Wednesday 3 October 2007

Barth for beginners: a new series?

A couple of years ago I posted my Church Dogmatics in a week series – and these posts continue to attract numerous visitors each week. But since I still get so many queries about how to read Barth’s theology, I’m thinking of starting a new series of brief posts, entitled “Barth for Beginners.” Here’s a possible outline of the series:

I. Background to Church Dogmatics

1. Reading Capital
2. Reading Paul
3. Reading History
4. Reading the Times

II. Church Dogmatics

1. The Electing God (CD II and I)
    Excursus: Barth and Calvin
2. The Rejection of Nothingness (CD III)
    Excursus: Barth and de Lubac
3. The Path of Election (CD IV)
    Excursus: Barth and Bultmann
4. The Goal of Election (on the luminous absence of CD V)
    Excursus: Barth and Pannenberg
5. The Ethics of Election (CD IV/4)
    Excursus: Barth and Hauerwas

III. After Church Dogmatics: or, How Not to Be a Barthian

Does this sound like a helpful series? Any suggestions?


Anonymous said...

"Helpful"? That's got to be the understatement of the year!

On suggestions, any chance of engagements with von Balthasar, Jenson, and the finest of contemporary "Barthians" with a dogmatic agenda John Webster? And could you make the Hauerwas Yoder-Hauerwas (I do not mean to elide but only to connect Y and H)?

But whatever topics and theologians you touch, Ben, we all know it will be of the Midas variety.

In keen anticipation,

Anonymous said...

Ben. It sounds great. Bring it on.

Sean said...

Since I still refer back to the Church Dogmatics in a Week series, I think this one could be VERY helpful. So please, do it!

scott said...

Drop it like Nike and just do it.

(By the way - as you probably know, there's an excursus on capitalism in CD III.4 - but I'm yearning to know what early sources will you be using?)

I do have a Pannenberg (circa Systematic Theol., Vol.2, p.23, fn.60) inspired query - why make election the determinative thematic? Or, better put: it's of course appropriate to make 'election' the running theme for a sumamry of the Church Dogmatics, since election did work as a determinative conceptual scheme in each volume for Barth. So a Pannenberg-inspired suggestion might be: why not suggest, in an "intro" or "conclusion" to your series - what theological losses or gains might have been sustained in so orienting the Dogmatics?


Guy Davies said...

Sounds interesting to me.

learnerpriest said...

Great idea - I've always felt remarkably stupid for never having had time to study Barth properly. Hoping you can help remedy that glaring gap in my formation!

David Mackinder said...

sounds great -- make it so!

Anonymous said...

Oh please don’t bother. Unless of course you want to first try to show that Barth was in possession of a coherent epistemology; that he was capable of taking a first step that led to a turn on the dance floor and not over a cliff; that he could overcome the metaphorical distance of time and space and understand knowledge, and know understanding, as identity and not confrontation; that he could see the point of Aristotle and put the relevant question to Plato: Not the condition of the possibility of our knowing God, but what are we doing when we know God?

Ben Myers said...

Hi G. Rixon -- "a coherent epistemology... the distance of time and space... the condition of the possibility of our knowing God"? Hmmm, I'm not sure which Barth you've been reading there....

Kim, thanks for the suggestion of discussing some leading interpreters of Barth. This would definitely be useful -- but I guess I like the idea of a more "dialectical" account of Barth's relation to a whole series of "opposites", since this can perhaps help to illustrate what's at stake in some of Barth's basic moves. And thanks for suggesting Yoder, who might in fact be better here than Hauerwas -- in any case, though, I'll probably stick with just one person for each excursus, since (if I've got the energy) I'm hoping to write these bits as fictional dialogues.

Scott, thanks for your Pannenbergian query regarding the "theological losses or gains" that are involved in orienting dogmatics around election. Personally, I'd say it's all gain and no loss! -- although I know plenty of theologians would disagree....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Myers
I’ve been reading the Barth who said:
The question [about the status of the knowledge of God] then cannot be posed in abstracto but only in concreto: not a priori but only a posteriori. The in abstracto and a priori question of the possibility of the knowledge of God obviously presupposes the existence of a place outside the knowledge of God itself from which the knowledge can be judged. [CD II/I]

Why does Barth think the presupposition of such a ‘place’ is obvious? Why does he think that knowing is like standing on the edge of the dance floor and looking on and not like finding the swing of a beat in movement? In failing to understand that conception is not like perception how could Barth not get everything that followed wrong.

Steve Martin said...

Can I make it a combo & get Augustine and Calvin summaries while you are at it?

Anonymous said...

I look forward to it--and I hope you'll write the series with an eye to turning them into a book!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your rss feed via bloglines for over a year now. I don't think I've ever commented on one of your posts. But this brought me out of the shadows to say:

Yes, the series would be helpful!

Tripp said...

yes please. can you do a specific post on barth's love\hate relationship with schleiermacher?

