Karl Barth, the Jews, and Judaism

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George Hunsinger
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , February
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Based largely on a conference at Princeton in 2014, Karl Barth, the Jews, and Judaism gathers a cast of compelling Jewish and Christian voices on the significance of Karl Barth and the legacy of Christian supersessionism for relations between Jews and Christians. As it should, the Shoah looms large in this volume, most explicitly in the Christian contributions—yet the Jewish contributors show a resolve not to let it overwhelm a rich conversation with Barth’s thought, or critical engagement with Jewish voices past and present. 

One might expect the essays of the volume to focus on Barth’s theology in relation to Israel, Jews, or Judaism. What one finds instead are diverse efforts to think with Barth, as well as against him, about a variety of matters of shared concern to the contributors (the essay by Hans Küng does not even mention Barth, and C. E. B. Cranfield hardly engages him). David Novak and Peter Ochs opt to think primarily with Barth. In his chapter, Novak articulates the rabbinic Jewish quality of Barth’s theological handling of scripture, using his comments on Micah 6:8 as a case in point. Peter Ochs, for his part, considers the Barthian directions of Jewish and Christian thinkers since the publication of the Jewish statement on Christians and Christianity, Dabru Emet (2000). In its shared opposition to a “major civilizational tendency within the modern West” of “self-deification” (78) the thought of these Jewish and Christian “Barthians” exhibits a reparative character. It is open to God’s initiative and ongoing disruption in its attempts to reason about God in dialogue with scripture, responsive to acute and chronic crises in the adequacy of human language. It is responsive, in a word, to revelation, as opposed to absorbing the knowledge of God into human self-knowledge.

“Love That Is Love Enough,” the brief section that closes Ochs’s chapter, gains some of its force in response to the preceding chapter by editor George Hunsinger. I believe Ochs shares my appreciation for Hunsinger’s admission that a Christian theology claiming to be altogether innocent of supersessionism is dubiously Christian. Such a Christian theology is also, and rightly, suspect to many Jews. Hunsinger thus offers a case for a “soft supersessionism” combined with a “philo-Semitism.” But in his closing section, Ochs warns against Christian professions of “love or care for the Jews” like what Hunsinger calls for, since “such human efforts and desires are rarely equal to the task of repair” (101). Instead, Ochs contends, repair requires a deep enough reading of the revealing Word to rediscover in it, as Barth did, the love of Torah, just as Jews in the wake of the Shoah might study the people Israel with similar patience so as to rediscover in and among them that same love. I would add that these two projects of scriptural rediscovery are more promising if punctuated by times at a shared table of study. In this connection, Thomas Torrance’s chapter emphasizes the crucial contribution that Jews have to make to Christian interpretation of the New Testament.

While Ellen Charry’s apparent attribution of a law-gospel binary to Barth as an inheritance of Luther ignores Barth’s fierce and systematic subversion of even a law-gospel distinction (to say nothing of a binary), she rightly focuses her criticism on the formal, philosophically idealist register of Barth’s theology, especially of Israel and the church. The chapters of more official Barthians—Hunsinger and Torrance—proceed in this same register and so struggle to address the liabilities of Barthian theology for a fuller reconciliation of Jews and Christians. A highly formal register cannot integrate, or be adequately disrupted by, the manifold ways that Jews and Christians do not materially fit the formal Christian claims made about them, claims often attributed to scripture. Here, Victoria Barnett’s contribution of a more historical treatment of Barth’s post-war encounters with Jews is most instructive. While these encounters attest to the praiseworthy defense that Barth offered Jews before, during, and after the Shoah, an exchange like Barth’s with Emunah, a Swiss Jewish group, exposes the inadequacy of what Barth called “the theological aspect,” which he thought “the entire point” (112).

Eberhard Busch’s contribution is therefore noteworthy for its defiance of overly formalized, Barthian theology. He rightly highlights Barth’s Jewish influences, his hard turn away from classical Christian supersessionism, his direct theological confrontation of anti-Semitism, and even his fervent support of the state of Israel; but he also refuses the “absoluteness” of Christianity. In his dialogue with David Novak, Busch says that the meaning of the word “Christianity” is “very dark for me” (42). He rehearses various ways in which people of the Christian church do not correspond to formal theological accounts of them, saying he is quite certain that some non-Christian people better understand and follow what Jesus was about than many Christians do. When asked if Jews and Christians believe in the same God, Busch is moved to say that Christians do not necessarily believe in the same God as Christians do! He expresses worry about which God he himself worships, before going on to assert that indeed Jews and Christians worship the same God. Again and again, Busch signals how Jews and Christians do not fit their supposed Christian theological forms, however dialectically these may be presented by Barth. 

Along Busch’s more historicist theological line, we have no reason to think that reconciliation means Jews becoming more Christian than Christians becoming more Jewish, or parsing out exactly who needs to do what. Nor can we theologically ignore what is left virtually untouched by this fine volume as a whole: the significant differences distinguishing ancient Israelite life as attested in the Tanakh, Jewish life in Judea and Galilee in Jesus’s day, and Jewish life under the influence of the later rabbis. These historical and bodily differences, among many others, are theologically meaningful, but lost on an overly formal Christian theology of “Israel and the church” or even of “believing in Jesus.” 

About the Reviewer(s): 

George "Tommy" Givens is Professor of New Testament Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He earned his degrees at Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. A leading expert on Karl Barth, he was the 2010 recipient of the international Karl Barth Prize. He serves as an ordained Presbyterian minister, the founder of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (2006), and a delegate to the official Reformed/Roman Catholic International Dialogue (2011–2017). He is interested in “generous orthodoxy” as a way of overcoming the historic liberal/conservative impasse in modern Protestant theology.


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