Review: Barth’s <em>Church Dogmatics</em>
Religion & Liberty Online

Review: Barth’s Church Dogmatics

Late last year controversy arose after the federal Bureau of Prisons had created a list of approved religious and spiritual books that would be allowed into prison chapels. Among those authors who was excluded from the list was the greatly influential twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth.

The potentially incendiary nature of religion was apparently the impetus behind the bureau’s attempt to control access to religious works, which was quickly reversed. As one blogger put it, Karl Barth was “going back to prison!”

But concern about zealous inspiration hasn’t been the only worry that has kept Karl Barth out of prison reading rooms in the past. In writing about his experience in prison ministry and prison abolition activism, Lee Griffith relates that he was prevented from bringing a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into the jail for a visit.

“I was told that one of the books I had brought would not be allowed into the city jail,” he writes. “It so happens that the individual volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics constitute a threat – not, presumably, because of content but because they are of sufficient size and weight to serve as weapons.”

As a whole, Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics is constituted by 14 individual installments or “parts,” comprising four larger “volumes.” In 2004, T&T Clark did a great service to theological study by re-releasing the volumes in paperback. But even so, the sheer amount of material in the Church Dogmatics defies facile apprehension.

Enter Logos Bible Software with one of their latest efforts, the publication of the complete and updated Church Dogmatics produced in cooperation with the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Barth’s impact on the study of theology is immense, not only in his systematic and dogmatic constructions, but also in his construal of the history of church doctrine. One of Barth’s legacies was the inauguration of generations of historiography that sought to distinguish between the core insights of the Reformation and in the Barthian judgment the scholastic trappings that shrouded Calvin and to a greater extent the succeeding generations of Protestant orthodox theologians.

A tool like Logos Bible Software allows much more penetrating study of Barth’s Dogmatics than has ever been practically feasible before. For instance, we can now perform searches across the entire Dogmatics for words and phrases like “scholastics” and “Protestant scholasticism.” This enables us to better judge how Barth uses such designations, to whom he applies them, and on what basis he does so.

Freed from the static limits of a printed index (no matter how reliable or comprehensive), the research implications for such search capabilities are enormous. A simple search for the term “scholastic” in Barth’s Dogmatics reveals that he associates the term with eras of theology both preceding (i.e. medieval scholasticism) and following (i.e. Protestant scholasticism) the dawning of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century. Moreover, as in an excursus on the “Federal Theology” of the seventeenth century, we see that Barth views these eras to be characterized by rigidity and legalism.

The results of such searches also show us that Barth is dependent to a great extent on the manuals and handbooks of Protestant theology flowing out of the nineteenth century, such as those from Heinrich Heppe and Alexander Schweizer. But where Schweizer, for instance, views predestination as a “central dogma” in Calvinism in a generally positive light, Barth takes issue with the normative judgment on such matters.

So not only is Barth drawing off the scholarship of preceding generations, materially accepting their interpretation of the development of Protestant orthodoxy, but he is also dependent on an interpretation of these sources themselves as self-evident. Thus, when Barth summarizes Cocceius, we see a reading of Cocceius as dismissing wholesale the entirety of Protestant scholastic theology: “traditional dogmatics had started to move like a frozen stream of lava” (4.1, p. 55). Cocceius “anti-Scholasticus” becomes a seventeenth-century version of Calvin in the latter’s storied rejection of the “scholastici.”

The dynamic that we see at work here in Barth’s interpretation of the development of Federal Theology, pitting Calvin as the paradigmatic norm against divergent streams of Protestant scholasticism, is also at play in his systemic and methodological rejection of natural law, natural theology, and natural revelation.

In a chapter from Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics titled, “Karl Barth and the Displacement of Natural Law in Contemporary Protestant Thought,” Stephen J. Grabill, a research scholar at the Acton Institute, traces the impact of the Barth-Brunner debate (itself recently republished by Wipf and Stock) on the development of twentieth-century Protestant ethics.

Grabill observes,

While the already weakened state of natural theology in the Reformed tradition was exacerbated by Barth’s assault on Protestant orthodoxy, it makes sense that during the period of Barthian hegemony (1934-1990) interest in related doctrines such as natural revelation and natural law would likewise atrophy given the logical thread connecting them to natural theology (21).

Noting a development in Barth’s thought, which in the later period tended to give greater weight to issues related “to the structures of human existence, society, ethics, and natural moral norms,” while never abandoning his rejection of natural law, Grabill argues that “the analyst give less priority to his statements in the 1934 debate and the 1937-1938 Gifford Lectures and more to the Church Dogmatics and the shorter political tracts written during World War II” (29).

In a review of Grabill’s book hosted on the Center for Barth Studies website and critical of Grabill’s engagement with Barth, W. Travis McMaken writes, “If the Reformed natural law tradition is to be rediscovered and rehabilitated after Barth, it will have to be done in deep conversation with Barth.”

This judgment underscores the importance of Barth to contemporary theology and theological historiography. And while interpretations of Barth and his impact will surely continue to differ, there seems to be unanimous consensus that the Church Dogmatics represents Barth’s comprehensive and mature theological expression.

The research tools provided in the Logos Bible Software edition of the Church Dogmatics provide powerful ways of examining these questions. We can see how often and in what ways Barth depends on various Reformers (e.g. his citations of Calvin [908 total], Luther [836 total], Melanchthon [115 total], Zwingli, [93 total], Bullinger [28 total], W. Musculus [8 total], et al.). With the power of linked collections in the Logos software, we can also refer to these citations and references in their original contexts, so that Barth’s references to Calvin’s Institutes or Luther’s Works can be brought up with a single click on a live in-text link.

As the full-text offerings of significant theologians in dialogue with each other across times and places continue to grow, the implications for digital research are stunning. Another recently released Logos project, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, who interacted a great deal with Barth’s theology, integrates precisely this kind of intertextual functionality.

The Logos Bible Software edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is available for pre-publication purchase for a very limited time and is scheduled to ship on Monday, April 21, 2008.

The text that is included in this edition is “the newly revised, forthcoming edition of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which reflects the work of a team of leading experts at Princeton Theological Seminary’s Center for Barth Studies. It is not currently available in print. The text is presented in a new, user friendly format, and all Greek and Latin passages will include English translation alongside the original.”

At $499.99, you can essentially get a more up-to-date, useful, and convenient version of Barth’s Church Dogmatics for a cost at or below what you can find for any of the print versions (the updated print versions are not scheduled to be available until much later this year and will likely run between $840 and $1,300).

The Church Dogmatics really represent an undertaking that highlights all of the strengths of Logos Bible Software. What was an unwieldy and often inaccessible resource in print form becomes a powerful tool for critical engagement of contemporary theology. Highly recommended.

This review has been cross-posted at

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.