Reviewed by Scott A. Corbin
It’s always a profitable exercise to avail oneself of the exegetical writings of the dogmaticians of the church. The reason is not simply to entertain an historical curiosity, but rather to see the relation between theology and exegesis.
Unfortunately, in the modern academic setting, what was once an indissoluble unity between the church’s exegesis and her theology, has now become something of an ugly ditch. One convenient verdict to gesture toward is Joseph Gabler’s 18th century essay talking about the distinction between so-called “biblical” and “dogmatic” theology. Gabler’s essay is representative of a somewhat modern distinction that, in its variegated forms, still remains with us today.
Thus, for us moderns, it can be strange to see such a dialectical unity between Calvin’s Institutes and his commentaries. Is Calvin a “systematic” theologian? Or a “biblical” theologian? Such a distinction, for Calvin, would likely have been nonsensical—a theologian, after all, is one who instructs the church in Christian teaching from Holy Scripture.
When one thinks of Karl Barth, what typically comes to mind is his sprawling 14-volume Church Dogmatics. Or one might think of his explosive theological commentary on Romans, often known by it’s German title Der Römerbrief, written while pastoring a small congregation in Switzerland. What is often less known is the work that he did in the early part of his career teaching at the University of Göttingen. While Barth scholars disagree over the nature of his maturation, they all agree that this period was crucial to his development, and integral in understanding the Church Dogmatics.
From Safenwil to Göttingen
In the early part of Barth’s career, after pastoring a humble congregation in Safenwil, Barth was offered a position as the chair of Reformed theology at the University of Göttingen. His primary task was to instruct in the Reformed faith—notably lectures on the Reformed confessions, and figures such as Calvin and Zwingli. In addition, and in good Reformed fashion, he also began to lecture on books of the Bible. Somewhat surprisingly, his lectures on the Bible ended up being more popular than his lectures on Calvin or the Heidelberg Catechism. Richard Burnett, in his monograph studying Barth’s theology during this period, notes that the enrollment for these classes on the Bible were strikingly high—and the class that was most popular of all was his course lecturing through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
The book under review is the English translation of Barth’s course lectures from this period on the book of Ephesians; specifically, the 1921-1922 winter term at Göttingen. What this book is, then, is an important historical source for those wanting to understand the bridge period between Romans II and the first volume of the Church Dogmatics. It’s an important document to understand Barth’s exegesis of Ephesians 1 (and really only Ephesians 1) and how he went about the task of theological commentary. What it is not is the first resource you should grab before your next sermon series on the book of Ephesians. And while it shouldn’t be the first resource you reference for your Ephesians sermon series, it still is something you might need to consider having handy.
While the subject matter alone calls out to theological students, the book also includes two essays by theologians Francis Watson and the late John Webster reflecting on the Ephesians lectures. The essays helpfully introduce key concepts in the lectures, as well as alert readers to subtle points that help to highlight other aspects elsewhere in the Barthian corpus. Part of the appeal of this book rests in these two essays, one of which being the final writing on Barth by John Webster—one of this century’s most important scholars on the theologian from Basel.
Watson’s essay focuses on the relation between exegesis and theology in the Ephesians lectures. Through the slow exposition of what amounts to the first chapter of the letter, Barth’s aim, according to Watson, is to defamiliarize the Pauline text to help readers encounter Paul’s message for today. Familiar terms like faithful, grace, and peace “are dismantled and re-created in a form that emphasizes their orientation away form human religious conviction and experience as conventionally understood toward a God who is always other than our imaginings of him.” (14)
Watson highlights that, though Barth remains unconcerned with issues that occupy many biblical scholars (most notably on the question of the authorship of Ephesians), he still remains close to the text for his theological judgments. Commenting on the question regarding where to put the comma in ἐν ἀγάπῃ προορίσας ἡμᾶς εἰς υἱοθεσίαν, Watson remarks: “Barth’s discussion of this point displays exegetical competence rather than any special insight. What is noteworthy is that he here accepts the traditional assumption that interpretation must begin by establishing what the text does and does not say…. We cannot have the theme apart from the words, and we cannot have the words without grammar and syntax.” (23)
Whereas in the Romans commentary it is not clear that Barth “is able to practice exegesis and theology simultaneously,” the Ephesians lectures, for Watson, “show some signs of rapprochement with conventional exegetical practice.” Further, “more successfully than in the Romans commentary, Barth is able to show that key theological commitments have been read out of the Pauline text and not simply imposed on it.” (25-26)
Webster’s essay highlights both the way in which the Göttingen period was formative in his encounter with Reformed theology, as well as the light the lectures shed on one of Barth’s pre-occupations throughout his career: the relation between God and creatures. “[W]e can see him trying to learn from this New Testament text how to think about God’s presence to and relation with creatures in rather less starkly oppositional terms than those to which he makes much appeal in the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans.” (34)
According to Webster, Barth, in his desire to showcase the incommensurable distance between God and creatures, can veer toward denying the relation that exists between God and creatures. In fact, “so intense is Barth’s concern to draw attention to the nongiven, nonrepresentable character of God’s presence that he allows himself to say rather little about human forms and acts by which divine revelation and saving action are communicated and received and about the ways in which they share and order human life and activity.” In his desire to deny any mutual reciprocity between the creature and God, “he sometimes appears to subvert not only commensurability but all relation.” (49)
The essays ultimately prove a helpful gateway to understanding the historical and theological context of the lectures.
