Reading Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics

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This post is for the person who is thinking about reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I’ll briefly mention some reasons to read it, note the two excellent English editions now available, describe its overall structure, and relay a suggestion of some passages to dip into first to gain an overall feel for Barth’s distinctive theological mode and writing style.

Why read Barth’s Church Dogmatics?

Karl BarthWhen I began my graduate studies in the history of science back in the 1980’s, the distinguished Curator of the OU History of Science Collections wagged his finger at the five of us who were first-year students at the time, enrolled in his early modern science course, and admonished that we would never be able to understand the rise of early modern science unless we read two theological works: Augustine’s City of God and Calvin’s Institutes. I took him seriously at his word, reading both over the next year or two, along with most of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica as well. If he were alive today, I’m sure he would agree with me that to understand the relations between science and religion from the Enlightenment through the 20th century, one must add Barth’s Church Dogmatics to that short but essential reading list.

By any account, Karl Barth (1886-1968) was the most significant and influential theologian of the 20th century, described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. The Church Dogmatics, over 30 years in the writing, represents the mature form of his own Reformed theology. And it is even of much broader interest than that, for it also reveals his extensive personal interaction with theological currents of his day and throughout the history of the church, from the patristic and medieval periods up through Enlightenment, 19th- and early 20th-centuries, spanning Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and various other perspectives. The massive excursus sections of the Church Dogmatics (see below) offer an unparalleled entrée into the history of theology and a point of departure for ecumenical discussion.

It is no wonder, then, that Thomas F. Torrance regarded Barth’s effect upon modern theology and philosophy as a Copernican Revolution.

Of course, it should go without saying that no one reads the Church Dogmatics expecting Barth to show us all the answers. There are no Barthians, in the sense of theological disciples who agree with all or nearly all that he said. Rather, we read Barth because he opens up a vast landscape in which we can carry on theological conversations with renewed vigor, insight, imagination and clarity. This lies at the root of his historical significance. To attempt to think theologically in our age without engaging Barth is like trying to understand ancient theology without Augustine and Athanasius, medieval theology without Aquinas, and Reformation theology without Calvin; or even to carry on astronomy today with a geocentric cosmology.

| Why read? | editions | structure | starting points | style |

Which edition should I buy?

Barth’s 13 volumes of Kirchliche Dogmatik, published from 1932 to 1967, were translated into English under the editorial leadership of Thomas F. Torrance and G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936-1977). This edition is long out of print, although used volumes can be obtained one at a time from Amazon and other booksellers. Yet it has never been easier to read the Church Dogmatics because of the recent release of two affordable editions!

1. The first choice is the Hendrickson reprint of the Torrance-Bromiley translation: Church Dogmatics, 14 Volumes. Hendrickson Publishers (2010). Hardcover. $129.99 from CBD (+ $50 shipping). Read CBD’s helpful blurb. The Hendrickson product page lists the contents of each volume.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 14 vols., Hendrickson Publishers, 2010 hardcover

2. A second option is the publication of a Study Edition: Church Dogmatics, 31 Volumes. Continuum International, T&T Clark, with assistance from the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary (2009). Paperback, high quality, sewn binding. Available individually for $35/ea., or as a set for $1095; from CBD, Amazon, or more affordably from Alibris and other sellers (who perhaps snapped up extra copies when the set was initially sold by CBD at prices under $500). Read the publisher’s product description. The Study Edition is also available online and in a 2004 edition for Logos software (review; I hope it comes soon for Accordance!).

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Study Edition, 31 vols. softcover

The Study Edition offers a tremendous advantage for students over the Hendrickson reprint: Barth’s frequent quotations of phrases and passages in Greek, Latin, French and German are translated into English in footnotes appearing at the bottom of each page, for the benefit of readers who are not fluent in these languages.

Because the paperbacks are divided into 31 volumes (instead of 14), each one is slim and light enough to easily slip into a backpack or satchel.

