The Essential Karl Barth

A Reader and Commentary

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Keith L. Johnson
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , April
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When I first began teaching theology, the task of introducing students to Karl Barth was a daunting one. Where should you even begin? Should you simply dive in and start swallowing whole volumes of the Dogmatics? Something from his firey Romerbrief (Oxford, 1933)? His more mature reflections in the last sections of the Church Dogmatics (T&T Clark, 1969)? Perhaps his popularly-oriented Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1979)? With every selection, there was the constant feeling that my students were not getting the full-orbed exposure to the theological giant who had shaped so much of 20th century theology in the West and beyond.

Selecting a starting point is inevitable, but also tricky, in that Barth’s work has influenced diametrically-opposed trajectories, claimed by both postliberal and apocalyptic theologies, a partner to both world Christianity and to intra-Reformed debates. Teachers everywhere, then, owe Keith L. Johnson a debt of gratitude for his new volume, The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, for its career-spanning attention to the nuances and breadth of Barth’s work. Rather than simply an updated version of the original reader with Fortress Press, Johnson’s work is an entirely original re-visioning, including fresh translations of Barth, some of which are original to this volume.

The first section of this work offers selections from Barth’s lesser read volumes, such as The Holy Spirit and the Christian Life (Westminster John Knox, 1993), and The Resurrection of the Dead (Wipf and Stock, 2003), in order to provide the reader with a sense of Barth’s own theological development. Here, we see how Barth, as he engaged with Protestant liberalism, Catholicism, socialism, and dialectical theology, began to find his own distinctive voice. Lesser known pieces, such as one of his letters to Adolf von Harnack on the relation between God and creation, stand beside more well-known selections from the Romerbrief, providing a judicious journey into Barth’s own growth as a theologian.

The second section is devoted exclusively to the Church Dogmatics.  Covering some of the most important moments from Barth’s magnum opus, such as the decisive turn on the doctrine of election, the nature of Christian community, the nature of the Trinity, and the contours of revelation, the selections are both carefully selected and true to the complexity of the text. The difficulty with teaching Barth—particularly to first-time readers—is that his prose, as Johnson puts it, often uses one thousand words when ten will do (xi). But the selections here hone in on the most central moments of the Dogmatics inviting the reader to then follow how the arguments unfold over the scope of the entire work.

The third and final section, on Barth’s political engagements, follows the approach of the first two sections, by offering a chronological approach to some more well-known moments, such as the Barmen Declaration, and some lesser-known ones, such as his letter to American Christians during times of war. These, like the first two sections, help to place Barth as a theologian of his age, who held that the Word must be heard by each generation afresh; to hear the Word in 20th-century Germany was for Barth to recognize that politics and Gospel could never be far apart. By comparison, this is the shortest and least developed of the sections, but at nearly four hundred pages, to include much more than this would have been to create an overly cumbersome book. Some of the undeveloped but provocative corners of Barth’s work, such as his writings on gender, biblical studies, and ecumenism, are left out in favor of this section on Barth’s politics, but as Johnson notes, the point of this volume was not to be exhaustive, but to direct readers toward the voluminous resources available in Barth.

Barth’s work remains one of the most contested corpuses of the 20th century, and the development approach which Johnson has taken here to Barth’s work shows why. As he wrestled with issues of nature and grace, of social conflict, and of Christian theology’s capitulations to history, culture, and politics, Barth grows and changes while simultaneously retaining his own distinct voice and character. Johnson’s book will undoubtedly and rightly become the new standard reference for teachers looking for an entry point into Barth’s work for their courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith L. Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.



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