The Epistle to the Ephesians (Karl Barth) -- A Review

THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS. By Karl Barth with Introductory Essays by Francis Watson and John Webster. Edited by R. David Nelson; translated by Ross M. Wright. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. 182 pages.

Karl Barth remains one of the most influential, if at times enigmatic, theological voices nearly a half century after his death. One of the legacies of his work is his engagement with Scripture. Although conversant with the historical critical method of interpretation, he was more interested in hearing scripture as a theological voice speaking not only to an ancient time, but to the present. He was committed to the vision that in Scripture one could encounter the Word of God. He was not an inerrantist or an infallibilist, but he was open to it being a means through which one could hear God’s voice.  Barth first made a mark on the ecclesiastical world with his Romans commentary, which was first published while he was still a pastor at Safenwil, Switzerland. That bombshell of a book would come out in a second edition, shortly after Barth began his tenure at Göttingen University. Early in that tenure, during the winter semester of 1921-1922, Barth offered a series of lectures on Ephesians. These lectures are now made available to us in an English translation, revealing something of Barth’s early theology, but also his deepening engagement with the text of Scripture.

The interest in scripture that is evidenced here and in the Romans commentary developed during his decade-long pastorate in Safenwil, Switzerland. During this period of ministry, Barth preached through several New Testament books. Then, after moving to Göttingen, he took on the assignment of teaching biblical exegesis. In that position, Barth lectured on Ephesians, James, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 John, Philippians, Colossians, and the Sermon on the Mount.

Unlike the Romans commentary, which tended to treat the text more as a jumping off point, these lectures on Ephesians are much more focused on exegeting the text itself. It remains theological in orientation, but great focus is given to the Greek words that are found in the text. While he addresses questions of authorship, noting that many scholars rejected Pauline authorship, he both admitted not to have a firm position on the matter but wasn't convinced by the arguments against Pauline authorship. For Barth, as the editor of these lectures reveals, “the yield of good critical research into the biblical texts is the elucidation of the message of Scripture so that the significance of that message is received by hearers in the present. But exegesis can only support the communication of the message; it can never be said to establish it. God alone is the one who addresses us through the voice of Scripture” (p. 2).

The book itself includes an editor’s introduction, written by David Nelson, which provides context for the reader. The translator of the lectures, Ross Wright, also provides a chapter focused on the translation process, noting that this translation is a revision of one made as Wright’s doctoral dissertation at the University of St. Andrews. Wright takes note of both the similarities and the differences between the Romans commentary and these lectures on Ephesians.  Wright suggests that Barth breaks new ground in these lectures, in part due to Barth’s engagement with Calvin.  In this commentary, he breaks new ground. He also notes that in terms of the translation, it is "designed to enable the reader to 'hear' the lectures as his students heard them. The Greek text of Ephesians is retained in accordance with Barth's delivery, demonstrating how his translation conveys crucial interpretive exegetical moves." (p. 9). He also leaves the French and Latin used in the lectures untranslated in the body, with translations in the end notes. 

These two important introductory chapters and accompanied by two introductory essays by established scholars, Francis Watson and John Webster. The editor notes that Webster died soon after delivering his essay, making it one of Webster’s final scholarly contributions.  The essay by Francis Watson, a professor in the Theology and Religion department at Durham University, is titled "Barth, Ephesians, and the Practice of Theological Exegesis." In this essay, Watson helps us understand both Barth's engagement with the historical critical method, and his own commitment to engage in theological exegesis. Then theologian John Webster, late professor of theology at the University of St. Andrews, offers a chapter on the relationship of God and creatures in the lectures. According to Webster, “what Barth is reaching toward in his exegesis and exposition is an understanding of God and creatures in which, because God is perfect, simple, and uncompounded, God’s relation to creatures is not constitutive of his being.” That is, God is not simply one res alongside another” (p. 49).

Although this introductory material is very helpful, the reason we might pick up this volume is because of the primary author of this text, and that is Barth. We want to understand more fully Barth’s theology and his engagement with scripture early in his academic career, before he begins writing his Church Dogmatics.