Not sure whether to buy the whole set just yet? Here’s a link to the first volume of the Study Edition at Amazon ($28). When you are ready to purchase the entire edition, you can always give away the first volume to a friend to help them “test the waters” and see if they want to plunge in for themselves. 🙂

Buying the printed set rather than individual volumes includes free access to pdfs of prefaces (by Barth and the translators) and indices (request downloading access here). Why these were omitted from the print volumes of the Study Edition is a mystery; the publisher should make them available as free downloads to purchasers of individual volumes, if not to the general public.

Regardless of which edition you choose, you’ll need some good bookmarks!

Karl Barth bookmarks

| Why read? | editions | structure | starting points | style |

Church Dogmatics – What’s the overall structure?

Karl Barth stampBarth planned the Church Dogmatics as a work in 5 volumes, each devoted to one major Christian doctrine:

  1. Revelation
  2. God
  3. Creation
  4. Reconciliation
  5. Redemption

Volume-Parts: Barth did not live to complete the volume on Redemption, so only 4 “volumes” were published in all, as listed below in Roman numerals. As they were completed, each “volume” proved too long to publish in a single tome, so they were issued in separately-bound “Parts,” indicated below as a point followed by an Arabic numeral. Thus, “CD II.1” indicates the Church Dogmatics, Volume II, Part 1, which would be the 3rd volume in the Hendrickson reprint edition. (In this and what follows, refer to the outline below.)

Paragraphs: Each Part of the Church Dogmatics consists of one or more chapters (not indicated below). Each chapter is subdivided into so-called “paragraphs,” indicated by the sign §. “Paragraphs” are typically several dozen pages in length – they are long but self-contained thematic sections, not what is normally meant in English by the word “paragraph.”

So CD I.1 consists of 12 paragraphs (see outline below). Barth introduces each paragraph with a pithy summary called a Leitsatz (a guiding principle or thesis). For example, paragraph 8 is entitled “God in His Revelation,” and its Leitsatz is:

“God’s Word is God Himself in His revelation. For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”

Karl Barth, drawingParagraph 8 unpacks every phrase of this Leitsatz, comprising pages 295-347 of the first volume of the Torrance-Bromiley edition.

Pagination: When citing Barth in English, use the page numbers of the Torrance-Bromiley edition (example: CD I.1, p. 321).

  • The Hendrickson reprint preserves the Torrance-Bromiley volume divisions and pagination – the 14 original volumes are each indicated below by an upper-case “V” in parentheses (V#) for each Part.
  • The Study Edition indicates Torrance-Bromiley page numbers in the margins.

Paragraph 8 occurs somewhere in the middle of the first volume of the Hendrickson reprint edition, but at the beginning of the second volume of the Study Edition because the latter breaks apart the Parts into separate volumes, as indicated below by a lower-case “v” in parentheses (v#). So CD III.4 is found in volume 8 of the Hendrickson reprint, or in volumes 19 and 20 of the Study Edition.

Excursus: Excursus (sing. and pl. forms are both “excursus”) appear in smaller print, and may be a few lines or run to multiple pages in length. In the excursus, Barth engages other theologians and philosophers, interacts with an astonishing range of figures in the Christian tradition, and exegetes scripture. One may follow the thread of Barth’s argument even if one skips the excursus, but doing so will severely distort one’s understanding of Barth’s method, and his approach to scripture and intellectual history, as well as cause one to miss out on his sense of humor (much like those whose understanding of Calvin becomes distorted when based only upon the Institutes, to the exclusion of his commentaries).

Outline: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Volume #: Title

  • Volume.Part (original tome # = Hendrickson reprint volume = V#)
    • §Paragraph range… (Study Edition volume = v#)


Volume I: The Doctrine of the Word of God (2 Parts)

  • I.1 (V1)
    • §1-7 The Word of God as the Criterion of Dogmatics (v1)
    • §8-12 The Revelation of God: The Triune God (v2)
  • I.2 (V2)
    • §13-15 The Revelation of God: The Incarnation of the Word (v3)
    • §16-18 The Revelation of God: The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit (v4)
    • §19-21 Holy Scripture (v5)
    • §22-24 The Proclamation of the Church (v6)

