Reading the Gospels
with Karl Barth
Daniel Migliore, Ed.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017
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Reviewed by Allen Stanton
I grew up as an evangelical in a fairly conservative denomination. As I developed a theological imagination and began asking my own questions about my faith, I was often pointed in the direction of staunch neo-Calvinists. Their understanding of sin, election, free will, and justification left much for me to be desired. Each question I asked resulted in a reference to Paul. I could not make sense of Paul – he seemed angry, harsh, and judgmental. His theology, which was deemed conclusive, seemed lacking. Worst of all, I could not make sense of how Paul interacted with this person called Jesus. The way I was being taught to read Paul seemed so at odds with the revelation that comes from reading the Gospel of Luke or the Gospel of John. Finally, in frustration, I stopped reading scripture altogether.
In seminary, I took a class on Paul’s letter to the Romans. My professor, as I would discover, was wholly devoted to Barth. All of a sudden, I was reading Paul with fresh eyes. The theological questions with which I had long been wrestling, even after my jump to the United Methodist Church, were now being satiated. Best of all, I was starting to grasp the significance of Christology in the totality of scripture, in ministry, and my own spiritual life.
Like many mainline pastors, Barth became a staple on my reference shelf. When I am stuck on prepping a bible study, an essay, or a sermon, my first turn is often to Dogmatics. When I read that a new compilation, entitled Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth had been released, I jumped at the chance to read it, excited for the possibility of having that initial experience again.
This compilation, edited by Princeton Theological Seminary’s Daniel L. Migliore, showcases a who’s who of scholars: Richard Bauckham, Willie James Jennings, Jürgen Moltmann, Bruce L. McCormack, and Fleming Rutledge, among many others. As the introduction states, the work was born out of a conference at Princeton, which examined central themes in Barth’s exegesis of the Gospels, their underling theological themes, and the implications for ministry. The twelve essays take vastly different approaches to their task. Moltmann, as one expects, clings to the theological, exploring Barth’s understanding of election, and setting up much of the theological stage for the rest of the pieces. Bauckham takes a scalpel to Barth’s exegesis and interpretation of the Johannine prologue, parsing the understanding and implication of vs. 1-2 in particular of John 1. Other authors place Barth into conversation with other theologians, novelists, and political contexts. Migliore and Kendall Cox both contribute essays on Barth’s reading of the parable of the lost (prodigal) son. Migliore places Barth into conversation with Balthasar, and wades into the debate on what freedom in Christ entails. Cox, meanwhile, discovers a congruency between Barth’s and Julian of Norwich’s reading of the famous parable.
In my subjective view, there were three essays that stood out among the rest. First is Willie Jennings’s essay on the Rich Young Ruler. Jennings begins by establishing the political and economic context of Switzerland in which Barth wrote. Jennings skillfully weaves Jesus’s harsh command to the young ruler in with Bath’s context, before setting his sights on our contemporary politics. Ultimately, Jennings leaves the reader to consider how our assumptions reading the parable are steeped in our own economic system, and concludes by inviting the reader to consider the ramifications of Barth’s theology of redemption.
Second is Bruce L. McCormack’s essay on the cry of dereliction. McCormack places Barth into conversation with an unlikely figure: the atheist Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago’s fictional retelling of the gospel story. In Saramago’s account, God is a god whose morality is corrupted, the devil is a sympathetic character, and Christ struggles to understand his own purpose and morality. Saramago’s telling of the Gospel leaves an important question to be answered. “What do you say,” writes McCormack, “to a sensitive and brilliant critic who finds the God worshipped by Christians through the centuries to be morally repulsive (160)?” McCormack uses the rest of his essay to explore how Barth’s understanding of the cry of dereliction might help Christians in their apologetic answer to that. Without spoiling his answer, McCormack spends several pages delving into a deeply theological and obviously personal quest to provide an adequate answer that he himself can be content with.
The third essay that stood out is not actually an essay at all, but a sermon by Fleming Rutledge. Her sermon, entitled “What’s in Those Lamps?” was delivered at the aforementioned conference on Barth just a few days after the tragedy at Emmanuel AME in Charleston. Rutledge provides an expert and moving example of how preachers can and should preach theologically enriching sermons in the midst of challenging (to say the least) circumstances. Her sermon reads the parable in Matthew 25:1-13 with a deep theological imagination, and offers a clear example of the prophetic voice preachers should have.
That these essays stood out to me is not a critique of the others. I am a pastor, and so it is no surprise that I was drawn to the essays that have clear applications to the work that I do. It is a testament to this book that the authors embody such disciplinary diversity. The careful exegetical work of the biblical scholars in this volume help readers see the theological approaches taken by the systematic theologians. That the essays are not categorized by discipline is a welcome reminder that reading scripture is done theologically, and that good theology finds its root in good scripture.
It is also worth noting that not every essay left Barth’s theology without critique. Barth’s own assumptions and conclusions often come under fire from the scholars tasked with evaluating him. Each essay here has a respect for Barth’s work, but they do not assume that Barth is infallible, as he is sometimes taken to be amongst his adherents.
Finally, it should be obvious that these essays are not exactly light reading. They treat Barth and their questions with deserved sophistication. Some essays are naturally more accessible than others, and often time they assume a certain amount of background knowledge in the reader. This is not an introductory text to Barth’s work. Rather, it is a deeper exploration.
I began reading this book hoping to again see in the Gospels what I first saw when I read Paul alongside Barth. Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth gave me that opportunity. It is a welcome addition to my bookshelf, and I expect that I will return to it many times over the coming years.