Book Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Anyone who ever looks at theology these days cannot help but notice the shadows of certain figures looming large over them. Arguably, fewer of these are more prominent than Karl Barth. His Church Dogmatics is often cited as one of the greatest works of 20th century theology. It is, however, extremely long and, I might add, rather expensive. So in order to attempt to get to grips with Barth’s theology, I have had his Dogmatics in Outline on my radar for some time. In this book, which is comprised of transcripts of lectures he gave in Germany, just after the Second World War, he condenses his magnum opus into a little over 140 pages, going through the Apostles’ Creed, phrase by phrase.

Before he begins in earnest, he gives us an outline of his plan, as well as some very useful discussions on the nature of faith.  One must not think, though, that because the book is short that it is straightforward. It’s very dense, particularly the early chapters. I think I could re-read the first 30 pages over and over again, get something new out of them every time and yet still not fully grasp the breadth of the vision that Barth was expounding.

As he moves on to look at the various bits of the Apostles Creed, it does become a bit more accessible. Though that may be because I had, by that time, adjusted my reading to suit the cadences present in the text. In many ways, it is particularly hard for me to summarise what Barth’s theology is, because what became clear is how much of an influence he has been on the leaders of the churches I have been a part of. That is, I view my own beliefs as being fairly orthodox and there is very little in this book that is vastly different from the teaching I have largely grown up within baptist, pentecostal and other nonconformist churches. It was then merely a very well-articulated series of sermons in the same vein that I have listened to in each of the last 4 decades.

As I was reading through it, I found myself wondering if his theology was the pinnacle of ‘pre-critical’ thinking. Though there are plenty of theologians before him who have had similar views (I think here of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther & Calvin) Barth was a contemporary of Bultmann, who is one of the others whose shadow across modern theology cannot be ignored. The other figure I thought of was A.W. Tozer. Though the latter was not as theologically astute as Barth, I sensed a similarity in their approach to, and view of, the bible. Interestingly, though, Barth does not go so far as to make any sort of claim to inerrancy, but he does insist on the bible being front and centre of how we understand the christian faith. Though Bultmann is barely alluded to, there is a distinct air of defiance against Bultmann’s school of thinking. For my part, though I would lean towards Barth’s point of view, I would pay more attention to biblical criticism than is evidenced here.

Barth warns at the outset that this is meant to be a careful look at what the church should be and be for from the perspective of those who are part of the church. It’s not a book I would recommend to a non-christian, that’s not the target audience. But for anyone wanting to read a book of pretty solid theology, then this is an excellent place to start.

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One response to “Book Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

  1. David Michie

    Thanks for your post. Dogmatics in Outline is a great introduction to Barth and his way of writing as well as his basic theological beliefs. If you were to ever pick up a volume of the Church Dogmatics you would see the astounding breadth of knowledge that he possessed. You would definitely see that if he does come off as pre-critical, it isn’t because he didn’t know any better, just that he ultimately rejects any thinking that doesn’t take scripture seriously as THE best witness to the Word of God, even if he hesitates to identify Scripture as the Word of God itself.

    I’ve always thought of it as pleasantly ironic that while accepting a “higher critical” approach to the text and history of the Bible, he often ends up sounding like an evangelical as far as doctrine is concerned. Because of this, he suffered greatly at the hands of the Bultman school (and they suffered greatly at his!).

    Something I have found helpful when reading anything Barth has written is to try and read it as if you are hearing a preacher. I even find myself reading it out loud to better grasp his points.

    As an aside, you can get the entire set of the Dogmatics in hardcover, brand new, for $130 from christianbook.com. The original publisher gave Hendrickson Publishing the rights to reprint the original T and T Clark edition when they rolled out the “study edition” a few years ago.

    I’ll look forward to checking out your blog in the future now that I’ve discovered it.

    Dave