"Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936," by Bruce L. McCormack (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 499 pp.; $65, hardcover). Reviewed by Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at Bethel College (Minn.) and editor of "Christian Scholar's Review."

When chroniclers of twentieth-century theology look back one hundred years hence, there is little doubt that one name will overshadow all others as the giant of this century's theologians—Karl Barth. Thinkers of Barth's stature provide a framework within which countless others carry out their own work, and thus a change in the paradigm governing interpretation of a Barth or a Hegel or an Edwards or a Thomas Aquinas has consequences that ultimately extend far beyond the inner circle of scholarly debate.

The reigning paradigm for understanding the development of Barth's theology was most influentially described by Barth's fellow Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his monumental study "The Theology of Karl Barth" (1962; English translation, 1971). According to this reading, there were two major shifts in Barth's theological development, so that one can rightly speak of an "early Barth" (liberal), a "dialectical Barth" (influenced by existentialist thought), and a "mature Barth," who turned away from existentialism and dialectical theology (a method that focuses on finding truth in the tensions between apparently contrasting truths) to "neo-orthodoxy" beginning with his (supposedly) pivotal little book "Anselm: Fides quaerens intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme," published in 1931. In this three-phase view, Barth's 13-volume magnum opus "Church Dogmatics" represents a rejection of dialectical theology (especially as set forth in his first attempt at writing a systematic theology, "Die christliche Dogmatik," 1928) and a turn toward "objectivity" and a doctrine and method of analogy (neo-orthodoxy).

Now, however, Princeton theologian Bruce McCormack queries the consensus account of Barth's theological method in this revision of his Princeton doctoral dissertation. Thanks to the detailed, meticulous, sometimes laborious exposition of Barth's early works contained in McCormack's volume, we have an alternative paradigm to consider.

According to McCormack, once Barth broke decisively with liberal theology (specifically with his mentor Wilhelm Herrmann) in 1915, and especially after the publication of the first edition of his study of Romans in 1918, there were no further major shifts or turning points in his theological development: "Barth's theological development from this point on represented a more-or-less continuous unfolding of a simple theme: God is God. No further major breaks in his thought would take place."

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This "continuous unfolding" of Barth's postliberal theology is described by McCormack as "critically realistic dialectical theology," by which he means a theology that is governed by the assumption that God's self-revelation is both veiled and unveiled at the same time. It comes to us in human-historical form and yet is never "given" into human experience as a possession.

Barth's new paradigm differed from the two major alternatives in Western Protestant theology—liberal and conservative—in significant ways. In contrast to liberal theology, Barth's governing assumption emphasized the genuine unveiling of God's self in divine revelation. Liberal theology tended to see revelation as indirect—coming through historically conditioned cultural movements and experiences. The absoluteness of God's revelation slipped away in the liberal emphasis on historical relativity. According to Barth, God really comes and reveals himself in Jesus Christ and the Word of God that centers on him. God's revelation is God's self-communication.

In contrast to the reigning conservative paradigm, however, Barth's governing assumption dialectically (paradoxically) emphasized the other side of divine revelation—that even in Jesus Christ, God's self is veiled in the historical particularity of a man, and in Scripture the veiling is in the use of human language. Thus, human flesh and propositions can never be God's Word directly, but only vehicles for God's self-communication. God remains radically free even as he gives himself in revelation.

Although McCormack sticks tenaciously to his main thesis of continuity in Barth's postliberal theology, he also admits a certain amount of discontinuity. Indeed, he must concede that Barth broke through to genuinely new insights during the crucial period between his early work on Romans and the first installment of "Church Dogmatics." What McCormack's study shows is that Barth never abandoned dialectical thinking in favor of some nondialectical "analogical" method of theology. It shows that a "red thread" runs through all of Barth's postliberal theology and provides it with continuity. That "red thread" is the neo-Kantian, critically realistic dialectic of the "veiling and unveiling of God's Self-revelation" in the historical-human yet truly divine Word of God. What it fails to demonstrate is that no major shifts took place within this overarching continuity.

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Those who have already engaged in some study of Barth's theology will find McCormack's volume challenging and stimulating. And evangelicals approaching the crux of two centuries and two millennia can learn much from Barth and from critical studies of Barth's theology like McCormack's. Do we have a tendency to fall to one side or the other of the tension that Barth so tenaciously affirmed—the tension between directness and indirectness in God's self-revelation—claiming to know too much or too little of God's will and ways?

Barth has been a source of controversy among evangelicals for much of this century. Perhaps McCormack's demonstration of a basic continuity in Barth's theology—"God is God!" yet really comes to us in self-communication—will help evangelicals appreciate Barth more as an ally in our struggle to discover a balanced account of the God-world relationship.


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