Leaves from the Notebook of a Lapsed Barthian

I have a confession to make: I never finished reading CD I/2. (Do I hear a collective gasp of shock emanating from somewhere deep within New Jersey?).

It's not like I didn't have ample chances. I made my first pass at it in 1997 in a seminar on the Dogmatics at the University of Chicago. But Chicago is on the quarter system, and it's physically impossible to read the CD in ten weeks -- unless, that is, one doesn't engage in such other activities as eating, sleeping, laundry, etc. As it was, it was bloody hard enough to keep up with the reading.

Portrait of the author as a young man, attempting to read CD I/2 for the first time.

Eight years later, while I was dissertating, I made another serious go at it; honestly, I truly did. It was the summer of Hurricane Katrina and everyone was on edge. My mother-in-law had lived in New Orleans back in the day, as had my parents and I, when I was a wee lad, back when my dad was in seminary. I recall riding from Amherst, Mass., to New York City in the back seat of my in-laws' Honda Odyssey. Despite imminent van sickness -- the nauseating oscillation between the already and the not-yet in my churning stomach -- I attempted to plow through the seemingly endless discussion of biblical authority toward the end of the volume. I got to within 50 pages or so of the end and I just sputtered out. God, in her infinite providence, led me to skip ahead to II/1 -- Barth's magisterial exploration of the being and perfections of God as the "One who Loves in Freedom". (That's my favorite volume, by the way. I remember reading somewhere that von Balthasar liked to carry a copy of that book on his person most of the time. I don't remember where I read that; perhaps the editorial staff at DET can look up the reference for us.) Still, it always bugged me that I never technically "finished" the treatment of revelation in the CD.

To be sure, I/2 is not the sexiest of Barth's part volumes. Liberals who want to hold their noses skim an overview of Barth's method, so they can promptly dismiss it afterward, often read only I/1. I think that's a mistake: There are much shorter works they could read and be done with Barth much more quickly. People who actually enjoy reading Barth and find him provocative and sometimes even inspiring as I did (do), often turn IV/1, the entree into Barth's magisterial (how many times can I use that word in one post?) doctrine of reconciliation, arguably the capstone of the whole set. Others are obsessed with the ground-breaking interpretation of the the doctrine of God and election in II/2. That volume has occasioned much searching debate -- or perhaps, for some of you, mischief, especially if you happen to be a regular reader of First Things. For my part, with my somewhat Lacugnian tendencies, I'm inclined to think a debate about the imminent Trinity is perhaps unsolvable by the very nature of the case. Other folks, hoping to find something morbid or salacious, turn to Barth's interpretation of evil in III/3, only to turn away in perplexity as, even here, Barth still seems too...well, happy.

By contrast, I/2 seems more plodding to many readers than those other texts. At 905 pages in the English trans., it weighs in as the longest of the part volumes of the CD. The book is so long, in fact, that even the master himself -- who evidently had no phobias about prolixity -- seemed a bit embarrassed by the heft of this "half-volume". Many Barth readers would claim that Barth doesn't really get warmed up until II/1 or until his new insights into election start to emerge in II/2; nonetheless, Barth can pull off some amazing feats even before his second cup of coffee, and I/2, I'm convinced, is worthy of careful attention. John Webster wrote that some of Barth's earliest superb writing in the CD occurs here (Again, DET staff, please look it up for me). I did spend considerable time marveling at par. 15, especially the section on "The Miracle of Christmas." In these pages, we find Barth's controversial defense of the doctrine of the virginal conception and, perhaps, one of the cleverest take-downs of Ritschlian ethicism and Harnackian historicism that's ever been written (whether Barth's critique is completely fair of his liberal forbears here is another matter). Incidentally, a recent monograph explores Barth's discussion of the virgin birth in this volume (see this fine review at the Barth Center).

Even in 2014, evangelicals, liberals and post-liberals still argue tirelessly (sometimes tediously) about the issues of revelation, inspiration, canon and biblical authority. CD I/2 offers Barth's most sustained reflections on these topics. I'm going to make another go at reading it cover-to-cover, mainly because I've already read I/1 through several times. Any of y'all care to join me?



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