BOOKS: God Is God

"Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936," by Bruce L. McCormack (Clarendon Press/ Oxford University Press, 499 pp.; $65, hardcover). Reviewed by Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at Bethel College (Minn.) and editor of "Christian Scholar's Review."

When chroniclers of twentieth-century theology look back one hundred years hence, there is little doubt that one name will overshadow all others as the giant of this century's theologians—Karl Barth. Thinkers of Barth's stature provide a framework within which countless others carry out their own work, and thus a change in the paradigm governing interpretation of a Barth or a Hegel or an Edwards or a Thomas Aquinas has consequences that ultimately extend far beyond the inner circle of scholarly debate.

The reigning paradigm for understanding the development of Barth's theology was most influentially described by Barth's fellow Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his monumental study "The Theology of Karl Barth" (1962; English translation, 1971). According to this reading, there were two major shifts in Barth's theological development, so that one can rightly speak of an "early Barth" (liberal), a "dialectical Barth" (influenced by existentialist thought), and a "mature Barth," who turned away from existentialism and dialectical theology (a method that focuses on finding truth in the tensions between apparently contrasting truths) to "neo-orthodoxy" beginning with his (supposedly) pivotal little book "Anselm: Fides quaerens intellectum: Anselm's Proof of the Existence of God in the Context of His Theological Scheme," published in 1931. In this three-phase view, Barth's 13-volume magnum opus "Church Dogmatics" ...

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