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Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology

Bender, Kimlyn. Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology, new ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Publishers, 2013), xx + 304. $36.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by W. Travis McMaken (February 08, 2015)



Students of Karl Barth will welcome the reissuance in paperback of this volume by Kimlyn Bender, now associate professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Originally published by Ashgate Press in their Barth Studies series, this new edition remains unchanged save for the edition of a short foreword by D. Stephen Long, and an even shorter preface by the author. The volume itself is an exercise in demonstrating that “ecclesiology is a synthetic doctrine,” “dependent upon other theological doctrines and their attendant propositions and principles to provide it with shape and substance.” In the case of Barth’s theology especially, the most important of these determinate loci is christology, “for the identity of the church is intimately connected to that of Christ” (1). Bender’s volume is an exercise in elucidating precisely how Barth’s ecclesiology takes its content and contours from his christology.

Following the introductory first chapter, Bender’s volume proceeds in two parts. The first part is given over to “Barth’s Early Ecclesiology,” which comprises chapters two and three. Starting with Barth’s teacher Wilhelm Hermann, while also occasionally looking back further to Schleiermacher, and continuing through a discussion of reactions to Barth’s ecclesiology as expressed in the Göttingen Dogmatics, this material provides the necessary background for the second part, which discusses Barth’s mature ecclesiology of theChurch Dogmatics period.

In chapter two specifically, Bender examines Barth’s navigation between the poles of Neo-Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Bender’s discussion highlights how Barth found both of these options problematic for the same reason: “Barth opposed in Catholicism what he opposed in liberalism, namely, the loss of the qualitative difference between God and the world and the absolute distinction between Christ and the church, as well as the confusion of divine and human agency wherein the human claims the Spirit as a permanent possession so that revelation exists not by divine initiative but human prerogative” (56).

Chapter three begins by charting Barth’s shift from ecclesiological writings that are primarily critical in mode to those that are primarily positive or constructive. Bender highlights as well how this shift was supported by Barth’s discovery of traditional christological categories, along with the recognition that the logic of such categories “is also regulative and paradigmatic for understanding all divine and human relations” (65). It is this logic that Barth employs in the ecclesiology of the Göttingen Dogmatics, well laced with actualism. Bender also discusses in this chapter some early criticisms of Barth’s early ecclesiology, and Barth’s response to those criticisms.

Part two comprises chapters four through nine. If part one provided necessary historical or developmental background, chapters four and five provide necessary dogmatic background for Barth’s mature ecclesiology. Chapter four addresses the doctrine of election as “The Foundation of Ecclesiology.” It is so insofar as this doctrine preserves “the theological character of the church” through articulating its reality as “the product of divine will rather than human desire” (128). Chapter five deals with the doctrine of reconciliation as the “Context of Ecclesiology.” Bender’s discussion in this chapter have to do with Barth’s reformulation of traditional christological categories in an actualistic mode, thereby positively integrating Christ’s person and work. The logic of how this ties into ecclesiology comes out clearly: “Jesus Christ . . . lives in correspondence to God, and in an analogical manner, the church lives in correspondence to Christ” (147).

Chapters six through eight deal with the heart of Barth’s ecclesiological material in Church Dogmatics IV, but here we must be brief. Chapter six discusses “The Origin of the Church as the Fellowship of the Spirit.” Bender’s discussion here includes a very interesting examination of the dialectic between church as event and church as institution in Barth’s thought, and this is also the chapter that treats Barth’s discussion of the traditional four marks of the church. Other themes mentioned involve the church’s obedience and growth. Chapter seven examines “The Order of the Church as the Body of Christ.” This is where we hear about the church’s form, and the dynamics of the totus Christus in Barth’s thought. Also treated here is Barth’s oft overlooked material on church law. Chapter eight handles “The Ordination of the Church as the People of God in the World.” Primary here are discussions of the church “in” and “for” the world, but there is also a significant examination of Barth’s thinking about the relation between the church and the state. Chapter nine concludes the volume by providing a summary, but also by discussing more recent criticisms of Barth’s ecclesiology and providing a critical analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of his positions.

It is possible to pick nits in assessing Bender’s volume. For instance, historical study of Barth’s early theology has continued in the decade since the book’s initial publication, and certain aspects of Bender’s treatment might be modified in light of more recent research. Study of Barth’s ecclesiology has also continued, with an emphasis emerging in English language Barth studies on the place of mission in his thought. While this component is certainly not absent from Bender’s treatment (see esp. 244ff), it may be that it deserves more of a programmatic place. More generally, the volume has a very finely balanced and formal approach that gives it something of an encyclopedic feel. There are many positives to such an approach, but it also can also exert a lulling effect upon one who attempts a reading from cover to cover.

These mild criticisms aside, however, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology deserves a prominent place on any bibliography dealing with the great Basler’s ecclesiology. It should be the first stop for anyone—pastor, student, or professional theologian—who seeks an introduction to Barth’s doctrine of the church. It is thus more than fitting that this valuable title has now been made available in a much more affordable paperback.

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.