I have never read Karl Barth before. Which of his books should I read first?
Barth’s most famous work is the monumental 13-volume Church Dogmatics. Reading the CD with understanding is not an easy thing, so you definitely do NOT want to start here. Luckily, there are two smaller works by Barth that serve as helpful introductions to his work.
- Evangelical Theology: An Introduction - Based on the lectures that Barth delivered during his 1962 visit to the United States, this volume represents the mature Barth at his most irenic. It is perhaps my favorite of Barth’s works, and I have read it a number of times.
- Dogmatics in Outline - Written earlier in Barth’s career, this volume is commentary on the Creed.
Perhaps the best way to read the Church Dogmatics is chronologically. Start with I/1 and work your way through to the end. But, this is not how I did it, and I don’t think that it is the best way to do it unless you know that you will read through the whole thing. You don’t want to start, read a couple volumes, and find yourself stranded somewhere in the middle. So, although this is probably the best way to do things, it is not the most efficient. Here is what I recommend.
- Begin your foray into the Church Dogmatics with II/2. It is within this volume that Barth develops his famous (and infamous) reconfiguration of the doctrine of election.
- Next, head on over to volumes IV/1 through IV/3. Church Dogmatics IV is almost a dogmatics unto itself, and this is some good material. Be careful with IV/4, however, as I’m not a big fan and think that it departs in certain ways from many of Barth’s best insights.
- Finally, head back to the other volumes and begin to plug up the gaps. Maybe you will head over to III for the doctrine of creation, to II/1 for a discussion of God’s attributes, or to I/1 for the doctrine of the Trinity. By this point you will know enough of Barth to make your own decisions about these things!
Sure! Here is a brief run-down on a few of the most important books. They are all must-reads. For more information on Barth studies secondary literature, watch the book reviews on the Center for Barth Studies website.
- George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology - This is the one book that you want to read before jumping into the Church Dogmatics. It will teach you all the important landmarks and pathways.
- Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology - This is currently the standard account of Barth’s development, and it won its author the Karl Barth Prize.
- John Webster, Barth - A very good introduction to Barth’s work as a whole, with a nice opening chapter that provides an overview of his life. Webster has written many excellent books on Barth, this is simply the best place to start with him. But, I highly recommend all his other books as well.
- George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth - The essays in this volume are good introductions to various aspects and topics in Barth and Christian theology in general.
- John Webster (Ed), Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth - A collection of essays on Barth by many leading Barth interpreters.
- Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth - Jüngel is the most important German Barth scholar, and this is perhaps his best-known work. It is a very difficult volume, but it rewards the careful reader.
- T. F. Torrance, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian - An overview of Barth’s theology by Barth’s theology by the most important first generation English interpreter of Barth.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation - This is one of the first important pieces written about Barth. It is still valuable even though McCormack has called Balthasar’s developmental interpretation seriously into question.
- G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth: An Introduction and Critical Appraisal - Another old standard, and one with which Barth actually interacted with some care.
UPDATE: David Guretzki has written and made available on his blog a 'Primer' for those who are looking to read Barth's CD for the first time.
Update 2.0: Darren Sumner has also written a guide on this subject, as well as a very helpful timeline for Barth. Unfortunately, in the former of these two resources Darren disagrees with me about the value of starting with Barth's Evangelical Theology. I responded to him on that point in my reflections on teaching Barth to undergraduates.