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Book Reviews


Letters of the Divine Word

Price, Robert B. Letters of the Divine Word: The Perfections of God in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), ix + 210 pp. $39.96 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jeremy Wynne (September 28, 2017)



Robert B. Price offers Letters of the Divine Word as a companion and guide to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD) II/1, where Barth outlines his doctrine of the divine perfections. The book is a lightly revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis. It is elegantly written, demonstrates broad knowledge and sharp analysis of the secondary literature, a keen eye for exegetical detail, and fidelity to “the pastoral warmth and kerygmatic urgency,” which characterizes Barth’s own writing (5). Most compelling, however, is its form: Letters of the Divine Word is an exercise in commentary, “a close reading and analysis of a single text, rather than an endeavor to argue a specific thesis” (1). In this respect, it offers not only instruction in Barth’s thought, but also a compelling model for theological engagement.

Until recently, commentary work was widely considered a gold standard for theological reflection. This was for good reason. Not only is commentary of a particular text “one of the great intellectual opportunities” for original thought (1), but it can also render an overwhelmingly difficult text accessible; mitigate some of an author’s prolixity; and thereby transmit works of enduring importance to subsequent generations. Commentaries required on Lombard’s Sentences in the medieval period might be the example par excellence, though the practice itself is much older. Even though commentary is not unknown today in the realm of dogmatics or philosophy—Thomas Aquinas himself will sometimes receive such attention—still, Letters of the Divine Word is unusual. It’s neither a comparative study, like Claus-Dieter Osthövener’s examination of Barth and Schleiermacher, nor is it focused narrowly on a single aspect of Barth’s doctrine, like Todd Pokrifka’s fine book on Barth’s method. Rather, it provides a careful listening to the whole and in this sense, it has no peer.

However, one might ask, does CD II/1 warrant this kind of attention? Price gives two compelling responses in his exposition. First, Barth himself argued that an account of who God is bears basic significance for theology. It provides the truth common to “all other statements which dogmatics or preaching might wish to make” (13). So, for example, an account of the Lord’s Supper is only as good as the understanding of God’s omnipresence that lies beneath it (121). Many similar examples are readily available. Second, Barth was profoundly creative in his reworking of the divine perfections. In Barth’s work, Price points out, God’s wisdom “cannot be separated from Jesus Christ and reduced, for example, to the establishment and maintenance of some kind of universal moral order” (95). This core judgment—that an exposition of the perfections is bound to the particularities of divine action rather than the generalities of speculative concern—operates across Barth’s Church Dogmatics and distinguishes his approach. In a helpful aside, Price remarks there was a time when this vitality might have been swamped by the “famous neighbors on either side” of this part-volume of the CD, namely “the attack on natural theology before and the doctrine of election after” (6). But that time has passed. Barth’s work—as “one long exercise in trying to indicate the wealth and irreducible particularity of God’s identity” (188)—is receiving renewed attention.

Thus, Price provides an attentive paraphrase of the whole. He is alert to the historical and theological background and so to Barth’s theological development. But Price sets for himself the primary task of a clear and transparent description, a contemplative account of the words and their meaning. He wants to accurately speak for another.

In working through Letters of the Divine Word, this reader was reminded of the following quotation:

In the main . . . I will try to engage in a kind of stocktaking and let the man display himself as though I were under his pulpit or his podium, my interest focused not on his external or internal biography but on the things he has to tell us, and within the sphere of our present study on the one question of what he means by what he has to tell us, desiring only to hear more from him for a better explanation of what he means (Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982, xviii).

These are Barth’s own words, though they are taken from another text. By them, he indicated the program that he himself would follow in composing commentary on the work of another great theologian, whose intellectual powers Barth respected and whose fatal flaws he struggled with immensely. I offer the quotation here because the comparison with Price’s approach is striking. What Barth would extend to others, Price has extended to Barth. Letters of the Divine Word not only brims with quotations drawn judiciously from the CD and others of Barth’s letters, sermons and writings, but Price admirably resists the various temptations that would send theological commentary off its rails: temptations to translate terms rather than instruct readers in a new idiom and discourse; to allow pressing contemporary social and political matters to steer and sift one’s attention; to flatten-out doxology in favor of a supposedly more analytic mode of argument; and so on. As a result, Barth’s voice is indeed dominant, and admirably so, such that at points Price’s text is a splendid mirror of Barth’s own “sober exuberance” (192).

Because of the depth and complexity of Barth’s doctrine of God, the text could be approached in several different ways. One might helpfully work backwards from his conclusions, or perhaps identify the judgments that run across the whole of the volume and provide for its unity. In the most straightforward fashion, however, and despite the regular glances forward and backward within Barth’s argument, Price allows the contours of CD II/1 to guide his progress. The first four chapters are keyed to successive paragraphs in Barth’s own doctrine of God. Chapter one traces the thesis that God’s freedom for the creature and his freedom from the creature are actually one and the same (CD §28). Chapter two turns to matters of definition, derivation and arrangement, offering a helpful account of Barth’s rich dialectic (CD §29). In chapters three and four, the exposition lengthens as Price focuses on the content of the perfections themselves, first as God’s love (CD §30) and then as God’s freedom (CD §31). He follows carefully as Barth moves from “grace to glory, and from gratitude to joy” (170), along the way interjecting valuable observations concerning Barth’s chosen architecture and unchosen conversation partners.

What role, finally, does interpretation play in Letters of the Divine Word? All commentary writing struggles under the possibility of opening as many avenues for reading and inquiry as possible. In some cases, the overall effect can be a frustrating indecisiveness or scattershot critique, the comment wandering too far from the original author’s concerns. Conversely, theological judgment at this early stage might exert too heavy a hand, closing down options the author may not have seen and excluding issues of contemporary interest outside the commentator’s own circle. The line is a fine one. In this reader’s opinion, Price admirably intones his own (often strong) judgments without becoming mired in disputation.

It is notable that Barth himself comes in for minimal critique. Price acknowledges a few points of concern, often stressing that these shortcomings are the result of over-compensation on Barth’s part, the “harmful side-effects” of a strong dogmatic defense. For example, Price suggests that Barth should not have been so wary of nominalism as to attribute mercy and so, presumably, the object of mercy to God’s eternal life ad intra. Grace would have been more adequately handled, he corrects, as a readiness or “capacity to overcome opposition” rather than as an active overcoming (58; cf. 71). Neither should the subjectivism of liberal Protestant thought have pressed Barth to avoid “positive exposition” of the Holy Spirit in his account of God’s omnipresence. Surely, Price suggests, there are better ways “to secure the Spirit’s full reality [as distinct from the human spirit] in a theologically hostile context” (125, 127). In all of this, Price generously keeps to the primary goal of the genre—not to argue with the text but to allow it better to speak for itself.

If Barth receives minimal critique, the same cannot be said of his interpreters. Price, in fact, leaves few stones unturned—large or small. What is at stake is not only the material content of these perfections, but, to reiterate, also the way in which they inform other points of doctrine. Perhaps it is this urgency which sharpens some of the more pointed language in these sections. That said, Price’s substantive concerns stand on their own. He argues, for example, that the charge of modalism that many lay at Barth’s feet is undermined through close attention to Barth’s description of eternity, i.e. “the divine proximity and remoteness by which God is present to himself and coexistent in three modes of being at one and the same time” (117). Likewise, interpretations of Barth’s dialectical method have often failed precisely because they do not follow “the intrinsic order of divine revelation” (46). Other points of concern include contemporary ways of relating immutability and election (141), or omnipotence and human agency (154-155). These are all important and often controversial matters, and Price sheds light on the inadequacies of competing interpretations, while offering his own principled arguments in response.

The final chapter indicates one possible course for future evaluation. Price concludes the book by artfully retrieving three “basic theological decisions” that Barth himself lays down in his exposition of the knowledge of God (CD §27), all of which lie back behind “the details of what [Barth] says” and therefore exert a “determinative influence over the whole” (184, 195). These are Barth’s decisions:

(1) to ground everything he says about the perfections exclusively in God himself, (2) to expound the perfections explicitly as those of the very essence of God, and (3) not to abstract these perfections from their implications for the Christian life (186).

As he proceeds, Price sets each decision in contrast to the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg, whose work runs in quite the opposite direction: from below to above, from the general to the particular. The juxtaposition is startling and provocative, and underscores the sense that much remains to be done in the way of evaluating Barth’s arguments in CD II/1. There is energy, beauty, and economy in this commentary. Letters of the Divine Word has caused this reader to want to pick-up Barth’s doctrine once again and, in light of new insights and vantage points, to read from the beginning, “to marvel with him at the beauty” of God’s glory and live gratefully before the One who “gives pleasure, creates desire, and rewards with enjoyment” (193).

Jeremy Wynne, Assistant Professor of Theology and Director of Graduate Studies in Theology, Whitworth University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Fully Alive

Fout, Jason. Fully Alive: The Glory of God and the Human Creature in Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Theological Exegesis of Scripture (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 224 pp. $122.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Ashleigh Elser (September 21, 2017)



Jason A. Fout’s latest book takes its title from an oft-quoted line from Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses: “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” While Fout departs from this popular translation of Irenaeus’ aphorism in the body of his text, preferring a closer rendering of vivens homo as “living human,” his argument about the relationship of divine glory to the human creature remains tethered to the word “fully” in the title’s translation. In Fully Alive, Fout considers how the fullness of divine glory might empower a corresponding fullness of human agency. Contesting the terms of “heteronomous” theologies of glory that tend to narrow or bracket human agency, Fout advances a vision of divine glory as a relational overflow, which exercises our creaturely capacities—and specifically, our capacities for interpretation.