Nick Norelli said...

Sounds like a great series. I have one question though -- as someone who has admittedly never read Barth, would this series be helpful for me, or would this only be useful for those who have a base knowledge of Barth?

derek said...


Please follow through with this wonderful idea! It would be of supreme value to me

Anonymous said...

Just another affirmative vote here! I would value the discourse.

Dwight P. said...

This would be fantastic! Others have asked for personal notes, so I'll add mine: While you're about connecting and/or juxtaposing various theologians with Barth, how about Luther and Robert Jenson? (The Luther relationship is problematic, but I am struck by the number of decent Lutheran theologians who are Barthians. And, of course, Barth was not only Jenson's teacher, but also godfather to Jenson's daughter.)

Blackhaw said...

It would be great. I would also agree with Kim that a similiar discussion of Von Balthasar and maybe Jensen would be great also.

Aric Clark said...

I look forward to this series, since it seems you've already gotten enough yes votes to justify going ahead with it.

For my input, I'm more interested in how Hunsinger or Torrance read Barth than Webster, but maybe that's because I haven't read enough Webster.

Also, you must be familiar with Bromiley's indispensible Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. It would seem like your project bears a great deal of similarity to his. Or have you read John Franke's book on Barth for the Armchair Theologian series? I recently reviewed it and found it to be a great help in providing a beginners overview.

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please, make this happen.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting juxtaposition of two seminal but quite different readers of Barth - and of Barth's legacy, including its implications for theological ontology - would be George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack - as long as it doesn't start another Battle of Trenton!

Ben Myers said...

Hi again, G. Rixon. Thanks for quoting that passage -- I can see now where the misunderstanding comes from!

When Barth speaks of "a place outside the knowledge of God itself from which the knowledge can be judged", he's critiquing this notion. His whole point is that there is no such "place", no such a priori or in abstracto knowledge. In his view, questions about "the condition of the possibility of our knowing God" are a mug's game. The whole order of Barth's thinking is this: God is known, and therefore God can be known.

Anonymous said...

Barth did not "orient dogmatics around election." He oriented it around the Holy Trinity as revealed in Jesus Christ. Election is the self-determination of the Holy Trinity to be the same God for us as God is in and for himself in to all eternity (and so would be with or without the world).

Anonymous said...

Finally, I can now read Barth without having hypertensions. ;-)
Thanks for this. I'll be waiting for it.

Ben Myers said...

George, thanks for your comment. You're right, of course, that Barth's dogmatics isn't "oriented" around election in a formal sense -- i.e., election isn't the formal structuring principle of the CD. But what I really have in mind is the way election functions as the deepest underlying "grammar" of Barth's dogmatics. Which is why I think the real starting-point of the CD is not I/1, but II/2 -- it's here that Barth's theology becomes faithful to itself for the first time, and it's from this central point that the whole of Barth's thought unfolds (even retroactively: thus the requirement to read I/1 in light of II/2).

Hans Urs von Balthasar sums this up very nicely, when he says that II/2 is "the most magnificent, unified and well-grounded section of the whole work", and that it is nothing less than "the heartbeat of his whole theology" (p. 174).

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

Would love to see this. Thanks Ben.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a helpful book!


Joey said...

Hi Ben,

This is great. A right dose of Barth for us who are suffering from Barth- deficiency syndrome. Looking forward again for an excellent series. Thanks in advance.

Guy Davies said...

I'm looking forward to what you have to say about not being a Barthian.

Anonymous said...

I wonder,

is this the G. Rixon from Regis College in Toronto who's mis-reading Barth? If it is, you should bring your concerns to David Demson, he'll put you straight!

Ben, love the idea of 'how not to be a Barthian'--a title Barth would have certainly approved of!!

Anonymous said...


I would love for you to do this. It seems that I am joining a chorus of voices that desire this as well. I look forward to reading what you have to say. Peace.

Kyle said...

Quite helpful.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Myers.
Thank you for your response. Yes I am aware that Barth rejects the possibility of such knowledge, but only, I believe, because he mistakenly views knowledge to be akin to a form of perceptualism; for him knowledge consists of a subject that stands apart from, and confronts the object of knowledge. And of course when it comes to God as object, this deeply offends Barth’s sensibilities, for it implies that there is a creaturely subject that can take the measure of God with a ‘look’ from the outside in. Labouring under this defective understanding of what knowledge is, and to avoid the offense, he is forced to arbitrarily cut short the line of questioning, ruling out of court anything related to the condition of the possibility of knowledge of God, and establishing the slogan ‘God is Known in the church of Jesus Christ’ as the baseline on which ‘his whole order of thinking’ is founded. If Barth had been as attentive to St Thomas as he was to St Anselm then perhaps the foundation and subsequent development of his theology would have been quite different. St Thomas did not understand knowledge to be a form of perception. For him knowledge was a unified dynamism of the perceived as intelligently grasped and rationally judged. To be a knower is not merely to be a perceiver, it involves the procession of intelligent conception and rational affirmation. For St Thomas the Barthian proposition ‘God is known’ must be intelligently conceived and rationally affirmed in order for it to become known. And these are the conditions of any possibility of knowing, of God or of anything else that is known.
Barth’s whole theology is an ingenious, convoluted elaboration to avoid consideration of these conditions. He must reject out of hand any ‘knowledge of God’ claims emanating from natural theology or non-Christian religious speculation because he disavows any role to human intelligence and reason to judge between these and possible conflicts of knowledge claims emanating from the church of Jesus Christ. In Barth’s theology the creature is never real; never the free operator of a control relinquished by God; never the independent knower in free communion with the known. Barth’s God doesn’t take any risks. He never puts himself in a position where he can actually lose at the hands of the created other. His love is purely egotistical because it can never be disappointed.

