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Book Reviews


Barth’s Doctrine of Creation

Gabriel, Andrew K. Barth’s Doctrine of Creation: Creation, Nature, Jesus, and the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), x + 118 pp. $18.00 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Ximian Xu (November 27, 2018)



In this short work, Andrew Gabriel—Assistant Professor of Theology at Horizon College and Seminary—aims to use Barth’s doctrine of creation to address the seeming irrelevance of the doctrine of the Trinity to the doctrine of creation, a trend which gradually developed in the post-Reformation era and the nineteenth century. Gabriel argues that Barth is intent on articulating the doctrine of creation from the standpoint of the “God who is revealed in Jesus Christ” (2-3). Rather than adopting a comparative study, Gabriel delves into Barth’s doctrine of creation itself, particularly as outlined in Church Dogmatics III/1.

In chapter two, Gabriel traces the contours of Barth’s doctrine of creation, arguing, “for Barth, knowledge of creation is an article of faith. From this article of faith believers learn of the free and loving Creator who has created the world out of nothing for the covenant. This covenantal relationship leads Barth to affirm that creation is distinct from God and that creation is good” (8). Based on this summary, Gabriel observes that for Barth creation refers both to “the first originating work” and to non-historical history (8-10). Hence, it is faith that leads one to confess God’s creation in the beginning. This means that the doctrine of creation should be Christologically articulated within the teaching of the Church rather than through philosophical or scientific reasoning. God’s self-witness is the foundation of the doctrine of creation. As such, the doctrine of creation is an article of faith, which is found true in the revelation of Jesus Christ (14). Consequently, Barth emphatically repudiates natural theology and insists that “[t]he revelation of salvation and creation belong together” (21). Creation cannot be known or understood apart from the event of redemption.

Gabriel goes on to point out that for Barth, the doctrine of creation is first and foremost the doctrine of the Creator who, in freedom and love, created the world from nothing. This means, first, that God needs creation neither intrinsically nor extrinsically. Second, God, in freedom, has always had loving intentions toward creation. Third, it is God who summons all things into existence as God calls humanity into a new life in resurrection (21-30). In light of this threefold meaning of the doctrine of the Creator, Barth thinks the covenantal relationship between God and human beings is the goal of creation on the grounds that God is both Creator and Savior (30-38). Moreover, given that God’s purpose is to create a covenantal partner external to Himself, creation is both good and distinct from God. “Creation is good because the benevolent God is its Creator and creates with purpose and direction” (39). In short, creation is justified by Jesus Christ who fulfils the divine-human covenant.

After setting out the contours of Barth’s doctrine of creation, Gabriel then examines three pertinent critiques of Barth’s theology. In the third chapter, Gabriel wrestles with the critique of Barth’s view of creation as anthropocentric. For Gabriel, there are five factors leading to this critique, which all result from the misunderstanding that Barth severs nature from God or neglects nature completely (51-56). For example, Barth argues that “creation is the external basis of the covenant and the covenant is the internal basis of creation” (51). Critics estimate that Barth subordinates creation to covenant in such a way that creation is no longer important. For another instance, some scholars argue that Barth considers human beings the only created partner in the divine-human covenant. As such, the rest of creatures are divorced from God. In response, Gabriel maintains that not only does Barth argue for the participation of nature in the covenant but Barth also stresses ordered creatureliness, which includes a right relationship of humanity with nature (57-60). From this perspective, it follows that although Barth’s theological concern for nature is underdeveloped, “the whole of creation is that which God wanted, and is therefore good, and that all of creation participates in the covenant” (64).

Chapter four describes Barth’s trinitarian understanding of the doctrine of creation. Gabriel begins with the refutation of four critiques (67-73). First, Gabriel argues that rather than identifying the imago dei as a quality in the human being, Barth uses the male-female relation as an analogy to account for the truth that humans are created relational beings and the truth that the Triune God is a relational being. Second, Gabriel maintains that God, who is closely related to humans in Jesus Christ, is not spatially but ontologically distant from the world. This denotes God’s presence in creation. Third, Gabriel contends that while speaking of the relationship between God and creation, Barth is not a modalist who safeguards the unity of God at the expense of Trinity. Fourth, he points out that Barth does not entirely ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in creation. Following the rejection of the four critiques is Gabriel’s elaboration on the creative work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which particularly sheds light on the refutation of the latter two critiques. By doing so, Gabriel demonstrates on the one hand that Barth’s trinitarian approach to the doctrine of creation is not modalistic since the identity of the Creator is the Triune God, and on the other hand, that the only creative work of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the intra-trinitarian fellowship (74-81). As such, Barth refrains from placing emphasis on the creative activity of the Holy Spirit. However, Gabriel insists that Barth’s trinitarian approach to the doctrine of creation can still be justified.

In chapter five, Gabriel rejects the criticism that Barth neglects the created historical reality with his preoccupation with the pre-temporal Jesus Christ. Gabriel begins by underlining the dialectic of eternity and history in Barth’s theology. This dialectic reaches its synthesis in Jesus Christ, who is a living person in history (85-90). In other words, the work of Jesus Christ, which is central to the covenant and God’s grace, is revealed and actualized in history. Gabriel proceeds by tackling the issue of the logos ensarkos, which appears to make the created human nature of Jesus Christ eternal. He maintains that Barth by no means rejects the concept of the logos asarkos but uses the term “Jesus Christ” to avoid an abstract idea (91-96). The created human nature of Jesus Christ is anticipated in eternity but actualized in history. Accordingly, Gabriel argues that, for Barth, the covenant existed before creation but the covenant is actualized in Jesus Christ in and after creation history. By consequence, Barth’s doctrine of creation is deeply concerned with historical reality of creation.

Gabriel sets forth a lucid, critical, and convincing overview of Barth’s doctrine of creation. The outline in chapter two of the contours of this doctrine is helpful, especially for those who are not familiar with Barth’s theology. Despite his basic sympathy with Barth, Gabriel critically engages Barth’s overdeveloped Christocentric tone and his underdeveloped pneumatology. These critiques will aid readers in critically exploring Barth’s doctrine of creation further. This book is recommended in light of these strengths.

Nonetheless, I disagree with Gabriel’s rejection of Oliver Crisp’s critique of Barth (34). Crisp argues that the goal of creation should be God’s self-glorification rather than the divine-human covenant as Barth claims. Gabriel contests that for Barth, God is glorified through the divine-human covenant since this covenant simply is God’s glory. In my view, there is a distinction between saying that the covenant is God’s glory and saying that God’s glory is covenant. With regard to the former, it can be understood that the divine-human covenant is one means by which God is glorified. However, the latter cannot be deduced from this insofar as God’s glory cannot be simplified to covenant. Conceptually, God’s glory is broader than God’s covenant. In other words, the divine glory is directly manifest in creation (e.g. Ps. 8:1; 19:1) but is not restrained within the confines of the divine-human covenant. Therefore, while speaking of the divine-human covenant as God’s glory, Barth actually identifies the covenant as the goal of creation. In this sense, Crisp’s critique is justified.

Moreover, chapter three, which engages with Barth’s theology of nature, can be strengthened by adding the comparison between natural theology and the theology of nature. In Barth’s “Nein! Antwort an Emil Brunner,” natural theology is defined as a theology that is not grounded in God’s revelation as witnessed by Holy Scripture. By contrast, the theology of nature generally refers to the theological understanding of nature from the perspective of Christian faith. This comparison has the potential to provide further clarifications regarding the relationship between God and nature and the place of nature in Barth’s theology. All in all, as Paul Nimmo wrote in the endorsements, “[t]he result [of Gabriel’s study] is an excellent introduction to Barth’s understanding of creation, evidencing both its doctrinal sophistication and its continuing significance” (backcover). Hence, this book is a very good companion for those who decide to investigate Barth’s doctrine of creation.

