- Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness
In his autobiography, Sartre poked fun at the man who attempted to educate himself by reading through the library by starting with books whose titles began with 'A.' It is no exaggeration to say that Karl Barth wrote a library all by himself, and that only in time will future students begin to read him from a few familiar well-studied set pieces.
Until then, new readers of the last century's greatest Protestant theologian will want a guide to his huge corpus. Joseph Mangina succeeds where many others have failed in offering a readable yet comprehensive introduction to Barth's magnum opus, the eight-thousand-page Church Dogmatics. Mangina's succinct and clear prose reads like that of a seasoned lecturer who knows how to draw out the important distinctions and make [End Page 330] the relevant criticisms without making anything seem complex or convoluted.
Perhaps more importantly, at every point Mangina encourages his readers to read Barth for themselves. In this he admirably succeeds by producing an introduction to Barth's thought which avoids the common mistake of aiming for comprehensiveness by offering the background information and main arguments necessary to make the main themes of Barth's work accessible. This is a true reader's guide.
The book opens with a brief biography, which has the special merit of emphasizing the humour and sheer delight in God that pervaded Barth ' s life and work. It then proceeds through the main structures of Barth ' s thought framed in terms of the doctrines that focus the Church Dogmatics, revelation, God, creation, reconciliation, and ecclesiology/ethics. Each chapter compares what Barth says about these doctrines with one of his interpreters, casting helpful illumination on Barth's thought. These engagements (with George Lindbeck, Michael Wyschogrod, Stanley Hauerwas, Robert Jenson, and Henri de Lubac) will be of special interest to scholars already familiar with Barth.
Mangina's main question is ecumenical: What does Barth have to offer to the whole church? The final chapter succinctly answers the question by summarizing the book's chapters in the form of a set of prophetic challenges Barth offers to the church. First, Barth challenges all Christian churches to recall that Christianity is not adherence to a principle, but to a person, the crucified and risen Jesus. This implies an important second point, that this focus on the person of Christ sets Christians in a special relationship to the Jews. While Mangina thinks Barth should have spoken more clearly about this relationship, he is quite correct to point out that Barth continually stressed that Christians have a special relationship to Jews that must situate Christian ecumenical thinking.
Barth's third challenge to the ecumenical church is to understand itself as united in a collective listening to scripture. It is as the church submits itself to scripture that it will discover its unity. Here liberals are chastised for ignorance of scripture, and conservatives for their rigid and untheological exegetical practices. This submission to scripture must also, fourth, be open and attentive to the needs of the world. God is for humans, and so too must the church be for the world. True ecumenism is inwardly united by listening together to scripture, and outwardly by its love for the world.
These last points rest on a final challenge to the church, to understand that it is not our approach to God and others that matters, but his approach to us. Throughout his career Barth stressed that God's word in Jesus Christ comes from outside humanity, remaking it and opening eyes to realities never before grasped. This 'drawing near to creatures by becoming one of them has the most extraordinary consequences for the way we live our [End Page 331] lives, both in the church and in the world. The doubly eccentric existence of the church means that it is drawn off centre, first of all by the triune God who graciously invades and renews the lost creation, but secondly by the world God has loved.'
The book is occasionally marred by typographical...