I have long been perplexed by Karl Barth. I had only vague ideas about anything he said before going to seminary. There, I didn’t study anything he wrote directly, and unfortunately had mostly indirect contact through Cornelius Van Til. It took a few years to recover from that and then start to figure out what do to next.
On the one hand, I’d rather just ignore Barth. He’s notoriously difficult to understand, but unlike Van Til, he has more than a few interpreters willing to help you out. He is probably the most influential and/or important 20th century theologian. Yet, he has had an uneasy relationship with evangelicals. As a case in point, Crossway’s Theologians on The Christian Life series features three 20th century theologians, one of whom is still living and none of whom are named Karl Barth. When one thinks of solid evangelical Reformed theology, most non-scholars don’t really think of Barth.
On the other hand, I’d like to get a better handle on what’s useful and insightful from Barth. However, I don’t want to pull a Brandon Smith and read the entire 8000+ page Church Dogmatics in a year (or more). One might hope Derek Rishmawy would do a read and blog through like he did for Bavinck, but Ph.D studies are probably too time consuming. Beyond that, it could be hard to know where to start with Barth, mainly because there are so many options (Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth is waiting on my shelf)
The best bet I think at this point is to pick up Michael Allen’s Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader. You probably knew I was going to say that because the picture of the book is at the top of this blog post. I’ve been able to grab coffee with Dr. Allen several times since he came to RTS Orlando and he is exactly the kind of person you’d want to explain Barth to you.
However, that’s not exactly what’s going on here. In this volume, Allen provides readers with key passages from the Church Dogmatics. Before each, Allen offers a few paragraphs of introduction and orientation and a short bibliography of further reading. In the excerpts themselves, he offers explanatory footnotes to give insight along the way. The result is an entry point into Barth’s Dogmatics that allows you to get the feel of Barth’s thought and style. If you have the Dogmatics in full you could look up the excerpts and read before and after for further context. Or, you could just read straight through Allen’s volume and then check out something like Hunsinger before trying to tackle the Dogmatics in full.
I found my own read thru to be helpful. I’ve started and stopped CD I.1 several times, and maybe one day I’ll get through them all. In the mean time, I benefited from the readings that Allen offers and would highly recommend this volume as the place to start if you want to wrestle with Barth.
R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader. New York: T&T Clark International, May 2012. 256 pp. Paperback, $39.95.
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Thanks to Bloomsbury Academic for the review copy!