Karl Barth’s Table Talk

Karl Barth’s Table Talk by John Goodsey is a fascinating little book. Goodsey explains the book’s origin in the Foreword. Goodsey was a student at Basel for three years from the winter semester of 1953 to the summer semester of 1956. During those years he attended Barth’s fortnightly “English-speaking Colloquium”. Students whose mother tongue was English were invited every other Tuesday to a seminar with Barth. One of Barth’s writings would be assigned in advance for general reading, and one student took the responsibility to give a short summary of the text, together with a few prepared questions to get the debate started. Barth would then comment on the summary and then answer the student’s questions.

“Karl Barth’s Table Talk” begins with Goodsey’s own presentation to the colloquium : a summary of the whole Church Dogmatics, including an interesting comment on the projected, and never completed, fifth volume on Redemption:

The final volume of the Church Dogmatics will undertake an elaboration of the Doctrine of Redemption, that is, of the activity of God that is properly appropriated to His mode of existence as Holy Spirit. It may be a surprise to some readers that man’s ‘redemption’ is directly connected to the Holy Spirit rather than the Son. That this is theologically correct, however, has already been grounded exegetically in Volume I, Part 1. In this final section Professor Barth must discuss the Doctrine of the ‘Last Things’, of the Final Judgment and Consummation, of the Command of God from the viewpoint of Promise. We may expect that the Christological thread will be traced to the final page of the Church Dogmatics, that Jesus Christ, who is the Alpha, will also be the Omega!

This first part of the book then concludes with the question and answer session that followed Goodsey’s paper and Barth’s response. Part II concerns the two part volumes of the Church Dogmatics on the Doctrine of the Word of God, and Part III concerns four of Barth’s monographs: “Church and State”, “The Christian Community and the Civil Community”, “The Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism”, and “The Christian Understanding of Revelation”.

“Karl Barth’s Table Talk” gives a wonderful insight into Karl Barth the man, the teacher, and the theologian. Some of the questions come from students and some from professors on sabbatical. Some come from people sympathetic to Barth’s project, and some of them are highly critical. Barth answers them all with sympathy and humour. As a result, the book is full of quotable quotes. One of my favourites comes from page 24 and 25:

The Church cannot have two Lords. In America, for instance, is the Church free to preach the Lord, or must it also preach the “American way of life”? There can be only one standard for the Church. Better silence than to preach strange gods. A “Baal” Church is a greater offence to God than no Church at all.

I recommend this book very highly.

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