(IVP Academic, 2016)
**Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.**
Oh, Karl Barth. Few theologians match him in depth, contribution, or sheer volume. Barth is possibly my favorite theologian and has had a massive impact on the way I think about God. That said, he’s a difficult read. Reading Barth is like running a marathon: it should only be undertaken after much preparation and requires great endurance. That’s why I was excited to see IVP Academic publish David Guietzki’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth. Barth has much to offer contemporary Christianity, but working through him requires assistance. Hopeful for both a personal guide to the overwhelming amount of Church Dogmatics I haven’t read and something to refer Barth newbies to, I read Guietzki’s book.
I’ve read several introductions to Barth, but this was by far the most readable and perhaps the most helpful. The amount of material Guietzki covers in 211 pages is astounding. The first two brief chapters- “Why Karl Barth” and “Karl Barth- Who Was He?”- provide a succinct overview of Barth’s contributions to modern theology and his life. The third chapter is an FAQ section for quick reference questions ranging from proper pronunciation of Barth’s name to the debate over Barth and Universalism. This section is fun, varied, and just in-depth enough to give satisfying answers to questions a new student of Barth likely wonders but is afraid to ask.
With the fourth chapter is a glossary of terms and people associated with Barth, and this is where the book’s value really begins to show. Each entry is a mini essay describing important concepts one comes across when studying Barth. The fifth chapter, entitled “A Theological Pilgrimage,” provides an overview of ten of Barth’s most important works prior to writing his magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics. The selections here are fantastic, including sermons, journal articles, and books spanning across Barth’s early career. Each entry has helpful synopsis and guides for reading.
The final three chapters are guides to reading Dogmatics. Chapter dix deals with the physical structure of the Dogmatics (how the footnotes work, how sections, are divided, etc.). The seventh chapter, a particularly unique feature of this book, discusses how to use the Dogmatics for various purposes such as writing sermons, preparing research papers, and engaging in personal Bible study. Though admittedly gimmicky-sounding, this chapter is surprisingly thoughtful in its analysis of how Barth can inform different aspects of the Christian life and ministry.
The final chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It provides three “reading plans” for working through the Dogmatics, each at a varying level of length and intensity of reading. Guretzki accompanies these painstakingly divided reading plans with brief summaries of each of the individual sections of the Dogmatics. One could get a decent overview of its content from these summaries alone, though they serve mainly to orient the reader as they read through the sections according to the reading guide.
If this seems like an eclectic mix of features, it is. An Explorers Guide to Karl Barth is, well, just that. It’s a set of tools meant to help readers navigate one of the most important and difficult writers of the 20th century. Each section is varied in purpose but always helpful and thorough. Guretzki makes great use of contemporary Barth scholarship without overwhelming his target audience of new Barth readers. This is an invaluable tool in working with Barth, and any aspiring theology student would be greatly benefitted by owning it. If IVP Academic or Guretzki decide to make An Explorers Guide into a series covering different theologians, count me in as a collector. The Church needs more books like this.
Jake Raabe is the editor of Words About God. See more of his writing at http://www.jeraabe.wordpress.com and follow him on twitter @J_E_Raabe.