Fout outlines the terms of his proposal in chapter 1, arguing for an understanding of divine glory that engenders what he calls a “non-heteronomous dependence” between God and human creatures. “The glory of God, far from dispensing with the self, actually constitutes a self that is capable of glorying God,” Fout writes, “a self which is ‘glorified’ by God in being constituted as an agent” (34). Unlike conventional, heteronomous doctrines of glory that demand “wooden obedience and conformity,” Fout argues that the glory of God enlivens human agency, inviting “conversational, creative response” and making room for the kind of discernment, creative performance, and “faithful questioning” that Fout finds modeled in scripture.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 take up the writings of two twentieth-century theologians—Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. These chapters offer a comparative analysis of two promising but, on Fout’s reading, ultimately narrow accounts of the relationship between divine glory and human agency. While both Barth and von Balthasar depict divine glory in relational terms as an “overflow” of divine joy (Barth) or love (von Balthasar) into creaturely life, Fout argues that these kindred accounts of glory often fail to live up to their own best insights on this score. By presenting a form of determinative “straight-line” obedience or pious self-effacement as the proper human response to God, these theologies of glory bracket out or even evacuate human agency.

While Fout’s criticism of these two accounts of glory proceeds along a number of lines, a central theme (and the one I will focus on here) is his claim that Barth and von Balthasar fail to grapple with the complex picture within the Bible regarding the relationship between divine glory and human agency. For example, Fout argues that Barth’s narrow understanding of the forms of divine revelation results in a correspondingly narrow range of appropriate responses to God. If revelation only comes “in the indicative and imperative or nothing else,” as Barth argues, then obedience to God always demands “precise performance or identical repetition,” with no room for discernment, doubt, creativity, or exploration (73, 101).

Although Fout finds much to commend in von Balthasar’s vision of the relational dynamics of God’s glory, he worries that von Balthasar’s model of relational, self-giving love encourages a “hyperbolic self-dispossession” that ultimately effaces human agency (115). “Although the human is active,” Fout writes, “the human activity seems to be primarily one of keeping one’s own agency in check” (123). Von Balthasar puts forth Mary as an exemplar of this form of self-dispossessing love, but Fout argues that Mary’s response to God is not purely receptive or submissive. Instead, the Gospels depict Mary as one who “questions, discerns, and wonders,” modeling a form of obedience characterized by dialogue and interpretive agency rather than passive, self-emptying assent (141).

The book proceeds in its fifth and final chapter by analyzing the shortcomings of Barth and von Balthasar’s accounts of glory to Fout’s own constructive proposal, grounded in a theological exegesis of select scriptural passages. Taking up material from Exodus, 2 Corinthians, and the Gospel of John, Fout draws out what he calls the “relational” dynamics of God’s glory, reframing it as a matter of God’s “honor, praiseworthiness, and (richly specified) identity” that “effects in creation what it is” (146, 191). As figured in the transfigured countenance of Moses, God’s glory begets glory, makes time for questioning and discernment and makes room for “a creative, responsive obedience, which engages human agency” (187).

This is a book about the meeting of divine glory and the human creature, but it is also, implicitly, a book about revelation. Though human agency appears in a variety of forms throughout this text, questions about interpretive agency remain in the foreground and constitute one of the strongest contributions of this work. How do we understand the relationship between divine glory and human agency as it is preserved in the words of the Bible or in the language and images of our theological tradition? Is God’s revelation self-evident and self-interpreting, or does it invite or even demand the creative, thoughtful participation of human interpretive agents?

Drawing on the work of thinkers like Paul Ricouer, David Ford, and Rowan Williams, Fout places himself firmly in the latter camp and offers his readers several suggestive meditations on the creativity, discernment, and human agency that animate all of our attempts to “think after” God.

Readers of Barth will appreciate the detailed analysis of Barth’s account of divine glory in the Church Dogmatics (CD) II/1 and IV/3.1, as well as Fout’s comparison of Barth and von Balthasar’s treatments of glory, which proves to be both illuminating and provocative. Those acquainted with the last decade of Barth scholarship will be familiar with Fout’s questions about human agency, which animate his reading of the CD. These questions have largely been asked and answered by scholars like Paul Dafydd Jones and John Webster in the direction of Barth’s Christology, which take seriously Barth’s claim that Jesus provides the ontological determination of what it is to be a human being. In this text, however, discussion of Jesus’ human agency seems strangely absent—both in Fout’s analysis of Barth and in his own constructive presentation. Given both the scope of this text and Fout’s interest in scripture, I wondered why Fout did not turn to Barth’s meditation on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in CD IV/1. Surely, this is a moment in which Barth’s understanding of obedience makes room for conversation and discernment. Is this event not the very form of “faithful questioning” that Fout has in mind? The omission of any sustained attention to Christ’s human agency seems particularly striking given the fact that the Irenaean aphorism, from which Fully Alive takes its title, appears in context as a statement that primarily refers to the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and then only secondarily to the ways in which God’s glory might be manifest consequently in our own human lives.

There may be reasons, of course, for finding Jesus’ humanity to be an insufficient answer to the incisive questions Fout raises about the relationship of divine glory to human agency, particularly his questions about the human qualities of our theological reflection or the human creativity implicit in the composition and redaction of scripture. Making these reasons explicit would lend further conceptual clarity to Fout’s argument. Even still, Fully Alive is well worth the read—not only for its scholarly contributions to a number of fields (including Barth scholarship), but for the suggestive power of Fout’s proposal that the glory of God might somehow inhere even in our lingering interpretive questions; glory gives rise to thought, and then gives time, and makes room.

Ashleigh Elser, Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow in Humanities and the Arts, Valparaiso University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Dignity and Destiny

Kilner, John F. Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 414 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Max Heidelberger (September 21, 2017)



John F. Kilner’s new study of the imago dei, entitled Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God, is not—to use the classic phrase—reinventing the wheel. The ground Kilner covers is well trod, and there is not much new machinery here. What Kilner highlights, rather, is the centrality of the proverbial wheel itself to the larger history of Christian thought and practice. Kilner shows that the doctrine of the imago dei has the capacity to “foster both liberation and devastation,” since this concept has had both a humanizing and dehumanizing role within Christian discourse (3). The various ways and means by which God’s image has been invoked throughout the history of doctrine are not mere theological curiosities, but sites of struggle, fraught with hidden agendas, cultural preferences, and deep ethical implications. To cut through this complexity, Kilner claims to offer a purely Bibliocentric—and therefore Christocentric—account of the imago dei, which identifies and minimizes historical, cultural, and critical preference insofar as this is possible. Dignity and Destiny is clearly intended to be a teaching tool, and the scope of the book is broad, covering topics and texts that have been exegeted in greater detail elsewhere. Still, Kilner’s central claim and contribution is his forceful identification of the capacity of the imago dei to help and to harm. In this sense, Dignity and Destiny is the story of an idea, offered with suggestions for how we might better ourselves in asking what can only be one of the most central theological questions: what is God communicating by making human beings in God’s image?

Kilner divides his discussion into three parts. Part I concerns “The Human and Divine Context,” which outlines the implications for the discussion of the imago dei as a whole. As mentioned above, this is where Kilner makes his best case for the book’s importance. In Chapter 1 entitled “Much Is At Stake,” Kilner describes the imago dei’s capacity for liberation and devastation, and provides three reasons for why the doctrine occasionally goes awry: poor attention to Biblical texts, the Bible’s own opacity on the issue of God’s image, and the tendency of theologians to import their own doctrinal and cultural commitments into the discussion. Kilner uses Karl Barth as an example in this case, demonstrating that Barth’s understanding of God’s image-as-relationship was indebted to the I-Thou concept within Martin Buber’s existentialism, rather than a biblical account (49). Kilner is not necessarily critical of this evolution since it is unclear how theologians ought to divorce interpretation from contemporary influences. Indeed, Kilner admits that he “does not pretend to be immune from such influences” himself (50). Still, Kilner contends that a heightened awareness of context-specific biases can go a long way in separating the dangerous excesses of the image from its liberative roots. Having laid bare the difficulties of the doctrine, Kilner concludes the first section by offering a bare definition of image as a connection which invites reflection: “Being in the image of God turns out to mean having a special connection with God and indeed a meaningful reflection of God” (54). Human beings’ status as reflections of God is both present (insofar as Christ is the image of God) and ultimate (insofar as humanity will one day perfectly image of God), revealing a tension between likeness-image and imprint-image—to bear God’s image as a human creature is to bear similarity, but to bear God’s image as Christ is to possess God’s very identity. Image thus has immense Christological implications, as well as implications for human dignity.

The second section of Kilner’s book focuses on this latter concern; indeed Part II is simply titled “Human Dignity.” This is the most dense portion of the book, and it is here that Kilner sets out to address his central concern: the image’s capacity for liberation and devastation. Kilner makes clear that the image among human beings is universal, and he gives special attention to biblical treatments of women as equal image-bearers with men to prove this point (85-94). Kilner also separates functional, spiritual, or attributional understandings of the image from the proper ontological one, asserting that the imago dei is not achieved by action or belief, but simply by virtue of being created in the divine image (105). Kilner also addresses sin’s impact on the image here, crucially arguing that there is no scriptural basis for believing that the image of God can be damaged or lost. The consequences of believing the latter is to diminish respect for the dignity of human beings, with implied permission for oppression, discrimination, and exclusion. The damage of sin is to humanity, not the image of God—is damaged creatures that are restored, not a damaged image (141). Kilner is notably running against a number of Christian ethicists and theologians on this issue, particularly figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Leavy, Ellen Ross, Emil Brunner and Helmut Thielicke, all of whom described at various turns a “lost,” “bent,” “weakened,” or “fractured” image. Scholars of Karl Barth will note that Kilner explicitly addresses Barth’s affirmation in CD I/1 that the image of God “is altogether lost,” observing that Barth remains in line with other neo-orthodox protestant theologians on this issue (161). It is at this point that Kilner makes his heftiest—and given the theologians he contends with, his most controversial—normative claim, arguing that “the Bible consistently avoids indicating that the image of God is either lost or damaged in human beings—now or in any day” (174). The image has been neither virtually nor actually damaged, and to infer this can have serious consequences. Kilner writes, “while the metaphor of a corrupted or defaced image may be convenient for certain theological purposes, the harm risked by using it far outweighs the gain” (176).

