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How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology
by George Hunsinger
Oxford University Press, 298 pages, $32.50

There are two types of guidebook to a major gallery. One is designed for the occasional visitor who wants to find his way about with minimal effort and wishes to emerge with a general overview of the contents. The second type exists for those who know a particular gallery well and love its very stones. This type is not an introduction at all but an illumination, making explicit a devotee’s deep sense of the gallery’s unity and themes; it is often a work of art in itself, with a texture and depth as richly nuanced as the gallery it depicts. George Hunsinger has given us such a guidebook to the theology of Karl Barth—a book that, for all its density, is nothing less than luminous.

Hunsinger makes no attempt to quick-march us through the chunky thirteen part-volumes of the Church Dogmatics. (The novice who expects such a tour from the book’s title will be disappointed.) Nor is he interested in battling the standard caricatures with which Barth is still rendered: Barth as radical dialectician (the early Updike), Barth as reluctant exponent of analogia entis (von Balthasar), Barth as Swiss Olympiad (Niebuhr), Barth as herald of modern secularity (Harvey Cox). If he has done nothing else, Hunsinger has gone a long way towards razing the various scaffoldings that obstruct many readings of the Dogmatics—even the sympathetic ones.

It is precisely through a close reading of the Dogmatics that Hunsinger provides a way around the clichés. Such a reading reveals that, contrary to his critics and friends, Barth’s enterprise is dominated by no one structural principle—be it dialectics, Christology, the triumph of grace, or Hegelian monism. Rather, what Hunsinger would have us discern are the motifs intertwined and closely woven throughout the Dogmatics.

Motif here is a problematic word, as Hunsinger readily acknowledges, suggesting as it does a methodological form that can be neatly abstracted from Barth’s material content—similar to the way Tillich’s notion of correlation precedes (and predetermines) his system. And this is exactly what Hunsinger is not suggesting. (I fear, protest as he will, that by using this nomenclature Hunsinger has inadvertently given permission to the seminarian tyro to excavate the Dogmatics in search of motifs.) These motifs—Hunsinger delineates six of them—are more like the moves of a multidimensional chess game, where each motif determines and is determined by the others, and all the motifs are controlled by the game itself.

Hunsinger begins with Barth’s actualism. He does not shy from accepting the (often derisive) charge that Barth’s notion of revelation is actualistic: God’s being located in his divine activity and not in any perdurable structure of Being. But lest this imply that God is occasionally absent from his creation—a whimsical ghost blowing in and out of a vacant house—Earth balances this motif of actualism with that of objectivism: in Jesus Christ God binds himself fully to our human knowing. Or, to put it differently (and to bring in another motif, that of realism), God’s being in activity is grounded totally and made known in the scriptural narratives of Jesus Christ; our apprehension of God depends neither on our own subjectivity nor a divine capriciousness.

The center of Hunsinger’s book examines at length how these motifs play themselves out in the Dogmatics’ understanding of truth—truth as revelation, as salvation, and as encounter. This approach permits Hunsinger to survey the basic contours of the Dogmatics while keeping in sharp focus what critics often contend to be Barth’s Achilles’ heel, the swamping of human agency by divine action—the reduction of human freedom to a mere shadow play in the light of Christ.

Thus, turning about the motif of scriptural realism, Hunsinger superbly recapitulates the objectivity of the Atonement as presented by Barth, all the while showing in what way we are subjectively included in the work of the Cross through this objective proclamation. Like few other exegetes, he captures that creative tension unique to the Dogmatics where, though Barth will allow for no existential or sacramental soteriology, the motif of scriptural realism—based as it is on the palpable narrative of Jesus Christ—enables us to be determined by the Cross and be contemporaneous with it. After Barth, most “narrative theology” is pretty watery gruel indeed.

The problems that linger in Hunsinger’s presentation are twofold: one results from the book’s necessary compression (and is thus not major); the other from Barth’s own formulations (and is thus major indeed).

When Hunsinger places Barth in debate with Aquinas, space limitations make him content to repeat all the old neo-orthodox strictures about “natural” theology; he leaves unpacked Thomas’ extremely contextual statement that “the soul is by nature capable or open to grace.” One wishes that Hunsinger would have tuned the conversation between Barth and Aquinas much more finely than he does.

Much more problematic is Hunsinger’s final chapter. This concerns Barth’s notion of there being secular parables of the truth, ways in which secularity witnesses to the gospel. The chapter ought to function as the book’s summation, but Hunsinger strangely gives it the status of epilogue and refrains from fleshing out some possible implications.

In recent years, a number of theologians have seized—Hans Kung a bit too emphatically—upon Barth’s contention that certain secular “words” provide parabolic witness to the Word of God as a way to bring Barth in closer dialogue with the public square. And certainly there are provocative hints in the Dogmatics’ final pages that the Church and society share a language fraught with revelation. But Barth remains adamant that the point of contact between the Church and society is always a point of sheer miracle. Since he refrains from any attempt to sketch the structure of this miraculous illumination lest he let in “natural” theology by the back door, the concept of secular parables remains vague if not unrealized.

Still, this problem is really with Barth and not with Hunsinger. We should thank the latter for giving us a splendid introduction and a sustained piece of theology in its own right. Hunsinger makes it clear why, for all the unresolved problems in the Dogmatics, those problems are put forth by a father of the Church catholic and one of the best conversation partners going.

David Lewis Stokes, Jr. is pastor of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Princeton, NJ.

Photo by Hans Lachmann via Creative Commons. Image cropped.