REVIEW: Karl Barth in Plain English by Stephen D. Morrison

Stephen D. Morrison is a friend of mine, and we've had correspondence for years, especially through the Karl Barth Discussion Group (KBDG). So I was encouraged to see KBDG mentioned in the acknowledgements of his new book, Karl Barth In Plain English.  Stephen is a lay theologian, like myself, and one of the few, the proud, and the brave to soldier through reading the entire Church Dogmatics (cover-to-cover). I was excited to read Karl Barth In Plain English, to see what another amateur theologian in a similar American Evangelical context as myself, would say about Barth, and to compare his conclusions with my own. If you're looking for a short and easy introduction to Karl Barth that explains his key ideas in plain language, this may be the right book for you!

Overview

S.D. Morrison, author of "Karl Barth In Plain English" [1]

Stephen explains his purpose for writing in the Introduction to Karl Barth In Plain English by comparing the Church Dogmatics to the labyrinth of Greek mythology, where he is our guide (Daedalus), to navigate us (Theseus) through the maze, to help us comprehend Karl Barth (the Minotaur!)

"Reading Karl Barth for the first time can make you feel like this, like you are stepping into a vast confusing labyrinth. . . . This book is my attempt, amateur to amateur, to be your guide through the labyrinth of Barth's theology. Because amateur or not, no one is disqualified in the Church of Jesus Christ from the pursuit of theology. Barth himself reminds us In the Church there are really no non-theologians." [2]

Karl Barth In Plain English isn't a comprehensive introduction to Karl Barth like David Guretzky's Explorer's Guide to Karl Barth. Stephen's book is an outline of eight key ideas he learned from Karl Barth, and discusses each of these guideposts in respective chapters of the book. Each chapter ends with a remark that Stephen calls a "sidebar", answering common questions regarding that guidepost. The best sidebars were the one on biblical inerrancy in his chapter on scripture, and the sidebar on universalism in his chapter on election, and also the one on modes of being in his chapter on the trinity. Another helpful feature is that each chapter contains a relevant quotation from one of Barth's sermons—who says you cannot preach Barth's theology! For a good example, read the sermon quote "Have you heard the news?" in the chapter on Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation.  And the last feature I appreciated was Stephen's many quotations from Barth's other printed books (besides the Church Dogmatics) and the quotations from secondary works on Barth by G. C. Berkouwer, R. Jenson, G. Hunsinger, B. McCormack, T. F. Torrance, E. Jüngel and many others. 

Stephen summarizes the chapters of his book as follows:

"Here are the eight major ideas I've chosen from Barth's theology:

  • First: Barth's rejection of natural theology. 
  • Second: the doctrine of God's Self-revelation: the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Third: the "threefold" Word of God in Revelation, Scripture, and Church proclamation
  • Fourth: Barth's rejection of a hidden God behind the back of Jesus Christ.
  • Fifth: the doctrine of election.
  • Sixth: the doctrine of creation and the covenant.
  • Seventh: the doctrine of reconciliation.
  • Eighth: Barth's special theological emphasis on the Church and on ethics." [3]

Excerpt 

The chapters of Karl Barth In Plain English may be rated on a bell curve graph, with the best chapters occupying the center of the book. The best chapter is chapter five, "The God of Election." I also really liked chapter two on the trinity, and chapter three on scripture.  Here are two excerpts from Stephen D. Morrison's book to give you a taste of it.

On The Doctrine of Election:

"While Barth takes issue with Calvin's doctrine of double predestination for creating a speculative God of a twofold decree, he does not completely reject the notion of double-predestination. Instead, for Barth double-predestination is the election and rejection of Jesus Christ, it is God's self-double-predestination. It is not the election of some human beings and the rejection of other human beings, it is both the election and rejection of the one man Jesus Christ.

For God to say Yes to humanity He must at once say Yes and No to Himself. God takes up our cause as His own in Jesus Christ, bearing the weight of our sin in His suffering and death on the cross. He bears our condition as sinners, taking our place, living and dying for us. In this way Barth affirms double-predestination. Just as Jesus Christ is the one true elected human being, so Jesus is the one and only true rejected human being. God says No to the sinful creature in Jesus Christ, putting to death the old nature in Him, and this is for the sake of saying Yes to the creature. By taking the effects of sin upon Himself, Jesus Christ acts as the one reprobate, the only rejected human being, for the sake of the election of all in Him." [4]

On the Trinity:

"God reveals God through God. We know God only through God and in God. Human beings cannot know God apart from God's self-revelation: Jesus Christ. God alone knows Himself and only by grace through faith may we participate in God's knowledge of Himself. The subject of revelation is therefore identical with the event of revelation and the effect of revelation. God reveals Himself as the Divine "I" in threefold repetition: Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness (i.e., the effect of revelation). We could also say Subject, Object, and Predicate; or finally, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." [5]

