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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
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
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
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.
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