Thursday 10 August 2006

Barth on a budget

Do you want to get acquainted with the thought of Karl Barth, but don’t know where to begin? Do you want to start reading Barth, but are confined by a budget? If so, then this post is for you! (And, more specifically, I’ve written this post in response to a recent request.)

Here are two lists of recommended reading: first, a list of books by Barth, and then a list of books about Barth’s theology.

Books by Barth

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction
A simple, straightforward, heart-warming discussion of what it means to practise “evangelical theology.”

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a summary of the Church Dogmatics (it is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, and it has no specific relationship to the Church Dogmatics). But it’s a very accessible introduction to Barth’s theology, and it contains some remarkably profound chapters (e.g. the chapter on creation).

Karl Barth, The Humanity of God
A modest little book, but a work that is important for understanding Barth’s mature theology and some of the ways in which his theology changed over time.

Karl Barth, Letters, 1961-1968
Barth was a prolific correspondent, and his letters make for delightful and humorous reading. The letters collected here offer unique insight into Barth’s personality, social context and acquaintances. There’s no better way to get a “feel” for Barth’s personality than to read his letters. (This book is out of print, but second-hand copies are readily available.)

Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, Vol. 1
One of the best ways to get acquainted with Barth’s thought is to read this volume (based on an early lecture-series from the 1920s), which was Barth’s first attempt at a full-scale dogmatics. Although Barth’s theology matured and developed in many ways, this early work offers a highly accessible, energetic account of some of Barth’s deepest and most radical concerns. (For instance, the chapter on the relationship between theology and preaching is crucial for understanding Barth’s whole theological project.)

Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation
This is a cheap and attractive paperback reprint of the first section of Church Dogmatics IV/1 – and it’s one of the best and most beautiful parts of the entire Church Dogmatics. If you want a cheap and easy way to start reading the Church Dogmatics, this is a great way to begin.

Books about Barth

John Webster, Barth
This is by far the best short introduction to Barth. With clarity, conciseness and sharp insight, Webster introduces the main themes of Barth’s theology and summarises important controversies about the interpretation of Barth.

Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology
This is a brilliant introduction written by Barth’s former personal assistant. Busch draws together his unequalled knowledge of Barth’s personal life and his penetrating insight into the themes and structure of Barth’s theology.

John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth
A first-rate collection of essays by leading scholars and theologians. The only major shortcoming is that there is not enough specific focus on Barth’s biography; but this collection is very helpful for thinking about Barth’s relationship to the contemporary theological discussion.


David W. Congdon said...

Dogmatics in Outline is always my first recommendation for where to begin with Barth. That said, I would also recommend, for the more ambitious, Eberhard Jüngel's God's Being Is in Becoming as one of the very best secondary works of literature on Barth. In those 120 pages, he masterful and succinctly explains Barth's doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, election, and revelation. Jüngel is difficult reading, but it is well worth the time and energy. For those interested, I am going through this book at the Jüngel blog.

Anonymous said...

Re: Evangelical Theology: an Introduction

"simple" and "straightforward" may be relative terms depending on your familiarity with Barth's work! :)

cf this post.

A Barth Beginner

Anonymous said...

Excellent! Thanks very much. Now please keep up the good work -- I'm looking forward to Moltmann on a Budget (should be easy?), Bultmann on a Budget (not too hard, maybe?), Torrance on a Budget (bit of a challenge?), John Webster on a Budget (an impossibility???) and, perhaps your greatest challenge, Jungel on a Budget! :-)

Also, I have a suggestion for another post. Are there any books by Barth that took you a long time to find, that you had to search for ages for, contact secondhand book shops, maybe even pay quite a bit for on the secondhand market? Anything that took a long time for you to hunt down but that was very satisfying when you did get it? Perhaps you can extend this to other theologians and their out-of-print rarities too.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I've just bought a copy of 'God in Action' on eBay. How does this rate in the Barth corpus?

Anonymous said...

what do you think of hunsinger's how to read karl barth the shape of his theology? it was assigned for the secondary resource in my barth course.

moltman on budget is pretty easy and i wouldn't be up for writing one since i just had the class.

Ap said...


What do you think of von-B's book on Barth? Were there some misrepresentations or important things he missed?

Anonymous said...

