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Book Review: The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth

May 7, 2014

The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth The genre of the “handbook” is at once both exciting and terrifying: it offers an easy point of access for newcomers to quickly become familiar with a subject that is otherwise daunting, while at the same time it threatens to take these complex subjects and render an overly-simplistic caricature. What, then, of Karl Barth? His massive Church Dogmatics, the rest of his very productive career, and the almost universally recognized importance of his work to modern theology present a foreboding mountain to climb. But would a summary of his major concepts, whittled down to a slim paperback, do more harm than good?

Fortunately editor Richard Burnett (who wrote the excellent book Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis) and the large team of contributing authors are keenly aware of this problem, and do a fine job at overcoming the limitations of the genre in The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Burnett and Westminster John Knox Press have assembled not just a “who’s who” of contemporary Barth scholarship but indeed a veritable Justice League of scholars. Just about everyone who one would like to have contributed to such a project has indeed done so, which itself is no small accomplishment. Not only that, but the specialists one would want to have writing about each topic in these pages — such as Wolf Krötke on Sin, Christophe Chalamet on Wilhelm Herrmann, or Paul Dafydd Jones on Christology — have written on just those topics.

The result is a fine volume that, while certainly no substitute for reading Barth first-hand, proves itself remarkably reliable for understanding key concepts within Barth’s broader project. The book is organized alphabetically by terms, making it a sort of dictionary to Barth’s thought. It’s not the sort of resource one would try to read cover-to-cover, but it ought to be the first place that students turn when they want to know what Barth has to say about a given doctrine or concept — and are not sure where in the 14-volume Dogmatics to begin, or how to far to read, or how to escape overlooking another very important treatment of that topic buried in a different volume.

Students of Barth have for decades relied upon more seasoned veterans not only to understand the “big picture” of his theological project, but even for the simple matter of locating key treatments within Barth’s magnum opus. The Church Dogmatics is rigorously systematic and ordered, certainly — but, like a composer of a great symphony, Barth returns to key themes again and again. The handbook is of great use here, for the veterans who have made this or that element of Barth’s theology their specialty can tell us in a few short pages where to look (each entry ends with a short list of pages from the CD, along with a bibliography of secondary sources on the topic) — and for what things to be on the lookout for when we get there.

Karl BarthAs a way of orienting oneself within Barth’s corpus and his world of creative theological thinking, then, The Westminster Handbook makes itself quite useful — more useful, in fact, than I initially feared it might be.  There are 98 entries (plus a solid bibliography of secondary literature), ranging from around a page and a half for smaller topics (e.g. Harnack, Hell, and Heresy) to several pages for the larger (e.g. Reconciliation, or the Perfections of God).  With two columns per page, that’s still a good deal of text for the shorter entries.

Entries range from traditional doctrinal loci (Atonement, Justification, Faith), to significant issues (Liberalism, Science, Point of Contact), to significant persons (Bultmann, Schleiermacher, Thurneysen).  No major lacunae jump out from the list of entries, though readers less familiar with Barth’s work may find it challenging to locate material using terms of which Barth himself did not make a great deal of use.  So, for example, an experimental hunt for what Barth has to say on “discipleship” or “formation” turned up no obvious point of entry.

This is the sort of text that is only as useful as the quality of its entries; in other words, do these authors “get Barth right” on these various topics?  In this regard the book appears to be a resounding success, which is no surprise given the breadth of expertise represented on the contributor list.  If there is any drawback of this presentation, it is that the Handbook‘s presentation of key terms may appear to present a more comprehensive portrait of Barth’s theology than it actually does. The cumulative presentation does very well in the details — each “piece” of the puzzle is crystal clear — but the larger portrait of Barth’s project and his theological instincts will be less obvious by virtue of the nature of a dictionary-type project.  The Westminster Handbook will thus make an excellent companion to the various introductions to Karl Barth’s theology (such as Busch’s The Great Passion, or Webster’s Karl Barth), but will by no means replace them.

Finally, the Handbook may prove so helpful that it allows the lazier student to avoid reading Barth himself — to simply take the expert summary and go home, treating the book like a Cliff’s Notes rendition of Barth’s theology and being unwilling to expend the energy necessary to read and understand the very work under consideration. This would be to the student’s own tremendous loss: Barth is as rewarding as he is difficult. But of course this is no fault of the book.

The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth includes contributions from Clifford B. Anderson, Michael Beintker, Eberhard Busch, Timothy Gorringe, Garrett Green, Kevin Hector, I. John Hesselink, George Hunsinger, J. Christine Janowski, Paul Dafydd Jones, Joseph L. Mangina, Bruce L. McCormack, Daniel L. Migliore, Paul D. Molnar, Adam Neder, Amy Plantinga Pauw, Gerhard Sauter, Katherine Sonderegger, John Webster, and many others.

Published by: Westminster John Knox Press
SRP: $35.00
Pages: 272
ISBN: 978-0664225308

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. reformedforumpastor permalink
    May 7, 2014 6:08 pm

    An invaluable resource! Thanks for the review!

  2. May 7, 2014 7:11 pm

    Well there’s Jim Cassidy!

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