This is the first book by Karl Barth that I’ve actually read, so I’m reviewing Dogmatics in Outline avowedly as a novice in Barth’s theological world. This probably comes as good news to many review readers, since most people are in my shoes and haven’t had a chance or a desire to navigate much of Barth’s oceanic work. My review in certain ways then may turn out to be more helpful than a seasoned Barthian, at least in terms of understanding, bewilderment, and delight. I want to hit four points—the book’s density, context, poignancy, and importance.
This short book is deceptively dense. Although Barth rarely employs large, unfamiliar words here (aside from a few Latin phrases peppered throughout), much of his writing is dense and complex, both in reference and syntax. He references, oftentimes implicitly, a whole constellation of theologians, world events, and his own major theological motifs. Examples include: Schleiermacher, National Socialism, the simultaneous divine Yes and No. I found myself having to reread sections to pick up on what he was getting at. Sometimes I felt as if Barth wasn’t looking me in the eyes as he spoke—that he was looking past me and passionately commenting on what he saw, and that I, being unable to turn around and see it, could only grasp at what was there.
This book is also shaped by the pressures and exigencies of its time. Sitz im Leben means “setting in life” and refers to something’s original context. This book requires a basic understanding of its Sitz im Leben, its original context. Barth says as much in the foreword, that “it smacks of a document of our time”. The lectures were given amidst the ruins of the University of Bonn soon after World War 2 and you can almost feel this setting as you read (the first paragraph of the foreword is a short but palpable description). This setting is appropriate—Barth lecturing among the ruins of the past. Barth’s whole theological enterprise was a reaction to, and at times a repudiation of, events surrounding him—the failure of liberal Protestant theology, German idealism, natural theology, the World Wars. John Webster says that Barth’s work was “always occasional and often polemical—directed to particular turns in the life and thinking of the church, concerned with clarifying the gospel now.” So here again there is the possibility of getting lost without a guide—because his “now” is not our now. If you haven’t read anything on Barth, you probably want to before jumping into the deep end. Roger Olson’s chapter on Neo-orthodoxy in The Story of Christian Theology and Hans Küng’s chapter on Barth in Great Christian Thinkers helped me find my bearings. I also plan to read John Webster’s book Barth soon for a more comprehensive overview of this theological titan.
Despite the first two potential hindrances, this is a beautiful and moving book. Barth speaks with passion and poetry and at the same time with disarming familiarity. He alternates between rigorous professor and reassuring grandfather. Some examples:
Once we have realized this—this one God, this subject in His sheer uniqueness and otherness over against all others, different from all the ridiculous deities whom man invents—we can only laugh, and there is a laugh running through the Bible at these figures. (p. 40)
We do not exist in any kind of gloomy uncertainty; we exist through the God who was gracious to us before we existed at all. (p. 71)
God has come into our life in its utter unloveliness and frightfulness. (p. 109)
We must not sit among non-Christians like melancholy owls, but in a certainty about our goal, which surpasses all other certainty. (p. 132)
The Church is not a snail that carries its little house on its back and is so well off in it, that only now and then it sticks out its feelers, and then thinks that the ‘claim of publicity’ has been satisfied. The Church lives by its commission as herald. (p. 147)
Certainly these quotes aren’t the substance of the book, but reading these may give you a sense of what kind of feeling permeates the whole.
The last point I want to bring up about this book is its importance to anyone wanting to get some firsthand exposure to Barth. Many people have said that Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century, so it seems smart to me to at least get acquainted with him. However, most of his works are too long, too abstract, or too specific to get a handle on. Dogmatics in Outline comes as a welcomed change. It’s a loose commentary on the Apostles’ Creed which actually functions as a springboard into his larger body of work.
On the one hand, Barth warns against substituting Dogmatics in Outline for the massive thirteen volumes of Church Dogmatics:
Everything in this Outline is treated very concisely. Many important problems of dogmatics are mentioned only briefly or not at all. Therefore, reading this book cannot take the place of studying the Dogmatik. At best it can inspire and initiate that study.
And yet on the other hand he realizes the entrance it provides into his other works:
When I finally yielded to the pressure put upon me by the representatives of the Verlag Zollikon, I did so thinking that what I had produced might in this looser form serve to explain things which I had elsewhere expressed more strictly and compactly but, for that very reason perhaps, less noticeably and less accessibly for all.
It’s interesting to note that these two comments on his work, although appearing only two pages apart in the book, were actually given by Barth twelve years apart. The first one I quoted (which appears first in the book) is from March 1959. The second one I quoted is from February 1947, only half a year after the lectures were given. Take that how you will. Maybe Barth changed his mind. Still, I’m glad this remains an option today.
Below I’ve included links to two other great reviews of Dogmatics in Outline.