I’ve just finished reading this, and I have good news. You can just read the first 57 pages! As far as I’m concerned that’s where the gold is. That makes it a beautifully short read.
This book is NOT an abridgement of the content of Barth’s Dogmatics. It is rather a discussion of the business of doing theology. I’m up for that: every Christian (and this is one of Barth’s points) should be into this, as we all do theology (God-talk) in one way or another, well or badly!
The book has four sections: The place of theology, the experience of doing it, threats to it, and finally the work of doing theology. For my money section 1, on the place of theology, was the part worth reading. Perhaps I just didn’t understand the other sections. So I’ll leave those to someone smarter to comment on.
Section 1, the place of theology, has 4 chapters.
In ch.1, The Word, Barth describes the object of all theology, the thing that theology is responding to: God’s active powerful, communicative Word. Theology is our human response or answer to that Word.
Because the Word of God is heard and answered by theology, it is a modest and at the same time, a free science. Theology is modest because its entire logic can only be a human ana-logy [speaking in return] to that Word.
Barth is very clear that theology is a human business, and so neither authoritative nor final. The Word is authoritative, not our response to it. Theology is instead humble and provisional in its statements.
There are two things, then: the Word of God, which theology must acknowledge and speak, and then theology proper, which is our human response.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing the Word. This is brilliant: we get a three page summary of the gospel as Barth sees it. Barth describes the gospel in terms of God’s covenant with man. And this covenant unfolds in human history.
Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ, which fulfils the history of Israel. To reverse the statement, theology responds to that Word spoken in the history of Israel which reaches its culmination in the history of Jesus Christ.
Barth insists that the two phases of this Word in history can be separated: Israel and Christ. The tendency to speak of Christ in terms of universal truths only is a distortion. He is historically particular. “In the Christ of Israel this Word has become particular, that is, Jewish flesh.” But also to speak of God’s Word in the history apart from Christ is misleading: “There is no history of Israel in itself and for its own sake… It hastens toward the history of Jesus Christ.”
The gospel, then is first particular (Israel) and only then universal (Christ). It is “the accomplishment of the reconciliation of Israel” and through Israel the world.
Barth’s program for theology then, pushes towards biblical theology. He wants to talk about the Word revealed in the story of salvation history. Nice. Tom Wright’s work, for example, could be seen as following Barth’s program.
One question: how would Barth clarify where ‘confirming and announcing’ the Word stops, and where responding starts. I.e. which part of theology’s talk is relaying the authoritative, divine Word, and which part is responding to it in humility and openness to correction? I think the distinction is important, but how does it work in practice? Because of the difference in status between the two kinds of speech, it matters!