Eberhard Busch, Barth, Abingdon Pillars of Theology, trans. Richard and Martha Burnett (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), viii + 95 pp. $9.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by William Barnett (November 04, 2008)

This introduction to Karl Barth is published as part of Abindgon’s Pillars of Theology series “designed to help students grasp the basic and necessary facts, influence, and significance of major theologians.” If anything, Eberhard Busch, the authoritative Barth biographer and Professor Emeritus for systematic theology at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen in Germany, is overqualified to write such an introduction. Beyond providing the basic facts, Busch has managed an introductory text that is brief yet exceedingly rich in content as it draws upon the entirety of Barth’s corpus even including citations from sermons and exchanges not yet in print.

One of the mottos that Busch identifies as a source of Barth’s own theological fecundity is the task “to say the same thing again and again in different words” (vii). We might turn this around, posing it as a question of this book’s own justification. Indeed, what exactly is different about this introduction to Barth given the other similar texts of its kind? First of all, size. Compared to introductions like J. Webster’s Barth (2000) or J. Mangina’s Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness (2004), this text is half the size with short, crisp chapters averaging only six pages in length. This compact text is nonetheless theologically thick. Unlike J. Franke’s Barth for Armchair Theologians (2006), Busch squarely targets the student and demands her close attention. For example, Busch lays out Barth’s masterful exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity through the doctrine of revelation in CD I/1 in the space of several paragraphs. This unique combination of brevity and academic substance makes for an introduction that is both manageable and comprehensive enough to function as a singular guide for a novice’s journey into Barth.

Part of Busch’s accomplishment in this text is that he simplyintroduces: the door is opened, the room layouts are described, and then students are invited in to explore for themselves. His sometimes condensed doctrinal explanations are self-aware, intending to leave students wondering if Barth’s arguments are truly cohesive and how they might stack up against alternatives. Busch’s expositions are replete with citations so the student can then easily return to the original sources for answers. Further, Busch helps the student process by concluding each chapter with several ‘questions for reflection.’ The purpose of these questions is not to review the material covered, but to orient the student to the kind of reflection and criticism Barth’s thought calls forth for the Christian faith. Consider question two from chapter three:

“Does Barth’s Christocentricity mean that he can no longer clearly state the difference between what God does as the creator and what new things he will do as the perfector? Does his Christocentricity mean that he is still able to respect the witness of the Jews? And, contrary to the questions above, does Barth assume that God will have mercy on people of other faiths? What about those who do not know Christ or reject him?” (21)

Each sub-question is begging enough to warrant a dissertation length exploration. These questions could function well in the classroom, providing ideal exam questions or research topics.

In terms of content, Barth might be considered Busch’s The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology in miniature as it reduplicates the latter’s basic structure: three chapters of historical and personal orientation to Barth (chs. 1-3) and the remaining substantial portion of the text devoted to a thematic exegesis of Barth’s key theological loci (chs. 4-4.9). The fruit of this arrangement is that Barth is given a face and a history before he is introduced as systematician. Thus, the student is ready to receive Barth’s dogmatic claims correctly, that is, not as dry science, but the result of a life and work in “constant movement and transformation” (viii).

In the first half of the text, Busch divides Barth’s life and theology into three periods or phases. Avoiding the interpretive debates about shifts in Barth’s thinking and attempts to uncover a dominant Denkform, Busch’s biographical section emphasizes the tonality and color of Barth’s theological maturation. Busch introduces and explores each phase through a catch phrase. Busch’s treatment of the ‘early’ phase explains how Barth’s changing relation to liberalism, as catalyzed by his parish experience in Safenwil, coalesced into the core conviction that “God is God” as famously proclaimed in the 2nd edition of the Römerbrief. Busch explains the dialectical force of this construction with clarity, its simultaneous meaning that “we cannot own God” and so “God is known only through God” (4).

The second phase is implicitly presented as a development of this latter claim. How is God known through God? Through Jesus Christ, “the One Word of God.” In expounding the consequences of this claim of the Barmen Declaration, Busch outlines the confessional basis for Barth’s particular social and political stances. In particular, and in keeping with an emphasis of his more recent scholarship (cf. Busch’s 1996 text, Unter dem Bogen des einen BundesKarl Barth und die Juden), Busch foregrounds the positive theological strides Barth makes in relating Christian and Jewish identity. This theme is reiterated throughout the text, most notably in the treatment of Barth’s doctrine of election (chapter 4.3). Barth’s theology magnified the “indissoluble bond” (10) between Christians and Jews who stand together under one covenant of grace. But while Busch introduces the promises of Barth’s Christocentricity for Christian-Jewish relation, the extant difficulties go unacknowledged, specifically Barth’s brisk remarks about ‘synagogue’ and ‘Judaism’ in CD II/2.

Busch introduces the last phase with a wonderful anecdote. In response to a woman’s question of whether she could “be sure that I will see my loved ones in heaven,” Barth gave the quick reply “To be sure, you will see not only your ‘loved ones’” (15). The ever-broadening horizons of Barth are brought to light here, his openness to ecumenical dialogue, travel, and political change. The theological underpinnings for this phase of are found in Barth’s doctrine of election (II/2), what Busch terms “the highlight of the Church Dogmatics” (17), where Barth insists on God’s unequivocal “yes” in Jesus Christ not only to the church and its loved ones, but to the world. Living into this “yes” was the source of Barth’s interminable hope amidst ever-growing political and global complexities.

It is appropriate that on this note of Christocentricism Busch switches keys from biography to what we might call ‘theo-graphy,’ the mapping of Barth’s grand systematic universe. It is because theology cannot be separated from the “yes” of Jesus Christ that theology must necessarily be ‘thinking after’ and in response to the divine gift. From this introduction on Barth’s methodological approach, Busch then barrels through the major loci of the Church Dogmatics consistent in his brief yet substantial treatments of rich material. The content need not be reviewed here except to say that Busch succeeds in fulfilling Abingdon’s promise that this introduction will outline the ‘organizing principles’ of Barth’s work.

The incredible depth Busch manages to fit within this straightforward book testifies to his prowess as Barth’s biographer, yet that also marks the one limit of his authorship. We are ably introduced to and shown all around the house of Barth, but are not shown the new doors opened up or the paths that lead (away) from this house. While names such as Tillich, Ebeling, and Pannenberg appear in the reflection questions, Busch never delivers on introducing Barth’s ‘influence’ and ‘significance’ vis-à-vis the subsequent history of systematic theology. What transformations did Barth’s theology effect on the ecclesial and intellectual worlds? What sort of iterations, criticisms, and appropriations has followed? While Busch leaves these questions unanswered, the fact that the reader is left with such inquiries indicates his success in introduction. Barth, as Busch has introduced him, is one whose theology should transform things for it is a constant thinking after the God who moves to transform not only us, but the world.

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.