Ximian Xu, Ph.D. Student, University of Edinburgh

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


Miskotte. Theoloog in de branding

de Liagre Böhl, Herman. Miskotte. Theoloog in de branding, 1894‐1976 (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2016), 352 pp. €35,00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Eleonora Hof (November 13, 2018)



Although the work and life of K.H. Miskotte is not yet widely read in the United States, the Dutch theologian, cultural critic, socialist and life-long friend of Karl Barth deserves attention for his existential, literary and creative theological adaptation of Barthian thought. Miskotte introduced, expanded and reworked Barth’s thought for a Dutch context.

The commencing of Barth’s and Miskotte’s story can be traced back to February 1, 1923, the exact day when Miskotte read Barth’s Römerbrief. Miskotte was clearly not impressed. In his diary, he audaciously accused Barth of Marcionism, a startling claim which could not be sustained. Yet, his claim reveals how Miskotte initially perceived Barth to be distinguishing between the God of the Old and the New Testament, due to Barth feeling threatened by the apparent severance of the bond between Christ and Christianity.

Consequently, Miskotte considered it his duty to write Barth a letter, insisting that Barth should pay greater attention to the theology of Hermann Friedrich Kohlbrugge. Barth, upon receiving this letter, was clearly not pleased with this intrepid and unsolicited advice, since he was already engaging the work of Kohlbrugge and acknowledging his influence on his own theology.

In 1937, Miskotte heard that Barth had begun the project of writing a systematic theology. Miskotte wrote Barth a letter in which he criticized this endeavor opining that Barth was forsaking his calling as a prophet. According to Miskotte, Christians should instead live in protest against the grounding structures of the current world, mirroring Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel. Naturally, Barth disproved of Miskotte’s critique. To Barth, Ivan Karamazov’s protest on its own was futile: its meaning is directly derived from the fact that his rebellion is embedded in the life of Christ who rightfully authorizes this protest.

Miskotte’s reference to The Brothers Karamazov reveals how his reading of literary works informed his theology. Miskotte was deeply impressed by the beauty he found within literature and nature. He was also drawn to mysticism, because he was enticed by the lure of nature in his early life and Miskotte remained a sensitive soul overwrought with the impressions of beauty throughout his life. Miskotte’s predisposition to romanticism and mysticism meant that he was not enticed by the dialectics of Barthian theology, hence his initial resistance to Barth’s thought. We still do not have a satisfactory account of what ultimately led Miskotte to embrace Barth’s theology, but when he did, it was decisive, and Miskotte remained a lifelong admirer and proponent of Barth. Miskotte saw in Barth’s dialectics the discovery of the very structure of the biblical testimony itself. This uncovering of a new way to read the Bible led to an intense concentration on exegesis and hermeneutics. Miskotte’s own hermeneutic approach shows his fervent desire to take the foundational structure of the Biblical testimony seriously. He emphasized time and again in his Biblical ABCs that we do not yet know through reason or philosophy who God is – God reveals himself not in philosophical categories such as omnipotence or omniscience, but principally through his actions. Reading the Bible becomes thus an exercise in encountering the actions of God, which teach us the relational and personal character of God.

In the ensuing friendship between Miskotte and Barth, Miskotte’s own character and expertise “surplus” of Miskotte remained visible, namely his artistic sensibilities, his knowledge about literature and his sensitivity for nature’s wonders. Whenever they met, Barth would receive a “crash course” in recent literary developments. Nevertheless, they would never be complete equals in their friendship. Miskotte remained a pupil of Barth, even though Miskotte was a creative theologian in his own right, and Barth refused to seriously engage with Miskotte’s pressing concern regarding Barth’s rejection of infant baptism.

When the chair of systematic theology in Utrecht became vacant, efforts were undertaken to appoint Barth to fill this chair, since he was recently forced out of his chair in Bonn. Barth was eventually found to be too leftist—whatever that might have meant exactly in that context, we do not know—and Barth was asked instead to deliver a series of lectures at Utrecht. These lectures consisted of a treatment of the Apostles’ Creed, and they were translated and annotated by Miskotte. The publication of these lectures was the very first Dutch translation of Barth’s work and they made him accessible beyond the theological guild. Barth’s lectures at Utrecht were published in English in 1962 as Credo.

In his wartime writing, Biblical ABCs, Miskotte paired his zeal for the foundational words of the biblical testimony with an exposition of the nature of pagan religion. The result was an accessible booklet aimed at congregants and pastors in Amsterdam, helping them to formulate a better resistance against the deadly Nazi-occupation in the Netherlands. A better resistance is a resistance grounded in a theological understanding of the pagan roots of national-socialism The Biblical ABCs is currently being translated into English by Dr. Collin Cornell and myself, and is under contract with Lexington – Fortress Academic and will be in print in late 2019. .

As I wrote my dissertation on postcolonial missiology, naturally I read the section in the biography that discusses Miskotte’s Indonesian travels with great interest. Miskotte was invited in 1937 to give a lecture series in present-day Indonesia, which was under Dutch colonial rule until 1949. The diary entries and letters written to his wife during this trip are preserved, and a selection is published in K. H. Miskotte. een keuze uit zijn dagboeken en andere teksten (Baarn: Uitgeverij de Prom, 1994). Miskotte himself spoke in private about the paradigmatic influence that this Indonesian trip had on his thought, but this influence never materialized in his work apart from three lectures he delivered in Haarlem on the topic of the church in the colony. De Liagre Böhl spoke matter-of-factly about the Indonesian trip and he praises Miskotte for his timely critique on the colonial church in Indonesia. However, when reading the diary entries of Miskotte himself, another image emerges, namely, of someone who was not exempt from the pernicious sexualization of indigenous women. Miskotte wrote at astonishing length and detail about the bare breasts of the women he encountered, barely concealing his own arousal. In one telling quote, which is included in De Liagre Böhls’s biography, Miskotte fixes his gaze upon a pregnant woman, whom he considers to be “bursting with life”. This sexualization of these indigenous women was an integral part of the colonial logic since celebration of the fertility of colonized women went hand in hand with the exploitation of their fertile and perceived virginal land. As such, Miskotte’s private remarks are far from innocent, since they lay bare how even well-meaning theologians were not exempt from the poisonous air of colonial rhetoric. The biographer would, therefore, have done well to devote more attention to this troubled dimension of Miskotte’s engagement with colonialism, which would have resulted in a more nuanced treatment. Given Miskotte’s complex personality, he was able to both denounce the colonial church, and still also embody a colonial male gaze at the same time.

For Barth scholars, this biography has much to offer, despite the fact that the book is only available in the Dutch language. The book offers a model for how to write a theological biography due to its accessibility, the seamless merging of the personal and the theological, and its avoidance of hagiography. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that it has become possible to discuss mental ailments and instability openly, and how these mental health issues impacted the work of highly-respected theologians. Miskotte is no different. His life was characterized by profound melancholic periods, interspersed with periods of almost maniacal productivity. Miskotte wrote his dissertation in only half a year. This feat is not simply a manifestation of genius, but it also signals a warning sign about his mental health. With sensitivity and empathy, De Liagre Böhl writes about the great tragedy that struck the Miskotte household in 1946. During this year, the Miskotte family attended a wedding ceremony and ate some contaminated fish. With the exception of Miskotte, everyone in the family fell seriously ill, which resulted in the death of Miskotte’s wife and daughter from a typhus infection. An intense personal and spiritual crisis ensued where Miskotte blamed himself for what happened, citing his occasional egocentric behavior in their marriage as the cause of the tragedy.

De Liagre Böhl’s biography is a helpful resource for both theologians and non-theologians. As the great-grandson of Kohlbrugge, De Liagre Böhl is not a theologian by trade, but rather a historian who has written well-regarded biographies of Dutch literary figures. De Liagre Böhl’s skill as a historian has enabled him to make theological concepts accessible for non-theologians without sacrificing quality.

