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The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth

The Epistle to the Romans (1918)

by Karl Barth

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  saintmarysaccden | May 31, 2013 |
While Karl Barth would later offer a more systematic theology in his "Church Dogmatics," he first gave voice to his theological vision in his commentary on "The Epistle to the Romans," first published in 1918 and then expanded and reissued five more times during the following ten years. Translated from German into English in 1933, the work provided an intellectual foundation for the theological movement that eventually was described as Barthianism or Neo-Orthodoxy.

Barth's analysis of Romans is straightforward: Paul offered God's wisdom to his age and the same lessons are applicable to contemporary times. However, the heart of Barth's interpretation is rather counter-intuitive: the apostle is writing to a depraved and fallen humanity that cannot fathom the transcendent God, so much of what can be understood, and must be understood, is negative (humans must come to understand what things they can never understand). Barth insists on human inability to understand divine wisdom; worse, human institutions -- including the church -- try to promote flawed wisdom in place of God's teaching.

Amazingly, Barth, responding to 18th and 19th century theologians and Biblical scholars who advocated for a progressive Christianity that imagined a constructive role for human beings in elucidating and carrying out God's teaching, insisted on a theological position about divine power more stringent than even John Calvin's notable writing about the transcendent God. God's power and wisdom are completely different and grander than anything that people can understand or appreciate; in fact, only through direct revelation (that is, the Bible) can human beings even begin to understand anything about God.

The consequence of this thinking -- and the central delicate interpretation that Barth must provide -- is that there is barely any difference between sin and non-sin, between faith and non-faith. Given that sinful human beings are so fallen, so limited, and so ignorant, it is difficult to describe how mortals can act with any conception of good and evil that even approximates God's ultimate good and evil. In some ways, it appears that awareness of this human limitation is what separates faithful Christians from others, in Barth's analysis.

As a rather unabashed Calvinist on most matters of divine transcendence, I can appreciate Barth's approach in some ways, but it consistently undervalues humanity in a way that seems to diverge from the description of human beings created in God's image (Genesis 1) and the way that Jesus consistently approaches and teaches people in the Gospels. Still, the great gift for Christians of Barth's rigorous and persistent approach is the necessary reminder that our thinking is not God's thinking and we probably do not know even what we think we know, especially when we dare to speak of God.

With this in mind, it should be noted that reading Barth is not for the faint of heart or mind. He often approaches subjects with a density of prose, including paragraphs that can run for pages. Frankly, I also find that Barth is best read in small doses, lest one's eyes glaze over. Still, this influential theological approach demands understanding, assessment, and likely adaptation by modern Christians.

This review is also published at http://alongthispilgrimsjourney.blogspot.com/2013/05/book-review-epistle-to-roma... ( )
  ALincolnNut | May 24, 2013 |
Book Review: The Epistle to the Romans, by Karl Barth

Karl Barth is considered by many people to be one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He was a pastor, professor and a prolific writer, his commentary on Romans being the work that introduced him to the world. My introduction to Barth came through some excerpts of his Church Dogmatics while I was in seminary and then from reading a collection of his later sermons. I recently read Eugene Peterson’s memoir and he noted that Barth’s Romans commentary exerted a powerful influence on his own early ministry. I have always enjoyed Peterson I took his recommendation and dove into Barth’s Romans for myself. Having finished, I can perhaps best describe Romans as a sort of cross-country trip, one which exposed me to a vast landscape and nearly overwhelmed me with visual images, pictures that will have to be studied again and again to fully appreciate all that they contain.

Barth’s work here is significantly different from a traditional commentary of either an exegetical or expositional nature. The former often address significant issues of culture, the historical setting and language as they bear on our understanding of the text, while the latter provide the manuscript of sermons preached from the text. An example of a work of exegesis of Romans is the recent volume by Leon Morris, while an excellent exposition is James Montgomery Boice’s Romans, which runs four volumes. Barth’s method is more akin to opening his Bible, reading a chapter and then going back, paragraph-by-paragraph, phrase-by-phrase, writing as the Spirit leads him in understanding the words of Paul.

Barth’s comments on Romans are extensive, expounding on Pauls’ 16 chapters of Biblical text over the course of 500 pages. Part of this length is due to Barth’s style. When I write I may introduce a new thought with a question, while Barth frequently uses 3 or 4, or more questions, a technique that does aid in understanding the relevance of Paul’s words for Barth’s time, and ours as well. These questions are then answered in depth. Barth ultimately published six editions of his commentary, the second being a significant reworking of the original, while the remaining editions being what Barth considered to be minor updates. He was well aware that his writing had a lot to offer to the pastors and theologians of his day and he had the freedom to follow each new thought for as long as he felt was necessary.