Dan said...

"...the whole of Barth's thought unfolds (even retroactively: thus the requirement to read I/1 in light of II/2)."

OK, I'm withing 100 pp of finishing I/1 and can't just put it aside to pick up II/2, so I'll finish I/1 and then jump to II/2 and check in often to see when you begin your proposed project here.


Anonymous said...

G. Rixon and others,

It is going to be hard to make a case that Barth's epistemology is "perceptual," when his dominant framework is verbal (the whole first volume of his CD is "The Doctrine of the Word of God"). If you are thinking of perceptual-oriented theologians, perhaps Balthasar would be better, at least his multi-volume "Herrlichkeit." Barth is different in orientation than this. In particular, you can look at his section on "The Word of God and Experience." Here's a brief quote from that section: "To define the anthropological locus at which experience of the Word of God is possible, it is not necessary to emphasize one or another among the various possibilities of human self-determining, as though this and this alone were the chosen vessel of this experience. Will, conscience and feeling have been mentioned as such places, and whole theological systems have been built on the one preference or the other." Barth's concern is that we don't privilege one way of knowing or one kind of experience in which knowledge of God can come, because as soon as we do, we limit other ways and possibilities, and thus hamper the freedom of God. For example, you mentioned Aquinas and the emphasis of knowing as "intelligently grasped and rationally judged." But does this privilege the intelligent and rational over others? As a pastor, I have people in my church who are severely limited mentally. I'm not sure they could grasp intelligently and rationally, at least as these are typically defined. And yet, I want to say that they are not barred from experience and understanding of God in ways that are particular to their lives. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of Barth's, but I have to try to read him on his own terms to be fair. I think integrity and mutual conversation require this.

Kip Ingram

David W. Congdon said...


This looks marvelous. I haven't come across too many tantalizing "introductions to Barth" in recent years, but this one certainly is! And the way you've structured your engagement with Barth is especially great. You've chosen excellent dialogue partners.

I'd like to expand on Kim's comment and suggest an excursus on Balthasar and Barth (et al) on the question of analogy. This would allow you to connect Barth, Balthasar, Pryzwara, Jüngel, and Hart (your favorite!) together. It is also relevant in light of the upcoming conference this spring. Analogy also connects issues of epistemology, dogmatic construction, and ontology together in fruitful ways. Anyway, this is just an idea.

The only other section I would add is one between "The Electing God" and "The Rejection of Nothingness," entitled "The Proclamation of Election," focused on Barth's theology of the Word of God (I/1-2). Here is where you could discuss his "threefold Word of God" as well as Barth's emphasis on preaching as the ground for dogmatic theology.

I look forward to the series!

michael jensen said...

If you do a dialogue with Hauerwas...

will you have to put in all the swearing?

Anonymous said...

Goddam right, Michael!

Anonymous said...

The very idea of grammar implies something something formal and comprehensive. Restricting the grammar of the Church Dogmatics to what can be gleaned from Barth's doctrine of election is in danger of being arbitrary and reductive.

Of course from I/1 to II/2 Barth's theology developed and deepened. But it did not fundamentally change. It would be fine to read I/1 retrospectively in light of II/2, but only if one also reads II/2 so as not to miss the way in which I/1 is presupposed by and incorporated into it.

"God cannot not be God. Therefore – and this is the same thing – he cannot not be Father and cannot be without the Son. His freedom or aseity in respect of himself consists in his freedom, not determined by anything but himself, to be God, and that means to be the Father of the Son." (I/1, 434)

This remark, from which Barth never deviated, is essential to the grammar of his entire theology after 1932.

Barth agreed with von Balthasar: "The life of the Trinity is a circle, eternally fulfilled in itself: it does not need the world." (Theo-Drama, vol. 3, p. 287)

An Anxious Anglican said...

This is not a helpful series. It will distract me from my job and family and eating and sleeping . . . you get the idea. I cannot wait for the series!

Kidding aside, I respectfully submit it would be an even more helpful book!

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you are still considering writing this, but it would be most appreciated...


Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.