Reading Karl Barth: Short Introductions

Karl Barth is an elephant

To begin reading Barth, short introductions are particularly helpful because of three ways Barth is an elephant:

1. First, Barth is the elephant in the room of modern theology. Many evangelicals and Reformed distrust him, while mainstream Protestants and Enlightenment progressives often dismiss him. Surprisingly, Roman Catholics often seem to take him most seriously as a conversation partner. Perhaps we all need a little help to learn how to talk about him.

2. Second, despite point #1, Barth’s presence on the theological scene of the last century is mammoth in both scope and size, and he simply cannot be ignored. It is impossible to be minimally conversant with Christian theology unless one has at least such an understanding of Barth as might be gained by reading a competent short introduction.

3. Third, in addition to point #2, Barth’s theological oeuvre is disparate in nature. Not surprisingly, then, accounts of Barth’s theology often seem as starkly incompatible as the blind men’s reports of the elephant. Some accounts focus upon the trunk, others study the ears or teeth, many marvel at the huge body, a few fasten onto the tail or remark on the four pillars of legs and feet. Few convey an accurate overall picture of Barth’s theological vision. Whether considered chronologically, from his first Commentary on Romans to the last volumes of Church Dogmatics, or whether considered by subject matter, it is impossible to gain a representative sampling of Barth by simply “dipping into” a few chapters here or there. Again, a competent introduction comes to the beginner’s aid.

As I have embarked on a five-year program of reading Karl Barth, the short introductions listed below have benefited me, and I commend any combination of them to you if you are starting out on the road to understanding Barth. I’m sure there are other works that would serve the same purpose, and in a future post I’ll list some of the longer works that serve as excellent companions to reading Barth in depth, but any one of these brief introductions can orient a beginner to Barth’s theology. They will enable you to decide just what and how much more of Barth you want to read. While there is substantial overlap in the content of these little books, and while any one of them alone would stand as a sufficient introduction for many purposes, they are complementary in that each adds a distinctive dimension to understanding Barth that in combination is quite helpful for the beginner. None of these are a substitute for reading Barth himself, of course. Rather, I believe each will entice you to read Barth with more delight and anticipation; at least, they have had this effect on me.

  • You’re Included videos, from Grace Communion International, provide conversational yet insightful perspectives on the theology of Karl Barth from a variety of theologians. I recommend the following ones by Gary Deddo, George Hunsinger and Jeff McSwain as particularly helpful introductions:
  • Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990). Chapters consist of revised versions of some of Torrance’s most interesting articles on Barth. For the beginning reader of Barth, it would be hard to think of a better start than to read the Foreward and first chapter, pp. ix – 26.
  • Jeff McSwain, Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances (Wipf and Stock, 2010). I’ve described this work in another post.
  • Karl Barth’s Table Talk. Edited by John D Godsey. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1963.
    • Godsey begins this little book with a concise but insightful essay on the shape of Barth’s theology, worth its weight in gold. The majority of the text then consists of Godsey’s transcriptions of lively discussions Barth held with students between 1953 and 1956 as they were reading through the first volumes of the Church Dogmatics and several other of Barth’s occasional essays. These notes, reproduced in dialogue format, provide an unusually fresh sense of Barth’s personality in the midst of his fabled seminars.

  • Casalis, Georges. Portrait of Karl Barth. Translated by Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1963.
    • As with Godsey’s book, this little study written by a Protestant French theologian conveys something of the excitement with which the theological world greeted Barth’s emerging Church Dogmatics in the post-war years. Yet Casalis surveys Barth’s oeuvre, not just the Church Dogmatics, with unusual breadth and clarity for such a brief span of pages.

  • Mangina, Joseph L. Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
    • After a concise biographical chapter, Mangina expertly guides the beginner through the major sections of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. This book is an ideal first guide to the Church Dogmatics’ overall structure and key themes. The beginner wanting to delve immediately into Barth’s magnum opus should start here.

  • Morgan, D. Densil. The SPCK Introduction to Karl Barth. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2010.
    • Morgan’s little book combines theological insight with historical context. This introduction is ideal for the beginner wanting a broader sense of Barth’s place in the history of 20th-century theology, his relationships with other theologians and theological movements, and the relations between Barth’s theology and contemporary political events and social contexts.

  • Two longer works are worth mentioning here because they also provide broad, synthetic orientations to Barth’s theology in the Church Dogmatics:

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Update: See also Tom Greggs’ introduction to Barth and his influence in the Faith and Modernity video timeline of St. John’s College, Nottingham:

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28 Responses to Reading Karl Barth: Short Introductions

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  19. Pingback: Calendar | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  20. Pingback: Reading Karl Barth: Bookmarks | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  21. Pingback: Reading Karl Barth: Short Introductions | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  22. Pingback: Reading Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  23. Pingback: Reading Karl Barth: Select Short Works | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  24. Pingback: Reading Karl Barth: Preparing to read the Church Dogmatics | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  25. Pingback: Reading Barth’s CD I.1, §1: Introduction | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  26. Pingback: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §1-2, Related readings | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

  27. Pingback: Reading Barth’s CD I.1, §2: Introduction | Reading Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics

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