Volume II: The Doctrine of God (2 Parts)

  • II.1 (V3)
    • §25-27 The Knowledge of God (v7)
    • §28-30 The Reality of God I (v8)
    • §31 The Reality of God II (v9)
  • II.2 (V4)
    • §32-33 The Election of God I (v10)
    • §34-35 The Election of God II (v11)
    • §36-39 The Command of God v12 (v12)

Volume III: The Doctrine of Creation (4 Parts)

  • III.1 (V5)
    • §40-42 The Work of Creation (v13)
  • III.2 (V6)
    • §43-44 The Creature I (v14)
    • §45-46 The Creature II (v15)
    • §47 The Creature III (v16)
  • III.3 (V7)
    • §48-49 The Creator and His Creature I (v17)
    • §50-51 The Creator and His Creature II (v18)
  • III.4 (V8)
    • §52-54 The Command of God the Creator I (v19)
    • §55-56 The Command of God the Creator II (v20)

Volume IV: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (4 Parts)

  • IV.1 (V9)
    • v21 §57-59 The Subject-Matter and Problems of the Doctrine of Reconciliation.
      Jesus Christ, the Lord as Servant I
    • §60 Jesus Christ, the Lord as Servant II (v22)
    • §61-63 Jesus Christ, the Lord as Servant III (v23)
  • IV.2 (V10)
    • §64 Jesus Christ, the Servant as Lord I (v24)
    • §65-66 Jesus Christ, the Servant as Lord II (v25)
    • §67-68 Jesus Christ, the Servant as Lord III (v26)
  • IV.3.1 (V11)
    • §69 Jesus Christ, the True Witness I (v27)
  • IV.3.2 (V12)
    • §70-71 Jesus Christ, the True Witness II (v28)
    • §72-73 Jesus Christ, the True Witness III (v29)
  • IV.4 (V13)
    • The Christian Life (Fragment), The Doctrine of Baptism (v30)

Index with Aids for the Preacher (V14, v31)
Keep this volume handy: in addition to name, subject and scripture indices (revised and corrected in the Study Edition), it contains a selection of 800 extracts from the Church Dogmatics arranged according to the German Evangelische Kirche schedule of passages for Sunday preaching.

Karl Barth

Here is a more detailed table of contents, including all chapter and paragraph titles, from the Foundation for Reformed Theology.

| Why read? | editions | structure | starting points | style |

Church Dogmatics – Where do I start?

Karl Barth, compositeFor advice to the beginner on reading the Church Dogmatics, see the works listed in my previous post, “Reading Karl Barth: Short Introductions.” I’ve found them all very helpful, but it’s also important to dive in and begin to gain a sense of Barth’s distinctive mode of writing first hand. Toward that end, Baxter Kruger suggests – at the end of his book, The Great Dance – reading the following sections to start with:

  • CD I.2, pp. 172-202: “The Miracle of Christmas.”
  • CD II.2, pp. 3-93: “The Problem of a Correct Doctrine of the Election of Grace.”
  • CD III.1, pp. 3-41: “Faith in God the Creator.”
  • CD III.1, pp. 330-344: “Creation as Benefit.”
  • CD IV.1, pp. 3-21: “God with Us.”
  • CD IV.1, pp. 22-54: “The Covenant as the Presupposition of Reconciliation.”
  • CD IV.1, pp. 157-211: “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (on Christ in our place as the Prodigal Son).
  • CD IV.1, pp. 211-283: “The Judge Judged in our Place.”
  • CD IV.2, pp. 36-116: “The Homecoming of the Son of Man.”
  • CD IV.2, pp. 378-483: “The Sloth and Misery of Man.”

Depending on your interests, these are a great place to start. Perhaps every reader would recommend a different set of favorite sections. My own interest in Karl Barth’s theological method and his rejection of natural theology makes CD I.1 and II.1 of prime interest, for example.

