Book Review – Karl Barth in Plain English

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(Disclaimer – I received an advance copy of the book for review purposes. I have been a Facebook friend with the author for a few years. Plus, I’ve organized a promotional contest with the author, with signed copies of the book as a prize. On the other hand, the author has managed to do in this book what I’ve always wanted to do, and he did it first. So part of me wants revenge. That means that everything I say is completely unbiased and 100% true.)

I would give Stephen Morrison’s new book “Karl Barth in Plain English” 4 stars out of 5. It’s better than John R. Franke’s book “Barth for Armchair Theologians”, which I’ve recommended to beginners in the past, and while it is not as scholarly or exhaustive or authoritative as George Hunsinger’s “How to Read Karl Barth”, it does make Barth more accessible to the curious, but initially confused reader.

4 Stars out of 5

Morrison manages to hit quite a few home runs.

Most importantly, in my opinion, in trying to translate Karl Barth into plain English, he has been able to maintain a simple writing style of his own. “Karl Barth in Plain English” is aimed at the beginner, and Morrison has targeted his own language for this audience. Quotes from Barth and from secondary sources are made prominent in each chapter, as Morrison allows Barth space to speak for himself on each topic, but they then don’t overload the later discussion.

Secondly, the choice to begin with Natural Theology in chapter 1 is inspired. This means that Morrison doesn’t have to fuss about looking for some “central theme” to connect all Barth’s different thoughts and teachings, but he can instead use this one topic that Barth was passionate about to enlighten the other topics.

Thirdly, the chapter on Election and the section on Universalism taught this old dog some new tricks. I know Postbarthian has tried to show me in the past the link between the extent of the atonement and prayer, but Morrison drove the point home so well that I now believe it.

Fourthly, using samples from Barth’s preaching enhanced the book’s message overall. It turned what could have been a dry, though simple, theological discussion into an encouragement for prayer and devotion.

Lastly, Morrison made me want to read volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics again. And he made me wish he’d written more than 8 chapters himself.

So why not 5 stars out of 5?

  1. There is from time to time the lack of gender neutral language. “Man” and “mankind” might be fine when quoting from the English translations of the Dogmatics, but have no place in modern theological works, especially when there are simple equivalents.
  2. The chapter on Creation is a little disorganized and the chapter on Reconciliation reads more like a summary of volume 4 of the Dogmatics than an enlightening discussion of the topic.
  3. A couple of typos escaped the last edit.

In summary – Stephen Morrison’s first volume in his project “Theologians in Plain English” made me want to read Barth again and made me love God more. David Guretzki’s “An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth” shouldn’t be ashamed to sit on the same shelf as “Karl Barth in Plain English”, and “Barth for Armchair Theologians” will need a better illustrator to get mentioned in the same sentence.

I give it a completely unbiased 4 stars out of 5.

Stephen Morrison … made me want to read Barth again and made me love God more.

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