Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Vol. II, Part 1: Barth’s Literary Style

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

So I decided that my fall reading is going to be the second volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  Volume II concerns the doctrine of God, with Part 1 dealing first with the knowledge then with the reality of God.  Tackling a volume of theology is never an easy decision.  It is made more even more challenging by the sheer mass of words.  The reason the volumes of Barth’s Dogmatics appear in parts is it would be impossible to print and bind within a single volume everything he says about the knowledge, the reality, and the ethics of God.

All that concerns general matters of form.  When the time arrives to crack open a volume of Barth and begin to read, whether one has read Barth before or not, there are some things to consider about his emerging literary style at this point in the development of his Dogmatics.  Barth comes from a European tradition in which form dictates content.  The matter at hand sets the rules for how that matter is presented.  Barth also comes from a European tradition in which erudition and clarity is too often sacrificed on the altar of complexity; the more difficult the subject matter, it seems, the more difficult the presentation should be.  Thus we have the Teutonic mazes of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, representing for far too many how one should write philosophy.  Since the 18th century, theology lived and worked in the academy in the shadow of philosophy.  It is no small irony that Barth’s lecture hall was directly underneath that of Karl Jaspers, who while less well known that his former colleague Heidegger, continued to write as it he was constructing a large building with large parts, sharp points, edges that could cut if one isn’t careful, and a kind of desire for opacity that proved complexity.

By the time Barth settled in to writing his Dogmatics, he had spent over a decade as a published theologian.  His Epistle to the Romans, while justly famous, appears in a style very different from that of his mature writing.  Not only because this is a first published work; Romans is more polemic than Biblical commentary, and the writing reflects that.  His earliest essays, collected in The Word of God & The Word of Manshow a man confident of the righteousness of his position while still trying to find a way to combine clarity with the demands of his often complex subject matter.  With the Dogmatics, however, he was not only a published theologian; he was also a professor of theology, and the printed volumes were his lecture notes, supplemented by material often worked on by his assistant Charlotte von Kirschbaum.  These excurses would not appear in his lectures, and were added as smaller type to the printed volumes, sometimes comprising pages and pages of tiny-type commentary on theologians of the past, Scripture, and the history of the Church.  These excurses make reading that much more of a challenge.

All the same, it is important to remember that Barth’s writing was secondary to his primary form of communication: the spoken word.  He was a parish preacher in Switzerland, a college professor needing to communicate his ideas to students, and he also volunteered as a prison chaplain, preaching Sunday sermons to Swiss convicts (collected in a volume entitled Deliverance to the Captives).  His style, then, demonstrates a compromise between clarity of presentation in speaking and the desire for thoroughness and precision in writing.

Barth’s content defined his style in other ways, as well.  His aim in the Dogmatics was nothing less than a presentation of the content of the Christian faith that demonstrated the wrong direction he perceived it had taken in the century since the rise of Schleiermacher and his disciples.   By the time Barth was in theological school, the assumption that liberal theology was correct had become so ingrained there seemed way to refute it.  Barth himself was comfortable within this tradition in which he was raised and educated by, among others, the greatest historian of the Christian faith, Adolf von Harnack.

It was the coming of World War I that started to shake that confidence.  The speech Kaiser Wilhelm II gave to the people of Berlin defending German mobilization (a speech attended by, among other, a young Australian national named Adolf Hitler) was written by Harnack.  In the autumn of 1914, a letter was circulated among German universities, signed by hundreds of famous academics defending German military policy in occupied Belgium.  Harnack wrote that, too.  Deeply disturbed by Harnack’s knee-jerk nationalism and defense of German schreklickheit, Barth began to wonder how it was possible his great teacher could do such things, considering the liberal faith Harnack taught seemed to insist such actions were impossible.

From the publication of the 1st edition of Romans through a time when he was publishing essays and university lecture courses in Biblical interpretation and theological ethics, Barth’s theological concerns tended to be narrow.  With his far larger theological task, he was given space in which he could not only dialogue with what was still a regnant liberal theology, but could do so in a way that was thorough.

Part of the heart of Barth’s theology is the specificity of the object of Christian faith; part of the heart of liberal theology is a confidence that human reason, with the aid of faith as the gift of the Holy Spirit, could arrive not only at a knowledge of God apart from Divine Revelation, but that this ability was part of the human person as created by God.  While corrupted by original sin, it was never destroyed; thus it was that Schleiermacher made a distinction between what he called “faith” – the general human ability to seek out and name and worship transcendence – and what he called “religion” – the content and substance of Christianity.  Barth pulled a Marx to Schleiermacher’s Hegel, turning Schleiermacher’s definitions on their heads while insisting that innate human ability to comprehend God was destroyed by original sin.

This thoroughness and specificity dictated the manner in which the content should present itself.  It was not enough to create an argument.  Each sentence, and each word of each sentence, must become a part of the argument.  Each turn of phrase must clarify the distinctions Barth intends to make.  Clarity and specificity demanded an exactness that created a style of writing that is simultaneously easy to read and difficult to follow, even if one has read Barth before.  Unless you sit down and read his books cover to cover without stopping (a project that would take years to complete), each time a reader opens his books, that reader is reminded that this is a journey that Barth has tried his hardest to keep smooth and straight.  Unlike other theologians, such as Jurgen Moltmann, whose prose in translation is a bit rocky; or Pannenberg whose prose is an attempt to demonstrate thoroughness of study without worrying about clarity of presentation; or Paul Tillich who did the best he could with his quasi-mystical union of liberal theology and existentialism; unlike these and many others, Barth’s aim was always to be understood while insisting that understanding did not sacrifice thoroughness.  There was no way to mistake Barth’s aim.

I think a far more thorough and detailed investigation of Barth’s literary style and its relation to the content of his theology would be an important study.  For now, we’ll leave what I’ve had to say here by way of introduction.