While I have a graduate degree in divinity I often felt a bit underpowered, intellectually, to follow and apprehend Barth’s line of reasoning. One thread that did emerge early in the commentary is Barth’s deep love for Jesus as the second person of the Trinity and the understanding of God’s work in Jesus in the act of his death-and-resurrection as the defining moment in all of human history. Writing on Romans 5:6, “For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly,” Barth says, “Everything shines in the light of His death, and is illuminated by it. No single passage in the Synoptic Gospels is intelligible part from the death.” (159)

Writing a bit further, of the new creation in Christ that believers become when they grasp Christ by faith, (Romans 5:9-11) Barth says, “To the question, Whence are we? – which is the question of all questions – we receive the answer which is beyond all answers: We are they who have been justified by God,” adding later on the same page, “As the beloved of God we have no alternative but to love Him in return. In the dawning splendor of His glory, we have no alternative but hope.” (163)

I have read that Barth was considered by some to be soft on the theme of universal salvation, i.e. that while his theological grounding was in the Reformed tradition, he personally held to the belief that ultimately God’s salvation would be known by all people, rather than a particular group chosen by God, as affirmed by the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort. When he writes of the church, from Romans 9-11, Barth seemed to lean towards universal salvation, although without explicitly saying so.

Barth discusses Christian ethics from Romans 12 and in that discussion something jumped out at me that has profound pastoral implications. In a section on the theme of grace he writes, “Grace means also the possibility, not of a ‘good’(!) conscience, but of a consoled conscience.” (428) We who know God through our faith in the finished work of Christ know that we will continue to sin against God, a God who continues to hold us and forgives us nonetheless. God forgives our sins. He removes them from our presence. But the sure grasp of this knowledge in our minds, the removal of our sin from God, does not remove the memories that we have of our sin. In Christ we are not changed existentially from ‘bad’ to ‘good.’ In the knowledge of who we are before God we are not so much ‘bad’ as ‘broken.’ And Barth reminds us that in our brokenness, through the work of Christ, we are consoled and comforted as we receive God’s mercy. This is a bit of the Good News that we need to be reminded of each day, sometimes many times each day.

Barth has written a commentary of profound depth and in my first reading of it I just managed to get my feet wet in it. Should I at some time teach or preach from Romans this would be a good reference to consult in addition to other commentaries, rather than using it as a primary resource. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a very rich text and I think Barth has given me a good resource from which to approach the letter in smaller parts, as I continue to study it for my own spiritual growth. ( )
  BradKautz | Sep 17, 2012 |
Punchy. Often difficult to put it down, or to know where to stop. Not a typical commentary by any means. Many interesting fresh insights. Theology of the highest calibre. ( )
  trevor_f | Sep 19, 2008 |
Unscriptural, unsound doctrine, and self contradictory. People have been wowed by the name of Barth, but his "commentary" is no commentary at all, but personal philosophy/ world view. The emperor has no clothes. ( )
  temsmail | Feb 21, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Karl Barthprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hoskyns, E. C.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
"L'Epistola ai Romani" più che un acuto commento all'omonima epistola di san Paolo è un'originale analisi e riflessione sul pensiero paolino, che porta a una nuova formulazione della filosofia cristiana. Fondato su una profonda conoscenza della teologia cristiana, su un costante atteggiamento di responsabilità nei confronti della 'polis', e sulla rielaborazione di correnti di pensiero quali il platonismo, lo gnosticismo e il calvinismo, "L'Epistola ai Romani" lanciava una sfida radicale al razionalismo biblico e al positivismo ottocentesco. La coscienza moderna, ridestata dall'esistenzialismo di Kierkegaard e Jaspers a una visione più drammatica della situazione umana, trova in queste pagine una nuova interpretazione della religione.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195002946, Paperback)

This volume provides a much-needed English translation of the sixth edition of what is considered the fundamental text for fully understanding Barthianism. Barth--who remains a powerful influence on European and American theology--argues that the modern Christian preacher and theologian face the same basic problems that confronted Paul. Assessing the whole Protestant argument in relation to modern attitudes and problems, he focuses on topics such as Biblical exegesis; the interrelationship between theology, the Church, and religious experience; the relevance of the truth of the Bible to culture; and what preachers should preach.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:49 -0400)

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