Thoughts on Karl Barth's Romans Commentary

It is a wonderful experience to come to a book so beloved and lauded (and also criticised and dismissed) and to find it an absolutely thrilling, joyful, and thought-changing!

I finished Karl Barth's Romans commentary this week and I say, Yes! definitely worth the hype.

Here are some thoughts on why I loved the book and some things I'm taking from it.

The writing. Barth writes with a bursting energy and a palpable passion with evident joy. It really works here in matching Saint Paul's own exuberance as having being gripped by krisis and grace.

Speaking of grace - tattoo chapters 5 through 8 on my ribcage! Adam and Christ, Sin and Grace, Death and Life - the former only conceivable in relation to the second, yet none of these relationships are that of equals, and the movement from the latter to the former (achieved once-and-for all in Christ) cannot be reversed. Again and again through this electrifying section I wrote in the margins "The Good News" and what good news it is.

Judgment. I've come to be quite fond of talking about judgment - there's just too much devastating brokenness, injustice, and oppression in the world to speak vitally of God without judgment. And I loved the way Barth was unflinching in his assertion that absolutely everything of ours, everything on the time side of the time/eternity dialectic comes under judgment - however good we think our deeds. However Barth writes with remarkable clarity when he insists that God's judgment (and wrath and rejection) always comes with God's forgiveness, mercy, love, and election. So we will be found as we are not, which is now who we are (though not yet). This is also why human judgment is such a fraught exercise, we can only come in the first mode and so our judgment only serves as a stumbling block.

Universalism. While never saying it absolutely (to preserve the freedom of God) I find it hard to read Barth (as it is hard to read Romans) without being being convinced that it is way more likely that all will be found in Christ, than even one found outside of God.

Ethics. Barth's approach to ethics here is much like James Cone's - so you know that puts it in the positive column for me. Barth denies our access to an absolute ethical standard (even prized qualities such as pacifism or love cannot be absolutised). I have a short piece about how Cone develops this kind of ethic around non-violence and I think Cone helps offer something of a corrective to Barth's total commitment to the unified oneness of humanity that I will hopefully draw out in the future. Indeed, I think there's a case to be made that a Cone-ian reading of Barth is not a bad approach on a number of doctrinal points.

And finally, I loved that Barth works with the assumption that people who seriously take on board Paul's letter to the Romans are way more likely to be led to revolution than legitimism/conservatism.

It is unlikely that anything I've written here is radically new (and plenty of it may be wrong), but I hope it has expressed something of the joy and hope and deep learning I experienced reading this book.

I also have people to thank who (whether directly or indirectly) encouraged and shaped my reading of Barth: David Congdon, W. Travis McMaken, Kara Slade, Melissa Florer-Bixler, John Flett, Geoff Thompson, and the videos from the Karl Barth conference.