Part III of Dignity and Destiny is titled “Human Destiny,” and it concerns God’s intention for human beings to bear and reflect God’s image. Since the imago dei itself does not need to be fixed or restored—since it was never lost—humanity now becomes the site of renewal in Christ, who is both “the standard and enabler of who people are to be, as created in God’s image” (233). The incarnation and the atonement do not change the image, but rather humanity itself is changed by the unchanging image (234). Kilner identifies this dynamic in three key passages: Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 3, and Colossians 3, and he conflates this renewal of human beings with the restoration of humanity’s original destiny in Adam and Eve. In looking back to Eden and looking forward to the eschaton, Kilner demonstrates the “already-not-yet” nature of renewal in God’s image. The image, essentially, “is about a destiny in which God intends that humanity will manifest attributes resembling God’s, in appropriate measure, to God’s glory” (281). Humanity’s capacity to manifest these attributes is never lost; however, sin’s damage to people —not to the image—requires restoration so that human beings can experience and enjoy the fullness of their similarity to their Creator.

In his conclusion, Kilner recaps all three sections of his discussion with the following: “connection with God is the foundation of human dignity,” while “reflection of God is the aspiration of human destiny,” and finally that “all of humanity participates in human dignity” and “all of humanity is offered human destiny” in Christ (311). Kilner closes his book by revisiting the ethical implications of his argument, and calling for the church to recover the creation of humanity in the imago dei as its rallying cry.

Kilner’s book is dense with biblical exegesis and boasts an immense bibliography, which makes it an outstanding introduction for students who want to dig deeper into the history of the doctrine of the imago dei. Kilner does not contribute anything particularly new to the discussion, but he firmly anchors himself in a specific camp while also articulating the reasoning and rationale of those who would approach the imago dei differently. While Dignity and Destiny is an eloquent account of the doctrine of the imago dei, in both scripture and Christian thought, the book’s greatest strength is Kilner’s powerful invitation to reconsider the ethical and practical implications of Christian doctrine. Kilner’s connection of the imago dei to historic and systematic oppression, while also highlighting its powerful capacity for liberation, demonstrates acute anthropological concern, not only for the veracity of biblical ideas, but for their proper application in both church and society. For this reason above all others, Dignity and Destiny will likely be used as an introductory text on the imago dei for years to come.

Max Heidelberger, Wheaton College

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Reformed Virtue After Barth

​Nolan, Kirk J. Reformed Virtue After Barth: Developing Moral Virtue Ethics in the Reformed Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 208 pp. $30.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Michael J. Leyden (June 27, 2017)



For those of us concerned with the discipline of Christian moral reasoning, one of the great delights of the past twenty-five years has been the introduction of Karl Barth’s voice into ethical discourse. Attitudes have changed towards his moral theology during that time, and scholars have been increasingly open to his distinctive and sometimes contrary understanding of ethics. Broadly speaking there are two approaches in the secondary literature. The first seeks to make sense of Barth’s project and give a coherent account of what he was doing and why (scholars such as Paul Matheny, John Webster, and Paul Nimmo are good examples of this). The second seeks to bring Barth into an existing conversation about particular issues either to clarify, critique, or extend the discussion. The present work by Kirk Nolan, Assistant Professor of Religion at Presbyterian College, adopts the second approach. This is not a book on Barth’s ethics per se, neither is it making the case that he was a virtue theorist (though, in places, it does more than suggest the compatibility of virtue theory and Barth’s theology with varying degrees of success). Rather, the book explores the constructive possibility of a Reformed virtue theory if Barth’s theological concerns are heard and received. As such, this volume primarily addresses an ethical debate in the Reformed tradition, which Nolan thinks will benefit from Barth’s insight that ethics is “grounded in and shaped by a covenant based in God’s free election of humankind” (5). For exclusivist Barthians this may be frustrating, as there is clearly space for a more comprehensive and thorough reading of the ethics of the Church Dogmatics. Yet, it is an interesting and provocative proposal.

Following the introduction, the volume is divided into five chapters: three descriptive chapters and two constructive chapters. Chapter 1 outlines the history of virtue ethics in the Reformed tradition and begins by noting the “the current lack of attention to virtue in the tradition” despite a historic legacy in Calvin’s Institutes, The Westminster Confession, and Jonathan Edwards’ The Nature of True Virtue. Drawing on these three, Nolan explores the contours of Reformed virtue theory, and in particular the natural metaphors used to describe God’s engagement with the world. He concludes by outlining how “Barth’s theology has the potential to make powerful contributions to Reformed moral virtue ethics” by redirecting, re-describing, and reorientating the project “as to the proper source of morality” in God (35). Barth’s emphatic Christological method challenges the natural theology which Calvin and Edwards employ, and replaces it with a more thoroughgoing (and arguably quite particular) Chalcedonianism.

Chapters 2 and 3 take serious note of Barth’s critique of the virtue tradition, whilst also suggesting one possible way in which Barth may be a critical friend of virtue ethics. Barth’s Christocentrism is the basis of the critique, particularly as read from the human-side of the Chalcedonian formula, since, for Barth, “the defining features of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ are also the determinative characteristics of what makes us human beings” (38). Ethically speaking, these relational features determine the shape and content of human agency and the course of ethical deliberation. Furthermore, Nolan observes that Barth’s emphasis on incarnation and revelation undergird his objection to the analogia entis and habitual grace, both of which feature in traditional Reformed virtue theories, and is the basis of his claim that what it means to be human is something we learn only from God who reveals it to us in Christ. Barth has not convinced critics such as Sheila Davaney here: “she argues that . . . Barth’s account of divine and human interaction fails to provide a place for human responsibility and integrity” (39). Davaney’s is an oft-rehearsed retort, initially championed by John Cullberg and Robert Willis; Barth’s emphasis on God is said to overwhelm human capacity and ability, providing no room for the human being to act (and without a proper place for human agency there is little work for the Christian ethicist to do!). However, building on John Webster’s work, Nolan rebuts Davaney’s account of both divine and human agency in Barth for its overemphasis on divine sovereignty at the expense of divine condescension. The latter enables meaningful human action, because the full human Jesus Christ was an ethical agent. His point is that only when sovereignty and condescension are held in balance (and some degree of tension!) can a genuine picture of human agency be offered. It is the humanity of Christ, assumed in the incarnation, which enables us to speak about our own genuine humanity because it holds before us the image of what full humanity is. Here is a crucial part of Nolan’s developing argument: the humanity of Christ is indicative of the kind of moral life other human beings are to cultivate in words and deeds, something to move towards in our decisions and actions. This is not simply by being an example to us of the moral life, but more provocatively by being the directly embodied address and command of God to us. Our humanity is therefore found in response to his humanity. With this in mind, Chapter 3 attends to William Werpehowski’s assessment of Barth’s ethics as a type of narratival virtue ethics — i.e. because Barth thinks each of us has a moral history, in which we are encountered and commanded by God “moment by moment”, all of our decisions in the present also draw upon our decisions of the past — and delineates a series of convergences and divergences between Werpehowski’s reading of Barth and Barth’s objections to virtue theory. While Werpehowski’s insight that Barth can offer something useful to virtue ethics is affirmed, the divergences in detail mean that Nolan must find an alternative way to do Barthian virtue: ”Reformed virtue ethics on Barthian lines will have to part ways with Werpehowski’s reading of Barth” (71). Thus, the task of the final chapters is to outline Nolan’s constructive proposal.

Chapter 4 begins with five (Barthian) theological commitments around which Nolan structures his Reformed virtue ethics: 1) God is the God who has chosen unequivocally to be God for us; 2) our identity in Christ is marked by the struggle between old and new, simul justice et peccator; 3) the relationship between God and us is unidirectional, such that God’s grace is given to us in revelation, not through our own natural capacities; 4) the relationship between God and us is Chalcedonian in character; 5) grace is not separable from the God made known in Jesus Christ but is in fact identified with that person. With these in mind, he offers his critical reading of three of Thomas’ virtues: temperance, prudence, and charity. Attention to specific virtues allows Nolan to show what this ethics would look like in reality. In each case, Nolan argues that Barth’s approach sees the enactment of these virtues as human response to divine command. This places the theological emphasis on God and not human capacity. However, just as Thomas thought practicing virtues makes us more virtuous, so Nolan argues obedience to God’s commands in Christ affects the respondent: “our response to God’s initiating activity strengthens the virtue” (91). Significantly, Nolan argues that the need to cultivate these virtues in obedience is absolutely necessary because of the “marked struggle” mentioned above; since we are justified sinners, our response to the divine command is a struggle for us, in which we must choose obedience not disobedience. As we do, we grow more able to respond rightly in the future. This movement, framed theologically by the covenant of grace and practically by the community of faith, is our personal and corporate history, and the cultivation of virtuous responses to God’s command is our formation as Christian disciples. The final chapter explores what this has looked like in concrete terms in the recent history of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and suggests ways forward.

Nolan’s argument is interesting, and it is worthy of attention. As a constructive work, drawing on Barthian insights to re-envision Christian virtue ethics, it is exciting and provocative. As an account of what Barth is doing constructively with his moral theology, I am much less convinced. The eventful character of divine address in Barth’s ethics in the Church Dogmatics is much more dynamic and surprising than I think Nolan allows. Nonetheless there is much to inspire here too — his emphasis on human responsibility before God is a strand of Barth’s moral theology which is often overlooked. Readers will be tested and stimulated by this book, both ethicists and Barth scholars alike, and will be forced to re-examine and sharpen their own ideas. For this reason they should read it.

Michael J. Leyden, Tutor and Lecturer in Systematic Theology, St Mellitus College

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Image and Hope

Viazovski, Yaroslav. Image and Hope: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 286 pp. $34.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Daniel Rempel (June 22, 2017)



How are Christians to speak about the soul? This is the question Yaroslav Viazovski attempts to answer in Image and Hope: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting. For Viazovski, there are four functions of the soul: “(1) the soul makes us distinct from animals and gives us unique dignity, (2) the soul makes us rational and moral agents, (3) the soul is the bridge to the transcendent reality of God, (4) the soul guarantees life after death” (4). Because of both his motivating question, as well as his definition of the soul, Viazovski work is an attempt to uncover an ontological anthropology—a study of what man is—through “a functional comparative study of John Calvin’s and Karl Barth’s ontological anthropologies” (5).