Hopefully this biography might contribute to a more thorough reflection of the Barth-reception in the Netherlands, not just within historical studies, but also within the field of systematic theology as well. This biography could therefore be read alongside Susanne Hennecke’s monograph Karl Barth in den Niederlanden Teil. Theologische, kulturelle und politische Rezeption (1919-1960). As the reviewer of this study, E.G. Meijering asserts that the waning influence of Barth in the 1960s in the Netherlands could have been related to the growing interest in the work of Martin Buber, of whose work Miskotte was, to put it in contemporary language, an “early adopter.” It remains the case, regretfully, that Barth called Buber disparagingly a “Neuphärisäer.” Since the interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue flourished during that time period, Barth’s unwillingness to engage Buber might have hampered his further reception in the Netherlands. Miskotte’s early dialogue with thinkers such as Buber, Rosenzweig, Ernst Bloch and Max Brod inoculated him against this pernicious sentiment, and this engagement functioned as a trailblazer for Christian-Jewish dialogue in the Netherlands.

Eleonora Hof (BA 2008, cum laude, ETF Leuven; MA 2010 Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, cum laude; PhD 2016 Protestant Theological University Amsterdam) is a board member of the Miskotte Foundation and minister-in-training in the United Protestant Church in Belgium

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


God’s Command

Hare, John E. God’s Command. Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 368 pp. $110.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Joseph Lim (October 30, 2018)



Morality is an essential feature of religious life. Following God involves discerning which acts one ought to do and seeing them to completion. Behind this ostensibly straightforward principle lie some difficult decisions, as there are diverse metrics by which one can adjudicate between acts. The complications multiply for religious individuals, who must integrate two seemingly discordant claims: God supplies action-guiding commands and prohibitions, but we must also work out for ourselves which acts to pursue and not pursue (1). How then are divine prescriptions ordered to the tall, often bewildering task of determining what one must do? Can divine command, of itself, motivate religious persons to choose the moral life?

These questions, among others, animate God’s Command by John Hare, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. Though Hare rightly calls the book a “work of philosophy,” justifying his claims via philosophical argumentation rather than by reference to religious texts, he engages with a number of important theologians such as John Duns Scotus and Karl Barth (vi). Seeking to expand the conversation outside Christian circles, Hare also treats Islamic (e.g. Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī) and Jewish (e.g. Marvin Fox, David Novak, and Franz Rosenzweig) figures. The book’s impressive breadth notwithstanding, this review will focus primarily on Hare’s argument in relation to Christianity. Barthians in particular will find much of interest in this text. Barth’s theological insights figure prominently as Hare develops his ethical framework and attempts to show how it fits within the Christian tradition.

Chapter 1 begins immediately with Hare’s overall thesis: “what makes something morally obligatory is that God commands it, and what makes something morally wrong is that God commands us not to do it” (1). The claim requires him to first demonstrate morality’s dependence on religion overall. Thus, he provides three arguments, either drawn from or inspired by Immanuel Kant. The argument from providence states belief in God is necessary for the assurance that morality and happiness are consistent. Human beings are both rational and creatures of sense and need. Hence, their highest good is a combination of two irreducible goods: “virtue,” the disposition to live morally, and “happiness,” the fulfillment of one’s sum inclinations (8). Since it is easy to doubt this concurrence is possible (individuals often obtain happiness at the cost of morality and vice versa) one must believe in a God who providentially brings it about. The argument from grace claims that although morality requires one to rank duty over happiness, human beings are radically incapable of doing so. The key for Hare is that “while ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, ‘ought’ does not imply ‘can by our own devices’” (13). This motivates belief in a God who supplies grace to meet the moral demand. Finally, in the argument from justification, Hare claims we should be moral because God commands it. This begs the question: why should we do what God commands? If following divine commands is itself morally obligatory, the argument is viciously circular. Hare answers that the obligation to obey God is not itself generated by divine command, but rather known from its terms. “God” is the supreme good, and the good is to be “loved.” Loving God means sharing God’s ends, which includes willing what God wills for our willing, namely obedience (17-18).

If divine command is indeed the metric for moral evaluation, Hare must describe the features that allow it to bear such a role. This is the central concern of Chapter 2. He begins with an account of prescriptions in general. Whereas descriptions are meant to give truthful accounts of the world, prescriptions aim to bring about change in the world through communication of one’s desires (34). Hare expounds one kind of prescription: divine commands that generate obligation. Such commands do not permit non-compliance, imply punishment will follow from failure to carry out the command, and, crucially, exhibit internal reference to the commander’s authority (49). God, who is sovereign over all ends, supremely good, and perfectly wise to bring them about in the best possible way, has rightful authority to command us (51).

The focus of chapter 3 is the eudaemonist view that all human action aims toward happiness. Since eudaemonism motivates moral living with the promise of happiness, Hare must challenge it in order to maintain divine command as the best reason to be moral. He provides two main criticisms. First, it is not necessarily true that being moral secures happiness, because some sources of happiness fall outside morality’s purview and living morally often comes at the cost of happiness (63-64). Second, being moral only to secure happiness is an “unacceptably self-regarding” motivation (66). For the remainder of the chapter, Hare treats four attempts to defend eudaemonism from this latter criticism. Particularly noteworthy is his response to Jean Porter, who claims “the individual belongs in a nested series of comprehensive general goods: the political community, the natural world, and God’s friends” and that, necessarily, individual happiness can never conflict with these wider goods (89). Hare responds that there are obvious examples where these goods do conflict (e.g. soldiers, for the good of their communities, must kill at the cost of their own happiness). The key here is that, whereas eudaemonists assume happiness alone motivates action, Hare posits a second motivator: duty. If we accept this double-source view of motivation, the question then becomes why we should rank duty over happiness (72). Hare answers that God’s command makes it obligatory.

In Chapter 4, Hare treats deductivism, the competing view that we can deduce our obligations from “natural facts,” i.e. descriptive statements about human properties and actions (99). Finding capacity-based accounts of human nature too restrictive, Hare offers his own: “human beings are by nature such that they are fulfilled, or they reach their end, by loving God” (101). Since we cannot deduce obligations from these terms, obligatoriness is contingent upon divine command alone. Mark Murphy alleges that this leaves us with a dilemma (102). If natural facts never bear upon obligatoriness, it seems actions are moral only because God arbitrarily commands them. But if natural facts are relevant to (though not constitutive of) obligatoriness, they appear to constrain what God commands. Hare finds it unproblematic that divine commands are constrained by human nature, because they aim toward what is good forhuman beings (105). Thus, there is a relationship of “fittingness” between divine commands and human nature. Two important implications follow. First, the good “overridably constrains” and is therefore prior to the obligatory, eliminating Murphy’s worry about divine arbitrariness (105). Second, we can make presumptions, though not outright deductions, about morality from natural facts. Hare elaborates: “We should probably not take something as commanded by God if it does not fit the characteristic kind of loving of God done by a rational animal” (106). For instance, given that human beings reach their end by loving God, we may presume that God would not command us to murder an innocent person, as this would prevent her from properly loving God in the future.

In Chapter 5, Hare discusses three themes in Barth’s treatment of divine command. First, Barth emphasizes divine command’s particularity: “there is for each one of us a specific and unique form of life before God to which we are called” that develops as we attempt to obey God’s commands (144). Hare employs Scotus’ notion of “haecceity” to elaborate this point. An individual’s haecceity, constituted by her “special relations,” distinguishes her from others and generates obligations particular to her (149). Thus, all persons are obligated to love God particularly, as their unique relationships with God demand. Second, Barth claims divine sovereignty complements human freedom. Crucial here is his distinction between “natural freedom,” the capacity to choose one action or another, and “freedom” properly speaking, where one wills to do what God wills for her willing (159). Although human beings can act for the sake of either happiness or duty, they are unable to rank duty over happiness with any characteristic regularity. God’s grace, then, enables us to meet the moral demand, though not irresistibly. We must also align our wills to divine command in prayer (163). Finally, Barth catalogues five features of the phenomenology of receiving a divine command: the command is apprehended clearly and has an external origin, and the commander is familiar, authoritative, and loving (179).

