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.