In the lectures themselves, which take up about ninety pages of the book, Barth devotes most of his attention to the first chapter of Ephesians. While he claims not to be all that concerned about authorship, he devotes over twenty pages of text to the first two verses of Ephesians 1, while giving just six pages to Ephesians 2-6. In the end, he concludes that the letter is the work of the elderly Paul, though he doesn’t feel like devoting much energy to this proposition. He is interested, however, in Paul’s claims to be an apostle, to his Christology, and to the holiness and grace of God as developed in these opening verses of the letter.

The second set of lectures covers verses 3-14. He speaks of this passage as being a doxology, in which Paul invites the recipients of the letter to praise God with him. He suggests that the ideas in these verses "move between two poles of divine action."  On one hand, there are the blessings of God and on the other hand, the glorification of God by the human creature (p. 80). He notes as well the centrality of the phrase "in Christ," which he encourages the reader to use to “unlock the meaning of the passage” (p. 81). With this phrase serving as the interpretive key, one can then look at the way in which Jesus is our election, our liberation, our hope, and our sealing in the Spirit. In a rather lengthy exposition of this passage, dealing with the Greek along the way, Barth helps the reader engage with this brief compendium of the Christian faith. 

The next set of lectures focuses on verses 15-23. Here he deals with redemption and resurrection, which stands at the center of the faith. Of redemption, Barth declares that “when redemption ceases to be an object of hope and becomes something we possess or consume, it is no longer redemption. When the Spirit ceases to be the Spirit of promise and becomes something that we possess, even if it is our greatest possession, then it is no longer the Holy Spirit. That is the reason for this transition to intercession. Paul, the warrior for God, emerges here” (p. 129). He speaks as well of the resurrection being the essence of Christianity. He goes into some detail about what the resurrection entails. He speaks of it as an event, but one that takes place “precisely at the boundary between what is possible and what is impossible, what is historical and what is unhistorical, time and eternity” (pp. 132-133). He writes that “the resurrection of Christ from the dead is eternity. Eternity is God’s present moment in time” (p. 133). For Barth, the issue is not finding historical analogies, but finding meaning in God.

Finally, we come to the chapter covering Ephesians 2-6. By this time the semester is ending, and Barth hasn't addressed the bulk of the letter. By now you want more than what is in the offing, but what he offers is, by his own confession, a "series of brief sketches." Here he takes note of the issues present in the text, but he admits that he doesn't have time to explore these passages exegetically. While he dove deep in chapter one of Ephesians, the rest of the lectures offer us impressions of what the author of the letter speaks to. The impressions are helpful, but I would love to hear more in these lectures about the family codes in Ephesians 5-6. Consider, what he writes about this important but controversial passage: "But it should be noted that neither Paul nor the rest of the New Testament attaches any particular importance to human forms of community per se; therefore, the passage should not be read as a rudimentary form of social ethics." (p. 145). I for one would love to hear more on this question. He seems to accept that this was normal procedure at that time, but he's not committed to bringing them into the future. At least that's how I read it.

This is a fascinating, though not easy, read. Even though translations of the Latin and French are to be found in the end notes, Barth's fondness for quoting Calvin in French, for instance, makes this a bit ponderous at times. In addition, one needs to either know Greek or have at hand a Greek lexicon (and a knowledge of the alphabet!). Nonetheless, it offers us the opportunity to engage with the way that the early Barth engages in theological exegesis. He reminds us that the text of Scripture is more than a historical oddity, but rather is a place to engage with God and that engagement with God in Christ stands at the center of the Christian faith. Over time, Barth will explore the issues and ideas presented here in great detail, as he lays out his Church Dogmatics, but it is instructive to see what he was up to before beginning that effort that we still, to this day find both daunting and exciting (at least some of us do!).  So, what the editor and translator have done in bringing this text to our attention is wet one’s whistle for more texts. What might he have to say about James or 1 John? One might hope that these two scholars will pursue those texts and more. 


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