It would be fruitless to give a full account of Barth’s exegetical comments throughout his commentary, so in this section I will simply highlight some of Barth’s comments throughout the book.
On Pauline Authorship
“Personally, I would defend the authenticity of Ephesians. But frankly, I do not have any great interest in the question. As far as I am concerned, it could be otherwise. I have treated the matter this thoroughly in order to fulfill all righteousness. Bengal expresses my true opinion about it when he says, ‘Noli quaerere quit scripserit quid scriptum est.’ Now that we have behind us this unavoidable matter of New Testament introduction, we can happily devote ourselves to ‘quod scriptum est.’” (59)
On “holy and faithful in Christ Jesus” (τοῖς ἁγίοις . . . καὶ πιστοῖς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ)
“To call a person holy is to say that God eternally disturbs him and fills him with joy, that God has laid his hand upon the creature. The creature is attacked and wounded where he is most vital, in his subjectivity, his existence. Existentially, he is no longer his own. He himself no longer lives. He resembles an off-centered wheel, which no longer revolves around its own center.” (66)
On “from God our Father” (ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς)
“When he calls God our ‘Father,’ he is using the ultimate parable to express the inexpressible and unimaginable, namely, our origin. Our origin: we human creatures, although thoroughly human, are related to him, who is most wonderful, who is not and never will be simply a contingent object, who is unknown, who is holy, the Deus absconditus. When we speak about this God, we are speaking about ourselves, about our fundamental existence, about the invisible mystery of our visible life, about the theoria of our existence, which can never be accounted for by mere praxis, about the answer that comes from our deepest question. God, who meets us in such an unnatural and worldly fashion, whose χάρις and εἰρήνη, which must feel to many of you more like a clenched fist than God’s generosity and goodness, permeate our daily lives and our individuality—this God is our Father.” (77)
What, then, is striking about these lecture notes is the way in which Barth slowly unfolds the meaning of the Pauline text through patient exegetical and theological reasoning. The principle task of the theologian is to sit with, and under, the text of Scripture and be confronted by its Sache: the resurrected and living Lord who rules the church by his word. Barth, here, models that for his students.
That the reader is confronted by a torrent of theological crisis, there is no question. That the reader—and presumably the students for which the lectures were given—comes away with a better understanding of the whole of the text of Ephesians, I have my doubts. The lectures, then, provide a unique take on the Pauline text. On the one hand, Barth defamiliarizes the text, through exegesis, for the purpose of existential confrontation with the God of the Bible. On the other hand, because of Barth’s apathy toward elements like the historical setting, questions remain as to value of the lectures for preachers. Sure, exegesis is not merely rehearsing the social-historical environment of an author, but that’s not to say those things aren’t of value in the preacher’s toolkit. Barth affirms this, but only after much groaning.
In addition to this, there are other problems. For instance, in his discussion of election in Ephesians 1:13-14, Webster’s concern that Barth’s emphasis on divine action eliminates, or at least severely minimizes, creaturely agency is surely correct. Because of Barth’s emphasis on the objective—God—one wonders how to reconcile the components later on in the text of Ephesians that describes the creature ‘walking’ either in the ways of the wicked (2:2) or those of the righteous (4:1). But then again, he only spends a single lecture—7 pages—on Ephesians chapters 2 to 6.
Even still, one’s imagination is stirred by Barth’s poetic description of the unfathomable freedom of God’s electing action:
“He chooses, he only, he himself, and he alone. He is recognized as our origins because he humbles us, sending us back to the dust, and exalts us in the community of his glory. This is how he reveals himself in Christ, as utterly remote, as the King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 17:14; 19:16), the origin of our origins. Because that is the fundamental meaning of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and what constantly shines through. Despite the psychological elements, Clavin and his doctrine tower above all those recent theological lightweights who have forgotten the meaning of ‘soli Deo gloria.’” (95-96)
Can Barth Preach?
I once passed the time waiting for a flight by reading about the period of Barth’s career surveyed in this review. As I sat reading, a lady leaned over to me, who I came to find was a Presbyterian pastor, and asked if I was reading Barth for fun. Since I am neither a Barth scholar nor a “Barthian,” I told her it was for fun. I then asked her if she liked Barth. She shook her head determinedly, indicating her displeasure. I asked her why. She responded, “Doesn’t preach.”
I laughed. After that, our conversation went in a different direction as we chased other contemporary theologians. Yet, her comment stuck with me. Does Barth preach? No doubt some of Barth’s conservative critics will, somewhat ironically, give an ‘amen!’ to my fellow traveler’s comment. But Barth’s stated aim was theology for the church, even if the majority of his career after Safenwel was in the university. In particular, these lectures were given to ministers whom Barth knew would eventually preach to concrete local congregations. Does he succeed in helping them with the preaching task? Does Barth preach?
It depends. One walks away from the lectures with a strong sense of the crisis one ought to feel in the presence of the living God, through a prolonged theological meditation on, essentially, one chapter of a New Testament text. Whether or not Barth’s students left the classroom fully equipped for their preaching posts will remain unanswered, but surely such an instruction couldn’t have hurt.
Scott A. Corbin is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Jessi live in Nashville, TN with their two children.
 Richard Burnett, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis: The Hermenutical Principles of the Romerbrief Period (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 25. An indispensable resource on the “early Barth” remains Bruce M. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Buy the books
The Epistle to the Ephesians