Readers of Barth are sure to benefit from God’s Command. Hare’s consistent employment of Barthian concepts, combined with his sustained engagement with diverse traditions, yields a sophisticated moral framework that places Barth in direct conversation with well-established figures in ethics. This comparative approach sets Hare apart from the more focused efforts of Gerald McKenny, Paul Nimmo, John Webster, and William Werpehowski. Hare emphasizes Barth’s placement of biblical theology at the center of moral “instruction,” providing a compelling alternative to Kirk Nolan’s virtue-based and Matthew Rose’s natural-law-focused readings of Barth’s ethics (152). As Hare attempts to flesh out the mechanics of divine command, he welcomes Barth’s conclusions about human nature. The result is an account that both details the human capacities involved in the reception of divine command and takes seriously traditional Christian commitments. The Christian affirmation that God is love, for instance, far from being relegated solely to the practice of systematic theology, functions as a normative principle for discerning obligatory acts. For theologians seeking to integrate Barth’s theology with his ethical contributions, God’s Command is an exceptional resource. Philosophically rigorous, deeply attentive to theological concerns, and liberal in its interaction with various traditions, it is a must-read for all students of moral theology.

Joseph Lim, MTS Student (Moral Theology), University of Notre Dame

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


Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

Migliore, Daniel L., ed. Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), xxvii + 226 pp. $35.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Stephen J. Plant (March 23, 2018)



I can not recall when I first heard the phrase “that’ll preach” used to describe a theological insight capable of illuminating a typical congregant hearing a sermon. Another variant, the question “will it preach?”, subsequently became helpful to ask seminarians about their essays and occasionally to ask colleagues about their teaching. The importance of being able to cash theology in as preaching is something Barth was well aware of. In the 1951 preface to Church Dogmatics III/4, Barth noted that it had been three decades since he was actively engaged in pastoral ministry and in “expounding the Gospel Sunday by Sunday.” Yet, he continued, “what I have done in the meantime has been intended for its benefit” (CD III/4, xi).

In the 11 essays in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth, which were first rehearsed at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, we have an impressive body of evidence that Barth’s theology “preaches.” In addition to 11 essays, the book also includes a sermon, which is where I want to begin my remarks. A sermon written for a particular moment in time and a particular congregation rarely transfers successfully to print where, lacking context, the living, spoken word usually turns to lifeless symbols on the page. But Fleming Rutledge’s sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 is exceptional. It was delivered on June 22nd, 2015, days after the killing of parishioners of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The grace with which she finds illumination of and from this dreadful event in the parable of the bridesmaids (“What’s in those lamps?”) is unforgettably powerful. Ending a book on Barth’s use of the Gospels with a sermon is not only apt, but it is also in every sense inspired. Perhaps if Rutledge’s sermon did not simply have to be the final word, Migliore’s introduction would have been better placed as a conclusion to the collection. As a dutiful reviewer I read it first, but with growing regret, as its succinct summaries of all the essays to follow tended to spoil the surprise of each essay when I came to read them. It is, of course, a fault I now repeat!

The collection begins with Jürgen Moltmann’s essay on “The Election of Grace” in §32 and §33 of CD II/2. For Moltmann, it “is the invaluable merit of Karl Barth to have overcome” the “dualism of belief and unbelief in Christian theology” in his doctrine of election (3). One of the ways Barth does this is by relocating election in the context of God’s self-affirmation since, as Barth puts it, ‘“Everything which comes from God takes place ‘in Jesus Christ”’ (5). On this basis, Moltmann moves to address a number of temptations that a doctrine of election can face, including a temptation to fear one’s faith may be too weak to fight against injustice.

Each subsequent essay exhibits a similar form by setting out to examine critically Barth’s reading of a passage “in the Gospels to determine the ways in which his readings are distinctive or novel” (xiv). In chapter 2, Richard Bauckham considers Barth’s reflections on John 1:1-18. Bauckham, one of only two New Testament specialists to contribute to this volume, offers an appreciative yet critical study of Barth’s somewhat “eccentric” exegesis. Barth’s exegetical approach, which gives preeminence to theological interpretation in relation to other reading strategies, means he does not show much interest in the way “logos” was used in parallel ways in Platonic, Stoic, or Rabbinic sources. The incarnation for Barth is an event “in both eternity and time” (21). But out with the historical-critical bathwater goes the baby: Bauckham regrets that Barth neglects both the literary structure of the Prologue and the importance of its relation to Genesis 1:1-5.

Eric Gregory (chapter 3) explores Barth’s use of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He approves of Barth’s determination to supplement moral applications of the story with an evangelical or soteriological reading in which (as Barth put it) “the primary and true form of the neighbor is that he faces us as the bearer and representative of divine compassion” (45). On this basis, Gregory draws “out some implications for Christian communities often at the forefront of humanitarian aid” (51). Diaconal service to the poor, caring for the sick, the prisoner etc., can never “’be more than drops in a bucket’” for Barth – but such ministry nonetheless witnesses to “the cosmic work of Christ in free obedience” (p.52).

Willie James Jennings (chapter 4) sets Barth’s treatment of the story of the Rich Young Man (Mark 10:17-31) against the background of Barth’s critique of the Swiss Government’s poor record in relation to refugees – particularly Jewish refugees - and the Swiss banks’ willingness to profit from Nazi loot during the war. Barth’s “very different fiduciary vision of the divine promise bound up with the command of God”, Jennings concludes, “could help us think out the relation of money to divine promise in ways that might draw Christians to the freedom of God and away from the anxiety of the rich man” (66).

Paul Nimmo (chapter 5) has the briefest biblical text in view in Matthew 9:36. But Barth’s treatment of Jesus’ compassion for “the crowds” in CD IV/2 opens up several illuminating inquiries for theological anthropology, atonement theory, and what Jesus’ compassion shows us about the compassion of God. The Greek verb, usually translated “compassion”, is related to the Greek word for entrails or bowels (splanchna), which suggests that Jesus’ compassion has a deep and visceral quality. Nimmo rightly describes Barth’s conclusion about the relation of Jesus’ compassion to His Father’s as unequivocal and shocking: “the compassion of God truly concerns His splanchna and thus no less than in the case of all God’s other attributes His eternal and simple essence” (79).

Chapters 6 and 7 both deal with the same Gospel passage: the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15:11-32, and Barth’s extraordinary Christological reading of it in CD IV/2, §64. Daniel L. Migliore’s sympathetic and intelligent essay (chapter 6) draws out some of the distinctive features of Barth’s treatment of this parable by comparing it with that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. While von Balthasar did not devote quite the focused attention to the parable that Barth did, von Balthasar reads the parable in a Trinitarian way, that is in terms of the Father’s relationship with the Son. In chapter 7, Kendall Cox illuminates some striking similarities between Barth and Julian of Norwich’s treatment of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Like Barth, Julian went beyond typical commentary, which read the parable as involving a contrast between repentant sinners (the prodigal son) and law-bound Jews (the older). Julian, in continuity with Barth, proposes that ‘“In the servant [i.e., the younger son] is comprehended the seconde person of the trinite, and in the servant is comprehended Adam: that is to sey, all men’” (112). Cox goes on to make an intriguing suggestion that in both Julian and Barth, the parable of the prodigal son effectively functions “as a thumbnail of all the doctrinal elements of reconciliation” (117).

In chapter 8, Paul Dafydd Jones explores Barth on Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in each of the Synoptic Gospels that the cup pass/be removed from him has long played a role in Christological and Trinitarian debates, for example in the Monothelite/Dyothelite controversies of the 7th century. In his compelling essay, Jones uses Barth to shed light upon a number of centrally important questions. He begins by discussing Barth’s relation to the past. Barth notes previous theologians but does not feel bound to repeat their conclusions. Rather, for Barth, it is practically an axiom that “dogmatic work succeeds when it makes sense of God’s self-revelation, to which Scripture is the principal witness” (140). Barth is consequently uninterested in certain kinds of speculation about Christ’s inner life. What the Gospels show us, simply, is that “In his prayer to the Father, Jesus freely decides to open himself to sin and to God’s rejection of sin” (147). Jesus freely commits himself to the worst that human sinners can do and to the worst that God can do in rejecting sin. Moreover, this free commitment is made, not by Jesus’ human will alone, or by his divine will alone, but by the Son in whom full humanity and divinity are one. Thus: “During the passion, and especially on the cross, the Chalcedonian adjectives – inconfusione, immutabiliter, inseparabiliter, indivise – no longer apply only to Jesus. They also apply to the work of God and the work of sinners” (146).