Viazovski’s work is yet another in the comparative studies between the work of Calvin and Barth (See Neil B. MacDonald, Carl R. Trueman, eds. Calvin, Barth,and Reformed Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008; David Gibson, Reading the Decree: exegesis, election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, London: T&T Clark, 2009; Cornelius van der Kooi, As in a Mirror. John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God: A Diptych, trans. Donald Mader, Boston: Brill, 2005. For Barth’s work on Calvin, see Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, trans. G.W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995 ). However, while any student of Barth will know of the influence of Calvin on Barth’s theology, Viazovski’s rationale for placing these two theologians in conversation is more than that. For Viazovski, Barth’s introduction of a relational interpretation of the image of God “may be one of the greatest changes in theological anthropology that has occurred since Calvin” (6).

Another reason for placing these two in conversation is that Calvin and Barth represent opposing theological anthropologies: the dualist and the monist (5). For Viazovski, Calvin’s “axiological dualism” of the separation between the material and spiritual is problematic. Viazovski is uncomfortable about speaking of such a separation in the holistic existence of the human. As a result, Viazovski desires an anthropology that does not result in said axiological dualism. For Viazovski, the way to do this comes through Barth (11). Through placing these theologians in conversation, Viazovski hopes to explicate both Calvin and Barth’s anthropology, how Calvin ultimately comes up short, and how Barth can help offer a corrective to Calvin.

Beginning with Calvin, Viazovski engages with the Institutes, Psychopannychia, as well as a host of Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible in order to explicate Calvin’s understanding of the ontological basis of the human being (8). Weaving together these sources, Viazovski highlights four main themes found in Calvin’s anthropological work: the image of God; the knowledge of God; immortality and the intermediate state; and the resurrection and the ultimate hope.

For Calvin, “to have the image of God is to be human” (15). Furthermore, “humanity is constituted by the faculties of the human soul” (19). Therefore, Calvin finds the ground of one’s humanity in the soul. One may conclude solely on this evidence that for Calvin, all goodness of humanity is found in the soul, and all evil is found in the body. However, Viazovski is careful not to let the reader fall into such a misunderstanding of Calvin. No, he says, for Calvin “there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks [of God’s glory] did not glow” (35). Because the body is God’s creation, there is goodness within the body. However, “the soul is superior to the body” and therefore ” ultimately it is irrelevant if the image of God is present in the body in some measure or not” (38). Thus, while having a body is imperative for humanity to live as God’s creatures, and thus carries an intrinsic importance, such importance is dwarfed by the exceeding magnitude of the human soul. Thus, Calvin frames the subjects of the knowledge of God, immortality and the immediate state, and the resurrection and the ultimate hope as treatises on the human soul, with only passing references to the role and function of the body within this divine framework, for it is in the soul that the human finds their worth in God.

Viazovski transitions from Calvin to Barth in a chapter explicating the differences between Calvin and Barth’s method and thought. Showing his indebtedness to Bruce McCormack, Viazovski argues that one of the significant differences between the epistemologies of Calvin and Barth is that Barth is “a modern theologian” (119). Citing McCormack’s work Orthodox and Modern (Baker, 2008), Viazovski lists four characteristics that qualify a theology as modern: [1] an acceptance . . . of critical methods for studying the Bible; [2] a recognition of the loss of respect among philosophers for classical metaphysics . . . ; [3] the recognition of the breakdown of the old Aristotelian-biblical cosmology . . . ; [4] and acceptance of the necessity of constructing doctrines of creation and providence which find their ground in more modern theological and/or philosophical resources” (119-20). Noting McCormack’s criteria of modern theology, Viazovski claims that what makes Barth specifically a modern theologian is that “Barth apparently accepts the Hegelian presupposition that being is becoming but keeps to a strict Creator/creature distinction” (127). Said differently, for Calvin, there is a quantitative difference between God and humanity in that the finite cannot comprehend what is infinite (122). For Barth, on the other hand, the problem is qualitative: “God belongs to the sphere of the unintuitable therefore human beings . . . cannot know God” (122). All of this is to say, “a comparison of Calvin’s and Barth’s anthropologies is, then, not a simple and straightforward comparison. Rather, it is the putting, side by side, of two anthropological systems which belong to different philosophical contexts” (129). It is with this understanding that Viazovski moves to his engagement with Barth’s anthropology.

Unlike his explication of Calvin, which drew from multiple sources to provide a cogent account of Calvin’s theological anthropology, Viazovski limits his engagement with Barth to Church Dogmatics (CD) III/2, which he describes as Barth’s “systematic presentation of the doctrine of man” (133). By engaging Barth, it is Viazovski’s aim “to analyze how Barth’s relational approach to the image of God overcomes the axiological dualism inherent in Calvin’s view of the image, how he understands the soul/body relationship from a holistic point of view and, finally, what his monism does to the ultimate hope of man” (133).

Viazovski begins his engagement with Barth with the understanding that “if, in Calvin, the starting point was the doctrine of imago Dei, in Barth, it is the Christological concept of the real man” (133). For Barth, anthropology is grounded in Christology (136). The human Jesus is “the ontological determination of all human beings” (137). Thus, for Barth, human ontology is not rooted in something essential to our own being, but rather in something exterior to ourselves, that is, the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, for Viazovski, the heart of Barth’s innovation of theological anthropology is that “humanity must partake of [Jesus] . . . It is to be explained by Him, not He by it” (143). Jesus is “the real man” and therefore Jesus is God’s revelation of our true humanity (163). According to Viazovski, “real man, then, is the fundamental anthropological concept in the thought of Karl Barth. It is the starting point of his anthropology and controls all secondary statements about man” (164). Thus, while for Calvin our ontological status is based in the image of God that has been imparted upon us, in Barth our humanity is not found in our own being, but in the relationship we have with Christ, who is the determination of who humanity indeed is.

As a whole, Viazovski provides adequate accounts of the theological anthropologies of Calvin and Barth that will engage both newcomers and experts of Calvin and Barth respectively. However, the nature of the task as he presented it may have shown its difficulties in Viazovski’s writings. What I mean by this is that in the section of Calvin’s anthropology, Viazovski gave himself the task of synthesizing a theological anthropology through engaging with the Institutes, Psychophannia, and a host of Calvin’s biblical commentaries. Without commenting on Viazovski’s conclusions regarding Calvin’s theological anthropology, there was a rigidity to Viazovski’s work on Calvin that made reading difficult in some sections. At times, there were leaps between claims that could have been smoothed out with greater care.

However, any rigidity present in Viazovski’s work on Calvin disappeared when he began engaging with Barth. Working systematically through CD III/2 allowed Viazovski to create a smoother, cohesive narrative of Barth’s theological anthropology. The reader benefitted from this approach, and what we are left with is an engaging and educating account of Barth’s theological anthropology and how it differs from Calvin.

Additionally, as Viazovski’s goal in this book is to work towards the question of how Christians are to speak about the soul, I would have appreciated more of his own voice in this work. While the accounts of both Calvin and Barth were insightful, I would have appreciated more critical engagement with each author. Viazovski showed a slight amount of personal flair in the final chapter, critiquing Barth’s account of the afterlife (or lack thereof), however, as a reader, I was curious to hear Viazovski’s voice throughout the whole of this book.

Altogether, however, Viazovski’s Image and Hope has provided a helpful engagement with both Calvin and Barth. Theology is always influenced by the philosophical assumptions brought to the discipline, and Viazovski has shown this to be a major difference in the work of Calvin and Barth. Additionally, he has shown some of the benefits and deficits of both authors work, and the consequences of various philosophical assumptions. More importantly, however, Viazovski has assembled a resource that helps human beings understand themselves holistically: body, mind, and soul. While it is not uncommon for theological anthropologies to focus on one aspect of the human person above and beyond the rest—this elevation is usually found in the soul—Viazovski refuses to allow his reader to assume any such dichotomy. Rather, in the unity of the body, Viazovski has shown how human beings can understand who we are in relation to Christ.

Daniel Rempel, M.A. Theology Student, Canadian Mennonite University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Purvis, Zachary, Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany, Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 336 pp. $100.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Calli Micale (June 15, 2017)



In a recent blog post for Oxford University Press, Zachary Purvis describes the dwindling state of European universities at the end of the 18th century:

In the late 18th century, universities as institutions appeared on the brink of collapse. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era subjected universities—and theological faculties in particular—to an unrelenting onslaught of hostility. As the armies of the French Revolution spread across Europe, they seized university endowments for the state and suppressed theological and other faculties in favor of specialized professional and technical academies. (Zachary Purvis, “The University: Past, Present…and Future?” Oxford University Press Blog, October 16, 2016)

Despite the precarious situation of higher education, the simultaneous, emerging phenomenon of encyclopedia (Encyklopädie) expanded academic possibilities. Encyclopedia allowed for a new perspective of the whole. The mass collection of data provided scholars the ability to diagnose knowledge gaps and recognize patterns on a grand scale. The encyclopedia became a vast mirror of not only the nature of the university, but of the sum knowledge accumulated by humans to date.

In brilliant and clear prose, Purvis unpacks the formation of theology as science (Wissenschaft) and modern theological education as rooted in the emergence of encyclopedia. He shows how theological encyclopedia in Germany, pioneered by Friedrich Schleiermacher, provided the model for all major disciplines. Theology, he argues, determined the structure of the modern scientific research university. Schleiermacher’s Brief Outline of the Study of Theology (1811), paired with the work of his contemporaries, served as the leading influences in theological method and training, effecting all corners of academia. Schleiermacher envisioned theology not as closed off from other faculties, but as informed by the higher disciplines (medicine and law) and the lower disciplines (history, philosophy, philology, etc.). His thought brings to light the significance of interdisciplinary study, especially the comingling of the sciences with the humanities. “One of the main results of the transformation inaugurated by Schleiermacher was the upending of theology’s internal and external dispositions, by which I mean the relation of theology’s branches to one another and toward the university as a whole” (5). Purvis offers a significant contribution in both the depth of the historical study and its relevance for the current conditions of decline in higher education. My summary will follow Purvis in distinguishing between three parts of the work. I roughly characterize these parts as: (1) the cause of modern theological encyclopedia; (2) an account of the object, modern encyclopedia; and (3) a description of the object’s effects.

