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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
The Barth Lectures. Transcribed and ed. by P. H. Brazier.
London: T & T Clark International 2007. XXIV, 285 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 25,00. ISBN 978-0-567-03140-2.
Paul T. Nimmo
This book represents the transcriptions of a lecture course that Colin Gunton delivered in King’s College, London on the theology of Karl Barth. G. was one of the most influential theologians in the United Kingdom in the later years of the 20th century. Prior to his untimely death in 2003, he was a leading figure in the Society for the Study of Theology and a founding editor of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. G.’s doctoral dissertation had examined the relationship between Barth and the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne (which was published as Being and Becoming in 1978), and the theology of Barth provided an ongoing conversation partner in G.’s subsequent theological work.
While the course on which the book is based was held for many years, the transcriptions themselves were made between the years 1999 and 2001, during which period the editor was one of G.’s students in London. It is recorded that G. was ›very pleased‹ on receiving the full transcript in 2002, and that he intended to ›use it as the basis of his book on Barth‹ (XV). Sadly, his passing meant that this intention was never fulfilled.
The book itself is divided into 16 thematic chapters, corresponding to the material covered in the 20 or so lectures of the course itself. The book opens with a chapter considering the intellectual background to Barth’s theology, before turning in the following two chapters to Barth’s own theological development in the periods respectively before and after the commentaries on Romans. The remaining chapters deal with a selection of the contents of the Church Dogmatics in approximately the order of their composition. The loci covered thus move in successive chapters from the question of theology itself to the doctrine of the Trinity, and from there to the doctrine of God (including, as Barth does, theological ethics) and the doctrine of reconciliation. It is this last doctrine which materially dominates the book, spanning six of its 16 chapters. The book closes with a record of the programme of the lectures from which the transcripts were taken, a bibliography of works cited by G. in the lectures, and a bibliography of G.’s own work for further exploration. Two helpful indices conclude the work.
The material within the chapters betrays at every point its origins in the lecture-room rather than the writing-desk. In the ramifications of this context lie both the great weaknesses and the great strengths of this book.
On the one hand, the book has its self-acknowledged weaknesses. Any lecture course is bounded by the time available to the lecturer and, as G. acknowledges in his survey of Church Dogmatics IV alone, ›I can’t begin to encompass lectures on all that lot‹ (148). This limitation means that the lecture course, and the book following it, have little to offer by way of material on loci such as ecclesiology, sacramentology, theological anthropology, and providence. In an introductory text on Barth such lacunae are sorely felt, and those seeking Barth’s views on such themes, let alone G.’s, will have to seek elsewhere. In addition, the obvious constraints of a lecture course mean that there is little mention of the history of Barth reception, little reference to the voluminous secondary literature on Barth, and little sustained critical engagement with the theology of Barth itself. It is clear to all concerned that G.’s own book would not have suffered from such deficiencies.
On the other hand, it is perhaps precisely as a set of transcribed lectures that the book finds its great appeal. First, the lecture material is presented in an engaging and lucid fashion. Offering an approach which manages to introduce the novice in an accessible way to something of the vision and profundity of Barth’s theological enterprise is a significant achievement in its own right. Second, the lecture transcripts preserve a number of comments and asides in which G. makes percipient observations and raises pertinent questions about the work of Barth. In that fashion, the book offers not only a testimony of G.’s vigorous admiration of Barth’s theology, such as when he writes that ›when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that‹ (171); it also repeatedly points to G.’s critical engagement with Barth – for example, over the issue of Christian formation (133), over the Holy Spirit (200), over the eschatology of creation (254) – and, in doing so, further gestures towards G.’s own highly creative work in the theological arena. Third, the lecture format allows for there to be communicated clearly and immediately the enthusiasm of G. for theology in general and for Barth in particular. There is a real sense throughout not only of G. being challenged by Barth’s theology, but of him enjoying that challenge and grappling with it in his own theological work. At one point, for example, he posits of Barth’s ethics that ›there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape‹ (133). In each locus, G. is never merely repeating, but is always interpreting, always questioning, always thinking after Barth.
What ultimately impresses most about G.’s lectures on Barth is his determination not to let his students rest with these lectures as the final word. Instead, G. recognises cheerfully that ›there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics. The way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!‹ (71) In encouraging and resourcing the student to do just that, this book furthers G.’s aim admirably.