I just finished reading John Bowden’s 1971 book entitled, Karl Barth. All in all, it’s a pretty good little book that can be read comfortably in an evening. Bowden gives a short “profile” of Barth, followed by assessing Barth as prophet, professor, politician, and patriarch. Bowden ends with a “problem” chapter in which he provides his own critical, yet respectful, assessment of Barth overall. The work is dated in its scholarship, of course, but can still be profitably read by those looking for an short secondary introduction.
However, I had to chuckle a bit at the end. Bowden suggests that there were those in his day who were saying that it was too early critically to assess Barth fairly or to predict what his future reception would be, and that it would take a generation or even a century before such assessment could really be made. Undaunted by this, Bowden goes ahead and predicts anyways:
It seems probable that those who see the Dogmatics as a work that will come into its own in future years are over-optimistic. It is not the kind of book for that. Nor is Barth the prophet likely to have the same impact in the years to come that he had in the 1920s. Both Barth the patriarch and Barth the prophet will pass into history as Barth the problem. (117)
I’m not trying to make light of Bowden, who actually appears to have a pretty good grasp of many of Barth’s ideas. In the day and age in which he wrote, what he was saying was pretty reasonable and plausible. Even by the end of Barth’s life, it looked like Barth’s thought was already being passed over in favour of the Pannenbergs and Moltmanns, for example.
Nevertheless, there is probably an important little lesson: If the ascendency of Barth in the early 21st century could not have been predicted shortly after his death, it is also likely that we should be wary of making too many theological predictions ourselves about what will and what will not be a theological issue in the next generation. The thing that may seem the most irrelevant and absurd thing today could very well be the thing that will last longer and have greater theological significance than one might expect. And vice versa: the things that seems to be so vitally important today could very well turn out to be nothing than a fad here today and gone tomorrow.
I suppose this leads me to wonder how we as students (and teachers) of theology are best able to ensure (and I mean ensure, not in the sense of “guarantee” but in the sense of “being confident”) that the time and effort we spend on theological research and writing will be on issues of greatest significance, while not getting sidetracked on issues that will be short-lived and short-sighted. Any suggestions?