Waking up with Barth

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Karl Barth by Ross Melanson 2009Just this past week, I completed the 10th year of my Karl Barth Reading Group. Since beginning in the fall of 2006, we have slowly but intentionally worked through a chunk of the Church Dogmatics. In years 1-3, we worked through CD II/2 (Election). In years 4-6 we worked through CD IV/3.2 (Vocation). Volume III/1 (Creation) was next during years 7-9. This past year we started “at the beginning” and are approximately half-way through CD I/1 (Word of God).

To commemorate the completion of our tenth year, I asked a couple of former Barth group participants to provide a guest post on their experience of being in a Barth reading group. This week we will hear from Dr. Jon Coutts. Jon was one of my thesis students and completed his PhD on Barth’s doctrine of forgiveness under Dr. John Webster. Check out his blog as well!

I asked Jon a series of questions, and his responses are below.


1)      What would you entitle your blog post?

Waking up with Barth

2)      Who are you? When did you attend the Barth group? And what are you doing right now in terms of vocation, family, church, etc.?

My name is Jon Coutts, formerly an evangelical pastor in Canada, now Tutor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity College Bristol in England. I am married to Angie and we have four boys between the ages of 7 and 12. We attend St Mary Magdalene Bristol, in the Church of England, where my wife is the Church Manager.

I attended the Barth reading group from 2006-2008 when we were reading from Church Dogmatics II/2 on the doctrine of election. At the time I was working on an MA in theology and, despite earning a BTh in the 90s, had yet to read any Karl Barth whatsoever. Those who are familiar with Barth’s doctrine of election will know this is quite a way to get introduced!

This ended up being a transformative event in my life for a number of reasons: It changed the tenor of my Master’s studies (which had originally been in apologetics), and it led me to the topic I would study for my PhD (forgiveness in Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation).

On top of that, while I won’t say the reading group settled my anxieties about predestination, after wrestling with Barth for several months (I really did not like him at first), this reading group opened windows of thought for me and gave me a new lease on life as it related to those anxieties.

3)      So far, do you have a favourite section of the Church Dogmatics? Why? Share one or two sentences from that section.

Having done my doctoral studies on volume four of the Dogmatics, there is hardly one of its 2700+ pages which doesn’t have something underlined. It would be hard to choose a favourite section! If I was to choose from elsewhere it would probably be §28, ‘The Being of God as the One who Loves in Freedom’, or some of the fragments posthumously published as The Christian Life.

But if I must choose one section (rather than all of) CD IV it would have to be §62.2, ‘The Being of the Community’. Perhaps because I am a church-minister at heart, and perhaps because it comes first in the thrice-spiraled rhetoric of the volume, it was this ecclesiology section of CD IV/1 where Barth’s theology really took hold for me. Here are a couple exemplary quotes:

‘Jesus Christ is not the Holy One for Himself, but for the world and in the first instance for His community in the world. He is not the Holy One in some height or distance above its earthly and historical existence but in it and to it (as His own earthly-historical form of existence). It is not for nothing, therefore, that it is in His hand and even in its this-sidedness, but in its very this-sidedness, in its human doing and non-doing, in its common action and the life of all its members it is continually confronted with His presence as the Holy One, it is continually exposed to His activity, it is continually jolted by Him, it is continually asked whether and to what extent it corresponds in its visible existence to the fact that it is His body, His earthly-historical form of existence. How can it believe and know and confess itself as His holy community … without continually looking to Him? … No, it cannot create and assure its own holiness. It can only trust His holiness and therefore its own’ (700-701).

‘Where and when does it not hang by a knife’s edge whether or not there is this remembrance in the community?… Luther knew what he was talking about when he dared to say … Non est tam magna peccatrix ut christiana ecclesia [There is no sinner so great as the Christian church]. It is the Church which prays, “Forgive us our trespasses,” which therefore knows and confesses that it needs the forgiveness of sins’ (658).

One can pretty easily see in those words the impulse for my PhD thesis on forgiveness in the church, to be published in 2016 by IVP Academic under the title A Shared Mercy.

4)      What are one or two things that have been impressed upon you—theologically, spiritually, pastorally, literarily, vocationally, whatever—in your reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics? 

When I began reading Barth’s Dogmatics I was carrying a fair amount of anxiety as it related to some of the rather core doctrines of the church, not to mention questions of the church itself (and my place within it). Although it took awhile for Barth to break through the ice of my evidentialist, perfectionist cynicism, when he did it was as if I became a Christian all over again. This happened repeatedly as I was reading for my PhD. Having grown weary of altar-calls in my youth, I do not consider myself an easy convert. But quite often as I was reading volume four I would have to put down the book and confess Christ as Lord of my life and church again. What did it for me particularly was this break through the gridlock of faith and reason which viewed (and practiced) theology in terms of faith seeking understanding. Add to that the view of church as an event within Christ’s accomplished and ongoing work of reconciliation (seen in the quotes above), and what you get is a repeatedly disillusioned (and self-loathing) pastor/teacher who can feel at home in his vocation (not to mention his own skin) again.

5)      If you wanted to convince someone with why they might benefit from also reading Barth, what would you say?

I would talk about those things mentioned above. The problem is that it is just so hard to get people to start reading the Church Dogmatics. They are just so big and seemingly inaccessible. That’s why a reading group is so important. I remember times I’d feel like I was adrift in the ebb and flow of Barth’s rhetoric until the shared insights of the group would give me a life line. After awhile you get better at reading him, and sometimes it is your comments which are the life line for others.

Apart from telling people just to pick up a volume and start anywhere(!), I have been thinking about where to tell people to look if they do not want to start in the Dogmatics. This term at college I wanted to revisit some things and so our postgraduate research seminar read The Humanity of God. This was an excellent and succinct introduction to the key moves in Barth’s theology.

6)      Anything else you want to say?

Just thanks again, David, for leading that reading group for us years ago. Although it was hard to roll out of bed and brave the snowdrifts to get there sometimes, as it turns out there are few things which have been as impactful on my life as those Friday mornings in the corner of that Saskatchewan coffee shop.

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