“The beginning of the journey”: Barth’s Ephesians Lectures

A collection of lectures from 1921-1922, including two essays by prominent contemporary theologians, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Ephesians (kindly sent for review by Baker Academic) is an excellent addition to any pastor’s library for three reasons. I will get to those three reasons in just a moment. First, I want to offer a quote from the final paragraph of the book in order to frame the three reasons.

The conclusion of the letter, 6:10-24, makes us acutely aware that, humanly speaking, Christians are called to prepare, to contend, and to struggle each new moment as earnestly as if it were the first, the beginning of the journey. True theology is and will always be theology viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be (p. 146).

This selection is not unlike one of the methodological considerations with which Barth opens the Church Dogmatics. In the first volume, published ten years after the Ephesians lectures, Barth writes that dogmatics is in need of “criticism, correction, of critical amendment, and repetition…a laborious movement from one human insight to another” (I.1 / §1.2). Such is the nature of dogmatic theology, Barth says, because dogmatics is always “human appropriation” of “divine ascription.” As Barth resolves, “the theologian is what he is by the grace of God” (I.1 / §1.3).

I offer these parallel statements as a frame for this review because I am learning that one of the key tasks of pastoral ministry is to help Christians learn, against all odds in our Google-happy culture, that Christianity’s simple truth — Christ is Lord — leads to a lifetime of lived interpretation and reinterpretation. This collection of essays and lectures provides examples of how we might do just that. Here are three examples.

First, Karl Barth reads the Scriptures carefully, imaginatively, and with a sense of humor, recognizing the possibilities and the limits of human knowing. He pays close attention to textual evidence and the history of interpretation, but holds it loosely. “I believe I have discharged my duty by making you aware of all these possibilities,” Barth concludes after expounding several theories regarding the authorial problem, “and I leave it to you to decide which of them is the least improbable.” This quote offers a concentrated example of Barth’s care and humility. He’s done the legwork, discovered the significant matters, and yet does not feel compelled to “know” everything, as if that were possible. Pastors have a responsibility to read Scripture with great care, assessing possibilities and listening to trustworthy interpreters. Reading with care includes reading with humility, that is, an awareness that the Holy Spirit meets us in ever new ways through the text. These habits must be modeled to our congregants through preaching and teaching, through newsletters and conversations.

Second, Karl Barth’s exposition of Scripture is deeply pastoral, constantly mediating between God’s revelation and human discovery. “This is what Paul wishes to shout to his readers in this doxology…he means to jolt them out of their constant forgetfulness, to save them from the quicksand of trivialities…Paul will not allow them to remain as mere spectators and contemplatives” (p. 81). As I read, I felt as if Barth wanted nothing more than for me, as far as I was able, to be drawn into the quagmire of Paul’s prayers, doxologies, exhortations, and admonitions. We pastors must learn not to go into that world alone, as if we could extract the resources of God’s strange world and hand them off to our congregants, neatly packaged and ready to eat. Let us, instead, invite them on the journey into the world of Scripture, through preaching and teaching, and allow them to feel the strangeness of it.

Third, John Webster and Francis Watson provide two essays interpreting Barth. Webster and Watson each read Barth wisely, themselves models of careful and humble reading, both of Paul and Barth. But they also remind us all that Barth is not the end all. We must keep going. I imagine Barth would be grateful to know that his work was being questioned and interpreted. Is that not what he believed theology must do time and again?

I should note that this book is not a commentary on Ephesians in the normal sense. Barth is not troubled with equally treating each verse or chapter. Over seventy pages are devoted to Ephesians 1. Only eight pages are devoted to the final five chapters. Readers who hope for detailed comments on every verse will be sorely disappointed. In this work, Barth is not a commenter. He is an interpreter. No, more, he proclaims, as Fleming Rutledge observes in her recommendation for the book. And proclaiming is what we pastors have been called to do “by God’s grace and mighty power” (Eph. 3:7 NLT). And Barth offers us a fine example to follow.

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