Review: Reading Karl Barth_A Companion to Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans

Kenneth Oakes, Reading Karl Barth: A Companion to Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. Cascade, 2011.
Cascade | Amazon

Oakes is a recent graduate of Aberdeen and is now a post doctoral student at Eberhards Karl Universität in Tübingen. In this book he aims to clarify what Barth is saying and act as a guide who helps summarize, untangle, explain, and identify key motifs for those who are new to Barth or find his Romans commentary “strange” and/or “odd.”

Each chapter ends with Further Reading that points readers to the Church Dogmatics and other writings by Barth (no secondary sources are listed though they are spread throughout the footnotes). There is also a Glossary of People to help out along the way.

The foundation of this book is the Introduction, or Part 1. Here, Oakes tells the story of Barth’s life as it leads up to the first edition of his Romans commentary, or Romans I (1919). He also adds some helpful summary points about the first edition, noting that there is a “stress on immediate presence of God to the world and humanity” (p. 8) and consistent use of “organic metaphors to describe the relationship between God and the world.” Process eschatology, a “movement, a growing of the hidden kingdom through the transformation of the presently existing world and its individuals,” is also present through the work (as Barth says, we “become what we are in Christ”). Near the end of this section, Oakes makes the observation that “Barth never stopped being ‘liberal’ in some regards. . . . I still consider it an open question as to whether Barth should be seen as the mighty destroyer of theological liberalism” (p. 11). This will come up again near the end of the book.

Moving to Romans II (1922), Oakes stresses that Barth actually wrote a real commentary even if it did not appear like the other commentaries of his day. This also means that Romans I and II were not meant to be specific works of Christian doctrine, politics, or philosophy, even though these elements can be found throughout Barth’s work. Oakes also attends to recurring themes (resurrection, faith, and witness), “slippery and counter-intuitive terms” (religion, hidden and non-concrete, non-historical or primar history [Urgeschichte]), dialectics, and notes that the second edition replaces the older process eschatology and organic metaphors with a “consistent eschatology.” Finally, Oakes points out the prevalence of parables and analogies (analogy of the cross; the world and human history; time; idols). The place of parables/analogies in Romans II, one of Barth’s most dialectical works, gives support to those who do not find a second break in Barth’s thought from dialectical to analogical theology.

Next, Oakes deals with the various prefaces of Romans I and II, including the English preface. Two main issues arise: Barth’s view of the historical-critical methods and whether Romans I and II can truly be called a commentary. Oakes helps his readers makes sense of each preface, placing them in context (e.g. where Barth was and what he was up to) and offers helpful analysis along the way.

Part II, the bulk of the book, goes through the actual text of Romans II and helps the reader make sense of what Barth is doing with Paul’s letter. This particular section of the book is too difficult to summarize here and so I’ll leave it up to the readers to work through this section.

Oakes concludes by summarizing some of the further criticisms that arose from the likes of Erich Przywara, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Adolf von Harnack. The common thread in these criticisms is Barth’s dialectics and their implications for the God-world relationship (supposedly Barth’s view resulted in an antagonistic and/or competitive relationship between the two). Oakes’ “guess” is that “the real culprit behind these criticisms is not the presence of dialectics or the absence of analogy, but Barth’s ‘consistent eschatology'” (p. 156).

Finally, Oakes lists some views found in Romans II that might “raise some eyebrows” (e.g. a denial of a historical Adam; original sin as “mythological”) and, following his earlier statement that I noted above, he adds that “It is interesting that the book often given credit for dismantling and destroying theological liberalism could still have so many elements that would no doubt seem highly questionable to some groups” (p. 158).

Overall, this is a very helpful guide and I wish I had it back when I was making my way through Barth’s commentary. On the one hand, I don’t want people to read various guides or companions before they go read the authors themselves. It’s too easy to feel like the companion tells you what to look for and so your job is to go out and find it. On the other hand, working through Barth’s commentary without any help can be very discouraging. Oakes’ companion helps the reader avoid the feeling of defeat, without also leaving them feeling like they no longer need to pick up Barth’s commentary and read it for themselves. My advice: if you’re new to the Romans commentary then I would read Oakes’ introduction (Part 1) and then begin reading Barth’s commentary. If you’re feeling lost then you might refer to Oakes’ as a guide, but only after you’ve read and thought through that particular section of Barth’s commentary. One other thing: don’t forget that Barth, as well as the English translator, says that the commentary must be read as a whole.

Finally, I’m curious how similar Don Wood’s frothcoming contribution will be in the T&T Clark “Readers Guides.” Readers may also be interested in Oakes’ forthcoming revised dissertation, Karl Barth on Theology and Philosophy (Oxford UP, 2012). Many thanks to Cascade/Wipf&Stock for a review copy.


About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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8 Responses to Review: Reading Karl Barth_A Companion to Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    I was thinking about posting a review for this book, but you beat me to it. Good job. I’m excited to see that Oakes’ dissertation is being published. You can get a taste of it in “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth” (Modern Theology, Oct2007, 23:4).

  2. Pingback: Posts on Bonhoeffer and Barth « I Heart Barth

  3. Jordan Barrett says:

    Kevin, glad you like the review. A lot of it is summary and so there’s certainly room for a lot of analysis. Also, thanks for pointing to the ModTheo essay. I was unaware of it

  4. Pingback: Theology Around the Blogosphere — June Edition « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  5. Bobby Grow says:


    What do you think, do you think Oakes is right about Barth maybe not distancing himself from ‘Theological Liberalism’ in the way that so many think?

    It seems to me that to answer this question we must first define what counts as ‘Theological Liberalism’. If the theology that Schleiermacher produced, for example, is the standard; then what Barth produced After Schleiermacher, I would think, would have to count as post-Liberal, at least, if not anti-Liberal at best (i.e. the way that Barth sought to ground his methodology in a principial christocentrism V. the ‘kind’ of ‘feeling’ pietism that shaped Schleiermacher’s mode). But then, if for example Barth is measured against what counts as conservative theology, say in America, then he, no doubt, would still count as ‘Liberal’ (given his doctrine of scripture and theory of revelation etc.). It seems like, and fittingly, the answer to this question is a dialectic ‘Yes’ & ‘No’.

    But what do you think, Jordan?

  6. Jordan Barrett says:

    Hey Bobby, thanks for the question. I’m not sure I fully agree with Oakes, but he made some comments that made me step back and reevaluate my perceptions of Barth. I think my initial view was that Barth’s break was more immediate or happened more quickly than it actually did. Oakes shows that there are still many aspects of his past in his Romans commentary(ies), though I’m not sure that these same aspects can be found later in his life. I’ll leave that up to the Barth scholars. 😉

    I think you’re also right to be clear on definitions. There is a minority position that sees more continuity between Schleiermacher and Barth than most others do. For example, I recently ran across Sherman’s “The Shift to Modernity” (you might check it out for your diss if you haven’t already). He sees Barth modifying Schleiermacher instead of opposing him, but again, that’s a minority view (as he admits) and is up for debate. I’m definitely open to this view.

  7. Bobby Grow says:


    Thanks. I will be sure to look up Sherman’s work, sounds good! Blessings, brother!

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