Book Reviews

Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics

Allen, R. Michael. Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T and T Clark, 2012), x + 241. $39.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Ben Rhodes (April 29, 2014)

An old friend of mine who teaches analytic philosophy at an Ivy League university recently contacted with an apparently simple request. He was looking for a compact, canonical exposition of what Barth had to say about the Trinity. If no single secondary source could be relied on to provide such a summary, he would settle for a short selection of primary text.

As anyone who has spent time with Barth’s writing will undoubtedly appreciate, this is very nearly an impossible task. Barth wrote so much about the doctrine of the Trinity, in so many places, and with such beautifully spiraling (and occasionally exhaustingly repetitive) dialectical energy that no short summary can hope to capture what Barth had to say on the topic of the Trinity. This observation could easily be extended to almost any doctrine treated by Barth. But it is singularly unhelpful to recommend reading the entirety of the Church Dogmatics, especially to an analytic philosopher who is looking for a short answer. What to do?

The volume under review – R. Michael Allen’s new introduction to and selection of readings from Barth’s Church Dogmatics – is not the answer to my friend’s request. But it does provide the best one-volume collection of substantial highlights from theDogmatics currently available in English, and thereby admirably succeeds in its stated purpose. Allen’s intent is to improve on the 1961 volume of selections from the Dogmatics, edited by Geoffrey Bromiley and introduced by Helmut Gollwizter, which stopped at CD 4.2. In his words, the reader is meant to give “[g]reater guidance for the novice, laying Barth’s statements over against his wider corpus as well as the classical dogmatic tradition and his modern interlocutor” (ix). More precisely, Allen has composed a reader in the best sense of the term: a coherent collection of selections from a massive primary source that serves to introduce its shape and scope, while whetting the individual reader’s appetite for more.

Barth specialists will all have (different) complaints about what is not included or is insufficiently emphasized, and no review can hope to settle those disagreements to anyone’s satisfaction. The principle of selection is perhaps most clearly stated near the end of Allen’s short introduction to Barth’s life and work, after Allen briefly surveys the debates about the relative importance of dialectic and actualism in Barth’s theology (6-9). Allen suggests that both concepts are secondary, being utilized in explanatory service to Barth’s recovery of “key dogmatic concepts drawn from the classical and Reformed theological tradition and deployed to expound the logic of the gospel. Indeed, Barth’s most important contribution is surely his deliberate retrieval of classical Protestant divinity amidst a modern theological culture that had all but forgotten such conceptualities” (8). For a sense of how deeply sympathetic Allen is to this understanding of “retrieval” see his recent Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015) written with Scott Swain. While I tend to read – and almost always teach – Barth in much the same way, it is important to note that there are other ways to characterize Barth’s most important contribution: less loyal to the classical and Reformed tradition and more creatively speculative, perhaps most especially in the area of the significance of Barth’s christological reformulation of the doctrine of election. Those who prefer another principle of selection will find themselves wishing for another kind of reader, as the Barth on display here is most definitely a Reformed dogmatician.

Allen’s organization is clear and consistent throughout. After his introduction, he has 14 chapters that deal with a large dogmatic slice of Barth, straightforwardly entitled as follows: The Word of God in Its Threefold Form, The Trinity, The Word Heard and Testified, The Perfect God, The Election of Jesus Christ, Theological Ethics, Creation and Covenant, Providence, Nothingness: Sin as the Impossible Possibility, Reconciliation in Christ, Justification and Sanctification, The Living Christ and the Promised Spirit, Vocation and Witness, and The Christian Life. Each chapter begins with an arresting quotation from Barth, followed by a one-page summary by Allen of the doctrinal material and the larger context from which the selection is drawn. The short bibliographies appended to each summary serve as a kind of list of recommended readings, providing a topically focused survey of the secondary literature. However, the bulk of the material in each chapter consists of around fifteen pages from Barth’s, typically from one or two uninterrupted blocks of the Church Dogmatics. Ellipses are rare. Allen prefers to let Barth speak for himself. But Barth does not speak alone: Allen provides lucid explanatory footnotes on almost every page.

These footnotes contain some of the more interesting contributions from Allen, and display his calmly comprehensive and judiciously balanced voice to great effect. Many of the footnotes supply helpful quotations from elsewhere in the Dogmatics or Barth’s other works, rounding out the selections in the main text. Allen often clarifies the terms that Barth is using, situating Barth within the theological tradition, occasionally commenting about Barth’s context, and drawing on a wide variety of secondary sources (mostly in English, though Allen is also aware of and gestures towards major German scholarship). It is in the footnotes that we glimpse what Allen must be like in the classroom: widely read, magisterially irenic, and clearly Reformed. Allen’s footnotes succeed admirably well in helping readers situate Barth as a theologian of the historical and ecumenical church, whose arguments have continuing relevance to contemporary dogmatic discussions, but Allen does not shy away from proffering his own judgments on both the usefulness and limits of Barth’s theological insights. Scholars may benefit from Allen’s footnotes, but they are not written for specialists.

Considered as a whole, the book is very well designed for students who are coming to the Dogmatics for the first time, precisely because it provides a one-volume sampler of doctrinal highlights in Barth’s own words. More substantial engagement with Barth will require reading more of Barth himself, but this volume gives a doctrinal distillate of the great riches of the Dogmatics. As I told my philosopher friend, Allen’s book is a great place to begin if one is willing to read more of Barth, but not a very satisfactory solution if one is looking for a summary of what Barth said. There are other, more incisive introductions to Barth as a theologian. But Allen’s Karl Barth’s Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader deserves to sit on the same shelf as the new edition of the Dogmatics from T&T Clark, which it so accessibly summarizes.

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.