Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

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Daniel L. Migliore
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     254 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The contemporary movement of Theological Interpretation of Scripture [TIS] is often traced to the influence of Karl Barth. Given Barth's christocentric reading of the Bible, and focused attention the narrative shape of the Gospels, Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth provides some interesting insights on how the master of Basel went about his exegetical project. Barth's commitment to interpret the Bible theologically flows out of this commitment to resist the imprisonment of the past and to assume the actuality and contemporaneity of the text (xix).

The initial essay from Jürgen Moltmann interacts with Barth's famous doctrine of election. Although the features of this doctrine are commonly known among Barth scholars, Moltmann takes the issue to his own commitments to political theology. The election of grace in Christ brings us to the community of all humans. There is no separation, but a hope of “universal solidarity of humankind” (13). Moreover, we must resist the despair of injustice and un-assurance. Since the purpose of election is to bring people to God, then it is no longer dependent on us to strive for assurance of election.

Richard Bauckham contributes with a fine article on Barth's interpretation of John's prologue. Barth's idea of a Logos as a placeholder serves the purpose “of not allowing Jesus to be defined by the preexisting categories, which would threaten the absoluteness and exclusivity of revelation in Jesus Christ” (29). Nonetheless as Bauckham sees, Barth missed the point of the prologue entirely. For Bauckham, the point of the incarnation is not that God is revealed in the God-man Jesus, but that Jesus, in his concrete human life, is the Son of the Father. Another outstanding article is Paul Nimmo's interaction with Jesus compassion in Matt 9:36. For Barth, the point of the pericope is that Christ feels compassion for the lostness and solitariness of the people. But that compassion (splanchnon) is not to be isolated from who God is in himself. This leads us to deep implications into the atonement and trinitarian theology: first, grace is really essentially divine; and second, mercy is traced back to who God is in his self-determined being in eternity.

Paul Dafydd Jones and Bruce McCormack take the christological texts from the gospels and bring Barth's actualistic interpretation to the fore. Jones dealt with Jesus's agony in the garden. After surveying Maximus, John Calvin, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, Jones gets to Barth. For Barth, the talk about wills is unnecessary. The key to interpretation is to follow the intensiveness of the narrative. What is the point of the biblical text—of the garden of Gethsemane? : the prayerful posture of Jesus. Here lies the point of contact between the self-determination of God in Jesus in eternity and his prayer—in that praying to Christ our situation is truly Christ's own without having to strive to align divine and human wills. McCormack's article on the cry of dereliction continues his project of taking Barth's intuitions regarding the unnecessary talk about the Logos asarkos into a different ontology of the incarnation.

Some of the other essays strike a rather different key ,and try to push Barth into directions that I am not sure Barth wanted to be pushed. This is exemplified in Willie James Jennings’s article on Barth's treatment of the Rich man in Mark 10. Jennings has some interesting points when he connects the privilege of the Swiss people with Barth's ostracized existence in that midst. However, it is probably overdone when Jennings laments that Barth was not able to connect the pericope to Swiss privilege. Overall, this series of essays engage critically and charitably with Barth. As said before, given that Barth is a major figure in the TIS movement, a book that deals with his own interpretation of specific passages is a welcome addition to Barth studies. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rafael Bello is a doctoral student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and research aide at James P. Boyce Centennial Library.

Date of Review: 
July 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel L. Migliore is Charles Hodge Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.


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