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Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

Migliore, Daniel L., ed. Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), xxvii + 226 pp. $35.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Stephen J. Plant (March 23, 2018)



I can not recall when I first heard the phrase “that’ll preach” used to describe a theological insight capable of illuminating a typical congregant hearing a sermon. Another variant, the question “will it preach?”, subsequently became helpful to ask seminarians about their essays and occasionally to ask colleagues about their teaching. The importance of being able to cash theology in as preaching is something Barth was well aware of. In the 1951 preface to Church Dogmatics III/4, Barth noted that it had been three decades since he was actively engaged in pastoral ministry and in “expounding the Gospel Sunday by Sunday.” Yet, he continued, “what I have done in the meantime has been intended for its benefit” (CD III/4, xi).

In the 11 essays in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth, which were first rehearsed at the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, we have an impressive body of evidence that Barth’s theology “preaches.” In addition to 11 essays, the book also includes a sermon, which is where I want to begin my remarks. A sermon written for a particular moment in time and a particular congregation rarely transfers successfully to print where, lacking context, the living, spoken word usually turns to lifeless symbols on the page. But Fleming Rutledge’s sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 is exceptional. It was delivered on June 22nd, 2015, days after the killing of parishioners of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The grace with which she finds illumination of and from this dreadful event in the parable of the bridesmaids (“What’s in those lamps?”) is unforgettably powerful. Ending a book on Barth’s use of the Gospels with a sermon is not only apt, but it is also in every sense inspired. Perhaps if Rutledge’s sermon did not simply have to be the final word, Migliore’s introduction would have been better placed as a conclusion to the collection. As a dutiful reviewer I read it first, but with growing regret, as its succinct summaries of all the essays to follow tended to spoil the surprise of each essay when I came to read them. It is, of course, a fault I now repeat!

The collection begins with Jürgen Moltmann’s essay on “The Election of Grace” in §32 and §33 of CD II/2. For Moltmann, it “is the invaluable merit of Karl Barth to have overcome” the “dualism of belief and unbelief in Christian theology” in his doctrine of election (3). One of the ways Barth does this is by relocating election in the context of God’s self-affirmation since, as Barth puts it, ‘“Everything which comes from God takes place ‘in Jesus Christ”’ (5). On this basis, Moltmann moves to address a number of temptations that a doctrine of election can face, including a temptation to fear one’s faith may be too weak to fight against injustice.

Each subsequent essay exhibits a similar form by setting out to examine critically Barth’s reading of a passage “in the Gospels to determine the ways in which his readings are distinctive or novel” (xiv). In chapter 2, Richard Bauckham considers Barth’s reflections on John 1:1-18. Bauckham, one of only two New Testament specialists to contribute to this volume, offers an appreciative yet critical study of Barth’s somewhat “eccentric” exegesis. Barth’s exegetical approach, which gives preeminence to theological interpretation in relation to other reading strategies, means he does not show much interest in the way “logos” was used in parallel ways in Platonic, Stoic, or Rabbinic sources. The incarnation for Barth is an event “in both eternity and time” (21). But out with the historical-critical bathwater goes the baby: Bauckham regrets that Barth neglects both the literary structure of the Prologue and the importance of its relation to Genesis 1:1-5.

Eric Gregory (chapter 3) explores Barth’s use of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He approves of Barth’s determination to supplement moral applications of the story with an evangelical or soteriological reading in which (as Barth put it) “the primary and true form of the neighbor is that he faces us as the bearer and representative of divine compassion” (45). On this basis, Gregory draws “out some implications for Christian communities often at the forefront of humanitarian aid” (51). Diaconal service to the poor, caring for the sick, the prisoner etc., can never “’be more than drops in a bucket’” for Barth – but such ministry nonetheless witnesses to “the cosmic work of Christ in free obedience” (p.52).

Willie James Jennings (chapter 4) sets Barth’s treatment of the story of the Rich Young Man (Mark 10:17-31) against the background of Barth’s critique of the Swiss Government’s poor record in relation to refugees – particularly Jewish refugees - and the Swiss banks’ willingness to profit from Nazi loot during the war. Barth’s “very different fiduciary vision of the divine promise bound up with the command of God”, Jennings concludes, “could help us think out the relation of money to divine promise in ways that might draw Christians to the freedom of God and away from the anxiety of the rich man” (66).

Paul Nimmo (chapter 5) has the briefest biblical text in view in Matthew 9:36. But Barth’s treatment of Jesus’ compassion for “the crowds” in CD IV/2 opens up several illuminating inquiries for theological anthropology, atonement theory, and what Jesus’ compassion shows us about the compassion of God. The Greek verb, usually translated “compassion”, is related to the Greek word for entrails or bowels (splanchna), which suggests that Jesus’ compassion has a deep and visceral quality. Nimmo rightly describes Barth’s conclusion about the relation of Jesus’ compassion to His Father’s as unequivocal and shocking: “the compassion of God truly concerns His splanchna and thus no less than in the case of all God’s other attributes His eternal and simple essence” (79).

