The very name, Karl Barth, evokes through its stern, Germanic aspect the threat of theology—terminologically heavy, long, and inscrutable writings suited to the refined tastes of a specialized few. Seminary students hear awe-filled tales about his Church Dogmatics—over 9000 pages (and incomplete!) of theologically long sentences. Karl Barth’s writings thus seem better suited to PhD work than pleasure reading. Naturally, as a student of theology, I had heard a great deal about Karl Barth over the years; but I hadn’t ever read any of his works. Recently I listened to a lecture on his life and work, and the lecturer (Earl Palmer) praised Dogmatics in Outline as an important, readable, and powerful book of Christian theology. I reasoned that it was high time I dipped into Barth myself, purchased a copy, and worked my way through one (short) chapter at a time. I am immensely glad, having now read Dogmatics in Outline, that Palmer was right, and the perceived opinion of Barth wrong.
Dogmatics in Outline is a short theological reflection on the Apostles’ Creed. It is a phrase by phrase reading of that creed, interpreting it as the central statement of Christian belief for all time. The book was written during a troubling theological climate, when theology itself had, through its historically accrued methodology, lost its dogmatic focus. In particular, the central role of Christ was being questioned by many theologians. Barth confronts this movement with a timeless message of the absolute centrality of Christ, and he begins by eschewing traditional systematic theology, finding its terms and categorizations at times inimical to the message of Christ presented in the creed. Barth writes:
We must always be putting the question, ‘What is the evidence?’ Not the evidence of my thoughts, or my heart, but the evidence of the apostles and prophets, as the evidence of God’s self-evidence. Should a dogmatics lose light of this standard, it would be an irrelevant dogmatics. (13)
Theology, in other words, that is based on man’s invention is worthless; and by this he means any theology that loses sight of the living source of faith, Jesus Christ. Thus, throughout the book, Barth continually points to Christ as the central, essential, sine qua non of Christian faith. He observes, for example, that “when we say, I believe in god, the concrete meaning is that I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” (17). There is no true knowledge of God, states Barth, which is independent or separable from the knowledge of Christ.
I found three quarters of Barth’s book to be among the most rewarding theological reading I have ever done. His Christocentric, Trinitarian, theologically aware reading of the creed is fabulous. In fact, I have underlined such a significant portion of the book, a few brief examples must suffice. One insightful comment is when Barth remarks on the ‘oneness’ of God:
Do you understand what monotheism in Christian faith means? God knows, not the foolish delight in the number ‘one’. It has nothing to do with the number ‘one’, but with this subject in His sheer uniqueness and otherness over against all others, different from all the ridiculous deities whom man invents. (40)
We must not take, Barth argues, from the language of ‘theology’ a meaning for God’s monotheism which is opposed to its genuine purpose—to declare God’s otherworldly superiority against all that man can do and invent. Another insightful comment from Barth’s chapter on the Church:
The truly ecumenical Christians are not those who trivialise the differences and flutter over them; they are those who in their respective Churches are quite concretely the Church. (143)
In other words, ecumenism is not achieved by glossing over the differences between churches, but by focusing our work on living and being the Church. The book, in this way, is anecdotally packed.
By praising three quarters of the book I have implied that one quarter was lacking, and this is true. Some of the later chapters lacked the freshness and energy of the first. And given the history of Protestant theology, it is not surprising that a Protestant theologian would be weak on topics like the Resurrection and the Holy Spirit. I might argue that Barth’s theology rushes to the cross and then stays there just a little too long—it thus, in the plan of the creed, obscures his doctrine of the Spirit. To be fair, it is not that Barth has said bad or incorrect words in these closing chapters, but that perhaps he has not said enough. Perhaps they only look weak because the earlier chapters were so invigorated.
Dogmatics in Outline is not a perfect book—there are places where I disagreed with Barth or felt he didn’t go far enough—but its merits far outweigh its faults. I found it to be one of the most enriching books I have read in some time, and I know even now that will read it many times more. Furthermore, I will gladly recommend it to others. So do as I did: pick up a copy and read a chapter a day. You won’t regret it.