When I set out on this short adventure of reading and blogging about a book I said that my comments and review would not be “ojbective” in any sense of the word because I am a fan of Barth’s theology and count John Franke as one of my friends… so take my comments with a grain of salt.
Overall, I really enjoyed Barth for Armchair Theologians. Its length makes it very digestible and it’s style, a cross between biographical story and analysis creates a nice balance to read. Particularly helpful is that this can be desribes as “theological-historical” biography as at every point John seeks to show how the historical content in which Barth was living and writing impacted what he wrote. My ability to tell whether something is accessible to the average chuch goer is completely shot, but my guess is that most people with an interest in theology would be able to handle it. I found the last part of Chapter 7, where John discusses the neo-orthodox/postmodern interpretations of Barth to be a little higher grade of discussion, but nothing completely over the top.
What the book helped me to was understand myself better actually. While my thinking has been shaped by Barth directly (via his books) my thinking has also been shaped by Barth indirectly through the people he has influenced such as professors that I’ve had and authors that I’ve read. At numerous points in the book I was reading and then went, “Ah ha! That’s where that came from!”
What did suprise me a bit was that there was no mention of Barth’s highly controversial assisant, Charlotte Von Kirschbaum. It seems that shortly after the discussion of Barth begins someone brings up the strange mysterious relationship between Barth and Von Kirschbaum and its something that wasn’t even mentioned in this book.
My final assessment is that Barth for Armchair Theologians is well worth reading, especially if one is interested in getting a grasp on his thought prior to diving into the Church Dogmatics which will literally take a person years to read….
So I got a little behind on my blogging about Barth for Armchair Theologians mainly because I was reading it so fast to the point where I finished the book today. So I’m going to summarize the last four chapters in this post and then post my summary thoughts.
Chapter 4 is entitled “The Impossible Impossibility” which traces Barth’s rise to popularity as he shifted from Switzerland into Germany and began his time there. What I found most ironic was that Barth was actually throughly unqualified to teach what he had been called to teach (Reformed dogmatics) and thus spent much of his time lecturing in order to teach himself. It’s interesting that he highlights the Heidelberg Catechism which is something that Barth references a great deal in the Church Dogmatics. Franke also highlights Barth’s understanding of Reformed Theology as theology that is constantly reforming, hence for Barth reformed theology has never “arrived”. Finally, this chapter brings to light Barth’s rediscovery of John Calvin and the ultimate impact that that had on his development.
The next section of the chapter highlights Barth’s reference to the “impossible possibility” of theology. Basically, as humans we are inherently unable to speak of God but because God acts in revelation we thus can attempt to speak of God. This is one of many dialectical tensions that emerge in Barth’s thought, but this is perhaps the most central.
Chapter 5 is entitled, “Bearing Christian Witness” which, given the impossibility of speaking about God is all that we can do. This, along with the belief that Dogmatics was ultimately to serve the church led him to undertake “The Church Dogmatics” rather than his previously attempted, “Christian Dogmatics”. The final part of the chapter highlights Barth’s engagement with the Nazi Party in Germany, the Barmen Declaration, and his ultimate dismissal for refsing to sign an oath of faithfulness to the German government.
Chapter 6, entitled “The Church Dogmatics” is by far the longest and therefore its going to get the shortest summary. It traces the outline and shape of the Church Dogmatics and then summarizes each volume.
The final chapter traces Barth’s legacy and his post-retirement legacy. Franke devotes considerable time to outlining two interpretations of Barth – the neo-orthodox interpretation and the postmodern interpretation. Franke argues that each interpretation of Barth ultimately fails to account for Barth’s dialectical style. The neo-orthodox side diminishes the “God as wholly other” emphasis, while the postmodern interpretation neglects God givenenss and revelation. Franke ultimately argues that is Barth’s dialectical style that must govern our reading of Barth.
In Chapter 2 of “Barth for Armchair Theologians” John Franke continues to trace the biographical developments of the young Barth as he began his time as a Swiss pastor. As someone who has read mainly the later Barth (Church Dogmatics III.3-IV.2) some of the statements that Franke recounts are quite stunning, but helpful to understanding Barth’s beginnings. Most notable has to be Barth’s comment regarding the Chalcedonian definition of the nature of Jesus Christ: “If Jesus were like this I would not be interested in him” (Pg. 22) Franke also highlights Barth’s involvement with Christian socialism and his involvement in the struggles of his parishoners. This all leads to the most illuminating part of the chapter, where Franke describes Barth’s break with liberalism.
Franke points out that Barth’s break with liberalism began in the midst of World War I, when many of his teachers had given their stamp of approval to the German war effort, much to the chagrin of Barth. “For Barth, the fatal flaw in the liberal approach to theology was it limited ability to speak about God in ways that challenged the assumptions and presuppisitions of a particular culture… Hence, the God of liberal theology appeared to Barth to function as one who simply sanctioned the values and norms that society had established and certified them with a divine seal of approval.” (Pg. 31)
What we might ask led to Barth’s shift? It was a return to the bible, and a new way of reading the bible. “The bible is not primiarly about history, religion, morality, and the like, but rather God. God is the content of the Bible. It is not right human thoughts about God that make up the content of the Bible, but rather right divine thoughts about human beings…. it <the Bible> stands over against our knowledge and will as something Wholly Other.