Bruce L. McCormack, in a provocative essay (chapter 9), leads off with José Saramago’s controversial novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which subjects “the principal agent at work in the drama’ of Jesus’ life ‘viz. God’” (157). How could God have protected Jesus from Herod’s murderous wrath and not the other innocent children of Bethlehem? In Barth’s treatment of the “cry of dereliction” as “the judge judged in our place” in CD IV/1, McCormack finds at least part of an answer. For Barth, the passion of Jesus is the passion of God himself. On the cross, God experiences death humanly – yet without compartmentalizing suffering to the human nature alone. In the cross, God gives himself – as Barth puts it “but He does not give himself away” (165). Saramago says God – should he exist – is guilty. It “seems to me,” McCormack concludes, “no other answer will do but death in God as a self-imposed act of public acknowledgment of the evil that was, in a very real sense, necessary to the accomplishment of God’s love” (167).

Beverly Roberts Gaventa (chapter 10) treats Barth’s reading of the Emmaus road story, in which both Barth and Gaventa find hints about Luke’s view of Scripture. A customary description of the book of Acts is that it is a history of the Church. Gaventa believes this neglects the extent to which Acts is the second part of an account of the life of Jesus begun by Luke in his Gospel. Jesus constantly appears as an active, living agent in Acts. In Barth’s reading of the Risen Lord’s conversation with the disciples on road to Emmaus, Gaventa sees a robust theology of revelation that can undergird such an understanding of Jesus’ presence in Scripture.

In chapter 11, Shannon Nicole Smythe examines Barth’s word study of paradidómi in the New Testament (normally translated by Barth “handed over” or “delivered”). In CD II/2, §35.4 Barth pursues some of the uses of the term, which he believes is “no mere semantic accident” (189). Smythe uses this discussion to unlock what is at stake in Barth’s conviction that “what God elects in eternity is precisely the history of Christ” (191). God’s unchanging being is constituted by God’s choice of humanity in Jesus Christ’s self-giving love.

Bonhoeffer once told his seminarians that every good sermon should contain a whiff of heresy. Even where Barth’s readings of Gospel texts give off a theologically idiosyncratic odor – as the books on Barth’s shelves in Basel still conjure the scent of his tobacco – they will still “preach.” On every page, this splendid collection provokes reflection that is rich in possibilities for theologians and preachers seeking to hear God’s voice in the witness of the Gospels.

Stephen J. Plant, Dean and Runcie Fellow, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

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


Offenbarung des Namens und versöhntes Leben

Petershans, Sören. Offenbarung des Namens und versöhntes Leben: Eine Untersuchung zur Gotteslehre bei Kornelis Heiko Miskotte. Arbeiten zur Systematischen Theologie 11 (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt,2016), 320 pp. $85.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Collin Cornell (December 05, 2017)



The back cover of Sören Petershans’s book indicates that the thinker in question—Dutch theologian Kornelis Heiko Miskotte—remains largely unknown to German-language theology. Germans may dimly recall Miskotte as a mid-century interpreter of Karl Barth and a pioneer of Jewish-Christian dialogue. But beyond that, nichts! If such obscurity obtains in German-speaking lands, it runs much deeper in the Anglophone realm.

Petershans thus faces a relatively uncongested theological arena upon which to stage his thesis: that far from being merely a Barth epigone, Miskotte developed his own distinctive theology, and that its individuality is nowhere more evident than its doctrine of God. Hence the title of Petershans’s book, which in English reads, Revelation of the Name and Reconciled Life: A Study on the Doctrine of God according to Kornelis Heiko Miskotte.

Christian Link and Ulrich Körtner supervised the 2014 University of Vienna dissertation which Offenbarung des Namens und versöhntes Leben, in revised form, represents. The first 96 pages of Petershans’s study provide a bird’s-eye view of Miskotte’s theology and an examination of his three greatest theological influences. These remarks prepare for the longer, more focused, and more innovative second part of Petershans’s book.

Kornelis Heiko Miskotte (1894-1976) was born in Utrecht and studied theology at Utrecht University. After graduating, he pastored for twenty years in both rural and urban settings, completing a dissertation at the University of Groningen while serving as a full-time pastor. His first theological mentor was Johannes Hermanus Gunning, Jr., a founder of the Dutch “Ethical Theology.” The central concept of this theological school was encounter with God. Divine revelation imparted a way of life and not doctrinal content; truth was a matter of ethics and not objective and rational. Miskotte would later call this approach “ethical mysticism.” Above all it sought a synthesis of faith and culture. Although Miskotte would later dissent sharply from this synthesis, his mature doctrine of God nonetheless inherits much from this theological school. Miskotte’s emphasis on experience, even experience of God, and his sense of apostolic solidarity with culture and the world alike trace back to Gunning’s influence.

In 1923, while serving in his first pastoral call, Miskotte read Karl Barth’s Römerbrief. His initial journal entry on it deems Barth’s style expressionist and his thought Marcionite. However, Barth won him over after only a few days. Miskotte began a correspondence with Barth—and a theological friendship—that would last until Barth’s death in 1968. Barth would in 1956 address Miskotte as “the seer and poet among my friends.” Miskotte considered himself a disciple. He wrote several books on Barth, including two on the Church Dogmatics alone, and he became the best-known proponent of Barth’s theology to the Netherlands. Barth’s influence saturates Miskotte’s theology; Miskotte’s understanding of divine revelation is deeply indebted to it. Like Barth and other dialectical theologians, Miskotte renounced any synthesis of God and culture. Instead he upheld the particularity and event-character of God’s self-disclosure. Miskotte also shared Barth’s Christological concentration (as it has been called) and his attentiveness to the theological locus of predestination. For him as for Barth, Jesus Christ is the singular and exclusive Word of God, and God’s initiative towards humanity in Christ coincides with God’s own self-determination from eternity.

The last of Miskotte’s three major influences is the Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, whose Star of Redemption Miskotte read in 1928, and about whom he wrote much of his Groningen dissertation. In common with many Christian dialectical theologians, Rosenzweig’s work centers on divine revelation as an event. In distinction from other dialectical theologians, Rosenzweig envisions the proper name of God—the Tetragrammaton—as the event of revelation. Miskotte wholly absorbed this conviction. Rosenzweig also taught Miskotte to prize the Old Testament as a self-standing theological witness. Indeed, for Miskotte the Old Testament already contains “all truth,” and it preaches God’s becoming-flesh (Gottes Fleischwerdung). The unique property of the New Testament is only to name this becoming-flesh as Jesus Christ—and so to foreground divine love. Rosenzweig also confirmed for Miskotte the experiential nature of encounter with God.

The second part of Petershans’s book divides into three sections. The first draws on analytic philosophy of language to streamline and sophisticate Miskotte’s view of the divine name. Here Petershans differentiates between proper names and appellatives (Benennungsnamen). God appointed one proper name to the divine self—YHWH. As a proper name, YHWH refers fixedly to one unsubstitutable individual, even as that individual’s other attributes and forms of address vary. In this way, Petershans layers a more technical vocabulary onto Miskotte’s own comments that the divine name is “a nameless name”—truly empty of content and solely referential—while attracting other names and qualities.

