So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

Every now and then I am asked for advice about studying Karl Barth. So, I thought that I would share some of my standard advice here. But, before I do that, let me just say that I am by no means a Barth expert as compared to the people whose books I will mention below. I would be thrilled to find myself in their league one day, but as of yet that remains a distant dream. Still, I have been reading Barth for long enough, and under the supervision of a number of the scholars that I will mention below, that I think I can provide a decent orientation.

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.
  1. 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.
  2. (2022 update) Karl Barth: Spiritual Writings - Ash Cocksworth and I have put together an edited volume under this title in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. It wasn't our goal at the time, but I believe that we (inadvertently) managed to put together the best introduction to Barth's theology available for folks who are studying theology to go into the ministry. This volume gives you Barth's theology where the theological rubber meets the road of the Christian community's shared life in the world.
  3. Dogmatics in Outline - Written earlier in Barth’s career, this volume is commentary on the Creed.
I am ready to read Barth’s Church Dogmatics! What strategy should I use for tackling this 13-volume monster?

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.
  1. (2022 update) Begin by reading Christine Tietz's succinct and compelling overview of the whole Church Dogmatics in chapter 13 of her Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict.
  2. Dive 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
I’ve been reading in the Church Dogmatics, and I want to get deeper into the conversation about Barth. Could you tell me about some of the important secondary literature?

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.
I hope that this has been helpful. It is my personal conviction that if you read all this material, you will be well on your way. If this is not enough, or if you want to pick my brain on any particulars with reference to Barth, feel free to e-mail. I’ll do my best to answer on the basis of my own very limited knowledge.

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.



Ben Myers said…
An excellent list, Travis. I just can't resist adding a few additional suggestions:

For general introductions, I'd also include Eberhard Busch's The Great Passion alongside Webster; it's not as crisp and elegant as Webster, but it's more comprehensive, with lots of profound insights. And for creative readings of Barth, I'd definitely include Robert Jenson's Alpha and Omega alongside Jüngel.

And of course, for primary-source introductions, the Göttingen Dogmatics is a superb and extremely accessible text.

But I reckon if I were to recommend just one introductory book, it would have to be Eberhard Busch's biography: it gives a broad picture of the whole scope of Barth's career, a picture of the multiple political and academic contexts that shaped Barth's work, and plenty of insight into Barth's own colourful personality.

(NB -- On another note, I've just finished Matthias Gockel's new book on Barth and Schleiermacher: a very fine book.)
Those are all great suggestions, Ben. I was trying to get as compact a list of secondary material as I could, but also one that would easily lead the reader out into the broader field.

I seriously considered including Busch's biography. It is once of my favorite Barth studies books, and it is a wealth of information and perspective. But, it doesn't lead outside of itself as ready as the others do (I think). If you want to get to know Barth as a person and in his developmental self-understanding, it is a must read. But if you are trying to get a hard and fast sense of what Barth's theology is on about, I think some of these other volumes are more efficient.

Of course, you are far more qualified than I. :-)
Also, Gockel's book is quite good. Gotta love that PTS education!
Anonymous said…
I'd also add the collection of essays written in honor of the Centenerary of Barth's birth, How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim (Eerdmans, 1986). I add this because it gives an excellent overview of the way Barth impacted a large range of theologians from very different perspectives--from process theologians like John Cobb to biblical theologians like Paul Minear to existentialists like Langdon Gilkey to evangelicals like Clark Pinnock. (Sadly, many of these worthies have since passed on.)

I had read Dogmatics in Outline and Evangelical Theology and Romans and was starting to get interested in tackling CD when this book appeared. This volume made me realize just how important that Barth's theology was--a modern Church Father, not just one theologian among others.
Anonymous said…
I've been taking the chronological approach to the CD -- but I've been supplementing that reading with some of Barth's shorter works and some secondary lit.

However, partly because I'm just reading Barth out of personal interest (and not as a requirement for any courses or as a part of a reading group), it is taking quite a bit of time (i.e. I've been reading the CD for about a year and I'm only on II.1!).
The time factor is the drawback to the chronological approach, but I'm glad that you have stuck with it as far as you have! I/2 is a monster and I imagine it took forever to get through (I still haven't attempted it!).
Anonymous said…
Can anyone comment on the quality of Thomson's English translation of Barth's "Church Dogmatics"? From comments made by Barth in his "Table Talk", I've gotten the impression that Thomson's translation ranges from fair to poor. Given the great interest worldwide in Barth studies, I don't know why C.D. hasn't been given a fresh English translation. The price for the 14 volume set is prohibitive, even more so if the translation is poor.
The Thompson text of CD I/1 is inferior. However, Torrance / Bromily have provided a newer version. While the translation quality of the whole CD is sometimes questioned by specialists with high-level German language ability, it is generally trustworthy.
Dan said…
I started reading CD almost a year ago and am just now finishing I/1. It's not just a matter of digesting the material, it's a matter of setting aside the time to do the reading.

I'm taking the chronological strategy. I came to Barth via Robert Jenson. I've had Evangeical Theology: An Intorduction and Dogmatics In Outline but perhaps surprisingly found both inaccesable until I had read much of Jenson. Then I launched into CD and now have found ET and DIO quite stimulating writting.
Thanks for stopping by, Dan. I'm glad to hear that you are making your way with Barth. I haven't read much Jenson, but I hope to pick up and get through his systematics sometime in the next year.
Unknown said…
Herbert Hartwell's dated, but well written introduction to Barth's CD, is a good read and I found it helpful. In addition, I've also found Timothy Gorringe's contextual reading of the CD very helpful. He looks at the context in which Barth worked. Both Otto Weber's dated summary of the CD is good as is Bromiley's intro which is very pedantic and stilted, but both provide a narrative summary of sections of the CD.
jekemi2005 said…
I am fairly new to Barth. I find his views facinating. However, how can man be Fallen if there were no historical Fall of Man? How did man become a Fallen creature? To what extent does Barth view man as Fallen or the object of Original Sin?
Hi Jekemi,

Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad to hear that you are trying to get to know Barth. You ask some really good and really hard questions, questions that I am not prepared to answer. (If any other readers know how to answer this, please feel free to do so.)
Phil Gons said…
You'll want to check out Barth's Church Dogmatics from Logos Bible Software. It's the new edition not even in print yet, and it's currently available at a discounted price for another week or two.
Unknown said…
Great summary. The Logos edition from T & T Clark also has a volume 14 which is a 'General Index" for pastors and teachers. It gives summaries of all previous volumes and is an amazing tool for working through CD.

Has anyone else worked through this?

I am starting a One Year with Karl Barth on my Blog. It will start in January and will be a "Mondays with Barth" so any prep. work I can do now and suggestions would be great.

Thanks for this post and links!
Ched said…
Thanks for this succinct summary.

Against my better judgment, I've chosen CD as my first post-doctoral mountain to climb. I'm going to attempt to read them canonically, hoping to persevere till the end.

Your secondary literature recommendations are helpful.
grammata said…
I thought it might be fun to add that one of my professors, Bernard Ramm, studied under Barth in Germany. He possessed the 62 lectures on LP (vinyl records) and lent them to me. I in turn transferred them to cassette tapes and listened to them over and over. Thanks for the post, Travis.
Yome said…
Did you know where to find Barth's engagement with Berkouwer's critical exposition of his thought?
CD 4.2 and 4.3.1; let the index be your guide! :-)

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