It was this view of the bible, coupled with his intense study of the Epistle to the Romans that led to the “bomb that went off in Switzerland” (to quote one of my former professors); Barth’s commentary on Romans. The new central piece of Barth’s thinking became the idea that God was “Wholly Other”. I personally had never made the connection between Barth’s frustration with seeing God’s blessing too easily pronounced over World War I with his emphasis on God as “Wholly Other” who could not be co-opted to affirm human interests. Rather, according to Franke Barth argued “… that the Bible legitimatizes only one truth, one store, and one kingdom, the kingdom of God.” (Pg. 46)
Franke then attempts to explain Barth’s “dialectical approach” to theology. Even as someone who is familiar with this I was highly suspicious that this section would come across as being at all readable. However, I am happy to report that I think it’s clear and readable. “He <Barth> speaks of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the center of human knowledge of God yet also asserts that human beings do not have the ability to understand what has been revealed.” To put this into my own words, God’s revelation through Jesus Christ is something we know happened, but within the frameworks that we have we cannot understand and comprehend it. It is the “Wholly Other” acting in our world. There is a simply beautiful paragraph that I was going to try and summarize but it simply cannot be done
Barth’s dialectical approach to speaking about God meant that standard assumptions concerning theology in both liberal and conservative traditions, had to be rethought and reconstructed. Hence, Barth tended to be wary of straightfoward propositional statements about God, revelation, and truth which would suggest that we as human creatures are in a position to speak knowingly about things that are of neccessity, because of the Creator-creature distinction, known only to God in spite of revelation. Propositions are too static for speech about God. Yet he also wanted to affirm, indeed felt compelled to affirm, that God had indeed been revealed and made known in Jesus Christ. Hence it was neccessary to do two things: first, to recognize and acknowledge the inadequacy of human langauge with respect to God; and second, given the necessity and responsibility of human beings to bear witness to their Creator, to rethink and redeploy patters of theological speech that were dynamic and more reflective of a God who cannot be pinned down, contained, or put in a box” (Pg. 48)
Yes – go back and read that again. It’s that beautiful.
Franke wraps up chater 3 by introducing the Lambech lecture, which Barth was invited to give in Germany to a group of Christian Socialists. In it, Barth actually argues against that which he used to support and says that in the end God alone can save the world and put things right. Another quote:
“In light of the resurrection, human beings can no longer live under the illusion that we can change the world for God or on behalf of God, but we can live in the assurance that god can and will overcome and transform the world and bring about the Kingdom of God. This is our hope” (Pg. 55)
Needless to say, thus far I am impressed and enjoying Barth for Armchair Theologians. As I said in a post a few days ago my review is far from objective (no review really ever is) as I’m a huge fan of Barth and count John Franke among my friends. However, it is helpful to see the care in which John has focused on Barth’s early life instead of diving directly into the Church Dogmatics and that this book is approached as a biography.
Chapter 4/5 to come tomorrow…
John Franke opens his introduction by asserting, as many would, that when all is said and done Karl Barth will be considered the giant of the 20th Century, and in all likelihood one of the giants of Christian theology period. The irony, as Franke points out, is that despite this he is one of the least read theologians, in part due to the sheer mass of his Church Dogmatics. Franke points out though that this was not what Barth intended. In fact, Barth himself never completed his doctorate and saw his role as a theologian as assisting the church in its proclamation.
Franke then outlines what the book will be. “This little book tells the story of Barth’s theological journey from liberalism to a new form of theology” (Pg. x) Franke points out that in the end, Barth traced a path of theological thinking that drew the ire of the “conservatives” for being “too liberal” and the ire of the liberals for being “too conservative”. But John invites us to “… enter into the story for themselves and come to their own conclusions”
Chapter 1 is a brief biography of Barth’s childhood, followed by a clear and concise introduction to the three main figures (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann) and in theology who preceded Barth himself and thus shaped Barth’s early thinking. A few things stood out to me from this chapter that I thought were significant
- I was unaware that Barth had grown up in a deeply pious family with a father who valued religious experience over “orthodoxy” and viewed “orthodoxy” as something that sometimes hindered faith
- Franke offers a nice introduction to the enlightenment as well as summaries of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann – not too technical or in-depth, but adequate.
- I think its helpful that Franke starts with a historical introduction and allows the story of Barth’s life to unfold in story form.
Chapter 2: “Breaking with Liberalism”
Today I finally received a book that I’ve been looking forward to reading for quite some time, Barth for Armchair Theologians. Ever since I discovered Barth’s thinkin during my first year of seminary I’ve been on the look out for a book that I could recommend to everyday people to help them understand Barth’s thinking. While there are many very good books out there on Barth (see Ben Myers list) none of the ones that I’ve looked at have gotten at Barth’s thinking in a way that I could accessible to most people.
Enter Barth for Armchair Theologians. Written by John Franke of Biblical Seminary this I hope is the book that I’ve been looking for. Over the next few weeks I’ll be reading and posting my thoughts about this new book. If you are looking for an “objective opinion” on the book I will not be a good source. I’m a big fan of Barth and count John Franke amongst my personal friends.
One note that I found priceless already is John’s dedication, which reads: “For J.J. (Because this book has pictures)”. J.J. is John’s eight(?) year old son.