Reading the work of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth often feels like intellectual sparring. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, best known in the United States for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, had a very different authorial voice; even at its most unflinchingly prophetic, his work rarely feels as confrontational. Wolf Krötke, a close reader of both theologians, is able to hone in on the brilliant essentials of their work and to prod the reader to reexamine her thoughts about the relationship between us and God in light of their claims—to ask again and again: Is this what I believe?
Krötke, a pastor in Communist East Germany, shares a foundational intention with his subjects, who were also pastors: to speak intelligently and honestly to the way both scholars and non-scholars think about God. Krötke’s description of his own reliance on Barth and Bonhoeffer to build a “theological resistance” when political resistance was largely futile elegantly echoes his investigations into their troubled efforts to do the same during the rise of fascism. Beginning in 1934, with the Barmen Declaration’s theological argument against the totalizing state, Barth, like Bonhoeffer, came to the conclusion that violent political resistance was sometimes necessary. For his own part, Krötke is unsure about the church’s “appropriation of the violent instruments of our sinful era. War, even a so-called just war...offers no general paradigm for Christian resistance to inhumanity, racism, and genocide.”
Krötke lays out the grand structure of Barth’s thought, from his early work on Paul in Epistle to the Romans (1919) through the thirteen volumes of Church Dogmatics (1932–1967). “Barth liked to say,” Krötke notes, “that the church and theology have the task ‘to begin anew at the beginning’ ‘every hour.’” This is certainly true of Barth’s work: you can’t grasp any point without “beginning anew” by retracing it to its premises.
In Krötke’s account, the main girders of Barth’s thought are these: God is, from the beginning, even before creation, “the God who encounters us in Jesus Christ, and is understood in terms of the history of God’s grace with humanity.” This encounter and its manifestations among us are the “history of a partnership in which the God who is friendly to humans comes among us and makes us capable of being his free partners and of leading lives that deserve to be called truly human.” Finally, “because our fundamental orientation is relationship to God, we realize our freedom most fully by corresponding to the call of God.”