The first part, chapters 2-4, explore the many causes of theological encyclopedia’s emergence and its centricity in German theological education. Purvis traces the concept from the often misrepresented Greek expression ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, meaning ordinary, all-encompassing training (20-21). He notes the wide-spread influence of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (426) for early modern theological compendia. Another source of inspiration, are pre-modern reference works resulting from the Reformation, notably those penned by Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, and their successors. Purvis also catalogues the state’s insistence on introductory courses structured under encyclopedia to ensure students a basic acquaintance with the methods of each discipline. This educational reform encouraged reflection on the object of the discipline, the aims of its projects, and relation to other fields of knowledge. While theologians continued to understand their work in terms of scientia and sapientia, their view of its content transformed from “habitus to a deposit or collection of truth.” The emphasis moved away from sapientia to highlight scientia (Edward Farley, Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983, 61-62; cf. Purvis, 63). Giving particular attention to Johann August Nösselt and Gottlieb Jakob Planck, Purvis first shows the influence of idealist and neo-humanist principles, and second the budding separation of theology into subdivisions as the new direction of theological training took shape. In reaction to late eighteenth century secular skeptics of pre-enlightenment theological tradition, Nösselt and Planck provided a defense of modern theological knowledge. They affirmed the possibility for theology to pursue “pure truth.” Thus, the purpose of encyclopedia was to order and unify the diversity of knowledge—“to sift and to supplement (die Reinigung und Ergänzung)” in order to do more than continue the tradition, but to contribute to the field and push it along (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Kurze Darstellung des theologischen Studiums 2nd ed., 1830, in KGA I/6. §19, 333; cf. Purvis, 37). The early aim of encyclopedia was to generate a foundation that would serve as catalyst for efficient intellectual progress. Purvis argues that this shift in how theologians thought about their object of study, particularly its identification as an academic Wissenschaft, led to its historicization: “the recognition that Christianity’s values and ideas are historically conditioned and subject to change” (5).

In Chapters 5-7, Purvis argues that Friedrich Schleiermacher, more than anyone, brought together theology and science. The Brief Outline attests to the new theological programme of the modern world as “historically focused” (140). Purvis shows Friedrich Schelling’s importance for Schleiermacher’s work in two ways. First, Schelling and his Lectures on the Method of Academic Study (1803) serves as a foil to Schleiermacher in that while Schelling emphasized philosophy and “abstract themes,” Schleiermacher argued for Church life as the center of the discipline (108). Wissenschaft was not a detriment to the Church, but rather “held out promise for breathing new life into an ancient pursuit” (9). Second, Purvis’s close study of Schleiermacher and Schelling shows commonalities between the two. For example, both argued for uniting speculative and historical theology. Modern theology has always acknowledged its indebtedness to Friedrich Schleiermacher, but Purvis singles out its indebtedness to Schleiermacher’s engagement with encyclopedic learning and his reflections on theological training.

Chapters 8-9 describe the effects of Schleiermacher’s thought on both theological encyclopedia and the study of theology broadly. To do so, Purvis, like other historians, distinguishes between two groups of scholars, the speculative and the mediating. The speculative theologians follow Hegel and reject both Schleiermacher’s embrace of historicism and his insistence on the significance of pastoral training. Whereas, the mediating theologians found value in a plurality of theological thought and method, using adversaries to complement one another. The mediating theologians were largely responsible for continuing the trajectory Schleiermacher set forth. Purvis emphasizes the contribution of Karl Rudolf Hagenbach and his Encyklopädie und Methodologie der theologischen Wissenschaften. In the end, Purvis touches on critics of theological encyclopedia, notably Karl Barth. Despite his admiration for Schleiermacher, Barth argued that theology is not science, because theology depends on divine revelation. Theology is witness to God’s activity in the world; its referent is “wholly other.” For Barth, theology cannot justify itself in ordinary terms of “academic responsibility” (226; see also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, 9-10).

Zachary Purvis provides a succinct analysis of theological encyclopedia’s significance for shaping theology as a discipline amidst institutional turmoil. He helpfully reframes the study of the history of theological education in terms of its relationship to higher education. As a theologian with a serious interest in Friedrich Schleiermacher, and because Schleiermacher features prominently throughout the text, my only regret is that Purvis did not include a chapter that dealt in more detail with the influence of theological encyclopedia and the Brief Outline on Schleiermacher’s later work, specifically The Christian Faith (Glaubenslehre). Purvis claims that the Brief Outline (Kurze Darstellung) made Schleiermacher’s major dogmatic work possible, but does not articulate, to my satisfaction, the relation between the two or the influence of the one on the other. Notwithstanding this oversight, the text is a welcome addition to our perspective of the whole. I recommend the work to any student or scholar with an interest in nineteenth century thought, modern theology, or theological education.

Calli Micale, Ph.D. Student, Yale University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology

Nimmo, Paul T., and David A. S. Fergusson, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology. Cambridge Companions to Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 360 pp. $34.99 (paperback).

Reviewed by See Yin C. Yeung (June 01, 2017)



In 2004, Cambridge University Press published The Companion to Reformation Theology, edited by David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz. In 2016, CUP renewed and expanded the scope of the project in the new volume The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology, edited by Paul T. Nimmo and David A. S. Fergusson. Nimmo is the King’s Chair Professor in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity as well as Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh. Both are eminent Scottish Reformed scholars in the field of systematic theology. The volume orientates the reader not only to Reformation theology but also to its developments today. At the dawn of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this volume is valuable and most timely.

The editors explain that this volume takes a different approach in characterizing Reformed theology. Instead of assuming that certain universal Reformed traits necessarily characterize the Reformed tradition - whether they be confessional documents, or the well-known five solas, or the commonly assumed identification with Calvinism - this volume emphasizes “theological variations on common themes” (5). Indeed, this volume emphasizes both commonality and diversity. Unlike the previous Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, which is a series of chapters mostly on individual Reformed figures as well as the English and Scottish Reformations, this 2016 volume is divided into three main parts. Part I, “Theological Topics,” explains the “common themes” of reformed theology. Part II, “Theological Figures,” introduces several key Reformed figures, from the Reformation to their modern successors. Part III, “Theological Contexts,” portrays the “theological variations” in vastly different historical and geographical contexts.

There is much to appreciate in this layout. First, while acknowledging that learning about Reformed theology inevitably involves learning about the thoughts of certain key figures, the book does not start with them. Instead, the book starts with the common concerns of the Reformed tradition. Most importantly, it is most fitting that the volume on Reformed theology starts with nothing other than a chapter on Scripture - the Scriptural principle that not only sparked the Reformation but serves as the starting point of Reformed thinking. The second chapter, on confessions, in turn emphasizes that Reformed confessions (mostly local documents) must be assessed by Scripture. As such, they are fallible and reformable. The idea of a universal Reformed confession is therefore ungrounded. What this underscores is that the Reformed tradition is necessarily diverse and constantly reforming (semper reformanda). The remaining chapters of Part I discuss the doctrine of election, Christology, sacraments, and the Christian life. Certainly, the chapters are separated by distinct titles, but a reader will find that all the chapters are deeply intertwined with one another, despite being written by different authors. For instance, Reformed confessions must be rooted in Scripture, Christology goes hand in hand with the doctrine of election, the understanding of sacraments reflects Christology, and the Christian life in turn is a response to the work of Christ. The last chapter in Part I on the Christian Life is of vital importance as faith and merit is still very much what divides the Reformed churches from their Roman Catholic roots. Nevertheless, the content of the chapter seems to be more pastoral than doctrinal, concerning issues such as prayer, worship, and communal life. As such, the chapter applies equally well to other Christian traditions. The section on the controversy over divine vs. human agency is also rather brief (spanning only two pages). A reader interested in the problem of human agency may find this chapter wanting.

Due to space, it is understandable that the number of loci treated in this part is limited. A reader might be concerned that the book has not included a chapter on Reformed ecclesiology, or church authority, as papal authority was one of the dividing issues during the Reformation. It may also be one of the key factors perceived by many Reformed Christians today as distinguishing them from their Roman Catholic peers. However, I think it is precisely within the Reformed spirit to discuss ecclesiology only within the premises of Scripture, confessions, and mission, which is indeed the case with this volume. I think the editors are right therefore in not dedicating a separate chapter to ecclesiology. Another topic missing may be the Reformed understanding of church and state, especially vis-à-vis Luther. It could have been included in the chapter on Christian life. It is unfortunately not included, although understandably so due to limited space. Church and state is undeniably an important concern for many Reformed churches around the world today, including those discussed in Part III. Furthermore, as the editors remark, Reformed theology is distinguished not only from Roman Catholic thought but also from Lutheran thought and from the radical movements of the Reformation (2), a reader may notice that not all topical chapters are able to spell out this multifaceted distinction.

Part II is valuable in helping the reader understand not only the theological starting points and developments of key Reformed figures, but also their legacy in the Reformed tradition. Theologians covered include Zwingli (emphasized as the father of Reformed theology), Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, and Barth. The contributors to this part of the volume helpfully portray the dynamics of political history and personal factors at play during the development of the thoughts of these figures. As the volume devotes a lot of space for theological contexts in Part III, the number of figures covered in Part II is considerably less than those covered in the 2004 Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, which encompasses Luther, Erasmus, Melanchthon, Bucer, and even Thomas Cranmer. The 2004 volume also offers chapters on late medieval theology, Lollardy, Hussite theology, as well as the Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Reformation.

The last part, Part III on theological contexts, is what makes this volume stand out. It reflects how Reformed theology encounters vastly different contexts today, whether historical or geographical. It shows how the Reformation has projected into a multi-centered tradition, and that reformed theology is never simply a Western movement, but a global one. In addition, the theological tradition is also not merely doctrinal in nature but very much practical. The question is therefore how Reformed theology in reality encounters different cultures and contexts. Contexts discussed include puritanism, scholasticism, Europe, the British Isles, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. The book closes with a chapter on mission and ecumenism, which signals a unity in spite of diversity. Part III is most interesting as its contributors are writing on the very contexts in which they live and teach (with the exception of Alexander Chow on China). However, an additional chapter or at least a section on the Reformed churches in the Middle East and their encounter with the Islamic world, not to mention Christians’ persecutions in such a context in recent decades, might make the volume even more relevant to different political contexts today.

