Let me now break from Bethge to describe my own introduction to Karl Barth through Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am and forever will be a defacto theological dilettante because I arrive at interest the hard way. It took a severe jolt for me to get through Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. It was in 1995 incidently on a sixteen hour bus ride to the old Tibetan town of Chamdo. I was with a missionary group of Filipinos and we were sternly told not to draw attention to the fact that we were Christians. It was so cool to be reading subversive material! But it was the explosive content of that material that really hooked me. Believing had consequences. This will get me killed! This excited my skinny twenty one year old self.
Shortly after Martha and I joined JPUSA in 1996 I bought A Testament to Freedom. I’ll never forget reading Bonhoeffer’s reflections on God’s proximity in the face of evil while sitting at the hospital bedside of my eighteen month old son who had just had a near fatal fall and was in all but a body cast. From A Testament to Freedom I first read about Bonhoeffer’s connection to Karl Barth.
The name stayed in my memory but not enough to make me really read him. But one day down at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago I came upon Bernard Ramm’s After Fundamentalism: The Future of Evangelical Theology. Ramm connected the dots for me between what I knew was wrong with so much American Evangelical preaching and the obvious burdens of modern life. Ramm’s book was the end of my journey to Karl Barth. (The book is all about Karl Barth in an attempt to deal with 80’s Evangelical theology.) At first I randomly checked out various Barth titles from the library, beginning with Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Then I had to own Dogmatics in Outline. But the book that blew the ceiling off my theological world was Karl Barth’s sixth edition of The Epistle to the Romans. (My review is here.)
I used to say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was my only real interest in theology. Now I don’t know who is more important, Dietrich or Karl. They are very different people. Their theologies, in as much as they interact, are very different approaches. But both seek to serve the Church, which in this age is a novel concept. I still have not read through and neither do I own Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (unless Golwitzer’s selection counts). It is more important to me to get through Bonhoeffer’s writings first. I said to myself years ago that I could spend my whole life with just the writings of these two men and die happy, but that hasn’t proven true. If anything they have immersed me in their world of the early twentieth century. I’ve been coaxed in kicking and screaming. I still as yet can’t bring myself to read Hegel or Schliermacher. I still haven’t really cracked Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest, a favorite of Bonhoeffer’s.