Reading Karl Barth for the Church

A Guide and Companion

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Kimlyn J. Bender
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , June
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $26.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801097584.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Reading Karl Barth for the Church: A Guide and Companion, Kimlyn J. Bender has created an engaging and instructive supplementary resource to the first volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (CD).

Barth scholars typically take a bird’s-eye view of his work or nosedive into a critical engagement of a very specific aspect of it. Bender takes a different approach, seeking rather to equip readers of Barth in their own right. Indeed, his aim is to “facilitat[e] the development of the skills needed to become a reader of all the volumes of the CD by concentrating on a detailed reading of the first” (3).

Tracing this volume, Bender offers an overview of central themes, an explanation of key terms, and a nod to common critiques. Rather than shying away from the challenges of Barth’s dialectical approach, or topics such as the economic versus the immanent Trinity or the authority of scripture, Bender provides clear depictions and insight.

As he delves into themes such as God’s freedom, the incarnation, and the function of the church, Bender integrates key excerpts from Church Dogmatics. Also, in a similar fashion to Barth’s fine print sections, Bender engages in excursus and commentary, exploring particularly complex topics, like the Trinity, world religions, and the role of the church and academy.

In addition to providing various tips to new readers of Church Dogmatics, Bender provides potential reading plans in the appendix, as well as helpful indexes. The most thoughtful aspect of this work, though, is the perceptive questions provided at the conclusion of each chapter. These help the reader not only check their understanding but consider what the material asks of the church today, both in terms of belief and witness. After all, both Bender and Barth clearly share a marked commitment to the church and passion for the gospel.

Bender writes, “The church might do well to ponder that it never is so close to reflecting the love of God as when it remains faithful in fulfilling its entrusted commission to announce this divine love and faithfulness to a world of broken promises and dreams” (203). What’s more, he reminds readers of Barth’s understanding of God’s “particular concern for those who are most dependent upon the faithfulness and promises of others— such as the alien, the widow, the orphan, and children, who bear the brunt and are most helpless in the face of broken promises” (203).

Though Barth’s work is not for the faint-hearted, it will be more thoroughly understood and utilized because of Bender’s work. Bender, too, demands a careful reading, but his commitment to creating an organized, clear tool is unmatched in the field. Thus, he makes massive strides in bringing Church Dogmatics back to its intended interlocutor, the church. In this way, this volume begins to fill a gap within Barth studies, and opens the door to a renewed interest in Christian doctrine within the church.

What’s more, it must be noted that Reading Karl Barth for the Church is rather enchanting, mirroring Barth’s own work in its capacity to engage. To be sure, both theologians share exceptional writing abilities and a penchant for effectively tackling perplexing ideas. However, those familiar with Barth’s verbosity will appreciate Bender’s straightforward approach.

Students, pastors, and academics alike will be bettered by this work, whether it is read as a companion alongside a study of Church Dogmatics or drawn on as a resource when one is investigating specific topics Barth addresses. All that remains is for Bender to embark upon a study of the next three volumes of Karl Barth’s magnum opus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rev. Catherine Tobey is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kimlyn J. Bender is professor of Christian theology at Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Confessing Christ for Church and World and Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology and the coeditor, with Bruce McCormack, of Theology as Conversation. Bender also serves as a contributing editor for Cultural Encounters.

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