Chapters 6 and 7 both deal with the same Gospel passage: the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15:11-32, and Barth’s extraordinary Christological reading of it in CD IV/2, §64. Daniel L. Migliore’s sympathetic and intelligent essay (chapter 6) draws out some of the distinctive features of Barth’s treatment of this parable by comparing it with that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. While von Balthasar did not devote quite the focused attention to the parable that Barth did, von Balthasar reads the parable in a Trinitarian way, that is in terms of the Father’s relationship with the Son. In chapter 7, Kendall Cox illuminates some striking similarities between Barth and Julian of Norwich’s treatment of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Like Barth, Julian went beyond typical commentary, which read the parable as involving a contrast between repentant sinners (the prodigal son) and law-bound Jews (the older). Julian, in continuity with Barth, proposes that ‘“In the servant [i.e., the younger son] is comprehended the seconde person of the trinite, and in the servant is comprehended Adam: that is to sey, all men’” (112). Cox goes on to make an intriguing suggestion that in both Julian and Barth, the parable of the prodigal son effectively functions “as a thumbnail of all the doctrinal elements of reconciliation” (117).

In chapter 8, Paul Dafydd Jones explores Barth on Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in each of the Synoptic Gospels that the cup pass/be removed from him has long played a role in Christological and Trinitarian debates, for example in the Monothelite/Dyothelite controversies of the 7th century. In his compelling essay, Jones uses Barth to shed light upon a number of centrally important questions. He begins by discussing Barth’s relation to the past. Barth notes previous theologians but does not feel bound to repeat their conclusions. Rather, for Barth, it is practically an axiom that “dogmatic work succeeds when it makes sense of God’s self-revelation, to which Scripture is the principal witness” (140). Barth is consequently uninterested in certain kinds of speculation about Christ’s inner life. What the Gospels show us, simply, is that “In his prayer to the Father, Jesus freely decides to open himself to sin and to God’s rejection of sin” (147). Jesus freely commits himself to the worst that human sinners can do and to the worst that God can do in rejecting sin. Moreover, this free commitment is made, not by Jesus’ human will alone, or by his divine will alone, but by the Son in whom full humanity and divinity are one. Thus: “During the passion, and especially on the cross, the Chalcedonian adjectives – inconfusione, immutabiliter, inseparabiliter, indivise – no longer apply only to Jesus. They also apply to the work of God and the work of sinners” (146).

Bruce L. McCormack, in a provocative essay (chapter 9), leads off with José Saramago’s controversial novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which subjects “the principal agent at work in the drama’ of Jesus’ life ‘viz. God’” (157). How could God have protected Jesus from Herod’s murderous wrath and not the other innocent children of Bethlehem? In Barth’s treatment of the “cry of dereliction” as “the judge judged in our place” in CD IV/1, McCormack finds at least part of an answer. For Barth, the passion of Jesus is the passion of God himself. On the cross, God experiences death humanly – yet without compartmentalizing suffering to the human nature alone. In the cross, God gives himself – as Barth puts it “but He does not give himself away” (165). Saramago says God – should he exist – is guilty. It “seems to me,” McCormack concludes, “no other answer will do but death in God as a self-imposed act of public acknowledgment of the evil that was, in a very real sense, necessary to the accomplishment of God’s love” (167).

Beverly Roberts Gaventa (chapter 10) treats Barth’s reading of the Emmaus road story, in which both Barth and Gaventa find hints about Luke’s view of Scripture. A customary description of the book of Acts is that it is a history of the Church. Gaventa believes this neglects the extent to which Acts is the second part of an account of the life of Jesus begun by Luke in his Gospel. Jesus constantly appears as an active, living agent in Acts. In Barth’s reading of the Risen Lord’s conversation with the disciples on road to Emmaus, Gaventa sees a robust theology of revelation that can undergird such an understanding of Jesus’ presence in Scripture.

In chapter 11, Shannon Nicole Smythe examines Barth’s word study of paradidómi in the New Testament (normally translated by Barth “handed over” or “delivered”). In CD II/2, §35.4 Barth pursues some of the uses of the term, which he believes is “no mere semantic accident” (189). Smythe uses this discussion to unlock what is at stake in Barth’s conviction that “what God elects in eternity is precisely the history of Christ” (191). God’s unchanging being is constituted by God’s choice of humanity in Jesus Christ’s self-giving love.

Bonhoeffer once told his seminarians that every good sermon should contain a whiff of heresy. Even where Barth’s readings of Gospel texts give off a theologically idiosyncratic odor – as the books on Barth’s shelves in Basel still conjure the scent of his tobacco – they will still “preach.” On every page, this splendid collection provokes reflection that is rich in possibilities for theologians and preachers seeking to hear God’s voice in the witness of the Gospels.

Stephen J. Plant, Dean and Runcie Fellow, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.