David Guretzki. An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to buy the book.
I have read books by and about Karl Barth, the renowned Swiss
theologian. To put myself on a spectrum, I would say that I know some
of the basics about Barth’s theology, yet there are many who are far
more learned than I am. That said, I found David Guretzki’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth to be helpful because it lucidly explained Barth’s thought and placed what Barth was saying in context.
For example, a number of conservative Christians have accused Barth
of believing that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit
illuminates it to the hearer, as opposed to already being the Word of
God. Guretzki provides a quote, however, in which Barth affirms that
the Bible is already God’s word. Some have characterized Barth’s
distinction between Historie and Geschichte as being that Historie is
what takes place in real time, whereas Geschichte is some nebulous,
elusive sacred history. According to Guretzki, Barth believed that
Geschichte, too, occurred in real time. Barth in his Church Dogmatics
often worked back from the incarnation to arrive at an understanding of
creation and anthropology. Guretzki explained why. For Barth, God
incarnate in Jesus Christ was God’s definitive and concrete revelation
in history, as well as the goal of creation and sacred history, so what
we know about God and God’s purposes is from the incarnation.
I still have questions, though. If Barth saw God’s revelation in
Jesus Christ and the resulting covenant with humanity as the goal of
creation, did Barth believe that the incarnation would have occurred,
even had human beings not sinned? If the incarnation were that
important, would it be God’s Plan B in response to human sin? I suppose
that, somewhere in my mind, my conception of Christianity is that God
revealed to humans a law, humans broke it, and so God sent Christ to
atone for that. That picture does tend to prioritize law. Yet, there
are additional considerations that may muddy this picture, a bit: Did
God foresee and foreordain human sin, for example? If so, then the
incarnation appears to be more like God’s original plan than God’s Plan
B, and that would coincide with Barth’s view that the incarnation was
Still, I have issues with treating the incarnation as God’s sole act
of revelation. What about general revelation, or the revelation of the
Torah in the Hebrew Bible? Can there be any revelation apart from Jesus
Christ as God-incarnate? Or perhaps I am mistaken in thinking that
Barth treats Christ as God’s sole act of revelation. The incarnation is
paramount for Barth, though.
Anyway, my questions show that there is much for me to learn about
Barth, and my understanding is that Barth does engage them, on some
level. Shao Kai Tseng’s Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology appears to engage them, as do parts of John Coutt’s A Shared Mercy: Karl Barth on Forgiveness and the Church.
Guretzki’s book provides an index of Barth’s theological terms, such
as dialectic; it humanizes Barth by talking about his life and
interests; it discusses his theological disagreements with such figures
as Brunner and Schleiermacher; it also summarizes his earlier works,
shedding light on how they may have set the stage for his later thought.
Guretzki’s book is also helpful because it offers tips on how to read
Barth. Barth can be daunting, and people who want to explore his
thought may wonder where to begin. Guretzki gives advice on how people
can explore Barth, depending on the depth that they want to go. He
refers to beginners’ and intermediate secondary sources at the end of
the book. Guretzki discusses what readers can do when they hit snags in
their reading of Barth. Guretzki also offers advice on how to conduct a
Barth study group, and how to write a paper on Barth. As Guretzki
says, reading his book is no substitute for reading Barth himself.
Guretzki does well to offer guidance on how people can undertake such a
Guretzki’s account of his personal interest in Barth was interesting,
too. Guretzki talked about how Barth has been criticized by the
theological left and right, and how Barth is worth reading because he
emphasizes Jesus Christ and Scripture.
As of writing this, I am reading Jon Coutt’s A Shared Mercy,
which concerns Barth’s views on forgiveness. It was interesting,
therefore, for me to read in Guretzki’s book about the estrangements and
reunions in Barth’s own relationships.
Those who have heard about Barth and want to learn more, or those
(like me) who have read Barth and would like a lucid description of
Barth’s thought, will appreciate this book and find it useful.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!
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