Rosalene Bradbury, Cross Theology: The Classical Theologia Crucis and Karl Barth’s Modern Theology of the Cross (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), xiv + 324. $37.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Andrew Root (June 26, 2012)

In her book entitled Cross Theology, Rosalene Bradbury provides a needed text on the theologia crucis and Karl Barth. Bradbury is a scholar from New Zealand and the book, originally her dissertation, is excellently researched and highly readable—two things unfortunately not always accomplished in dissertations or theology books. Cross Theology thus commends itself as an important work to anyone in Barth studies or with interests in the theology of the cross.The book is broken into two substantive parts. Part one lays out in great depth the author’s understanding of theologia crucis‘s essence, setting the baseline she will use to judge whether Barth himself is a theologian of the cross. This part almost has the feel of a lawyer seeking to make a case, as she continues to ask: What really is the theology of the cross? Bradbury’s examination is extensive, returning continually to the statistical presence of articles on the theology of the cross in the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) database and using these articles to chart the interest in theologia crucis and its multiple interpretations. This ATLA exploration may seem unconventional but it adds much to her argument, nicely highlighting her many points. Like a good lawyer, Bradbury states her position in the introduction: she believes that Karl Barth is the first (and most significant) theologian of the cross in the twentieth century.

Bradbury begins with a very helpful historical overview of the theologia crucis, embedding this “thin tradition” (as the theologia crucis is often called) in the context of epistemological and soteriological issues even while she is careful to note that the crucified Christ is the very central motif through which all theological reflection must be vectored for those working within this “thin tradition.” She sees a line like a red thread running through the Christian theological tradition that connects these theologians of the cross in a movement from Paul to Athanasius to the German mystics to Luther and finally, as she will argue in part two, Karl Barth.

Before delving full force into this argument, chapter one provides an extensive literature review of the theology of the cross’s contemporary interpretation. Bradbury sees a continuum of interpretation, with some asserting that thetheologia crucis is essentially a doctrinal position on justification, others using it as a social critique, some defining the theology of cross very narrowly and others very broadly. This is an exercise in setting the stage upon which she will later place Barth. But even with Barth a hundred or so pages from full consideration, the set itself is so well constructed as to be helpful in its own right.

The heavy lifting begins in chapter two. Epistemology is the focus here, and Bradbury laces Paul, Athanasius, the mystics, and Luther together to explore the impact that theology of the cross has on the knowledge of God. Bradbury explains how theologians of the cross perceive all knowledge of God to be contingent on God. Only by God does the human knower know anything of God. For theologians of the cross, knowledge of God results from attending to God’s action and especially as perceived in the event of the cross. What can be known about God can only be known through the way God has unveiled Godself in the cross. A theologian of the cross is committed to the view that only God is the measure of God, and that all knowledge of God must be found in Christ crucified.

If this epistemology is a major part of what makes one a theologian of the cross, then another is a certain soteriological perspective. Chapter three picks this up by again turning to Paul, Athanasius, the mystics, and Luther. Bradbury helpfully attends to the resurrection here. This is important for her argument because some have disqualified Barth as a theologian of cross due to his focus on resurrection and human participation in God’s glory. It is further important because Barth’s assertions help shake the theologia crucis from the heavy hands of cold existentialism, a kind of (ironically) triumphalistic depression. Placing the resurrection within the theology of the cross avoids this without losing the heart of the tradition. Bradbury shows how the theology of the cross leads to an understanding of resurrection that rejects any anthropocentric path to God. The God of the cross moves from death to life; always out of death and always for the sake of life. This pushes theologia crucis into eschatological perspective, but what demands note is this movement “from death to life” that lies at theologia crucis‘s heart. It is so central that it becomes a hermeneutic strategy, a way of interpreting God’s action—hence beautifully connecting epistemology and soteriology.

If chapters two and three do the heavy lifting, then chapter four summarizes and explores implications. Bradbury spends her time here highlighting theologia crucis once again and, like a good lawyer, providing readers with a checklist of what makes for a theology and theologian of the cross. Bradbury offers a nice excurses into the Heidelberg disputation to conclude this chapter and the book’s first part.

All this work in part one enables Bradbury to make the case in part two that Karl Barth is a theologian of the cross. She begins by articulating Barth’s indebtedness to the thinkers she used previously in articulating this theological tradition. Of chief importance here is her work in chapter five to reveal Barth’s connection to Luther. Bradbury knows that Barth is a man of his times—he is a modern theologian—and is not simply returning to an old reformational orthodoxy. Barth is doing something new and unique for his time, but Bradbury argues that he does so in part by retrieving these theologians of the cross—and most especially Luther.

Chapter six deals with secondary literature on Barth and the theology of the cross. Bradbury explains why thinkers like Berkower and Douglas John Hall argue that Barth’s mature theology moved away from theologia crucis, and why others contend that Barth was a theologian of the cross from start to finish. This is a tedious chapter, although an important one. But chapter seven and eight are where Bradbury really makes her case, and does so convincingly. Starting with Barth’s epistemology, she shows how strictly he attends to the singular articulation of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and how this self-revelation centers upon the cross itself. Just as theologians of the cross before him, Barth was uncompromising in his assertion that God is known only through God. Finally, Bradbury shows in chapter eight that Barth maintains the theologia crucis tradition by seeing God’s glory and our experience of it only through the cross, and by arguing that election and salvation are determined by God’s action alone. Just as in the “thin tradition,” Barth has no room for an anthropocentric path to God’s glory.

Setting the conversation around epistemology and soteriology, Bradbury does an excellent job convincing the reader that Barth is a theologian of the cross. Furthermore, Karl Barth deserves a place among its champions, taking his place as its twentieth century representative with Athanasius in the fourth century, the German mystics in the fourteenth century, and Luther in sixteenth century. Cross Theology is well worth the price of admission, paying the reader back two- or three-fold in insight and inspiration.

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.