Dogmatics in Outline
by Karl Barth
Reviewed by Terry Akers
Karl Barth (1886-1968) was the most influential theologian of the 20th century. In 1946, standing in the post-War rubble of Bonn University, Barth (pronounced "Bart") gave a series of lectures without notes to young German theology students. These lectures, framed by the Apostles’ Creed, were later combined to compose the small book Dogmatics in Outline.
Barth’s monumental Church Dogmatics, written over the span of three and a half decades, covers in depth the great doctrines of the Word of God, God, Creation and Reconciliation. He died before writing volume 5, on redemption. Dogmatics in Outline serves as an excellent introduction to theology and a concise guide to Barth’s thought.
These Bonn lectures were intended to help theologians better articulate the Christian faith and reestablish their spiritual bearings after the catastrophic events of World War II. Before the war, German Protestant theology had fallen into a dangerous liberalism as a result of its compromise with Enlightenment humanism. This condition had become so entrenched that most German theologians endorsed Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. By 1933 the German Evangelical Church had become largely a tool of the Nazi party.
The appalled Karl Barth stood virtually alone in those dark days. He and a few friends wrote the "Barmen Declaration" in 1934 as a Christian statement against Nazism. This cost him his professorship at Bonn. He was later expelled from Germany and he lived in his native Switzerland for the duration of the war.
The theology contained in these lectures is basic and essential. Christians are to be ready to give an answer for their hope, and this book helps in articulating an accurate and effective response. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas said, "Dogmatics in Outline is Barth’s short, but intense, course in how to speak of God in a world that has lost the habits of faithful Christian speech." By using the essentials of the Apostles’ Creed and filling in with brief sketches of sound orthodox doctrine, Barth cuts a safe middle swath through the dangers of heretical ideas that find acceptance when the church veers too far left or right.
Barth contends that recovering Christian speech is vital — "If we get God wrong, we get everything wrong." When "Jesus is Lord" is confessed, the world hears the message that it is God, not humans, who rules the world. We cannot try to fit God into our history, but must realize that God has made us part of his history.
By focusing on the gospel message, Barth’s brief book (155 pages) establishes a sound underpinning to which one can lay a theological anchor. If the gospel is to be effective, the church and each of its members must present it in a clear and meaningful way that makes it relevant to the hearer.
In this book, as in all good theology, Jesus is consistently the central focus. Error enters when either the divinity or the humanity of Christ is overemphasized. This obscures God’s true nature, and the power of the gospel proclamation is compromised. The message of Dogmatics in Outline protects against this by its adherence to the creedal confession that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human.
Copyright © 2005