D. Densil Morgan, Barth Reception in Britain (London: T&T Clark, 2010), viii + 312 pages. $120.00 / £64.00

Reviewed by Donald W. Norwood (June 08, 2011)

Karl Barth was a prolific writer, but we have now had nearly a century to catch up with him. What we need to know is what difference does our reading of Barth make? What impact has he had, not just on theology, but on the life of the churches and wider society? And why has Barth been welcomed and understood in some countries and some churches more than others – in South Africa, for example, as was evident in the studies edited by Charles Villa-Vicencio, On Reading Karl Barth in South Africa (1988), or in Korea, as witnessed by a number of doctoral dissertations on Barth by Korean students at Oxford in recent years? D. Densil Morgan sets out to begin answering such questions in a very thorough and well documented study of Barth’s reception in Britain.The subject has been treated before as Morgan readily acknowledges, particularly by Anne-Katerin Finke in Karl Barth in Grossbritannien: rezeption und wirkungsgeschichte (1995), and can usefully be researched again. This is not because the present book is inadequate – far from it! – but because Barth studies are alive and flourishing forty years after Barth’s death in 1968. The choice of dates for any historical survey is always going to be arbitrary. Morgan chooses to end his detailed study in 1968 even though interest in Barth did not die with him. Indeed it had something of a revival with the Barth Centenary in 1986. Finke’s study is in German (and, I suspect, out of print), but should still be consulted as it complements Morgan’s work. Finke is better placed to contrast German and British culture and their approach to theology, though she also notes wide variations within the British Isles and not least between England and Scotland. From Morgan, as one would expect from a Welshman and expert on Welsh culture, we will hear more about Wales and the intriguing fact that Barth was available in Welsh shortly before he became available in English. Finke spends more time setting the scene for Barth’s first appearance with whole chapters on systematic theology in Britain in the 19th century and another on the theology of P T Forsyth 1848-1921, often heralded as Barth’s predecessor in Britain. She then takes her study into the l970’s and 1980’s with brief but detailed comments on Barth’s expositors, Stephen Sykes, Colin Gunton, David Ford, Rowan Williams, Richard Roberts and Alister McGrath. The late Dan Hardy is mentioned, but more could be said about him because of the encouragement he gave to a whole range of Barth students, including me: “Time spent with Barth is never wasted,” he said. Professor Christoph Schwöbel, now back in his native Germany, should also be included because of his close partnership with the late Colin Gunton in Barth studies at King’s College London, and his own pioneering research on Barth.

Especially valuable in Morgan’s study is his detailed attention to Barth reception in the different nations of Britain and by different church traditions. He deliberately pays special attention to Wales, partly because he says he intends his study to be ‘an exercise in Bangor theology’ and a tribute to the University of North Wales. He explains: “Given the soundly biblical; character of Bangor theology and its Calvinistic background, it is hardly surprising that Karl Barth’s thought resonated here early” (p. viii). That that is not well know is partly due to the way in which Wales has, more than any other part of Britain, retained its own language and culture. Morgan is fluent in Welsh and can summarise important works which are otherwise beyond our reach. This is a great service because Wales, and not least the Welsh Nonconformists Chapels, have had a major impact on England. For example, though the British theologian Daniel Jenkins spent all his ministerial and professorial life in England and the States, his original inspiration and with it affinity to Barth’s way of doing theology came from the chapels in the valleys. A number of England’s best known preachers have come from Wales. Indirectly the Welsh Barth scholars Morgan mentions, J. D. Vernon Lewis, Lewis Valentine, Ivor Oswy Davies, and J. E. Daniel – the last three all associated with Bangor – influenced Church life and theology beyond Wales.

The example of Wales exposes the close correlation between strong traditions of Reformed theology and churchmanship, and the ready reception of Karl Barth. Perhaps Morgan too easily equates Reformed theology with Calvinism when he would know from Barth’s own early lectures on the Reformed Confessions and from Barth’s theology of election that the Reformed have never been so tied to Calvin as Lutherans to Luther or Methodists to the Wesley’s. But that criticism aside, it is true to say that the Scottish legacy of John Knox’s stay in Calvin’s Geneva later provided fertile soil for Barth. Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, will long be associated with the English translation of Church Dogmatics, its publishers T&T Clark (originally in Edinburgh), and the Scottish Journal of Theology. Morgan correctly describes the latter as “the major platform for the dissemination of Barthian influence in Britain” (p. 218). The big name here is of course Thomas Torrance, Professor in Edinburgh (1952-1979) and at one time considered a possible successor to Karl Barth on his retirement from the University of Basle in 1962. Morgan, like Finke before him, does full justice to Torrance’s influence as a translator and expositor.