Criticism

Overall, Karl Barth In Plain English is a success, but what is a book review without criticism? A few minor things in the book, I didn't like. I'm rating the chapters on a bell curve, which means the book may have started stronger and ended stronger. A reordering of the chapters might have helped the book (e.g. starting with election). The first chapter on Barth's rejection of Natural Revelation does a sufficient job of explaining its point, but it relies on Barth's earliest works, such as his Epistle to the Romans, and The Word of God and the Word of Man, that were published before Barth started the Church Dogmatics instead of relying on Barth's most maturest discussion of it in the Doctrine of God (CD II/1); Stephen does cite CD II/1, but it could use a revision to say more in less words. I expected a reference to Barth's famous opening of the Church Dogmatics where he rejected Natural Revelation by saying "I regard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist." (CD I/1) and a discussion of the Natural Revelation prooftexts, namely Romans 1:20, Psalm 19 & 104, or the last chapters of Job. I consider these minor errors of omission.

The problem is that the Doctrine of Reconciliation (CD IV) is discussed as a separate chapter at the end of the book, instead of being interwoven with the previous chapters. Stephen admits that CD IV is a "mini-dogmatics" [6], but describes it as a different entity, rather than explain how Barth is saying more about topics previously discussed in previous volumes (i.e. CD I-III). For instance, Stephen mentions the "secular parables", but this should have been integrated with his first chapter on Natural Revelation. The concluding chapter on ethics is the same problem, where ethics should be part of each chapter, not a separate unit at the end. Read this revealing remark in the conclusion of the book:

"After reading volume IV I recommend reading volume II on the doctrine of God, which contains the volumes which I think most drastically shape Barth's theology. After you've read these large volumes you'll have a firm grip on Barth's thought and can continue on to volumes I and III in whichever order you'd like. I don't mean to devalue the importance of volumes I and III, but I have personally found the most helpful material from the Dogmatics to be found in volumes IV and II. A scholar might tell you that every volume of the Dogmatics should be read in order, but I am an amateur and can only speak to what I found to be the most helpful as an amateur." [7]

Conclusion

What I really loved about Karl Barth In Plain English is that it is a book on Karl Barth by amateurs for amateurs. It breaks through the elitism of academic theology, and takes serious Karl Barth's words that everyone is a theologian and can write important contributions to theology. Karl Barth once said that amateurs understood him better than professional theologians! I admire that Stephen Morrison self-published this excellent introduction to Barth as well. He was able to leverage the power of social networks and online communities to learn about Karl Barth, and also learn how to publish a book, that is very well written, and useful to other people on a similar path. Karl Barth In Plain English cuts through all the red-tape that prevents so many books from being published today, and inspires me and others to follow the footsteps of Stephen's guiding example. 

I also admire that Stephen was able to read the entire Church Dogmatics, and understand it so well, that he was able to explain it in a way that helps others. I have also read the entire Church Dogmatics, and was encouraged to see that Stephen had come to similar conclusions to what I had concluded in my own personal readings. This not only validated my own reading, but it enabled me to learn more from another amateur theologian. It's like backpacking through Europe, and meeting another traveler, and sharing your common experiences, you may learn to do things you didn't plan to do, and to continue your journey with a new friend. 

In my final conclusion, go buy Karl Barth in Plain English. This book is not a replacement for scholarly introductions to Karl Barth, but it is a great addition to augment your Barth book shelf, or to give to a friend. It's a great book, that's well written, and you'll learn a lot about Karl Barth's theology too. I highly recommend it!

References:

[^1] Photo of Stephen D. Morrison from author's website, <http://www.sdmorrison.org/>
[^2] Morrison, S. D. Karl Barth In Plain English. Columbus, OH: Beloved, 2017. 5. Print.
[^3] Ibid. 8.
[^4] Ibid. 98.
[^5] Ibid. 35.
[^6] Ibid. 184.
[^7] Ibid. 184.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Stephen D. Morrison. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks for the kind review! I’m glad to see you enjoyed the book. And by the way, you seemed to hint towards the idea of publishing your own book someday? You definitely should! I know I’d read it.

    Kind regards,

    Stephen

    • I really like self-publishing, but I’d need to learn much more about it before I jump in. I always admired self-published books that did well, like the Shack. There’s an art to doing it. I’m interested in writing a book, but I will probably go through the normal channels first. I thought about publishing the errors of inerrancy series as an ebook though. We’ll see. Glad you liked the review, I hope the book does great! I hope you camp on Barth a bit longer before completing your long TODO list in the Plain English series. I like your ambition.

  2. Great Stephen! And thanks Wyatt for this. 🙂

  3. Thanks for this fine review. When I heard about Stephen Morrison’s book through the Karl Barth Discussion Group, I wasn’t going to buy it simply because I have too many Introductory books on Barth. Didn’t think I needed another one. But I changed my mind while reading your review. You’ve convinced me that I ought to get Karl Barth In Plain English.


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