingen” dogmatics.

    But tedious? I devoured that book! And I did so not long after trudging my way through his history of the 19th century, which fell into my hands early on. Now that’s tedious!

    An additional path recommends itself: the political.

  8. May 26, 2012 2:39 am

    @Bobby, I was also exposed to Evangelical Theology early, actually before I knew who Barth was. I acquired it in undergrad at a pre-sem book swap because it looked interesting. And so help me, maybe it’s the English translation — David Congdon pointed this out recently — but I had to relearn Barth from scratch. I find it to be of remarkably little help.

  9. May 26, 2012 7:05 am

    @Matt,

    On Evangelical Theology, I must be flying at a higher altitude than you all then … hehe, kidding 😉 .

    @Darren,

    On The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, I would agree that the reader would have to be particularly inclined toward historical theology (and Reformed-Lutheran at that) to maybe appreciate it. But I still found it very accessible, and like Matt, I devoured that book (which I don’t often do with Barth!).

  10. Mike permalink
    May 26, 2012 7:40 am

    Hey Darren,

    I was wondering if you could provide your thoughts on a few secondary resources on Barth I am considering purchasing:

    Busch, “The Great Passion”
    Jones, “The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics”
    Nimmo, “Being in Action”
    Mikkelsen, “Reconciled Humanity”
    Migliore, “Commanding Grace”

    Are you (or any other readers/commenters) familiar enough with these works to give describe and recommend them?

  11. Mike permalink
    May 26, 2012 7:42 am

    Also, one of my big areas of interests is Barth’s ethics. Can you recommend any works beyond what I’ve already mentioned and Webster’s work that could aid me in this pursuit?

  12. May 26, 2012 12:41 pm

    Matt / Bobby: That’s funny — I’d consider Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century to be demanding but highly rewarding, and not at all tedious. Reformed Confessions may be more accessible, but I also think it’s overall less rewarding. It’s important and worth having, for sure, but thus far I think the Gottingen lectures end up doing much of the same thing, but better.

    A political/ethical intro to Barth is definitely called for.

    Mike: Nimmo’s book is a must-have if your interest is in Barth’s ethics. I’d recommend you start there and with Webster, which obviously you know already! Beyond those … I’ll have to summon my ethicist friends for more secondary source recommendations. I haven’t read that Migliore book, but had him as a prof and consider his take on Barth to be very reliable.

    Busch is always worth reading. The Great Passion is on just about everyone’s list of top intro texts. Jones’ book is rightly the standard for the Christology of the Church Dogmatics. Definitely worth a look.

    I reviewed Mikkelsen’s book here.

  13. May 26, 2012 5:13 pm

    Commanding Grace is one of the PTS conferences, and a good set of essays. Some nice pot-stirring went on at that one! Not necessarily a good intro text, but certainly something that will send you into a lot of different primary sources to form your own opinions on Barth’s social ethics. See David’s coverage of the conference here.

    As to Barth and Ethics, there are a few other obvious references. Biggar’s The Hastening that Waits has faded a bit in popularity, but is a nice perspective on what makes Barth’s dogmatic ethics different. As you’ll see him recant in Commanding Grace, it’s a bit of an uncautious exercise in what Biggar thinks Barth says, but it’s not wrong for all that, and well worth the read. (And, if you’re going to write a dissertation in Barth, reading his for the giddy pleasure of knowing with certainty what Barth is up to, and then reading his 2008 self-critique, is a necessary lesson in humility and structure.) Besides that, he is his own proposal for how to read the Dogmatics, and it’s a good approach in its own right: read every volume in light of its ethical conclusion as the grounding reason for the structured path it follows.

    McKenny’s The Analogy of Grace is brilliant. Clearly an engagement with Barth in ways Biggar was not. I find this one to be as necessary and as rewarding a read as Nimmo.

    And a warning: Clough’s Ethics in Crisis is like the ethical followup to McCormack’s dogmatic analysis. Necessary but not sufficient, and IMO not for the beginner. And the reason is that in the English-speaking world, and especially in America, Barth’s ethics have been massively misunderstood, which ripples out to this day. (Part of which is that it took us 20 years to get to read I/2 and know the reason for the structure of the Prolegomenon, and part of which is that we got to read volume III last of all because work on II and IV proceeded in parallel, and everyone read volume II on the Command of God simpliciter and flipped out.) Clough will send you back to the earlier secondary analyses if you like, or you can take him at his word for them for the nonce. What he does is re-evaluate the field on McCormack’s terms. What he won’t do (that Biggar does far more readably and in spades) is show you the development of Barth’s own ethical work. So know he’s there, prefer him to Willis, but put him off for now and lean on Biggar and Webster, who read more early Barth.

