Friday, 28 July 2006

Kurt Anders Richardson: Reading Karl Barth

Many thanks to Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of Kurt Anders Richardson’s recent book, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology.

In this book, Richardson brings Barth’s theology into dialogue with various aspects of contemporary theology, and he seeks to take up Barth’s thought as an instrument of theological and ecclesial reform. Although it is an uneven book, and although it is not structured as clearly as it might have been, Richardson has a fine instinct for interpreting Barth, and he understands clearly what is involved in reading the Church Dogmatics: “To read the CD is more than a literary act or even a philosophical one; it is a religious act because Barth’s work is so fundamentally shaped by his testimony to the Word of God” (p. 12). To read Barth correctly, then, we must read him as a “witness”—and this will always mean to read him in relation to our own theological questions, “to read him and then to move on” (p. 23).

At the heart of Richardson’s own reading of Barth is the conviction that we should begin at the end of the CD, reading the whole work “back to front.” The little fragment on baptism (CD IV/4) thus becomes a “lens” for interpreting Barth’s theology. Although this exciting approach is announced at the beginning of the book, Richardson only develops such a reading in detail in Chapter 6. This is by far the best and richest part of the book—and it’s worth the admission fee for this chapter alone (pp. 161-208).

Here, following Eberhard Jüngel, Richardson explores the (anti-) sacramental theology of CD IV/4 as the hermeneutical key to the whole of Barth’s dogmatics. The triadic structure which Barth develops in IV/4—Deus extra nos, Deus pro nobis, Deus in nobis: “God outside us, God for us, God in us”—is taken up as the underlying logic of the entire CD, and as the most refined expression of Barth’s doctrine of election.

No one has written more acutely and extensively on Barth’s doctrine of baptism than Eberhard Jüngel. And in a lengthy engagement with Jüngel (pp. 176-208), Richardson defends Jüngel’s interpretation of Barth and sharply critiques George Hunsinger and John Webster for muting or dismissing this radical, reforming doctrine of baptism.

Just as Jüngel makes IV/4 the true test of Barth-reception—“whoever wishes to baptise infants should not proclaim his closeness to Barth’s doctrine of predestination!”—so too Richardson critiques all readings of the CD that privilege the sacramental language which Barth was still using in I/1.

Only with the development of his doctrine of election (II/2) did Barth wholly overcome the notion that human action can in any way be “analogous to divine action” (p. 193). Here, Barth’s “analogy of faith” (analogia fidei) achieves its full depth and systematic expression. And it is finally in the doctrine of baptism (IV/4) that “the trajectory of the entire CD achieves a striking degree of clarity” through its expression of the central themes of “correspondence, election, and the distinction between divine and human action” (p. 206).

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