The second and third sections present the heart of Petershans’s book. Petershans engages in close exegesis of Miskotte’s writings, primarily his 1956 book, When the Gods are Silent (English translation, Harper 1967) and his primer in Bible reading, Biblical ABCs, written under Nazi occupation in 1941 and still untranslated into English. These sections also demonstrate Petershans’s thesis that Miskotte’s doctrine of God is distinct relative to Barth. The second section, entitled “Revelation as Revelation of the Name according to Miskotte,” accesses Miskotte’s concept of revelation through his teaching about predestination. Petershans organizes much of his discussion on the basis of a schema he derives from section headings in Miskotte’s Biblical ABCs:

Name = Revelation

Name = YHWH

Name = Jesus Christ

Miskotte identifies the divine name YHWH as the event of divine self-revelation. But he also understands revelation most basically as sanctification (Heiligung), that is, as effecting Lebensänderung—“life change.” For Miskotte, divine revelation as such transforms the participating human subject. This is seen in Miskotte’s treatment of the paradigmatic burning bush narrative (Exodus 3), where God’s communication of a name is at the same time a divine self-determination (Selbstbestimmung) to liberate Israel from Egypt—a Lebensänderung of some magnitude. Miskotte calls this event an Urtat—a primordial act of divine self-demarcation; Petershans glosses it as “predestination.” In the schema above and throughout his writings, Miskotte also equates this event with the Bible’s other proper name: Jesus Christ. Miskotte thus speaks of “one covenant,” “one salvation,” and “oneness of the times,” in that both testaments of the Christian Bible by a “double reference” witness to a single divine self-determination to save. Together but distinctly they testify to a single divine predestination of the divine self for assumptio carnis—“assumption of flesh.” In this way, Miskotte makes revelation of the name and reconciled life to coincide, as in Petershans’s main title.

Miskotte views the two testaments as united in their witness to God’s becoming-flesh, but he also differentiates them, and that difference silhouettes his individuality relative to Barth. The difference—or “surplus,” as Miskotte calls it—of the New Testament vis-à-vis the Old is its clarity in presenting this “one salvation” as justification. The surplus of the Old is its clarity in presenting salvation in its aspect as sanctification. The Old Testament, in other words, articulates the revelation of the divine name within a rich and concrete variety of human experiences—erotic and political, economic and ethical—while the New Testament does not. Because he prioritizes the Old Testament, the human and participatory “side” of revelation is thereby given prominence in Miskotte’s theology. In just this regard, Petershans argues, Miskotte distinguishes his doctrine of God from Barth’s. Barth focuses on revelation as justification, and so seals his theological system off from human experience; Miskotte focuses on revelation as sanctification, maintaining a greater openness to human experience and culture. To be sure, as Petershans observes at length, the two theologians differ in their Trinitarian doctrine: Miskotte hardly speaks of the Trinity while Barth is famous for recovering it. But Petershans locates the more fundamental divide in Miskotte’s view of divine self-revelation as sanctification.

Offenbarung des Namens und versöhntes Leben brings welcome attention to an interesting and underappreciated theologian in the dialectical trajectory. For that alone Petershans’s book renders a valuable service to the theological academy. Petershans also deserves thanks for giving a relatively clear overview of a theologian whose thick prose and meandering presentation one early reviewer described as “stygian” (James Brown, Scottish Journal of Theology, 1969). Also valuable is Petershans’s engagement with other authors who have written about Miskotte, particularly since most of them write in Dutch. Petershans’s frequent translations from Dutch to German in footnotes, for example, are helpful. However, not all the sections of his book are equally successful. Petershans is at his best when he exposits Miskotte—and not when he makes long summaries of secondary literature on analytic philosophy or theologies of revelation. His book will be of interest to Barth scholarship as an example of free-thinking and constructive Barthianism.

My thanks to Dr. Eleonora Hof for her helpful comments on a draft of this review.

Collin Cornell, Ph.D. Candidate, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Emory 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


Karl Barth on Prayer

Cocksworth, Ashley. Karl Barth on Prayer (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), viii + 202 pp. $114.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Blair D. Bertrand (December 05, 2017)



Perhaps because the academy views Barth as a systematic theologian, the majority of writing about him directly touches on traditional systematic concerns such as Christology, soteriology, and revelation. Lost is a sense that theological concerns more associated with piety and practice are essential to understanding Barth’s work. In Karl Barth on Prayer, Ashley Cocksworth aims to correct this by placing prayer as one of the constitutive elements of Barth’s theology. To think that one book could suddenly make Barth into a spiritual theologian is naïve. However, making a good start opening up and probing an under appreciated element within Barth is certainly doable. Cocksworth does exactly that. He unpacks Barth’s understanding of prayer and situates it within the overall oeuvre, demonstrating that it is a constitutive element of Barth’s overall project.

This dissertation-turned-book fulfills the intent of the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series by constructively engaging Barth through historical analysis and contemporary restatement. Cocksworth presents his own constructive proposal regarding prayer all the while maintaining a close reading of Barth’s thought.

There are a number of arguments at work here: how Barth’s understanding of prayer changes from petition to invocation, the place of prayer in Barth’s ethics of reconciliation, prayer’s influence on understanding Barth’s pneumatology, and the political implications of this understanding of prayer. On all of these Cocksworth remains rooted in textual analysis, not straying too far from the corpus as received, but also not slavishly repeating exactly what Barth said. There is a creativity here and a fresh reading that opens up new areas of thought. The breadth of engagement effectively demonstrates that prayer was a concern for Barth throughout his work; the depth of analysis reveals that prayer is a constitutive element of Barth’s understanding of many theological concerns.

Perhaps the most novel argument is Cocksworth’s intent to situate Barth’s understanding of prayer within what Mark McIntosh calls mystical theology. This argument takes its cue from McIntosh’s observation that “Barth can be read fairly and indeed profitably in connection with mystical theology, not as himself a mystic, but as one whose theology is truly designed to be transformative, to be truthful in orienting the reader towards the abiding mystery of God’s love” (22). Further, Cocksworth picks up on this comment by Barth, “We need not be fanatically anti-mystical . . . there may be a place for a feeling of enjoyable contemplation of God” and takes up the challenge of removing that “may” (emphasis added 25; see CD IV/I, p. 104).

The first step in the argument is to acknowledge that Barth does not develop his theology in line with the contemplative tradition, at least not as understood by McIntosh and others such as Sarah Coakley, David Ford, and Rowan Williams. Cocksworth relies on this contemporary Anglo-Catholic recovery of theology as a spiritual practice to set the criterion of what constitutes legitimate contemplative prayer. Barth is found wanting: “a weakness should also be apparent: what has happened to the tradition of contemplative prayer in Barth’s theology?” (21). Because of this weakness or silence “some creativity needs to be exercised in order to locate and develop positive space for contemplation in Barth’s theology” (22). This kind of announcement, which essentially amounts to saying, “It isn’t in Barth’s theology as conventionally understood but I’m going to argue it is there unconventionally” can strike fear in the reader if the author does not immediately connect the argument to the actual text.

And connecting is exactly what Cocksworth does. As this is one among many arguments he cannot give a thorough going reading of all Barth says about mysticism, but Cocksworth can address “Barth’s critique of contemplative prayer and point out where he might have gone wrong in his reading” (26). Only after connecting his argument to the text does Cocksworth move onto “investigate what a Barthian form of contemplative prayer might look like by attending to neglected areas of the Church Dogmatics” (26). Cocksworth thus connects historical analysis to contemporary restatement.

In places, Barth allows for and understanding of contemplation similar to the classic understanding of purgation-contemplation-illumination. For instance, Barth opens a space to allow the text to speak when one reads scripture. The historical critical reading is secondary to the living word and, in attempting to hear this living word, the interpreter must sit in openness and receptivity. Within this suppliant posture is a kind of contemplation. Cocksworth is certainly correct here. Active contemplatives such as Ignatius of Loyola dwell in this kind of posture when encountering Scripture. There are differences for sure, highlighted by Cocksworth when he uses phrases like “not incongruent with” or “looks like” but enough similarities to make it convincing that contemplation of Scripture is a common element between the tradition and Barth (47, 57).