Yet for any reader, Church Dogmatics reading companions like the following two titles offer specific guidance on where to find topics of high potential interest:

Or better yet, why not start a reading group with some friends, meeting to discuss the Church Dogmatics roughly monthly over the course of 3-5 years?


| Why read? | editions | structure | starting points | style |

Interested but undecided?

Then allow me one more opportunity to arouse your interest in the Church Dogmatics with a few words about the beauty of Barth’s writing style. The CD is long and dense, but not as intimidating as one might think. One reason for this is because Barth’s writing style (not merely the conclusions he reaches) nurtures a personal approach to God that is rare in academic writing (perhaps unequaled since Augustine). Barth listened intently to Mozart almost every day he sat down to write. Robert Palma has written in Karl Barth’s Theology of Culture*, that:

“Mozart’s music contains sounds which rightly disclose and signify God’s grace and providence, the truth concerning his creation, the harmony of creation with its Yes and No, and the creation’s response to God… It would seem that Barth could hear the sound of God’s grace in the free and joyful quality of Mozart’s music, a quality which would seem to presuppose that God affirms his good creation and that all is finally well.”

Barth wrote*:

“In face of the problem of theodicy that pressed upon Europe when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, so Mozart had the peace of God that transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves… He had heard and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time – the whole content of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs, but in which shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth out of the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well….”

These few sentences from Barth offer a glimpse, I hope, of a theologian who writes with an open-ended style, akin to Mozart, with sentences “rolling like great ocean waves … through the volumes of the Church Dogmatics” (T.F. Torrance*). Torrance concludes an article on beauty in theology with these words:

“For Karl Barth, theology is itself a kind of intellectual music, a beautiful science in which the message of God’s love is expounded in the doxological modalities of rational worship, and the joy and freedom of his grace are hymned on earth in forms that echo the liturgy of heaven, which he liked to think of more in terms of the music of Mozart than of Bach. As Barth once said, while the official music in heaven will doubtless be Bach, the angels will be found playing Mozart among themselves.”

*Source: Thomas F. Torrance, “The Transfinite Significance of Beauty in Science and Theology,” in L’Art, la Science et la métaphysique, ed. Luz García Alonso, Evanghelos Moutsopoulos, Gerhard Seel (Peter Lang, 1993), pp. 393-418.

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47 Responses to Reading Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics

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  2. Michael says:

    How has Barth influenced your thought in the context of history of science?

  3. kvmagruder says:

    Michael, that is a great question! The answer is still a story in progress, as I have only been dipping into the CD so far, and reading shorter works by Barth such as his debate with Brunner over natural theology and his study of Anselm’s methodology. But that “dipping in” has persuaded me that reading the entire CD will be worth the effort, so with a new monthly reading group starting up here, it’s time for me to take the plunge and dive in to read the CD.

    In brief, here’s what I’ve already found about Barth’s significance for science and religion in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries:

    1. The contingency of creation, that nature is not necessary but could have been different and arises from the freedom of God in love. This is a standard theme in the historiography of science and religion, and Barth is one of its most prominent advocates.

    2. That one may not separate the attributes of God and consider them in isolation from one another. So, for instance, the contingency of creation is not just to be thought about in terms of God’s freedom, but ultimately in terms of his love. God’s will and mind are not separate from his love.

    3. In epistemology, Barth was an informed opponent of both positivism and idealism. In modern terms, he was neither an evidentialist nor a presuppositionalist, neither a foundationalist nor a postmodernist.

    4. In methodology, Barth articulated a defense of theology as a science by rejecting the idea of a unified scientific methodology, instead affirming the principle of kata physin (according to nature) – i.e., that each field of science adopts methods appropriate to its distinctive subject matter. This entails the idea that various sciences have distinct methodologies which must be developed over time and empirically, which like #3 was quite in opposition to the dominant philosophy of science of the day.

