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1180 f


Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Müller, Denis:


Karl Barth.


aris: Cerf 2005. 372 S. 8° = Initiations aux théologiens. Kart. Euro 32,00. ISBN 2-204-07913-8.


John Webster

Denis Müller¹s invitation à la lecture is the latest in a series of introductions to major modern Christian theologians; other volumes in the series have treated inter alia de Lubac, Rahner and Moltmann. More than most introductions to Barth, it records M.¹s own engagement with Barth¹s work, on the basis of a conviction that 'il n¹y a donc rien de désintéressé, d¹anodin et d¹innocent à entrer ... en dialogue et en débat avec l¹héritage et avec l¹ombre portée d¹un Karl Barth' (13). M.¹s book ­ partly a report on the development and content of Barth¹s theology, partly a response to what are taken to be some of its most salient features ­ tries to steer away from both hagiography and hostile critique, and to indicate how Barth invites his readers to 'une autre manière de faire de la théologie, éclectique, methodique, audacieuse et personelle' (13).

The book begins from a sketch of Barth¹s life. There are some shrewd moves in the course of the account (the few pages on Barth¹s 1945 lecture on 'Die Deutschen und wir', for example, are very good, using a little known text to illuminate a phase of Barth¹s political and theological thought). But although the basic narrative of Barth¹s biography is set out accurately enough, the proportions are not well-judged. There is, for instance, only one paragraph on the Römerbrief, but eight pages devoted to Barth¹s private life. A reader looking for a more balanced overall account would need to find a supplement to what is presented here.

After this biographical sketch, the book moves to examine the much-discussed questions of the periodization of Barth¹s work, and to set out the main lines of the development of his theology. M. divides the corpus into three periods; 1904­1931; 1931­1956; 1956­1968. This slightly odd division is adopted more for convenience of exposition than as a tight chronological structure; but it does have the advantage of breaking free from the more conventional schemes, especially in seeing some continuity between Barth¹s early 'liberal' period and his 'dialectical' phase. The account is generally excellent: M. is thoroughly acquainted with the materials, and his analysis has the penetration to be expected of a long-time student of Barth¹s writings. Especial emphasis is laid on the ethical concerns which preoccupied Barth from the beginning; there is a perceptive account of the Münster-Bonn lecture cycle on ethics. And towards the end of the chapter there is a brief but astute characterization of the different roles played by philosophy in Barth¹s work.

Like other introductions to Barth¹s theology, M. gives a substantial treatment of the Kirchliche Dogmatik, executing the task in 46 deft pages. Once again, the interpenetration of ethics and dogmatics is a major concern; but the account as a whole is well conducted. The presentation is concluded by a brief section of motif-analysis of the dogmatics, using a variety of terms drawn from George Hunsinger¹s work (actualism, particularism, objectivism, personalism, realism and rationalism) to identify patterns of thought in Barth¹s magnum opus. In Hunsinger¹s hands the motifs yield a complex reading of the KD; here, however, they tend to oversimplify the material and lend it a somewhat abstract air.

The final substantial chapter treats the reception of Barth¹s work. Non-francophone reader will profit especially from the analysis of the French materials; but the presentation as a whole, though not systematic or comprehensive, is judicious, aware of the variety of response to Barth in German and English as well as French, and offering at least the beginnings of a critical history of reception. A brief coda to the book follows, in which M. reflects on his own intellectual relation to Barth from the late 1960s onwards. The book then concludes with a selection of texts as a stimulus to the exploration of Barth¹s corpus. This is the least satisfactory section of the book. Many of the readings are simply catenas of quotations drawn from a text of Barth¹s, with the result that the line of Barth¹s argument and the movement of his prose are lost. Only one text ('Evangelium und Gesetz') is presented in its entirety.

This is a generally good and at times excellent introduction to Barth. It is at times as perceptive (though hardly as elegant) as Mangina¹s recent work, and, although it lacks the scope and detail of Busch¹s Die grosse Leidenschaft, it communicates a good sense of the sheer weight of Barth¹s achievement, and the need to honour that achievement by fresh theological work rather than by mere repetition. Here are, almost inevitably, some gaps: beyond the brief treatment of the Römerbrief, M. pays little attention to Barth¹s engagement in the task of biblical exposition, whether in his New Testament exegetical lectures or to the exegetical excursuses in the KD. Similarly, the specifically Reformed character of Barth¹s theology from the early 1920s onwards does not occasion comment. Apart from its ­ entirely proper ­ stress upon Barth as moral theologian, M.¹s book retains the conventional map of Barth¹s ¦uvre. For all that, this is a lively and engaged book from an attentive reader which will serve is intended audience well.