Cocksworth also notes significant differences between Barth and the contemplative tradition. Where much of spiritual theology might understand the Christian life as a progression or maturing through stages, it is clear in Barth that “there are no stages to pass through or steps to take so that the ethical agents can be or become more than who they already are in Christ” (31). Cocksworth fairly points out that Barth’s two main critiques of contemplative traditions are that they either have “an overemphasis on inner experience” or “an underemphasis on ethical action” (37). Perhaps unfairly, Cocksworth calls Barth’s engagement with mysticism as “appearing anachronistic, largely unsubstantiated, unrefined and inattentive to the particularities of the tradition” (34).

There are at least two paths of investigation that may have helped Cocksworth’s assessment of Barth. To address the charge of anachronism, Cocksworth could have considered Barth’s understanding of prayer in relation to German pietism. The richest tradition of prayer that Barth directly engaged with was not Orthodox or Roman Catholic theology retrieved by contemporary theologians such as McIntosh and Coakley. Rather, it was a kind of German pietism that he wrote from and against. Cocksworth does not address this tradition in any substantial way. Given that part of Cocksworth’s argument rests on Barth “maturing” from petition to invocation it seems reasonable to give some consideration to Busch’s argument in Karl Barth & the Pietists: The Young Karl Barth’s Critique of Pietism & It’s Response (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Another possible avenue of investigation, one that would help in revealing Barth as attentive to at least one part of the tradition, would focus on Barth’s treatment of the unio Christi. As Cocksworth points out, Barth is critical of the imitatio Christi tradition for the very reasons that make the unio Christi tradition so important (133). When Cocksworth develops the full implications of correspondence within invocation and the agency of the Holy Spirit in relation to the individual prayer, a work like Adam Neder’s Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Dogmatics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009) would offer further refinement and insight. Neder’s tracing of the unio Christi throughout each volume of the Church Dogmatics could bring the “clarification of the mechanics of that participation” that Cocksworth wants (79).

These criticisms should not discourage the reader. Cocksworth has a great number of insights that further both our understanding of Barth and of prayer. For instance, Cocksworth moves the field forward in understanding how the divine-human relationship plays out in prayer. The old charge against Barth that he has no place for human agency is laid to rest so that “the more prayer is divine does not mean prayer is any less the work of the ethical agent” (70). Or when Cocksworth situates Barth’s treatment of prayer within the ethics of The Christian Life in Chapter 6, there is a new opening created for Christians to understand how prayer and political action relate. For Barth, “in prayer, the Church is given the freedom to ask God ‘what are we to do?’ and the openness to receive the guidance of the Holy Spirit in each new moment (149). These two examples can be multiplied.

In the Conclusion, Cocksworth reflects on Barth’s treatment of prayer in Evangelical Theology, particularly on its implications for “the prayer-theology relation” (171). Following Anselm, Barth ends up where “implicitly and explicitly, proper theology will have to be . . . prayer” (173 citing ET 165). Given that Cocksworth sees a development in Barth concerning prayer and since Evangelical Theology is one of the last writings we have from Barth, perhaps this was the place to begin a study of Barth and prayer? Barth traces his own understanding of prayer in the line of Anselm not in the current retrieval of spiritual theology. The Anselmian themes of “bold humility,” “openness,” “disruption,” and “transformation” are what Barth draws on in both his theological project and in his understanding of prayer. When Cocksworth traces, contextualizes and works with these themes is when he is strongest; when he attempts to measure Barth against a standard Barth rejected, he is less convincing.

Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand, Lecturer, Zomba Theological College, Zomba, Malawi

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


Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue

McCormack, Bruce L., and Thomas Joseph White, eds. Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 304 pp. $36.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger (November 28, 2017)



Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue is an impressive ecumenical endeavor. Bringing together a diverse range of both Catholic and Protestant scholars in dialogue, this edited volume reflects upon the lasting legacy of two of the most renowned thinkers in each tradition. In the introduction, Thomas Joseph White observes that putting Aquinas and Barth together in dialogue can and will be a fruitful undertaking precisely because “each offers us a profound vision of reality understood theologically in light of Jesus Christ” (4). Though Barth and Aquinas diverge at crucial points in their theological writing, their Christocentric grounding is the foundation upon which this “unofficial” dialogue builds. Further, this Christocentric grounding informs the ecumenical endeavor itself: “Christian ecumenism is a Christ-centered task” (38). White concludes by reminding the reader that the achievement of this unofficial dialogue rests in the cultivation of Christian friendship, a theme which will resonate throughout the book as individual scholars interact with Barth, Aquinas, and one another. The book is helpfully divided into five major theological themes under which a Catholic Thomist and Protestant Barthian interact. Readers are invited into an ever-unfolding conversation between scholars and friends who are masters of their traditions.

The first section, “The Being of God,” begins with the late Robert Jenson’s reflections on Barth and the being of God. Not only is Jenson’s essay exemplary in the way he describes his reading of Barth as a pilgrimage, but he also masterfully demonstrates the complexity and nuance of Barth’s deceptively simple “God’s being is act.” Ultimately, God’s being in act, for Jenson, is both an “implosion of freedom” and an “explosion of love” as the triune God elects himself in Christ to be our savior (51). Jenson’s essay is followed by Richard Schenk, who reflects upon Thomas’ writings that lend themselves capable of bearing up under the challenge of theodicy. In other words, Schenk’s essay seeks a Roman Catholic theologia crucis within Thomas. Schenk affirms that though Thomas accepted the role of metaphysics and philosophy in revealing the reality of God, these are insufficient for telling us that God is the God of our salvation (58). Seen in this way, then, Schenk affirms that metaphysics, for Thomas, functions more to remind human beings of their finitude, which in turn enables the possibility to have faith in the God of grace and salvation. Rather than providing human beings with every answer to existence and suffering, God’s reality, revealed through philosophical and theological encounter, reminds human beings of their fragility in relation to God.

The second section, “Trinity,” takes up the challenge to define God’s attributes in relation to God’s person and mission. Guy Mansini’s essay, “Can Humility and Obedience be Trinitarian Realities?” puts the Rule of St. Benedict in conversation with Thomas’ insights on the mission of Christ to help us understand just how the virtues of humility and obedience are present within the life of Christ. Following Mansini, Bruce McCormack’s essay advocates for a point of convergence between Barth and Thomas found in their shared understanding of the unity of God’s missions and procession. For McCormack, Thomas and Barth both articulate that the processions and missions form a single eternal act. The main difference between them, for McCormack, lies with Barth’s strongly Christocentric movement from the economy to the immanent Trinity versus Thomas’ speculative approach to the divine essence. The third section, “Christology,” begins with an essay by Keith Johnson on the role of natural revelation in creation and covenant. Beginning with Thomas’ account of natural revelation, Johnson notes that, for Thomas, knowing God through reason is a “preamble and presupposition” to knowing God through sacred doctrine (138). Natural revelation, then, isn’t alone sufficient for revealing God to a human being. Turning to Barth, Johnson points out that because of the reality of sin, the early Barth rejected any possibility of human beings receiving knowledge of God apart from grace. However, later Barth realized that because human beings are created by God, a relationship exists between them that cannot be totally severed by sin. Barth then articulates that human beings were created precisely as a function of God’s decision to reconcile sinful humanity through Jesus Christ. This allows Barth to embrace a qualified natural revelation that respects the relationship between God and humanity while keeping a Christocentric focus: all natural revelation must be tested against the person and work of Christ. Ultimately, though vast differences remain between them, Barth and Aquinas both affirm that God reveals himself through the created order, which is none other than a function of God’s relationship to human beings.

Thomas Joseph White’s essay, “The Crucified Lord: Thomistic Reflections on the Communication of Idioms and the Theology of the Cross” compares Barth’s later Christology with the Christology of Aquinas as a way to move forward in ecumenical conversation. White notes that Aquinas’ Christology actually stands closer to the classical Reformed scholastic tradition than Barth’s Christology, even though Barth is perhaps the most prolific modern expounder of the Reformed tradition. White suggests that, because of this reality, Reformed engagement with classic Thomism might prove to be especially fruitful. And for Catholics, White suggests that the philosophical implications of Barth’s theological positions warrant more investigation.

