Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth, edited by Daniel L Migliore

22 September 2017

Peter Forster on the Swiss theologian as Gospel-interpreter


BIBLICAL scholars have had an uneasy relationship with Karl Barth. For the most part, they have chosen to ignore him, as if he was playing the game by pre-Enlightenment rules, thereby confusing biblical and systematic theology.

There have been honourable exceptions, led by Charles Cranfield in his acclaimed volume on Romans for the International Critical Commentary. The present book brings together a group of scholars who focus on Karl Barth’s exegesis of the Gospels.

The opening essay by Jürgen Moltmann, now in his nineties, is on Barth’s doctrine of predestination. Moltmann regards the historic teaching on predestination as being responsible for a great deal of spiritual harm. Barth’s invaluable merit was to overcome a stark dualism of belief and unbelief in Christian theology. This is precisely what is now needed in those forms of Islamic theology which are based on the identity of a good Muslim rather than on Allah, the All-Merciful.

Several contributors, led by Richard Bauckham, address Barth’s exegesis of John 1, and the relationship between time and eternity. For all his subtlety as a scholar, Bauckham seems finally to be puzzled by what Barth is trying to say, which is more than Bauckham’s conclusion that “God is Father and Son in loving relationship”.

The Princeton scholar Beverley Gaventa gets closer to Barth’s understanding of the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Old Testament, and to time in general, in her chapter on Barth’s reading of the Emmaus-road story. There Jesus discussed the interpretation of the Old Testament and then revealed himself to be the true subject of the passages. The down-to-earth stranger reveals himself as the Lord of time, the same yesterday, today, and for ever.

Gaventa extends her analysis to Acts, which biblical scholars have typically interpreted as if Jesus is no longer present on earth. Gaventa claims, with Barth, that they have overlooked the invisible but real presence of the risen Christ. For Luke-Acts, Jesus can be in heaven and on earth at the same time.


Another Princeton scholar, Eric Gregory, has a fascinating chapter on Barth’s treatment of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The question that Jesus asks is the reverse of the one that was put to him by the self-justifying lawyer: not “who recognised the injured man as his neighbour”, but “who proved to be a neighbour” of the man. It was the proud, self-satisfied lawyer who first needed to receive God’s grace in his service of the injured man.

This was the point often made by Mother Theresa: Jesus comes to us “in his distressing disguise”. It is our neighbour who is the primary bearer of the divine compassion, before we can receive the command: “Go and do likewise.”

Several contributors consider the parable of the lost son. Kendall Cox compares Barth’s treatment of the parable with that of Julian of Norwich, and finds them to be essentially the same: God is grace, and grace is God.

This is followed through in a fascinating assessment of Barth’s treatment of Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, by Paul Jones from the University of Virginia. Comparisons are drawn with Maximus the Confessor, Calvin, and Schleiermacher, and the distinctive character of Barth’s doctrine of God emerges.

Bruce McCormack continues the discussion of Gethsemane, although, for this reviewer, in attempting to go beyond Barth he loses his moorings somewhat, and posits a necessary relationship between God and human finitude. McCormack thinks that this is the only possible response to the current challenge of protest atheism. That he appeals to Barth in this context illustrates Barth’s abiding relevance.

The book closes with a splendid sermon by Fleming Rutledge. It deserves a wide readership.

Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.


Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

Daniel L Migliore, editor

Eerdmans £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £27

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