“The Faith of the Church” by Karl Barth is, I believe, the book that many Barth readers have been waiting for. The irony is that it has been in print in English since 1958.
The origin story of this book is as convoluted as any Marvel superhero’s. It is based on the stenographic notes taken from a series of seminars that Karl Barth gave to the Swiss Reformed pastors of Val-de-Travers over six different occasions from October 2, 1940, to January 11, 1943. The subject of the seminars was John Calvin’s Catechism, which itself is a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, which is itself a summary of the gospel, taken from the ancient baptism confession of the Roman church.
So far, I admit, it doesn’t sound all that promising. But I’ve read this little book twice over the last six months, and it is a breath of fresh air. In the past, when asked to suggest a good introduction to the theology of Karl Barth, I’ve pointed people to his books “Evangelical Theology: an Introduction” or “Dogmatics in Outline“. Now I’d recommend “The Faith of the Church” before those two books. And I’ll tell you why.
Firstly, “The Faith of the Church” is concise where Barth’s magnum opus “Church Dogmatics” is verbose. In the Dogmatics Barth usually skirts a subject, observing it and describing it from every possible angle. In “The Faith of the Church” Barth gets straight to the point.
Secondly, “The Faith of the Church” is clear where the Dogmatics is opaque. Barth’s dialectical approach in the Dogmatics often means that he can make an assertion, only to contradict it ten pages later. Barth’s discussion of religion in CD I/2 is a good example. This method can leave many readers frustrated, wanting to know what Barth really thinks. You’ll find that in “The Faith of the Church”, Barth not only gets straight to the point, but the point he makes is loud and clear.
Thirdly, “The Faith of the Church” shows how much Barth loved Calvin and how indebted to Calvin he was. In his Dogmatics Barth is often cagey about where he gets his ideas from. Take Kierkegaard, for example. Barth mentions him in the Dogmatics fifteen times and in the vast majority of those occasions he is critical of Kierkegaard. But the fact remains that Kierkegaard was one of the main influences on Barth.
It is the same with Calvin. Barth rarely mentions Calvin in the Dogmatics unless he wants to disagree with him. In “The Faith of the Church” we see the true, close affinity between these two great men.
Fourthly, “The Faith of the Church” also displays Barth’s orthodoxy. I don’t mean that in a narrow “Three Forms of Unity” Reformed orthodoxy sense, but in a broader “defending the classic creeds of the ancient church” kind of way. All the arguments about what Barth really believed about the virgin birth and the empty tomb would be settled in a moment, if more people read this book.
Fifthly, Barth’s theological concentration on Jesus Christ shines on every page, and I was reading an Amazon Kindle version with the font size turned up high, so my pages were very, very small.
Sixthly, it’s also a good introduction to Calvin, at least as seen through Karl Barth’s eyes. What the world needs now is not just a greater understanding of Barth, but a deeper appreciation of John Calvin.
This little book is really that good. Anyone who ever got angry reading the Church Dogmatics should read it.
Disclosure – I paid for this book. No one sent it to me free to do this review. Also, I don’t get paid for sharing links to Amazon, it’s just where I go to buy books. Also, I haven’t finished reading the book a second time, so I might have exaggerated a little bit.