Being interested in learning more about the theology of Karl Barth can be an overwhelming experience. Where does one begin? I would like to offer here just five books to get you started on your journey to understand the very complex thought of one of the twentieth century’s largest and more prolific theologians. But before doing so, it should be said that one can never really know Barth until one actually reads Barth. Therefore, the books below should be consulted in conjunction with actually reading Barth for oneself. But where does one begin here? That is easy: page one. That’s right, begin at the beginning of what Van Til called the “Great White Elephant” (a reference to the German edition of the Church Dogmatics, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, which was quite large and had a white hardcover!). Of course, most of us in the English-speaking world will make use of the English translation which can be found today for quite a bit less than I paid for it back 7 years ago! But along with Church Dogmatics, consider picking up the following as helpful secondary resources:
- George Hunsinger—How to Read Karl Barth. Hunsinger is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and a well-respected and world renown Barth scholar and interpreter. This book will get you acquainted with the basic contours of Barth’s way of thinking. Hunsinger outlines several motifs in Barth’s writing which he regards as equally ultimate in his thought. I have doubts about that myself, as I believe that an actualize view of time holds central place in his thought. However, that said, the motifs Hunsinger highlight are most certainly there in Barth, and you will have a hard time understanding Barth without first understanding what those motifs are. Hunsinger will get you there.
- Bruce McCormack—Orthodox and Modern. This volume is a collection of essays by arguably the world’s most prominent Barth interpreter. McCormack’s theories, however, have been hotly contested. Nevertheless, McCormack represents, in my opinion, one of the most level-headed interpretations of Barth’s theology today. I do not always agree with McCormack, but he allows Barth to be Barth at his most radical points without trying to smooth down his edges to fit him into a 21st century English-speaking evangelical mold—which is the pitfall of so many contemporary Barth interpreters.
- Eberhard Busch—Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. While sometimes as awkward translation from the German, this volume is a must read for those entering serious study of Barth. Busch was a personal assistant to Barth toward the end of his life. Busch therefore sets the Basel professor in the context of his historical, intellectual, and ecclesiological milieu. Many would-be Barth interpreters fall at this very point, trying to read Barth in abstraction from his context. Don’t be caught without contextual awareness!
- Cornelius Van Til—Christianity and Barthianism. This is the second full length monograph by Van Til on Barth’s theology, and his only treatment of Barth exclusively. In 1946 Van Til published The New Modernism which was a survey and critique of Barth and Brunner’s “Crisis Theology.” Christianity and Barthianism, however, surveys just Barth’s theology, and being first published in 1962 it has the advantage of having most of the complete Kirchliche Dogmatik to draw upon. The advantage to Van Til’s book is the very thing that leads many to regard it as weak: polemics. If you’re either a New Yorker or Texan in spirit you will love Christianity and Barthianism because it wears its heart on its sleeve. There are no pulling punches and what you see is what you get. Even the title of the volume is polemical. Taking his inspiration from Machen’s famous defense of orthodox Christianity, Christianity and Liberalism, Van Til communicates to us Machen’s thesis of 1929. Just as Christianity and liberalism are not two forms of the same religion, but different religions altogether, likewise Christianity and Barthianism are antithetical to the core. But don’t let the polemics turn you off. Contrary to popular opinion—Van Til is often dismissed while rarely read—this volume shows the hand of a man who read and understood Barth by mining the depths of the original German. You will not only gain a greater understanding of Barth’s thought, but you will also gain insight into how and where Barth differs from orthodox Christianity. Many proponents of Barth’s theology would also do well to consult Van Til’s work so that, even if they walk away still Barthian, they can appreciate and articulate better how and where Barth’s diverges from the tradition.
- Richard Burnett—The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. This volume is virtually hot off the press. It surpasses all the other handbooks that have come before, because it reads more like a dictionary than a collection of essays. This is helpful for when you come across a concept in Barth you are having a hard time getting a handle on. Just note, however, that while this handbook reads like a dictionary it is not a dictionary! You are still getting the interpretations of particular Barth scholars which defy precise atomistic definitions. Often times the entries are for subjects over which there is great controversy and debate. So, it can be useful to you if you go into using it realizing that no two scholars agree on everything in Barth!
With that, take up and read! And do so expecting that understanding Barth will repay great dividends. Not because you will be spiritually nourished by his theology (in fact, you won’t), but because to understand Barth is to understand contemporary theology and its implications today and in the future.