Tag Archives: Bultmann

Oh, Barth!

berlin-wall-8I began reading Church Dogmatics II/2 from the beginning the other day with the hope that I can read a few pages a day. I have not read Barth’s doctrine of election since my honours year in 2001 and am looking forward to a systematic engagement with the grand master once again. Of course I read the preface because it is amazing what one finds in some of Barth’s prefaces. Take this, for instance:

A good deal has already been said about the size both of the work as a whole and also of each if its constituent parts. It may be conceded that the Bible itself can put things more concisely. But if dogmatics is to serve its purpose, then I cannot see how either I myself, or any contemporaries known to me, can properly estimate the more concise statements of the Bible except in penetrating expositions which will necessarily demand both time and space. In the last analysis I ask of my readers no greater patience than that already demanded of myself. For our mutual consolation I offer a historical reminiscence. When Schleiermacher was struggling to finish the first draft of his Christian Faith, on September 7, 1822 he wrote to his friend Twesten: “Every time I see this book, I sigh at its bulk.” I know that my own Dogmatics is already a good deal bulkier than Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith. Yet Twesten’s reply on March 9, 1823 might equally well be applied to my own book: “You complain about the size of your book, but do not worry; for most of us the size is indispensable to understanding, and the few who would perhaps have understood you from a lesser work will certainly accept with gratitude all the elucidations you want to give.” Yes, for a right understanding and exposition there is need of a thorough elucidation. May it not be that I have been too short and not too long at some important points? (ix, emphasis added).

Yes, Karl, far too short – not!

Yet actually, it is the depth and penetration of Barth’s analysis that makes reading him so rewarding. If each theological topic is like a brick in the wall, Barth not only describes its length, breadth, texture, colour and placement, he draws the brick itself from the wall for further examination—and—it is two miles deep as well!

In a recent article at First Things that serves as a fine introduction to Barth’s life work, Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and perhaps dean of Baptist scholarship as well, records an interesting anecdote about Barth’s theology:

When Harvey Cox was a student minister in Berlin in 1962, one year after the erection of the Wall, he was able to travel back and forth between East and West because he held an American passport. He thus became a courier for pastors and Christian laypeople on both sides of that divide and was sometimes able to smuggle theological books into the East. What the people wanted most were copies of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. “To carry in something by Bultmann would have been a wasted risk,” Cox said. “Let the bourgeois preachers in West Germany agonize about the disappearance of the three-decker universe and existentialism. We had weightier matters to confront.”

Gunkel, Bultmann & Barth Walk into a Bar…

Gunkel as a young "dude"
Gunkel as a young “dude”

One of our students, Mark Beadle, posted this on the Vose Students’ Facebook page. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Gunkel, Bultmann and Barth walk into a bar.
Barth orders a club sandwich.
Gunkel says: “I can tell by the form of this narrative that this is a joke. By definition then nothing here is real.
Barth replies: “This club sandwich is the best I have eaten.”
Gunkel says: “Of course. It is an idealised club sandwich for the purpose of the joke. What would you expect?”
Bultmann adds: “Who would want it to be real? A joke doesn’t need to be real to convey humour. The point is that it is not intended to be real so why try to make it so? The fact is that in the normal course of events you wouldn’t see three famous theologians like us going into a bar together. The narrative is obviously the creation of an imaginative mind.”
Bultmann then orders a glass of wine.

BarthBultmannThe next night Gunkel, Bultmann and Barth walk into a bar.
Bultmann buys a bottle of wine and pours himself a glass.
Barth orders the chicken schnitzel and salad. He receives a large serve and when he has had enough he orders a doggy bag for the rest.
Barth says: “Is this real enough for you? This is now the second time we have been here.”
Gunkel replies: “It is only the second redaction of the same story. We can tell by the form of the narrative that this is the same joke retold.”
Barth responds: “But we have done totally different things this time.”
Gunkel answers: “Not totally different. The same elements are present, the same people eat, drink and abstain. It is the same story. I can tell it is a later redaction because everything is exaggerated.”
Bultmann chips in: “The trouble is, Barth, that as a neo-evangelical you expect to find reality everywhere. I, on the other hand, am happy to enjoy the savour of the wine without it being real.”

By the last day of the Berlin Theological Conference of 1929 Barth observed that he had put on a few pounds (that is not uncommon at this type of gathering), Bultmann had a hangover (but could not understand why) and Gunkel was looking poorly and thin.