    On the primary source front, for Barth and Ethics, do grab a copy of The Holy Spirit and Christian Life. It’s short and sweet, and comes about the time of the Anselm book. God Here and Now is a good short-works primer. And just pick up and read the little sixth part of the student edition (or just chapter 4, the last three sections) of I/2.

  14. May 26, 2012 5:32 pm

    @Darren, if I had to say, there’s a kind of synergy between the Gottingen/Munster dogmatics and the Munster/Bonn ethics that winds up in the Church Dogmatics, but I see origins of that in the lectures on the Reformed confessions. And, for that matter, I’m tempted to recommend Barth’s Gifford lectures, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation, as one of the least-well-used demonstrations of how dogmatics goes to ethics — precisely because confession goes to action. But I’ll rescind my recommendation of Reformed Confessions as an intro text. 🙂

  15. May 26, 2012 6:08 pm

    I actually like reading about Barth (secondary, like Webster, Torrance, McCormack, Hunsinger), and constructive engagement with Barth, rather than reading Barth directly; truth be told (I know, I am anathema now 😉 ). But I still read Barth.

  16. May 26, 2012 6:09 pm

    Oh, and Jüngel.

  17. May 26, 2012 6:34 pm

    For what its worth, I’m finding Ken Oakes’ Reading Karl Barth to be a really accessible summary/analysis/intro to Barth’s Romans.

  18. May 26, 2012 9:34 pm

    Thanks, Matt! And Bobby: Merely reading about Barth is like listening to dirty limericks about Mozart.

  19. May 29, 2012 6:27 pm

    Darren, I didn’t say I don’t read Barth; but that I often enjoy reading After Barth (at least that’s what I was implying). Which is a logical conclusion to, TFT.

  20. June 6, 2012 10:03 pm

    ‘The Word of God and Theology.’ Newly translated. Boom.

  21. June 25, 2012 10:25 am

    Update: I have recently decided, after about 10 years of waffling, that Eberhard Jüngel’s ‘God’s Being is in Becoming’ is the best book written on Barth of all time. I don’t care about all y’all’s debates about blabady bla self-constitution stuff. Jüngel is a baller and his book is a tour de force.

  22. Jonathan D Parker permalink
    June 28, 2012 3:30 pm

    Hi, thanks for this. A more advanced question: Any of you know if there is a page number index out there of Kirchliche Dogmatik and Church Dogmatics for comparing the English to German, or is it pretty much find the relevant section and scan through the German looking for what you need? Thanks for any help you can offer!

  23. June 28, 2012 3:48 pm

    Jonathan, I’ve never seen any such index. It’s always been a matter of finding the neighborhood in the KD and then hunting for corresponding passage. Someone could make a pocket guide and make a mint among Barthians.

  24. Jonathan D Parker permalink
    June 29, 2012 10:39 am

    Cheers. Yah, I wrote this before actually trying it. I got on KD on DKBL through our university library and the table of contents, found the section. Then I figured out that since it’s constructed as one big webpage for the section I could search for the biblical reference nearest to the place I wanted to find (figuring it’s easier to know how to spell the abbreviated German book name than guessing which distinctive German word Barth might have used in his original), and wham, there I was! I commend it as a technique. It actually didn’t take that long. I dig y’all’s site. Good to get to know you. And thanks!

  25. October 7, 2015 5:46 pm

    Hi, can you also recommend a biography or personal diary of Karl Barth? I would like to understand his crisis of faith better. Thank you.

  26. October 9, 2015 10:01 am

    Hi, Charlotte — The standard biography is Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, which is worth the investment. (Busch was Barth’s last doctoral student / assistant in the 1960s.) More recently Busch has also published My Time With Barth: Diaries 1965-1968 in German; it is currently being translated into English.

    Beyond these, I would recommend Bruce McCormack’s now classic study of Barth’s earlier development, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology. There is a treasure trove of biographical information here as McCormack narrates the story of Barth’s intellectual development from 1909 (the end of Barth’s student years) up to 1936 (just after the start of the Church Dogmatics).

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