Maico M. Michielin, ed. A Shorter Commentary on Romans by Karl Barth, trans., D.H. van Daalen, with an introductory essay by Maico Michielin (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xxvi + 119. $89.95

Reviewed by Shannon Nicole Smythe (August 06, 2008)

One of the newest releases in the Barth Studies series put out by Ashgate is a reissue of Barth’s A Shorter Commentary on Romans, which was first published in 1959 and originated as the manuscript for a course of extra-mural lectures given in Basle during the winter of 1940-41. The second part of the text is a republication of the original English translation by D.H. van Daalen, but the first part includes a new introductory essay by Maico Michielin entitled “Exegesis that Corresponds to God’s Activity.” In this essay Michielin advances the thesis that “Barth’s exegesis evolves from an understanding of the biblical text as a contingent human and historical event of communication that witnesses to God’s electing activity in the person of the risen Jesus Christ, who is the basis of its human historical reality. The words of Paul witness to a specific historical occurrence determined and shaped by God’s history—God’s election of this human witness” (ix). Michielin further argues that Barth’s own exegesis is shaped by God’s electing activity, yet without any elimination of true, active human interaction with the biblical text. Michielin then organizes his essay under four headings, which all serve to support his proposal. In the first section he endeavors to show how, throughout Barth’s A Shorter Commentary on Romans (referred to as SR), the subject matter of the text for Barth is God’s threefold election of Jesus, Paul and the Christian. Secondly, Michielin shows how Barth organizes his exegesis by way of certain key concepts. Third, he considers briefly the way Barth makes use of various historical critical tools in his exegesis. Fourth and finally, Michielin ponders whether or not Barth’s own exegetical practices are consistent with his theological anthropology, concluding that they are so.In the end, Michielin finds Barth to be both an astutely critical and theologically consistent interpreter of Scripture and holds him up as an example of someone who appropriately balances his own work as God’s partner with the primacy of the subject matter of the text of Romans, which is nothing less than God’s own electing activity in Jesus Christ.

Michielin’s essay is short, but his points are clear, well-made and serve as a very helpful introduction to the main themes in theSR, which for many readers of Barth’s exegetical works will sound very different compared to Barth’s previous commentaries on Romans. Michielin’s suggestion that Barth locates the subject matter of the text in God’s threefold electing activity is interesting in light of the fact that the lectures were written around the same time as Barth was completing the second part of his volume on the ‘Doctrine of God’ in the Church Dogmatics. It seems likely that Barth’s study of Romans had implications for his doctrine of election in CD II/2, and perhaps vice versa.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Michielin’s essay can be found in one of his footnotes, in which, after acknowledging that Barth sees the Bible as a “‘human document like any other…’” (xiv), he goes on to admit that Barth’s own historical critical work leaves much to be desired in his interpretation of Paul’s understanding of the Law (xvi-xvii). Michielin finds Barth’s understanding of Paul to be consonant with the classic Lutheran tradition of Pauline interpretation, and himself sides with Käsemann and Sanders in their own picture of Paul’s understanding of the Law. Michielin simply assumes that Barth and all of the Reformers got Paul wrong. While this may well be the case, a brief footnote is certainly not enough to establish such a monumental point, one which involves long and complex arguments on each side.

Within the actual commentary Barth sees six main divisions in Paul’s text: 1.1-17, which forms the introduction; 1.18-3.20, in which Paul states that the message of Jesus Christ is a negative judgment on all people, both Jews and Gentiles alike; 3.21-8.39, in which Paul argues that this judgment is executed in Jesus Christ, thereby acquitting and justifying all who believe in him; chapters 9-11, in which Paul explains what the Gospel means among the Jews; 12.1-15.13, in which Paul indicates what the Gospel means in the Church of Jesus Christ; and 15.14-16.27, in which Paul makes a series of personal communications. Barth’s attention to the logic and flow of Paul’s argument is impressive. In Romans 5.1-21 (“The Gospel as Man’s Reconciliation with God”), 6.1-23 (“The Gospel as Man’s Sanctification”), and 7.1-25 (“The Gospel as Man’s Liberation”) Barth finds three accounts of the statement that the Gospel is God’s powerful work of salvation (1.16) and three explanations of the thesis that the person who is righteous before God by faith shall live (1.17). When Barth then turns to chapters 9-16, he suggests that Paul has already said all that needs to be said about salvation and thus all that remains is the question of what it means when this Gospel of salvation is met with disobedience and with obedience. Barth points out that Paul deals with the obedience that meets the Gospel with a set of exhortations and instructions, while he deals with the disobedience that meets the Gospel with a kind of theory that contemplates and adores the way in which God’s mysterious work will prove true and be triumphant even where it is met with disobedience. As for the final personal communications in 15.14-16.27, Barth notes that lest we have forgotten the Epistle is a real letter, we are reminded in this last section that we are seeing a glimpse of Paul at a particular stage of his life as well as a particular Christian Church of the first period. For Barth, Paul’s final “‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all!’ sums up…everything that he has to tell his Churches, all that he has to tell at all as an apostle” (115). Following some of the scholarship of his day Barth concludes that 16.25-27 should be considered as a later addition by someone else, and while he finds their content instructive, he does not explain them in order that the last word we hear remains Paul’s own.

The SR did not make much of an impression when it first came out in English back in 1959. Following the controversial waves of Barth’s first and second Romans commentaries, his exegetical work was often overlooked or not taken seriously as legitimate biblical scholarship. In today’s world of biblical scholarship, however, there is a revival of interest in the theological subject matter of the text as well as in the question of the relationship between the text, the interpreter and God. It may even be wagered that many today would agree with Barth that we need to let Paul speak for himself and yet would still seek the wisdom of Barth’s exegesis of Paul. It should be noted that students of Barth will likely find the inclusion of footnotes in the commentary where Barth deals with the same passage in another text, mostly in the Church Dogmatics, helpful and instructive for comparing Barth’s exegesis of Romans throughout his career. For all of these reasons, this reviewer is hopeful that theSR will be well-received this time around, not only by committed Barth admirers, but also by biblical scholars, pastors and church folk alike.

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.