Special to The Layman
The first time he ever seriously studied the theology of John Calvin, the 20th-century theologian Karl Barth wrote to his best friend, “Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately” (p. 26).
The same could be said about Karl Barth himself. Barth remains an intriguing theologian. Decried as a liberal by some, as a biblicistic conservative by others, categorized by others as “Neo-orthodox,” Barth remains a “primeval forest” for many people. And he left a forest behind. The most prolific theologian since the medieval Thomas Acquinas, Barth is perhaps one of the most quoted, and yet least understood, theologians of the last century. He still casts a shadow on the theological world, and anyone who wants to take the Reformed tradition seriously must deal with him.
Richard Burnett, of Erskine Theological Seminary, has done just that. Burnett has edited The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth, a reference work designed to make the theology of Barth more accessible. Burnett has brought together contributions from an international team of theologians and scholars who have written contributions on Barth covering subjects from Actualism to Worship. The articles, which touch issues and aspects of Barth’s theology, are fully documented, making it easy to consult the works of Barth himself on the different subjects addressed. Burnett, a published Barth scholar, contributed a number of pieces to the handbook.
A voice in the Confessing Church Movement
As many Layman readers may remember, Burnett was one of the significant theological voices in the Confessing Church Movement in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a movement in which the theology of Karl Barth played no little part. Hence, that he wrote the article on “Confession” in the theology of Barth for this handbook will be of interest to many who remember his involvement.
Burnett begins his remarks on “Confession” by saying, “To be a Chrisitan means more than confessing with one’s lips, Barth insists, but it does not mean less” (p. 39). Burnett goes on to point out that for Barth, “[a] confession is necessarily a challenge, an unsettling factor, a disturbing of the environment, so that that environment inevitably wishes to silence it” (p. 40).
Indeed, this was not only true in the context of the German church struggle against the liberal-inspired, pro-Nazi theology of that time, but this remains true today as well, as many Layman readers know from experience. That Barth was not only a theologian, but a preacher, a pastor, and a confessing Christian in a time when the faith was under challenge make him all the more important in our day.
Barth appears to many today as one of those “bigger-than-life” figures of the past. In traditional Reformed circles he is often celebrated as a faithful voice and yet also rejected as an accomodationist who gave up too much of classical orthodoxy.
Barth’s theology has also suffered from those who have tried to categorize it without taking its nuances seriously. He deserves a reading, a fair critical reading that neither dismisses him out of hand as a liberal nor turns him into some sort of oracle for modern Reformed Chrisitans. Anything less than that is a disservice to the legacy of both Barth’s theology and his confession.
The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth will be a wonderful tool for doing just that. It will become and remain for some time a “go to” book for anyone who is set on scaling the mountain that is the theology of Karl Barth.
The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth
Richard Burnett, editor
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.
Retail Price: $35.00
The Rev. Dr. Walter L. Taylor is the pastor of Oak Island Presbyterian Church, Oak Island, N.C.