The fourth section, “Grace and Justification,” begins with Joseph Wawrykow’s reflections on grace in Aquinas and Barth. Wawrykow affirms that both Barth and Aquinas recognize the divine initiative of grace—it always precedes every human activity. Thus, for both figures, anything human beings do is in response to divine initiative. But Wawrykow also points out several key differences between Barth and Aquinas’ understanding of grace. Most notably, Aquinas has an account of merit that Barth does not share. Barth rejects the idea of merit because of its sinful element; it allows human beings to claim too much for themselves. And though Wawrykow affirms Barth’s concerns, he concludes by noting that Aquinas himself keeps the focus squarely on the glory of God when discussing anything about human merit as one lives a life of grace.

Amy Marga’s essay, “Reconciliation in Karl Barth and the New Life of the Justified Sinner in Christ,” argues that Barth and Aquinas converge on their shared understanding of how grace operates in a person’s life. They diverge in how the justified sinner relates to their new existence, mediated through Jesus Christ. Focusing primarily on Barth, Marga affirms that grace, for Barth, is inherently disruptive, annihilating the old self in order to re-create a new self, mediated through Christ. This stands in opposition to Aquinas, who understands grace operating in the life of the reconciled person on multiple levels.

In the final section, “Election, Providence, and Natural Law,” John Bowlin explores Barth and Aquinas on election and requirement in relationships. Bowlin observes that Barth and Aquinas assume a social theory of obligation, defined primarily by the “friendship that God’s gracious love creates” (240). Though Barth and Aquinas will diverge at significant points as to how the relationship between humanity and God unfolds, both assume that obligation is a part of human life, and that it is predicated upon friendship, not coercion, when applied to the divine human relationship. Holly Taylor Coolman ends this section with an essay on divine and human action in Aquinas. Coolman coins the term analogia lex to describe Aquinas’ comprehensive understanding of law through an exegesis of the Secunda pars to argue that the law serves to move human beings toward ultimate happiness with God. Coolman concludes her essay by emphasizing that the law, for Aquinas, has a distinctly Christological and pneumatological focus in the way it directs us toward our eternal end with God.

Bruce McCormack concludes the volume with a brief epilogue on the possibilities of philosophy and ecumenical dialogue. McCormack poignantly observes that the ecumenical endeavor ultimately is one striving toward a faith that does not yet exist. The common faith toward which ecumenism aims can only exist as ecumenical conversations respond to the needs and concerns of its conversation partners. This volume is an excellent example of McCormack’s observations. The scholars engage with one another’s work in charity and with acuity, presenting Barth and Aquinas’ lasting legacy with fresh possibilities for further dialogue and friendship. Surely this book should be a model for “official” Catholic-Protestant dialogues in the future. Those who wish to cultivate friendship across lines of Catholic-Protestant difference would do well to acquaint themselves with the essays contained in this book. It is ideal for those who have engaged either Aquinas or Barth in their studies and wish to expand their understanding of both figures in a distinctively ecumenical setting. One’s theology will be better for it.

Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger, Benedictine 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


A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons

Barth, Karl. A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons. Trans. William Klempa (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016) 240 pp. $35.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Andrew Scales (November 28, 2017)



“We would also like to pray with our whole heart, ‘O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!’ Hear the Word of the Lord that has come so palpably in our reach in the powerful events of this time. With what an awesome responsibility we burden ourselves if we do not listen to God now! Hear the Word of the Lord—not the word of human beings, not even the word of the pastor.” —Karl Barth, Sermon at Safenwil, September 20, 1914 (A Unique Time of God, 125-6)

When humans celebrate violence and racist ideologies, Christians must listen again to God’s call to repentance. In A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, William Klempa offers a vibrant translation of thirteen sermons Karl Barth preached at the onset of World War I. Distinctive themes of Barth’s theology emerge like prophetic leitmotifs in these sermons amid the cacophony of war and nationalism in Europe: God’s inescapable judgment and mercy, the revelatory power of crises, the immediate claim of the Word of God upon the people of God, the absolute dependence on Jesus and his Kingdom for hope and life.

In the introduction, Klempa succinctly describes how theological luminaries throughout European universities and pulpits embraced jingoist sentiments in 1914. Here readers will find a biographical sketch of Barth’s emerging friendships with fellow pastors like Eduard Thurneysen, as well as Barth’s criticisms of his old professors like Adolf von Harnack, who justified the war. Klempa’s inclusion of these conversation partners furnishes a historical and intellectual context for the evolution of Barth’s own theological convictions, namely that God did not rejoice in this war, but nevertheless would redeem humanity.

The collection of sermons begins amid the tensions of July 1914 and the eruption of war at the end of the month. As early as July 26, 1914—just two days before Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia—Barth preached trenchant criticisms of the ensuing conflict, declaring its potential for death and destruction contrary to the kingdom Christ promised. In his sermon that morning, Barth warns his congregation of the horrors that may soon disrupt or destroy their lives: “barring a miracle, we shall unleash anew hundreds of thousands of men like wild beasts on one another, hundreds of thousands who do not know one another and who have done nothing to harm one another” (52). Barth sets this dreadful scene against the Apostle Paul’s promises of redemption and restoration that rest only with “the living, true God” (56).

In addition to his excellence as a critic of culture, Barth proves to be an adept preacher to the townspeople who gathered in the pews in Safenwil. His sermons include intimate self-disclosure—at times he expresses profound grief about his mentors’ swift acclamation of German nationalism. He also vividly renders contemporary anxieties and God’s enduring faithfulness through the lived experiences of his listeners. We infer from his sermons that some worshippers have come to the church in search of hope after sending siblings and children to the front for Switzerland’s defense. A particularly inspired section is Barth’s plain denial that war is an endeavor blessed by God in a sermon from September 6, 1914:

None of this is God’s will, neither the selfishness and arrogance in human beings, nor the mutual hatred of the nations, nor their anxieties about one another and their threatening armaments, nor finally that they mutually attack life with both precise and heavy firing power at sea, on land, or in the air. All these things are completely alien to the innermost being of God . . . God is as distant from them as from their enemies in the wrath with which their actions fill God. But God is also as distant from them in the love that God wants to bestow to draw both sides out of their confusion. And this indeed remains the same in victory or in defeat (111).

Many of the sermons in A Unique Time of God turn on this axis of God’s judgment and grace amid the unfolding crisis of war. The bellicose nationalism, the arrogance of rival cultures, the confidence in human righteousness, all of it compounds to humanity’s disastrous self-destruction and deserved condemnation. And yet, throughout this conflict, God’s righteousness and steadfast love become known to modern Europeans through the Word of God and its promises.

A few questions remain after reading A Unique Time of God. As a teacher of homiletics, I wonder how unusual Barth’s sermons were at that time. Klempa keeps the introduction moving along instead of distracting the reader with knotty digressions, and yet, I wanted to know a little more about the customs and content of preaching in that day. Were Barth’s denouncements of the war sui generis among Reformed pastors? Was he part of a band of preachers who shared similar misgivings across confessional lines? Did any prominent European pastors condemn the war from their own pulpits? A brief comparison with other sermons—perhaps especially from talented preachers who avidly endorsed the war—might have helped further define Barth’s positions amid the theological and pastoral currents of his day.

Nevertheless, these sermons are a welcome addition to the growing library of Barth’s early work in English. Klempa’s translation is fresh and inviting; he revives these sermons from a century ago with clarity and grace. Barth’s style comes across often as familiar and conversational, elsewhere impassioned, and always brilliant. Each Sunday’s sermon hints at ideas that mature in his Göttingen lectures, and later swell into his grand symphony, the Church Dogmatics.

These primary sources invite us to understand the young Barth and his theological commitments in greater detail. More than that, A Unique Time of God provides examples of how a preacher can allow God’s Word to speak to the great crises of the present day. Klempa deserves our thanks for bringing Barth’s words to life in our own language, at a time when so many of us hope and pray that God is speaking through God’s Word to us, even now.

Andrew Scales, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton Theological Seminary and Presbyterian Chaplain at Princeton 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


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.