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).


Eleanor Burne-Jones said...

Great to find your blog. A 'baby' theology student here, in 2nd yr undergrad.theology course. Blessings!

Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to buy this with a 50% discount at the Hebrews Conference last week. . . and passed it up.

Oh, well.

Strider said...

If Richardson is correct that Barth's anti-sacramentalism is critical to the reception of Barth's doctrine of election, then this would mean that Barth is even more alien to catholic Christianity than I supposed.

How could Barth be so immersed in the Word of God and yet miss the essential sacramentality of the gospel?

Anonymous said...

For Barth, the incarnation itself is the primary sacrament meant to be understood literally as the real presence of God in human form. Understood in this sense, the gospel iself is a sacrament from which other, secondary, sacraments have their ground and meaning. I think, therefore, it is unfair to view Barth as 'anti-sacramental.' However, he does not view the 'sacraments' of the church as having sacramental--preformative--power apart from the gospel of Christ as primary sacrament. See CD II/1, pp, 53ff. Also, "A sacramental continuity stretches backward into the existence of the people of Israel, whose Messiah he is, and forwards into the existence of the apostolate and the church founded upoin the apostolote." CD II/1, p. 54 Thus, there is a primary objectivity connected with sacrament event of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection which can only be represented in a secondary way. CD II/1, p. 56

Ben Myers said...

You've raised a sensitive point, Pontificator. But, surprisingly, both Jüngel and Richardson argue that Barth's doctrine of baptism has crucial ecumenical significance, since it so sharply clarifies the meaning of the gospel and offers a distinctively evangelical understanding of the church. Richardson suggests that this doctrine of baptism is equally confronting for Protestants, since it is essentially a call for reform. He also points out, though, that Barth's central distinction between divine and human action "justif[ies] the demand of Roman Catholic theology in an evangelical way" (p. 186). Still, he admits that "the Catholic tradition ... apparently has the most to lose" from the kind of reform that he has in mind (p. 192).

On another note, Richardson (apparently a charismatic) gives special emphasis to the "immense ecumenical significance" of Barth's view for those traditions that are usually unreceptive of Barth's theology: "Baptist, Pentecostal, and charismatic traditions," which today constitute "so much of world Christianity" (p. 208). But I suppose it would be understandable if this emphasis only added to a Roman Catholic's discomfort!

Anonymous said...

This adds to a Lutheran discomfort as well. I have no problem with Barth's view of election but I feel like he has thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to baptism.

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