On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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