We are constantly reminded that Anglicans in particular find it hard to understand Barth. The extreme example was Arthur Headlam, Bishop of Gloucester and previously Regius Professor of Divinity (Oxford). He argued in the l930’s that the real threat to the church in Germany came not from Adolf Hitler but from Karl Barth. Morgan is honest enough to admit that Hywel D. Lewis at Bangor had similar views and felt that the sufferings of the Confessing Church were largely her own fault. There are tales of less extreme but negative responses to Barth from Michael Ramsey, V. A. Demant and Charles Raven. These are balanced by Donald MacKinnon, whom Morgan describes as at one time the only senior Anglo-Catholic who continued to take Barth seriously. Had his study dealt with more recent theologians, the names of Dan Hardy, Stephen Sykes (one time Bishop of Ely), John Webster, Nigel Biggar, Trevor Hart and Rowan Williams (currently Archbishop of Canterbury) would require comment.

Not all Reformed church folk became Barthians, of course. Morgan notes that though Micklem of Mansfield College (Oxford) was sympathetic, he was never a Barthian. Even younger enthusiasts like Daniel Jenkins became progressively more critical, as did Henderson and Gregor Smith in Scotland and – Morgan could note – Colin Gunton at King’s College (London). Also worthy of note is that despite the eulogy from Pope Pius XII that Barth was the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas, Barth is rarely if ever treated with the same deference afforded to the Reformers. Morgan cites the Free Church document, The Catholicity of Protestantism (1950), as evidence of the impact of Barth on its various authors but it is noticeable that Barth is only once mentioned in the footnotes, and never treated as an authority on a level with Luther or Calvin.

Too many studies of Barth ignore the context from which he is speaking or that which he is addressing. Morgan is exceptionally good at describing the scene and drawing on detailed social and historical studies, including his own and that of colleagues at Bangor, to do this. A few criticisms remain, however:

First, we hear nothing about a feminist response to Barth. Dr Kathleen Bliss, active in the WCC and the British Council of Churches, worked with Barth in the pioneering days of the World Council of Churches in a study of The Service and Status of Women in the Churches (1952). Given the enormous changes in the lives of all women in Britain, though less so in Switzerland – votes for women, women in Parliament, debates about ordination of women and actual ordination of them in some churches, changed attitudes to divorce, contraception etc. – all Christians might expect some theological counsel. But if feminism is only regarded as a cultural and sociological issue, Barth could be quickly dismissed as patriarchal and Swiss. Barth had been wrestling with feminist issues as a biblical theologian at least since his early debates with Henriette Visser’t Hooft [wife of the first General Secretary of the WCC] from 1934 and, in the long discussion of “Man and Woman,” he pays tribute to his assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum for her own researches in Die wirkliche Frau (1949; cf. CD III/4, 172). How was all this “received” in Britain in Barth’s lifetime?

Second, Morgan ought to include Northern Ireland, or even all Ireland, since not all churches recognise the political divisions and the modern ecumenical movement in Britain is structured to include Britain and Ireland.

Third, Morgan might have paid more attention to Barth’s influence as a great conversation partner. For example, the distinguished members of The Moot – T. S. Eliot, John Baillie, J. H. Oldham, et al – were not all Barthians, but there are more references to Barth in their conversations than to any other theologian (cf. Keith Clements [ed.], The Moot Papers [2010]).

Fourth, the study ignores Roman Catholic reactions to Barth in Britain. Barth’s dialogue with Rome began in earnest in his days at Münster and reached a real fulfilment in his invitation to Vatican II – which he was then too ill to accept – and his subsequent cordial meeting with Pope Paul VI. Barth often noted that he was better understood by some Roman Catholics than by liberal Protestants. One thinks here of the Dominican theologian, Fergus Kerr whose interest in Barth might have been stimulated by his own Reformed roots.

Fifth, Morgan is – in my view – seriously wrong about Barth and the ecumenical movement. Barth was at first critical because he believed that the unity of the church was far too central to be left to “a movement,” and disappointed with the superficiality of its earlier deliberations. His early lectures, The Church and the Churches (1936, 2005), which were originally prepared for the Faith and Order Conference at Edinburgh in 1937, make this clear. Barth was a keynote speaker at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. Morgan, like Lesslie Newbigin whom he cites, finds Barth too polemical in preparations for the Second Assembly at Evanston, but the argument was again fundamental. It was about “the Hope of Israel” – a statement which the Assembly would find itself unable to accept, but which was printed as an Appendix to the official Report. Barth insisted in Church Dogmatics IV/3, 878: “Even the modern ecumenical movement suffers more seriously from the absence of Israel than of Rome or Moscow.” One must remember that prior to New Delhi (1961), most Orthodox Churches were not in the World Council and prior to Vatican II (1962-5), Rome had not committed herself to the ecumenical movement. Barth was more ecumenical than most of his contemporary ecumenists!

Such criticisms are also compliments and challenges. Morgan, like Barth, prompts us to go on asking more questions in search of greater understanding. His thorough study of how Barth has been received so far encourages us to explore more fully the way in which Barth is read and responded to here and now, in Britain and beyond.

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.