Personally, as a Reformed Christian born and raised in a Chinese context, I find it difficult to relate to Alexander Chow’s section on China (311-14). He seems to be more interested in giving the Chinese authorities’ account of Christianity in China than in the Reformed community’s understanding of itself. To my dismay, he quoted from “internal government reports,” credited the Communist government’s economic policy for the growth of Reformed Christianity in China, and expressed suspicion of “intellectual” Christians (intellectuals are usually a concern of the authorities) being involved with the 1989 democratic movement (313). More troubling is that Chow did not mention the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which defines the state-approved, patriotic churches, and by which the government outlaws all other confessing churches. This would be of utter importance for this volume because, when it is the state that determines the proclamation of the church, the very Reformed scriptural principle is at stake. The Chinese context precisely poses the question as to how Reformed churches are to be loyal to the Word of God if they are claimed by other powers. As this volume was published in 2016, it is interesting to note that Chow did not mention at all the increasingly violent persecution of churches by the government in recent years. Inexplicably, instead of documenting how the Chinese Reformed community understands its own tradition, or mentioning the problem of state-sanctioned churches and persecutions, Chow chose to mention a cult called Eastern Lightning (313), which Christians would think is irrelevant to Christianity, let alone Reformed theology. Indeed Chow was writing, not from the Chinese church’s point of view, but from outside. The fact that he did not make any observation about actual church teachings and practices but focused mostly about literature in the market (which he described as “propagat[ing]” Christianity) and online discussions also confirms this.

On the whole, this volume on Reformed theology is an enjoyable and accessible read. Despite being a collection of essays written by different authors, it forms a coherent whole. It is successful in giving readers an overview of the common Reformed themes as well as key theologians. It is also successful in emphasizing their openness to correction in light of Scripture, and therefore their embodiment in diverse contexts. As noted by the editors, this volume “seeks to capture something of the vibrancy and excitement which are the hallmark of the best theological work in any tradition, to indicate and to evidence the generative and constructive contributions which Reformed theology, in all its rich history and proud diversity, continues to make to ecclesial and ecumenical dialogues today” (6-7). The vibrancy as well as the rich diversity are indeed evident. The readable essays are a valuable resource for scholars, students, and lay Christians alike. Students in particular will find the further readings at the end of each chapter a helpful resource.

See Yin C. Yeung, Ph.D. Student, Princeton Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective

Cortez, Marc, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 233 pp. $27.99 (paperback).

Reviewed by Timothy McGee (April 25, 2017)



In his latest text in theological anthropology, Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective, Marc Cortez surveys the Christian tradition in hopes of showing how Christology has informed various anthropologies. The book is extremely well-written, both in terms of the accessible language used and in the way Cortez guides his readers straight to the heart of various theological arguments. The deft summaries of these major theological voices, coupled with a good use of secondary materials, make the book ideal for classroom use. Each chapter focuses on a particular theologian, with the exception of the analysis provided in the final chapter, which means that each chapter stands on its own, allowing it to be easily excerpted for a supplemental course reading.

For his studies, Cortez engages one theologian from the patristic (Gregory of Nyssa), medieval (Julian of Norwich), and Reformation (Martin Luther) periods before turning to major modern and contemporary theologians: Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, John Zizioulas, and James Cone. Knowing that selection is always normative, Cortez clarifies that he chose these authors in part because they offer relatively “high” Christologies. If the goal is to show how various anthropologies are structured by or grounded in Christology, then theologies that strongly emphasize the distinctiveness of Christ in relation to all other humans will offer more insight into how Christology functions in this determinative way (24).

Cortez is aware that his focus on method (226-7), or even the thematic focus on theological anthropology (24), is not a timeless issue shared by all these authors. Though Christology is central for some authors, like Karl Barth and James Cone, Cortez has to argue for this centrality for other figures. He notes John Zizioulas might be understood as a more Trinitarian than christological thinker but argues that the application of the trinitarian term “person” to human beings is structured by Zizioulas’s Christology (164). Similarly, Martin Luther’s notion of justification by faith moves from soteriology to Christology once justification is understood as being “righteous in Christ,” which becomes, on Cortez’s reading, “the essence of what it means to be human” for Luther (85). Cortez understands that each doctrine is interconnected with the rest yet believes he can isolate the Christology from this dense theological web to show how it plays a stronger, more determinative role in each theologian’s anthropology

There is, however, a significant procedural problem in his approach. Cortez wants to read each author along a kind of foundationalist trajectory, such that Christology operates as the basis of—offering epistemic warrant or grounds for (20) —anthropological claims. Each chapter therefore begins with a broad survey of a major christological theme in that author’s work before turning to show how it impacts his or her anthropology overall and in regard to a specific issue, like race, sexuality, vocation, or the mind-body problem. The texts he engages, however, were not written in this fashion and do not show evidence that the authors thought in this way. Further, to argue that Christology is determinative, one must isolate the Christological moment from the rest of the theologian’s doctrinal framework, which entails downplaying the way a particular Christology itself might be heavily determined by other doctrinal concerns, like Trinitarian personhood for Zizioulas or soteriology for Luther.

More problematic, however, is a point Cortez doesn’t consider. Cortez admits that culture, experience, and all sorts of other sources of data will influence any theologian’s anthropology (232). Christology is, therefore, not the only source of information, though it “alone reveals the ultimate truth of humanity” (228). The problem here is that Christology is presumed to have achieved some kind of cultural transcendence, functioning now as a kind of purely theological “hermeneutical lens” through which to decipher and correct all other accounts (228). Yet, it is quite evident that every Christology is set within certain intellectual, cultural, and material contexts. For instance, though Cortez may be correct that even Schleiermacher’s central category of religious feelings is structured by his Christology (123), Schleiermacher’s emphasis on experience itself, which is central to how he develops his Christology, comes not only from his own historical context, but also from a specific set of anthropological convictions. One could make similar points for each other authors Cortez analyzes. To frame the issue another way, Cortez does not maintain a careful distinction between the person of Jesus Christ and the intellectual discipline of Christology, something that raises questions both in terms of how he reads each author and what he ultimately hopes to gain through these readings.

Given the setting of the review, it will be apposite to say a few words about his treatment of Barth. Cortez’s chapter relies on his previous monograph on the mind-body problem in relation to Karl Barth’s theological anthropology (Embodied Soul, Ensouled Bodies: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2008). It is, like every other chapter, extremely clear and focused in its treatment, and, perhaps given his previous treatment of the theme, it is the shortest chapter, coming in at just over twenty pages. Barth’s commitment to offer a Christological anthropology gives Cortez the occasion to provide a more precise articulation for how such a “truly christological anthropology” will operate (162). Cortez specifies that there is a first set of arguments, moving from Christology to a set of implied, and therefore obligatory, claims about human existence. This initial move is then followed by an application of these general, christologically mandated beliefs to “particular anthropological issues” (162), like the relationship between the body and the mind, or many others. Though suggesting that Barth offers this “nuanced” methodology (162), Cortez also acknowledges that Barth never provided “principles” for making this movement from Christology to general anthropological claims (148), an absence that should perhaps give Cortez more pause than it does, especially since Barth is the figure most focused on this kind of Christological reasoning.

In his treatment, Cortez describes how, for Barth, the Gospels portray the soul of Jesus as directing his body (152). Cortez notes the biblical texts Barth cites as support for his view but misses an opportunity to reflect on an underlying problem for Barth, as well as for any Christological anthropology: the biblical authors wrote accounts of Christ out of their own cultural and theological frameworks. That Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ in a certain way, for instance, as an “embodied soul” (modifying Cortez’s chapter title), need not imply that such a hierarchal and dual ontology—spiritual and material substances—is required. It is a missed opportunity, both for the way this hierarchical ordering plays out all across Barth’s theological anthropology, most notably and controversially in his account of the relationship between men and women, and also for showing again how difficult it is to decide which aspects even of the biblical accounts should be taken as providing clear and theologically mandated anthropological claims.

If this review has focused on these methodological issues as opposed to the historical surveys of every figure, it is because Christological anthropology, for Cortez, is defined by this methodological and epistemic concern to reason from Christology to anthropology. This concern shapes which authors are discussed, how each chapter is structured, what themes are drawn out, how they are explicated, and the introductory and concluding discussions in the book as well. Those who largely share Cortez’s interests will find much to take from the book. Those who might be less interested in or suspicious of this his approach will certainly find aspects dissatisfying or problematic, and yet even they still have much to gain from the book. Though one might wish any account of Schleiermacher’s anthropology to mention and even engage his connections to the racialized anthropologies and global politics of the time, still, a clear account of some of the central theological claims he makes can be extremely helpful. Cortez offers these clear and concise engagements for each figure he considers.

Overall, the book is a considerable achievement, covering a vast amount of terrain with insight and clarity, all in under two hundred and fifty pages. Whether introducing new readers to major theological voices or refreshing the memories of those who’ve engaged them before, the ease in Cortez’s exposition makes the book well worth the read and a good resource to keep on the shelf.

Timothy McGee, Ph.D. Candidate, Southern Methodist University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Dogmatics after Barth

Thomas, Günter, Rinse Reeling Brouwer and Bruce McCormack eds., Dogmatics After Barth: Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy (Leipzig: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), xvi + 203 pp. $18.20 (paperback).

Reviewed by Mark Lindsay (April 11, 2017)



Dogmatics after Barth? For some, such a question will sound absurdly unnecessary. For others, the suggestion alone will sound an ominous death-knell. And yet, it was to precisely this question that an international working group devoted themselves—a collaboration between the Protestant Theological University in Kampen, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Rühr-Universität in Bochum, and which culminated in a 3-day conference in Doorn in April 2011.

