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Book reviews >

Barth’s Earlier Theology: Four studies

T & T Clark £19.99


Church Times Bookshop £18

Open to doubt and liberalism: John Saxbee welcomes a study of Barth that casts a new light on the influential thinker

THIS slim volume brings together four previously published essays that provide new and beguiling insights into Karl Barth’s early theological lectures and publications.

Church Dogmatics did not fall fully formed from the sky, but was many years in the making; and those many years include Barth’s early experiences as a journeyman lecturer making his way in the sometimes fraught world of the 1920s theological academy. Even though Webster keeps information about Barth’s biography and cultural context to a minimum, it is a very human Barth who emerges from these studies. He sometimes finds himself having to lecture on topics he would not necessarily have chosen — and he sometimes feels he is out of his depth. His long-term prospects are not clear, and he has not yet worked out the great project that will define his legacy and reputation.

Yet it is precisely the serendipity of the academic timetable, and the contingencies of the faculty curriculum, which helped to shape that project; and therein lies the fascination of this important contribution to our understanding of Barth, and the seminal influence of his earlier theology.

Webster makes use of many neglected sources to expound this early theology; and he thereby helps to throw new light on certain aspects of Barth’s thought, especially in relation to Christian ethics, and the importance of historical theology.

After a somewhat laboured account of Barth’s treatment of Zwingli, Webster offers a fascinating analysis of his lectures on the Reformed Confessions. Here he shows how Barth "steers a wary line between a theology free from the Church’s confession and a theology which is slavishly confessional". Theology never takes place in "the empty spaces above the Churches", but confessions must always be qualified by scripture.

This emphasis on the scripture principle is expanded in the third chapter, which focuses on Barth’s commentary on 1 Corinthians entitled The Resurrection of the Dead. Barth’s "ingenious paraphrases" (Bultmann) are clearly in evidence here, as is Barth’s commitment to identify "the red thread which runs through the whole". As the title of the commentary suggests, Chapter 15 is seen as the interpretative key that not only provides a way into Barth’s eschatology, but also helps us to understand his subsequent treatments of biblical criticism and moral theology.

This chapter will definitely encourage readers to become better acquainted with a work that has been sadly neglected compared with the famous commentary on Romans.

In the final chapter, Webster energetically presents Barth as much more open to the insights of liberal Protestantism than most critics are usually prepared to admit. Barth’s followers have been largely responsible for setting him over against his 19th-century pre-decessors in an adversarial mode. But, on a close reading of Protestant Theology in the 19th Century, Webster concludes that, "As he passes in review the figures on whom he writes, Barth is not inspecting them with a dogmatic check-list in hand. He is trying to discern how they have struggled towards Christianness, not by merely announcing some position, but by seeking to set themselves face to face with the matter of theology in humility and hope."

This effectively summarises the tone and temper of these intriguing glimpses into the formation of a theological colossus bestriding the 20th century, and still hugely influential today.

Dr Saxbee is Bishop of Lincoln.

To place an order for this book, contact CT Bookshop

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