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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.