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Barth the Radical

While theology in the United States has enjoyed a renewed interest in the theology of Karl Barth, many crucial aspects of his thought have been neglected. I sometimes wonder whether the sort of “Barth exegesis” that its common today tends towards a rather rationalistic sort of scholasticism. Certainly many of the debates about Barth’s theology are crucially important, but sometimes the sort of christological calculus that many employ in Barthian circles tends towards a form of abstraction.

However, there are many books emerging on Barth that deal, in different, complementary ways with Barth’s thought. One such recent book is Paul Chung’s Karl Barth: God’s Word in Action. One of the things that I found most helpful about this book was the way in which it spent time exploring the radical political roots of Barth’s theological thought which precipitated and informed his “dogmatic turn” during his pastorate as Safenwill from 1910-1918. Chung helpfully explores how Barth’s radical politics, including his early socialism shaped his later thought. Chung also explores the much-neglected connection between Barth’s thought, especially in the Romans commentary and Christoph Blumhart, whose radical theology of the kingdom of God indelibly stamped Barth’s theology.

Chung also does some good work exploring what Barth’s theology has to say in regard to the problem of the Jewish-Christian schism, liberation theology, and inter-religious dialogue. All of this is couched in his investigation of how Barth’s radical political theology, centered on the invasive Word of God in Jesus Christ, shapes a particular mode of faithful Christian theopolitics.

I think this is really some of the finest sort of work on Barth coming out these days (and of course it is not a lone example of this by any means). What is needed in Barth scholarship is more intensive work in making connections between Barth’s work and the contemporary theological and cultural situation. No true follower of Barth can be content to simply exposit Barth’s thought. Chung does something important in highlighting the radical politics which undergirds the whole of Barth’s theology. Too few theologians writing on Barth today take his politics with enough seriousness, particularly Barth’s commitment to radical Christian socialism. More engagement with the radical Barth is, in my view, a very necessary thing, and Chung’s book is a good step in the right direction.

14 Comments

  1. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    what do you think of Metzger’s book (dissertation) in this regard? Seriously.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink
  2. Ben Myers wrote:

    So when will it be released? I can’t wait to read it!

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 5:30 am | Permalink
  3. Chris Donato wrote:

    So, his politics preceded his theology? Might we then assume that his later developments were also informed by a shift in politics? Vice versa?

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 6:34 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Looks great and much needed.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  5. Evan wrote:

    Looks great! While I’m personally more interested in Barth in a “scholastic” sense, I agree with you completely that this sort of scholasticism has made Barth studies into a rather lopsided affair.

    One thing that I find interesting is the fact that Hunsinger, who falls more on the traditional than the radical side regarding Barth’s dogmatics, has been a great voice in emphasizing Barth’s radical political commitments.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  6. Danny wrote:

    I think what is also needed in American studies with Barth is more of a familiarity with the massiveness of his work. Only about 20% of it has been translated into English so unless you can read the German it is difficult to due scholary work on him or at least call it scholary.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  7. What you say is true, I think, not only with respect to Barth’s politics but with respect to his ethics in general.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  8. Halden,

    While I think you’re right to say that some Barth scholars don’t take his radical politics into account, I should also point out that within Barthian scholarship, his radical politics is old news. It’s been a well-worn topic since the 1960s. From what I can tell of your summary, there isn’t a whole lot in Chung’s book that’s really all that new or interesting.

    The best new work on Barth are explorations into dogmatics. Paul Dafyyd Jones is coming out with his dissertation on the humanity of Christ in Barth, which will no doubt be a landmark study on Barth’s theology. Paul Nimmo’s new book on Barth’s ethics of reconciliation is also a fantastic study. And, of course, Bruce McCormack’s collection of essays on Barth is finally being released this month. These works demonstrate the future of Barth scholarship.

    Discussions of Barth’s politics are certainly interesting — it came up numerous times in this year’s Barth conference on ethics — but it certainly is NOT the future of Barth scholarship.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    David, unfortunately my summary is all too brief. The book is a solid 500 pages and doesn’t narrowly deal with Barth’s politics, but looks very closely at Barth’s whole theological development, see how his political orientation is always a determinative factor in the shape of Barth’s dogmatics. There is a lost of explorations into dogmatics here, expecially in regard to the issues of natural theology, the analogia entis, and a theology of Israel.

    Chung’s point is not an exploration of “Barth’s politics”, but to explore how Barth’s dogmatics is political throughout and how that shapes the whole of his theology, including issues such as those discussed in the books you mention. He is certainly conversant with the sort of Barth scholarship you find most interesting, and in my view he is very much a part of it, merely introducing more vistas into the current emphasis.

    While the issue of Barth’s politics as such may be old news, I think the common perception is that Barth’s politics have little to do with the shape of his mature theology. That is how I see Chung’s book as helpful.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  10. Halden. Interesting! Do you know anything about the connections Barth – Blumhardt – Eberhard Arnold (founder of Bruderhof movement). Yoder mentions these connections in his preface to God´s revolution, but very brief. I think we could learn some important lessons by comparing the careers of Arnold and Barth (and Blumhardt).

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  11. Christian Collins Winn wrote:

    Halden,

    Thanks for posting on this as well as the juicy quotes you posted earlier. I confess, hearing about the behind the scenes work going on, that the endorsement that claimed the text was “clearly written” probably means you folks over at WS deserve some serious praise. I am especially interested in questions of eschatology and political theology and my own study of the Blumhardts’ influence on Barth should also be coming out later in the fall. It is really meant to be a discussion starter, as I don’t cover all of the angles that can be covered on the question of the Blumhardts and Barth. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the differences between Chung and say Gorringe’s wonderful little study on Barth. Is Chung advancing the conversation further or repeating much of what Gorringe was trying to lay out (i.e., the political nature of Barth’s theology)?

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  12. Paul S. Chung wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I happened to see your interesting comments on my book Karl Barth. This is my second study of Barth after my doctoral disseration about Karl Barth and Hegel (at the University of Basel). My approach to Barth is based on postfoundational (postecclesial) perspective on irregularity of God’s speech act which is not neatly conceptualized by critical, realistic, dialectical method, or sociobiographical approach without in-depth committment to Barth’s orginal sources.
    I am less convinced of North American scholastic reading of Barth without connection to Barth’s original sources and life context. Barth is still ahead of us!
    A committment to Barth means at the same our engagement with Barth’s theological subject matter ( Sache) in our own context: beginning always at the beginning!

    Thanks for your interest in my study of Barth the radical.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Hi Paul,

    Actually, I proofread your manuscript (I work for Wipf and Stock), and that is how I became acquainted with it. I agree with the sort of approach you take in the book and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 10:52 pm | Permalink
  14. Paul S. Chung wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I am so impressed by your in-depth reading of my book in view of theological “Sache,” that is “Richtung und Linie” coming out of the Gospel. This is fundamental for Barth’s vision of theopolitcs. If you allow, I’d like link your web debate to my colleagues and other websites on my book.
    I appreciate your following statement:

    “Chung also does some good work exploring what Barth’s theology has to say in regard to the problem of the Jewish-Christian schism, liberation theology, and inter-religious dialogue. All of this is couched in his investigation of how Barth’s radical political theology, centered on the invasive Word of God in Jesus Christ, shapes a particular mode of faithful Christian theopolitics.”

    Friday, September 12, 2008 at 5:26 am | Permalink

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