How To Start Reading Karl Barth
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:
- 1. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
- 2. John Webster, Barth
- 3. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, §§57-60
- 4. George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth
- 5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, §§32-35
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.