Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth.

Edited by Daniel L. Migliore

Eerdmans. Pp. 254. $35. 

Review by J. Scott Jackson

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Ever the masterful exegete, Karl Barth read the Scriptures theologically — that is, in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This christological centering, for him, meant that the biblical texts hang together canonically. Daniel L. Migliore, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, states Barth’s view succinctly: “Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate and crucified Son of God and Son of Man, is the living Lord, and the radiance of his reality attested in Scripture illumines our lives and our world here and now in the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. xx). The Swiss theologian’s striking insights on core Christian doctrines glisten through this superb collection of essays plumbing his engagements with gospel texts.

This volume, superbly edited and introduced by Migliore, stemmed from the 2015 Karl Barth Conference. Jürgen Moltmann leads off the volume with an essay commending Barth’s radical revision (or perhaps rejection) of the orthodox Reformed teaching on double predestination. Moltmann counts himself among those who have met Barth’s soteriology “gratefully and with deep relief, and who have been ‘enlightened’ by the reasoning and scope of his christological renewal of the doctrine of predestination” (p. 1). For decades Barth has been praised (and criticized) for shifting the doctrine of election to the person of Christ himself, who bears the full brunt of divine reprobation, such that salvation would seem to extend to all humanity. Moltmann offers an additional, distinctive twist, linking predestination to a political theology of hope: Believers are called to trust God’s faithfulness by opposing injustice, just as Huguenot Marie Durand stirred fellow prisoners of faith with the cry, “Résistez!” (Resist!).

Similarly, Beverly Roberts Gaventa shows how Barth contravenes the prevalent interpretation that renders the risen Jesus all but absent in the Acts of the Apostles. And in a close reading of Barth’s exegesis, Richard Bauckham explores how, for Barth, the Logos of John’s prologue points forward to Jesus, the word made flesh, where it finds its full meaning, rather than backward to some generic concept in Hellenistic philosophy. However, Bauckham also offers a critique here of Barth’s method: the focus on incarnation may lead Barth to miss some vital Old Testament connections, such as the ways the Prologue hearkens back to the first creation narrative in Genesis.

Preoccupations with the person of Jesus feature markedly in two essays on the “Prodigal Son.” Migliore analyzes how the parable serves as a guiding trope for Barth’s doctrine of a reconciliation as a whole, drawing a novel analogy between the younger son and the Son of God who goes into the alien far country of a fallen humankind. Kendall Cox further uncovers parallels between Barth’s exegesis and that of the 14th century anchorite, Julian of Norwich.

In a constructive theological vein, Paul Dafydd Jones and Bruce L. McCormack wrestle with the profound — and disturbing — implications of Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane and his cry of dereliction, respectively. If much classical theology would hold God the Father aloof from the suffering of the man Jesus, these thinkers show how, for Barth, Christ’s death is “the passion of God himself.” McCormack, going “beyond” Barth, suggests that centering our attention on the abandonment of Jesus by the Spirit at the cross might well lead us to seeing suffering and evil as necessary corollaries of God’s drive toward communion with a creaturely other. Shannon Nicole Smythe ties together God’s election to be “handed over” to death through the Son with the handing over of the Gospel in Christian mission.

Willie James Jennings and Paul T. Nimmo highlight the liberating and transformative character of the Savior’s compassion. As Jennings notes, Jesus confronts both the “rich young ruler” and the disciples who envy him not with condemnation but with love — and with an invitation to cast off the idealized personhood oriented by the idolatry of mammon. (This challenge resonated in Barth’s own context amid the banking interests of wartime Switzerland as it continues to do so in our own day.) Similarly, as Nimmo shows, Jesus’ compassion for the crowds from the depths of his heart (literally, his “bowels”) epitomizes the Savior’s utter solidarity with all humanity, lending concreteness to our views of human nature and the atonement.

Fleming Rutledge — preaching in the wake of Dylan Roof’s rampage of racist terrorism in Charleston and the exemplary faith of African American Christians in the face of such hatred — brought home the very Barthian point that the church exists in a perpetual Advent season as it awaits the return of its Lord to set a broken world to rights: “Advent is the dialectic between the waiting and the hastening, the faithful confidence that strains forward toward the day and the long endurance that is required to wait for it” (p. 205). As she notes, Barth stressed that “the church has no other time in this world but that of Advent.”

Scott Jackson is a theologian, independent scholar, and writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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