Rather obviously, this is not the only collection of essays that deals with the contested issue of Barth’s legacy. Michael Dempsey’s Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Eerdmans: 2011), Gibson and Strange’s Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques (Bloomsbury T&T Clark: 2009), and indeed Princeton Seminary’s 2013 conference, “Karl Barth in Dialogue: Encounters with Major Figures,” together represent just a sampling of the many recent works that have sought to bring Barth’s theology into constructive conversation with our present day. Nonetheless, this particular collection provides us with something quite different. Rather than addressing the nature of Barth’s legacy in the context of a particular doctrine, or in dialogue with specific individuals, the essayists here explore the multivalent term in the book’s title, “after Barth.”

As the editors note, doing theology “after Barth” can simply be a function of temporality, recognising the self-evident point that Barth has been dead for nearly fifty years and so we cannot but do theology after him. But theology “after Barth” can and must also take into consideration the way in which the theological landscape itself has altered dramatically since 10 December 1968, with the advent (and arguably demise?) of liberationist, postliberal and ecumenical enterprises, and the more recent appearance of various indigenous and postcolonial theologies. Third, theology “after Barth” might, and for some will, mean doing theology in the manner of (though hopefully not in slavish devotion to) Barth. These three readings of the book’s title thus provide the structural shape of the collection, corresponding to new contextual readings (part 1), methodological challenges (part 2), and the reconsideration of key loci of Barth’s thought (part 3).

In part 1, we are presented with accounts of the multiplicity of ways in which Barth has been received in five different geographical contexts, from Europe to southern Africa, and across to Korea and Australia. Dirkie Smit notes in chapter one that, while Barth has had an enormous impact in South Africa, it has been, and continues to be, a contested and controversial influence. Whether it be the employment of Barth’s joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ as God’s great Yes against the natural religiosity of apartheid idolatry, or the refusal to excise the political implications of Barth’s theology, reading Barth in South Africa has always been a reading against the grain of popular civic and religious ideas. Yet Smit concludes with the possibility that perhaps the “South African Barth” is unrecognisable from the “real” (read “European”) Barth and that this caricaturised figure is likely not the best guide for the future of South African theology.

In chapter two, Myung Yong Kim records a fascinating history of Korean Presbyterianism, which has been characterized by a deep division between conservatives and moderates, and represented institutionally by competing Presbyterian seminaries (the Tong-hab and the Hab-dong). Spearheaded by two Korean graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary, each of whom emerged with diametrically opposed theologies, these seminaries have either repudiated Barth for his alleged liberalism, or championed him for his neo-orthodox credentials. Kim also notes a further set of tensions, namely the suspicion with which Barth is viewed by Minjung theologians, ironically by his not being liberal enough. In short, Kim’s depiction of Korean Presbyterianism is one in which the conservative (he says fundamentalist) wing has dominated the theological field and set the conditions under which Barth is to be understood. Yet, if Kim’s terminology accurately depicts the categories by which Barth has been read in Korea, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Barth has been caricaturised by all sides, with neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘neo-orthodox’ particularly helpful descriptors, but rather adjectives that have served merely to polarise and provoke.

Benoît Bourgine and Susanne Hennecke provide readings of Barth in his more ‘natural’ surrounds of continental Europe, particularly the Francophone countries and the Netherlands. For Bourgine, the challenge of Barth is how, in a secularised society, theology can exist as scientifically credible within the academy, constructively critical in the Church, and publicly responsible in society at large. Hennecke meanwhile, brings Barth into conversation with Kornelis Miskotte, noting how Barth’s Dutch interpreter contextualises Barth within the frame of post-war cultures of nihilism.

In the final chapter of section one, Ben Myers turns our attention to Australia’s reception of Barth. Noting the historic peculiarity that the study of theology has been almost entirely excluded from state-funded universities since the first of them were founded in the 1850s, Myers focuses his attention on the ecclesial reception of Barth. More specifically, he addresses the way that the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA), which came into being in 1977 as a union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist traditions, ‘was deeply shaped by Barth’s theology of the 1930s’ (54). Myers argues that the Basis of Union—the foundational document of the new Church—was intentionally structured to approximate the Barmen Declaration, with Barmen’s language of witness to Christocentric revelation infusing the whole text. In my view, while Myers correctly identifies the UCA as the Australian church most obviously influenced by Barth, I would suggest that he under-estimates the emerging vitality of Barthian scholarship within the country’s universities. Similarly, and I say this as an Anglican, I would also offer that he skews the picture slightly by condensing Australian church life to the UCA.

Section 2 of the book traverses key methodological issues. Bent Flemming Nielsen begins by exploring why Scandinavia, and Denmark in particular, has had such trouble understanding Barth. In response, he argues that too much effort has been expended seeking just the semantic meaning in Barth’s theology, whereas the real search for meaning must recognise the eventful activity of Barth’s speech. From the Elgersburg lecture in 1922, through Nein! and the “Anselm book,” Flemming seeks to demonstrate that the really interesting aspect of Barth’s theological endeavour is less the linguistic value and more the deep structure of implied subjective action. Such praxis not only speaks to the limitations of human “God-talk.” but opens up possibilities of rendering Barth’s theology as liturgy, which in turn facilitates a renewal of our understandings of corporeality.

The chapters by Paul Nimmo, Matthias Gockel and Árpád Ferencz take up the question of the task of dogmatics, both as Barth saw it himself and as it relates now to a post-Barthian world. Nimmo, enquiring into the way in which Barth understood the dogmatic task, reminds us that for Barth dogmatics functioned critically, scientifically, actualistically and performatively. Above all, though, dogmatics exists in and only in the Church, where alone it is meaningful. Yet Nimmo points out the irony that most of “Barth’s own career . . was in the context of higher education,” on which he never really reflected theologically (89). In an increasingly secularised society, therefore, what it means to do theology in the context of publicly-funded and non-religious education rather than within the church compels us to think “after Barth” in a number of different ways.

Similarly, Ferencz asks about Barth’s ongoing relevance within Church and Academy, but does so from the perspective of post-Communist Hungary. On balance, he seems ambivalent. On the one hand, he applauds the anti-ideological tone of Barth’s “de-centered” dogmatics that is grounded in the fragility of all human thought before God, and that thus serves all contexts that are oriented around authoritarian ideology. On the other hand, he betrays a reluctance to admit any practicality to Barth’s theology, saying even that its utility “finds its place elsewhere and not in the sermon” (128). One must ask whether or not Ferencz has adequately appreciated Barth’s commitment to preaching, and indeed to vitality of theology to congregational life.

Gockel returns us to the heart of theology, the knowledge of God on the basis of God’s Self-knowing, and thus the paradox that the object of theology is a Subject. Referencing Barth’s 1929 essay “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie” and his later more developed theological ontology in CD II, Gockel neatly demonstrates the connection between what it is possible to know and then say about God, and what God says to Himself about Himself, as the “One who loves in freedom.” Seeing this as the herald of Barth’s doctrine of election, Gockel concludes with the suggestion that dogmatics after but in the manner of Barth should abstain from any speculation about God’s being that divorces Him from creation and covenant. Thus, in a nod to the Trinitarian-election debates, Gockel—who has been aligned with McCormack amongst the “revisionists”—argues that if as Barth claims God is truly affected by His creation, then the full realization of the divine Self-identity is contingent upon the history of creation (121-122).

The final section of the book takes up specific doctrinal motifs that are found in Barth’s theology and that may be pregnant with utility for our present theological context. Darrell Guder again draws our attention to the deeply missional character of the Church Dogmatics. In particular, he argues that our own ability to critically engage with the non-churched world in which we live is heavily dependent upon our understanding of how that world got to where it has got, and how we parse that history through the lenses of God’s love and redemptive activity. Barth, says Guder, is a model for that type of missiological contextualisation that does not, however, prioritise context over gospel. Guder further suggests that other missional aspects within the Dogmatics include a reminder that sanctification cannot be divorced from a consequent sending, and therefore that for Barth talk of the “benefits” of salvation ought be replaced with language of vocation; and that a missional reading of Barth’s ecclesiology offers a challenge to inherited concepts of ministerial orders and ordering.

In Bruce McCormack’s chapter, we are encouraged to explore the future of Protestant ecumenism by considering Barth’s model of engaging with both Reformed and Lutheran traditions, and his eventual transcending of the polarities by which those sixteenth century debates were framed. This, says McCormack, is a more fruitful avenue for ecumenical endeavour than current Protestant theology that is, in his own view, these days neither confessional nor ecumenical.

Gerrit Neven brings Barth into conversation with French philosopher Alain Badiou—and, through him, Blaise Pascal—to ask whether theology as such even has a future after the Twentieth Century. Using the motif of “Event” (Ereignis) that is common to both Barth and Badiou, and referencing Barth’s second commentary on Romans, Neven affirms the possibility that future theologies may in fact have infinite possibilities, so long as they move beyond static ontology and towards the plurality of revelatory eventfulness. This, he argues, is what Badiou extrapolates from Pascal, and what can likewise be extrapolated from Barth. Nevertheless, while I think that Neven has correctly identified the iconoclastic nature of Barth’s Romans, my concern is that he has consequently so de-identified the eventfulness of revelation—“’the good and joyful truth’ may occur at any time or place, and in any domain of knowledge” (178) —that his version of contemporary theology is devoid of precisely the Christian specificity that Barth would require as theology’s sine qua non.

George Harinck offers a somewhat revisionist chapter on the historiographical reception of Barmen. While appropriately provocative, the chapter is, to my mind, one of the lesser lights in the collection. Notwithstanding his appreciation for the Declaration and the Synod as a whole, Harinck argues along familiar lines that Barmen was deficient in its silence on the “Jewish Question” and ultimately—and necessarily—a fatally compromised document. Such has been argued before. But his contextual contention, that the Confessing Church never fought against the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung (because its members were fundamentally sympathetic towards Nazism), flies in the face of the most reputable histories of the Kirchenkampf and fails to recognize that there in fact was a Church Struggle.

