Essay / Theology

Why Karl Barth is Hard to Read

I would gladly argue that Karl Barth’s writing is worth the hard labor it takes to get into, but it just needs to be said right up front that he makes some serious demands on his readers. Back in college, I was halfway through my third book by this author before things started to make real sense to me. I persevered because enough trustworthy people had recommended him, and because the things I could understand were so rich and stimulating that I knew I wanted to be able to assess this thinker better.

And even though there are some very good short essays and books by Barth to read, everybody who knows anything about the subject knows that you have to get into the great big Church Dogmatics, that White Whale of 20th century theology, sprawling like a cathedral, ranging like a novel, rambling like a Mahler multi-symphony. Barth’s best stuff is epxressed over the course of a hundred pages minimum; the man seemed to think in gigantic 50-page sweeps of thought.

One of the best explanations I’ve ever read of the sheer difficulty of reading Barth is from John Webster’s introductory book in the Outstanding Christian Thinkers series, entitled Karl Barth (Continuum, 2000). Here it is:

Why is the Church Dogmatics so long, even in its unfinished state? Partly it is because so much is happening in the Church Dogmatics –not only lengthy discussions of doctrinal themes, but also biblical exegesis, historical theology, ethics, occasional polemic and a certain amount of spiritual exhortation. Partly it is because –as Hans Frei has pointed out– Barth was reinstating a theological language which had fallen into disrepair, and doing so by using the language in a lengthy and leisurely fashion. But more than anything else, Barth’s particular method of exposition made for the expansiveness of the Church Dogmatics. His way of arguing was not so much linear or sequential as cumulative. He built up his set of variations on a few basic themes. The ‘argument’ (if such it be) proceeds less by pursuing a sequence of logical stages and more by repetition and elaboration or layering, reiterating a train of thought or transposing it into another key and making the fullest possible use of recapitulation and rephrasing. The force of the ‘argument’ gradually accumulates, swelling towards a conlcusion rather than reaching it by taking measured steps.

The bulk of the Church Dogmatics is thus a function of its rhetorical design. As a consequence, the work has to be read at considerable length in order to acquire a sense of the argument as a whole, especially since Barth was acutely conscious of the many strands which connected all the different doctrines together. For all its variety of subject matter and genre, the Church Dogmatics is one cohesive argument, and no single stage within the argument is definitive for the whole (a warning to readers who extract one piece of the argument as if it could stand in isolation from the rest, and then proceed to criticize it for failing to say what can in fact be found elsewhere in the work as a whole). In the end, then, there is no substitute for the exhausting business of studying the argument in its (unfinished) entirety. Only in ths way can we properly catch the rhythm of Barth’s thinking and come to see how his peculiar rhetoric is intrinsic to what he has to say. It is crucial, therefore, that we take very seriously ‘the inner connection of Barth’s langauge with his ‘subject matter.’

…For some readers, such instruction, undertaken so single-mindedly and with such rhetorical energy, makes Barth impossible, even oppressive, to read. To some, his writing appears to be an attempt to create a world of theological reality by sheer power of language, convincing by overwhelming rather than demonstrating. To others, it seems an act of wilful defiance of modernity –doiing at inordinate length what the Enlightenment had disallowed: talking of God with fluency and delight. To others, again, the cumulative power of Barth’s writing can seem an exercise in unbridled –male– forcefulness, its repetitious and boundless energy wearing down the reader into submission. At the very least, Barth rarely seems to invite the kind of considered, critical reading which the canons of rational discourse prescribe.

Readers must decide for themselves about these matters.

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