Friday, December 10, 2010

So you want to read Karl Barth...

So you want to read Karl HERE, from  Der Evangelische Theologe

Every now and then I am asked for advice about studying Karl Barth. So, I thought that I would share some of my standard advice here. But, before I do that, let me just say that I am by no means a Barth expert as compared to the people whose books I will mention below. I would be thrilled to find myself in their league one day, but as of yet that remains a distant dream. Still, I have been reading Barth for long enough, and under the supervision of a number of the scholars that I will mention below, that I think I can provide a decent orientation. 

I have never read Karl Barth before. Which of his books should I read first?

Barth’s most famous work is the monumental 13-volume Church Dogmatics. Reading the CD with understanding is not an easy thing, so you definitely do NOT want to start here. Luckily, there are two smaller works by Barth that serve as helpful introductions to his work. 

  1. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction - Based on the lectures that Barth delivered during his 1962 visit to the United States, this volume represents the mature Barth at his most irenic. It is perhaps my favorite of Barth’s works, and I have read it a number of times.
  2. Dogmatics in Outline - Written earlier in Barth’s career, this volume is commentary on the Creed.
I am ready to read Barth’s Church Dogmatics! What strategy should I use for tackling this 13-volume monster?

Perhaps the best way to read the Church Dogmatics is chronologically. Start with I/1 and work your way through to the end. But, this is not how I did it, and I don’t think that it is the best way to do it unless you know that you will read through the whole thing. You don’t want to start, read a couple volumes, and find yourself stranded somewhere in the middle. So, although this is probably the best way to do things, it is not the most efficient. Here is what I recommend.
  1. Begin your foray into the Church Dogmatics with II/2. It is within this volume that Barth develops his famous (and infamous) reconfiguration of the doctrine of election.
  2. Next, head on over to volumes IV/1 through IV/3. Church Dogmatics IV is almost a dogmatics unto itself, and this is some good material. Be careful with IV/4, however, as I’m not a big fan and think that it departs in certain ways from many of Barth’s best insights.
  3. Finally, head back to the other volumes and begin to plug up the gaps. Maybe you will head over to III for the doctrine of creation, to II/1 for a discussion of God’s attributes, or to I/1 for the doctrine of the Trinity. By this point you will know enough of Barth to make your own decisions about these things!
I’ve been reading in the Church Dogmatics, and I want to get deeper into the conversation about Barth. Could you tell me about some of the important secondary literature?

Sure! Here is a brief run-down on a few of the most important books. They are all must-reads. For more information on Barth studies secondary literature, watch the book reviews on theCenter for Barth Studies website. 
I hope that this has been helpful. It is my personal conviction that if you read all this material, you will be well on your way. If this is not enough, or if you want to pick my brain on any particulars with reference to Barth, feel free to e-mail. I’ll do my best to answer on the basis of my own very limited knowledge.

UPDATE: David Guretzki has written and made available on his blog a 'Primer' for those who are looking to read Barth's CD for the first time. 

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