In the final chapter, Günter Thomas reprises the long-contested theme of whether and how Barth’s theology can intersect constructively with political engagement. Noting the necessary limitations (what he calls “disassociations”)—principally, that Barth’s hermeneutic of politics and culture was both underdeveloped, and conditioned by a context that is no longer ours—Thomas nevertheless sees some political utility in Barth’s dogmatics. In particular, he points to Barth’s manner of relating creation to covenant (CD III/1) as a repudiation of that postlapsarianism that, with the help of Augustine, reduces history to a cosmic battle between good and evil. With that dualism out of the way, Barth is able to contend that the political realm ought not be concerned solely with “limiting, fighting and suppressing the power of sin” (188). Similarly, Barth’s rejection of a theology of Ordnungen breaks open the Platonic categorization of world and society, making every aspect of social life available to an encounter with God’s fidelity and grace. Without therefore being an uncritical apologist for Barth’s political theology, Thomas seeks to retrieve the possibilities of utilising Barth’s dogmatic presuppositions for a post-Barthian political ethic.

In sum, then, this collection takes the reader on a fascinating geographical, methodological and doctrinal journey into a dogmatic world shaped by but not subservient to Barth’s particular insights. There are, inevitably, problems with the book. Aside from the variable quality of the chapters, to which I have already referred, the book is shot-through with spelling and typographical errors, and with an annoying inconsistency in the formatting of footnotes. To my mind, even the front-cover looks rushed, and in greater need of editorial discernment. If, however, one can get beyond these flaws, there is much here to be read with profit.

Mark Lindsay, Joan F W Munro Professor of Historical Theology, Trinity College Theological School - University of Melbourne

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.


Book Reviews


Revelation and Theopolitics

Rashkover, Randi. Revelation and Theopolitics: Barth, Rosenzweig and the Politics of Praise (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 215 pp. $80.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by Zacharie Klassen (February 21, 2017)



Published in 2005, Randi Rashkover’s Revelation and Theopolitics no doubt occupies an important place in the increasing Jewish engagement with the works of Karl Barth. Indeed, Rashkover’s more recent Freedom and the Law: A Jewish-Christian Apologetics (Fordham, 2011) extends some of her engagement with Barth in Revelation and Theopolitics to a treatment of Barth on the law. As the full title of the book here being reviewed suggests, however, this book is not principally about Karl Barth. Rather, the book offers a comparative reading of the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig and the Christian theologian Karl Barth as presenting what Rashkover calls a “theology of testimony” that could support “a philosophically justified theopolitics” for Jewish and Christian communities in an age where the question of the role of religion in the public square continues to vex many (3).

According to Rashkover, a theology of testimony is built on the assumption that “knowledge of God is possible only in the context of the ethical labor of the elect individual who seeks through her moral endeavor to testify to the loving act of the transcendent God” (3). Rashkover is fully aware of how the language of knowing God through “ethical labor” may be interpreted as repeating certain Kantian ideas about God as being the rationally necessary “postulate” for ethics (22), as well as his affirmation of the moral autonomy of the individual. To show that there is a concrete relation to Kant in her analysis, but also to show that Kant’s ideas are not the foundation for a theology of testimony, Rashkover spends the first chapter analyzing the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, noting Rosenzweig and Barth’s “shared inheritance” of his thought (9). While this chapter includes some of the most challenging material of the book, a close reading is rewarding and important for understanding how Rashkover reads Rosenzweig and Barth to both inherit and improve upon Cohen’s thought. Rashkover notes that Cohen took Kant’s categories of critical idealism and did what Kant was never willing to do, namely, to apply the categories to religion or revelation and specifically to the sources of Judaism (14). By doing this, Rashkover claims that Cohen improved upon Kant in two ways.

First, Cohen was willing to develop assertions regarding God that went beyond Kant’s appeal to God as mere cause of the created order. This led him to conceive of the concept of “correlation,” which Rashkover interprets as the relation, begun in God’s act of revelation, “between God as the origin of reason and a human’s response to this revelation by means of her employment of that reason” (18). Developing the concept of correlation in relation to the biblical language of God’s holiness, Cohen then claimed that God was not only the postulate that made ethical action rational, but also the pre-condition and model of human morality (22-23). Called to be holy, human beings must “emulate” God through moral action and in doing so show themselves to know God only through “acknowledgement” of and devotion to God (24). Second and following from the above, Rashkover notes that Cohen’s principle example of correlation is divine forgiveness and grace, topics that Kant refused to give weight due to their potential for undermining the freedom and autonomy of the rational individual to act (30). While these two moves beyond Kant are promising in Rashkover’s view, in that they turn with seriousness towards religious sources, she finally claims that Cohen’s advance is only partial, since he still requires that Jewish sources fit the idealistic constrains of ‘ethics’ and ‘reason’ rather than letting the sources determine what counts for ethics and reason.

Turning to an analysis of Rosenzweig and Barth in the subsequent four chapters, Rashkover demonstrates how these two figures prioritize religion or revelation in their accounts of ethics. In the second chapter, Rashkover points out that, contrary to Cohen, Rosenzweig’s account of revelation in The Star of Redemption “does not have any conceptual referent” (59). Revelation, for Rosenzweig, is always the “act” of the transcendent God and as such it is consistently out of the grasp of idealistic possession. Reading The Song of Songs, Rosenzweig argues that God’s revelation is the revelation of God’s “unconditional and commanding” act of love for the beloved, which is also the election of the beloved (60). Being so elected by the transcendent God, the beloved simultaneously finds herself called to acknowledge this love while having no possession of it such that she could simply re-present it through reason. Furthermore, finding herself loved, she acknowledges a time without that love – the time of sin (62). Experiencing this love but also recognizing sin, the beloved is now called to testify to the God she desires and who is absent. Here Rashkover sees the significant improvement on Kant (as well as Cohen) being Rosenzweig’s appeal to “theological desire” as the basis for epistemology and ethics rather than the “postulate of God” as “rational need” (66).

The appeal to “theological desire” here may sound like a return to Schleiermacher, but in the third chapter Rashkover shows how this is not the case by treating what she calls Rosenzweig’s “philosophically plausible theology of the Word of God” (77). There she argues that, for Rosenzweig, desire for the transcendent God can be testified to in human language without reducing revelation to the subjective experience of the religious individual since a philosophical analysis of language shows that language “suggests transcendence without objectifying it” (80). In other words, rather than just testifying to a subjective experience, Rosenzweig understands language to be expressive of reality. The Word of God does not consist of particular words or propositions then, but must be understood as supplying a language for “the experience of divine revelation and command” and “the human response to this experience…” (90). The human experience and response to the divine revelation and command demonstrate, however, the dialectical character of the Word of God in that language itself expresses “language’s inability to describe…the Other” (92). This does not mean that the human response has only a negative function, for the positive function of human response is also displayed when theological desire translates into love of neighbor (99).

In chapters 4 and 5, Rashkover turns to an analysis of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and selections from the Church Dogmatics (hereafter ER and CD respectively), arguing that Barth’s account of “theological knowledge . . . is structurally the same” as Rosenzweig’s (120). In fact, Rashkover argues that the account of revelation given by Cohen, Rosenzweig and Barth are similar in that all affirm revelation as the means by which human beings come to knowledge of God. For the Barth of ER, however, this knowledge is possible “only by an act of God’s grace through which God lovingly displays his righteousness and commands us to obedience . . . ” through the cross and resurrection (124). By way of this “love-command” structure, Rashkover rightly understands Barth to be articulating a theology of “divine election.” The elect individual, however, can only experience the revelation of God’s love and command as a judgment of the reality of sin and so the negation of the present world. Pointing out a difference between Rosenzweig and Barth here, Rashkover notes that, for Barth, in ER “the redemption afforded in revelation does not pertain to or have any positive effect on our current world” but must find expression only in “the new world” (128). As a result, the only way a believer testifies ethically to God is through repentance (130). In order to draw out any kind of “positive praise of God” from Barth’s writings, Rashkover claims that one needs to turn to his account of revelation in the CD where she claims Barth provides an alternate picture of “the form of the divine act of revelation” even as he remains committed to a dialectical account of that revelation (138). According to her, the Christology in CD II/2 provides an account of positive testimony in that there Barth declares Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as not only the basis for knowledge of God, but also as the visible “basis for ethical life” (152). The incarnation is “the site of positive testimony to God” whereby human beings are able to see “a portrait of the elected human being who positively loves and participates in the glory of God” (155). While human beings cannot realize the perfect testimony to God’s love that Jesus embodied, they can nonetheless “enact obedience and practical testimony to God in this world” through love of neighbor (159).

In the final chapter, Rashkover develops what she calls a “politics of praise” whereby covenantal communities like Judaism and Christianity can testify to God’s love through “the prophetic call of proclamation and critique, and the cry for justice” in the political sphere (171). Both of these elements, as Rashkover sees it, have been sorely hampered by “Constantinianism” on the one hand and modernity’s “church-state divide” on the other (172-173). Due to the dialectical character of their respective theologies of testimony, both Rosenzweig and Barth see testimony as a prophetic critique of human political realities (including those of religious communities) that attempt to secure the needs of a people at any cost (174). For Rosenzweig this came to expression in his critiques of certain strands of liberal Jewish tradition that too closely allied Judaism and the state and in Barth through his involvement in the Confessing Church. These examples show, for Rashkover, that a theology of testimony does not preclude religious communities from involvement in any form of ethical or even legal expression in the pursuit of justice, but it does mean that the form of expression will always be held in tension with the recognition of its own dialectical character as testimony and never as stable norm or dogma.

There is much to commend in this book. Beyond helpfully demonstrating the shared relationship between the thought of Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Barth, Rashkover has developed a framework for thinking about Jewish and Christian political engagement that should enrich ongoing work in this area. For readers unfamiliar with the Jewish authors and concepts being explored, this work will provide a helpful (although challenging!) introduction. In such a short review, much was left out that readers would also benefit from attending to, such as Rashkover’s take on the debate over Barth’s so-called turn to analogy the CD, as well as a surprising and helpful engagement with philosopher Gillian Rose in the last chapter.

Zacharie Klassen, Ph.D. Candidate, McMaster University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.