    5. Barth’s rejection of natural theology and his understanding of the relations of nature and grace. This is huge, and derives from all of the above. E.g., #1: If creation is contingent, then its order is contingent as well, and eludes the grasp of natural theology. E.g., #4: If theology proceeds kata physin, then the presence of the word of God displaces the role of natural theology in our coming to know God. In other words, creation as well as redemption are both the gift of grace, and therefore unified, not independent – we don’t start with nature and end with grace. I suspect Barth offers the most fully developed alternative vision of the relation of nature and grace to Aquinas, so it’s no wonder that he is of special interest to Catholics, as representing the best alternative that Protestantism has to offer on this issue that is foundational to every aspect of theology and Christian thinking.

    These are just the areas of significance for the history of science that occur to me off the cuff, in addition to his extensive interaction with contemporaries and analysis of historical figures and intellectual currents, and his obvious influence upon later science-religion dialogues. An example of the latter is TF Torrance’s major work in science and religion – from whom I personally have been most helpfully stimulated to think about all of the above issues – so Barth’s influence upon me personally to this point has been much more indirect.

    So these are some of the themes I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the CD. Thanks for asking such a great question!


  4. Thank you for mentioning the Foundation for Reformed Theology? Here is a link to a reading plan which might also be of interest to your readers:

  5. kvmagruder says:

    Thanks very much, James, for making that link prominent. (It is also found in my post, just before the section entitled “Church Dogmatics, Where do I start?”) And thanks for your informative site at the Foundation for Reformed Theology, .

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  12. Michael Smith says:

    Thanks for your site, I am reading vol 1 of the 31 vol edition. I was very likely when CBD offered the edtion for 299.99 on a fri special in 2009. I just started bur want to read over the next few years the C.D. Michael Smith

  13. Michael Smith says:

    Want I wanted to type was I just started reading the C.D. but want to finish over the next few years

  14. William Robertson says:

    Sir: I was looking about for some discussion on Dr. Barth, and found this site. I’m delighted to find a scientist who loves Barth, as well as other giants such as Bonhoeffer, Paul Klee, and Vincent. But the purpose of this little note is to say that I followed your link to CBD and made the happy discovery that the price for the Hendrickson set has been reduced to $99 (for Christmas?), with a charge of only $10 for domestic shipping. I thought others among your readers might like to know this. At long last I have ordered a set. For almost forty years, I have had the first two volumes in the old black binding with the so-serious orange dust jackets. (I was blessed on two occasions to study with students of Dr. Barth.) I always hoped to find a used set of those weighty books at a reasonable price, but people seem to value them highly, which is understandable. I imagine the reprint will seem a bit insubstantial in comparison, but the words are all there. (I would love to have the study edition, or the digital edition, but perhaps the older format will nudge me to keep working on my Greek. The German and Latin parts I will just wonder about as I always have.) From what I hear from others, it seems reasonable to assume that even with good daily discipline, I may be taking on about a five year project here. But the last time I read the commentary on Romans, I decided that I wanted to get the full dose if I could. Best regards to you, and thanks for your interesting blog. William

  15. kvmagruder says:

    Thanks, William! That’s very good news, isn’t it? While the Hendrikson edition has gone down in price, the Study Edition has gone up – it’s now at $499.99 from CBD. Michael, I wish we would all have seized the opportunity you did when they were selling it for $299! I’m very much enjoying the translations in the Study Edition, but all you need to benefit from them is one friend in a reading group who has it and is willing to share. And I agree – reading the CD will be at least a 5-year journey for me. I would rather read with care and attention than under any deadline. Thanks for your comments, and best wishes!

  16. William Robertson says:

    Thanks for those thoughts. I had the rather remarkable experience of ordering the set from CBD on Friday and having it placed on my doorstep Monday. I would like to have the set with translations, but the price difference was such that it was essentially a choice of the old version now or the new version never. I agree with what you say about reading without a deadline, but I’m also thinking about trying to do some sort of weekly minimum as what I hope would be a spiritual discipline and not a law-ish burden. I’m interested in anyone’s suggestions on how to balance the goal and the process on this.

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  46. Mike Urmie says:

    Hi Kerry:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and summaries on CD and Barth. Just finished reading the short form “Dogmatics in Outline” for a current seminary course.

    I enjoyed your perspectives and those offered by other readers.

    Some much remains to be read and pondered!

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