Quick Book Review: The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth

westbarthTitle: The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth

Editor: Richard Burnett

Bibliographic info: 272 pg.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

With thanks to WJK for the review copy!

Buy the book at Amazon.

What can be said about Karl Barth? He wrote a veritable mountain of stuff which impacted the church greatly, and still does even to this day. Needless to say, as with many theologians, the volume of his writings can be intimidating for someone to delve into, and even if one does decide to read Barth, what he says can easily be misunderstood. Yet anyone who attempts to really understand the Reformed tradition must grapple with his work at some point.

This handbook is designed to be an accessible volume for anyone with an interest in Barth’s theology and who wants to understand his opinion on specific issues. The book provides a thematic presentation of Barth’s thought on many issues, ranging from “actualism” to “worship”.

I am by no means one who is very knowledgeable on Karl Barth’s theology. I’ve read a few books on his theology, a couple books by him, as well as a smattering of his Church Dogmatics. The articles in this book that I read seemed to be spot on with what I have learned about Barth’s theology. For instance, in the entry on “Universalism” by Francis Watson, Barth’s doctrine of election and reconciliation is discussed (as it should be when discussing the possibility of universalism in Barth). Nevertheless, despite noting that Barth’s Christocentric monism, objectivist doctrine of election, and his optimism when it comes to reconciliation, have led some to conclude that Barth was a universalist or that his theology inexorably leads to universalism, Watson himself notes that such a conclusion is erroneous and one that “Barth strongly denied throughout his life, desiring rather to affirm God’s freedom in the matter and refusing to speculate on the eternal destiny of humanity”. Watson does go on to note, however, that “[Barth] did affirm the all inclusive reconciliation of all things to God in Jesus Christ as something to be hoped for and prayed for in light of who we know and experience God to be in Jesus Christ”.

Unfortunately, as with the past two books from Westminster John Knox that I have reviewed, the Kindle edition of this book is not that good. There are too many formatting errors. For instance, in the introduction the footnotes and page numbers (in the format “Introduction xi”) appear throughout the pages as if it were part of the body-text. Another downside to the Kindle edition of this book is that to find a specific entry you have to use the search function on your Kindle. This isn’t the most efficient search function at times. When I was trying to find the entry on universalism, for example, doing a search query for that term gave thirty-five pages of results (the search query returned results for other words like “university”).

All in all, this book will benefit the reader who wants a succinct primer on Barth’s thought on major theological terms and issues. But if you decide to buy it, buy the print edition and not the Kindle edition.

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