Barth in Conversation, Volume One (Karl Barth) -- A Review

BARTH IN CONVERSATION:Volume 1, 1959-1962. By Karl Barth. Edited by Eberhard Busch. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xviii + 310 pages.

It has been fifty years since the death of Karl Barth. Despite the passage of time and the expanding horizons of theological conversation, Barth remains a central figure in contemporary theological conversation. While he is best known for his massive Church Dogmatics and his boundary breaking Romans Commentary, perhaps one might best encounter him in more informal modes. Years ago, I read through two volumes of published letters, including a volume of letters passed between him and Rudolph Bultmann. Now, in what is said to be the first of three volumes, we encounter Barth through transcripts and reports of conversations held with him between 1959 and 1962. By this time, he was in his 70s, and by his own admission an "old theologian." What we have here in this volume is an opportunity to encounter Barth the person, often in unfiltered ways.

The book is edited by his former student and biographer Eberhard Busch, who is the Professor Emeritus of Reformed Theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany. The conversations recorded here range from visits with prison chaplains to groups of American theologians during his several American tours. For my part, I was most interested in the conversations held during those American visits.  Since he learned English as early as the 1930s, he was very conversant in English, which enabled him to engage in direct, unfiltered discussion. At times these conversations are profound and theologically revealing, while at other moments Barth can be quite humorous.

On the serious/profound side, we see him engage in conversation about core theological issues, including baptism and salvation and Christology. He takes on questions of the Bible and its purpose and value. He dives deeply into the centrality of Jesus to his theology. He acknowledges his similarities and differences with his peers, including Rudolph Bultmann, Emil Brunner, and Paul Tillich. Regarding his relationship with Brunner, he compares the two of them to a whale and an elephant, unable to understand each other. Perhaps in time, but while they are friends they are poles apart theologically. Regarding Tillich, he notes inability to truly understand the man. It is Bultmann, with whom he takes the most care in his discussions. While they take very trajectories in their theologies, you get the sense that Barth cares deeply about their friendship. While both affirm the Word of God, they approach from differing perspectives. For Bultmann the focus is anthropology, which Barth cannot embrace. For him one must start from above, with God. We see his hesitancy about bringing philosophy into the theological conversation, which fits well with his discomfort with anthropology. Regarding philosophy, in a conversation with theologian Schubert Ogden, Barth declared the independence of theology from philosophy, for philosophy deals with human issues, while theology is centered on God. He recognizes the need to study philosophy, but in large part to be aware of the traps set by it. He notes in answer to Ogden's questions, "I think of worldviews making themselves absolute bias ultimate reality and truth, systems built up (before theology begins) of preconceived ontology or anthropology. In order not to fall into those traps, a theologian must earnestly study philosophy" (p. 169). This was his greatest concern with Bultmann, whom he acknowledged as a friend and one who shared his commitment to hearing the Word of God in Scripture. Their differences, however, centered on Bultmann's desire to begin with anthropology and experience. In Barth's mind, Bultmann was a pietist!

We see Barth get testy with questioners. We also see him have fun with them. He could also leave them somewhat speechless, as when he answered evangelical theologian Edward Carnell's questions about Barth's view of scripture being both sullied with errors and Word of God. After Barth gave his answer, which recognized that there are tensions and contradictions in scripture, or what Carnell might call errors "in its time bound human statements," and ending with "Is that enough to encourage you to continue to confess that here is a problem also for you?" All that Carnell could answer was "thank you, sincerely, Dr. Barth" (p. 179).

One theme that appears occasionally is Barth’s apparent silence on the situation in Eastern Europe and Russia. He was asked on several occasions whether the church exist under totalitarian regimes. He was called naïve for his views, but he strongly believed that the church will survive, in fact, might thrive under pressure. In similar regard to a question about Reinhold Niebuhr's charges that Barth would not speak about the situation in eastern Europe, he simply retorted that he would speak about what happens in eastern Europe when Niebuhr spoke out against what happened in American prisons. 

He rather enjoyed debate and conversation. He could be humorous when he desired. On the humorous end (at least to me) is his response to a BBC interviewer, who asked him if hadn't become a theologian, what would he have liked to have become. He answered: "If I were not a theologian, I would like to be a traffic policeman. Look at these men, at their power and authority with which they direct twenty cars to one side and twenty to the other. That's real business and something necessary to be done. I would like to be such a man. And perhaps it wouldn't be so far from what I'm doing now, Church Dogmatics, because dogmatics is also a kind of traffic police, showing where to go" (pp. 108-109). 

This is the kind of book that one might pick up and peruse, settling in on one conversation or another. There are three indexes, so one could explore the book according to biblical texts, authors/persons, or subjects. Some over the conversations are highly theological, as seen in his conversations in Chicago and at Princeton, where he engaged with trained theologians. They could be pastoral, as when he spoke with prison chaplains. They could be more general, as when he sat down for interviews with the press. In whatever mode we engage these conversations, we see something of the humanity of Barth the great theologian, a designation he refused to own for himself, letting the angels make that determination. This is definitely a worthy addition to any Barth library.


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