Yeah! I just snagged a brand new hardcover copy of 'The Great Passion' from an eBay seller for ten bucks. Now I just have to do the hard part -- read, think, study, absorb, and apply the contents.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Joshua. Hunsinger's How to Read Karl Barth is a brilliant book, and it's invaluable for people who are wanting to read or engage with the Church Dogmatics. But it's definitely not a book to begin with -- although the title makes it sound like an introductory work, it's really a very advanced analysis of the underlying structural motifs of Barth's theology. For advanced students, though, it's an indispensable book.

Hi Apolonio: There's no question about it: von Balthasar's book is one of the best and most important studies of Barth that has ever been written. It has shaped the whole field of Barth-interpretation more than almost any other book. It's also (as you'd expect from Balthasar) a remarkably moving and beautiful work, with some heartbreakingly beautiful passages in which Balthasar expresses his love for Barth's thought.

Having said all that, Balthasar's basic interpretation of Barth (that Barth moved from "dialectic" to "analogy") has been extensively critiqued in recent scholarship. Bruce McCormack in particular has really demolished this whole interpretive schema -- and he has been able to do so because we now have access to such a wealth of Barth's early lectures and manuscripts (whereas Balthasar had to rely on Barth's officially-published works).

So although Barth-scholarship has now moved beyond Balthasar, Balthasar's work remains tremendously important, and it's still a work of powerful insight, exquisite beauty, and ecumenical vigour. In fact, just this year a collection of essays was published as a tribute to Balthasar's interpretation of Barth: see here.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Clifford Green's edited work, _Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom_ in the "Making of Modern Theology Series," Fortress Press, 1991 is available on Amazon for $16.80 U.S. in paperback. It's a good selection of texts with a fair introduction by Green.

An excellent secondary source is George Hunsinger, _How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology_ Oxford Univ. Press, 1991. Hunsinger, who teaches at Princeton Seminary, has written several other works on Barth, including on the relation of Barth's theology to his politics. (It is not surprising that Hunsinger is one of the leaders in the U.S. of the THEOLOGICAL resistance to policies of preemptive war, torture, and the slide into creeping fascism. His resistance is not humanistic, but Christological and Trinitarian.) But this is a really fine guide for beginners. $29.95

David W. Congdon said...

For those who are not on a budget and want to really understand Barth's early developments, I do recommend Bruce McCormack's work. I finally read it last year, and it truly is a fantastic book. The high price aside, it is quite accessible to the novice, and he does a very nice job of explaining Barth's theology. Where McCormack is strongest is in his explication of the Romans commentary (editions one and two). Those sections alone are worth the high price. I would recommend that people read those sections before ever tackling the Romans commentary.

Ben Myers said...

You've got that right, DWC -- McCormack's book is probably the finest work of Barth-scholarship of the past couple of decades. (And it's soon also coming out in German translation!)

Best of all, McCormack's whole book is available online for those whose libraries subscribe to Oxford Scholarship Online.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested in a hardback copy of Church Dogmatics IV.1, I have an extra (now that I got the whole set) that I am willing to give away to a good home. leave a note on my site and I will email you about it.

Brannon Hancock said...

Hi - I'm new to your blog, linked from Captain Sacrament. I'm a PhD student in the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts at Glasgow University (Scotland). Anyway, enough w/ the intros; just wanted to chime in here. Thanks for the good reading list on Barth, but I am astonished by the lack of attention to the Romerbrief in the main post and all but one of the comments. Surely Barth's (r-)evolutionary and continually-revised commentary on the epistle to the Romans is essential not only to Barth's own corpus but also to 20th century theology and theological hermeneutics in general...right? Also, I think the very first volume (I.1) of the Dogmatics is a good place to go to get into Barth, even if one doesn't go on to read the rest (*ahem* he says from personal experience).

Rachel said...

thanks for this - I'm searching for barth online as currently studying in argentina and barth in spanish is a bit too much. any ideas for online version of 'evangelical theology: an introduction' ?

The BetaMinistry Crew said...

I'll have to agree with Brannon re: the Romerbrief comment. Although I'm currently working through all the Dogmatics (and summarizing and commenting on each chapter in my blog), there is no better bang-for-your-buck Barth than in the commentary on the Romans. Although CD is a more comprehensive, exhaustive and amazing work, 9000 pages is a lot to read....

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