Two Theological Tomes

9781451483420bFirst up-  Reading Theologically:

Reading is one of the basic skills a student needs. But reading is not just an activity of the eyes and the brain. Reading Theologically, edited by Eric D. Barreto, brings together eight seminary educators from a variety of backgrounds to explore what it means to be a reader in a seminary context—to read theologically.

Reading theologically involves a specific mindset and posture towards texts and ideas, people and communities alike. Reading theologically is not just about academic skill building but about the formation of a ministerial leader who can engage scholarship critically, interpret Scripture and tradition faithfully, welcome different perspectives, and help lead others to do the same.

9781451464719bAnd then, A Theology of the Third Article: Karl Barth and the Spirit of the Word:

Toward the end of his career, Karl Barth made the provocative statement that perhaps what Schleiermacher was up to was a “theology of the third article” and that he anticipated in the future that a true third-article theology would appear. Many interpreters, of course, took that to indicate not only a change in Barth’s perception of Schleiermacher but also as a self-referential critique. The author investigates this claim, contesting the standard interpretations, and argues for a Barthian pneumatology—a doctrine of the Holy Spirit grounded in the scriptural witness and connected to the vital Christological and dialectical theology found in Barth’s project.


The first volume, Reading Theologically, edited by Eric D. Barreto, is a collection of essays by various thinkers which urges young students (or perhaps better, beginning students in the field of theological studies) to learn to read with a theological mindset.  Each chapter contains the word ‘Reading’ followed by an adverb such as ‘meaningfully’ and ‘digitally’ and ‘generously’ and ‘spiritually’ and more.   This is a handbook of sorts, then, which strives to help students learn how best to absorb theological tomes.  It reminded me, for a number of reasons, of Helmut Thielicke’s ‘A Littler Exercise for young Theologians’ inasmuch as that book too was an attempt to get students to think theologically (and read the same way).  Like Thielicke’s little book, this little book is bigger (and more important) than its slim dimensions might first imply.  Big thoughts do come in small packages and valuable ideas can be communicated in three pages oftentimes better than they can be in 400.

The subtitle of the series of which this book is the first is ‘Foundations for Learning’.  Potential readers will wish to keep that in mind.  This book is meant for beginners.  It is festooned with elementary facts, the nuts and bolts, the basics, of reading with comprehension.  Seasoned readers with years of experience in digesting theological volumes will find themselves saying things like ‘well, yes, of course’ and ‘but who doesn’t know that’?  In short, they will not be ‘blown away’ and since the book is not, by rights, written for them, they shouldn’t expect to be.

On the other hand, the book’s intended audience will be blown away and even astonished at the vistas opened for them if they will take to heart what the contributors to this volume suggest as reading strategy.  They will find themselves saying ‘aha’ and ‘wow’ and ‘I hadn’t thought of that’ and then when they next turn to reading the Bible or reading a Systematic Theology or reading Barth’s essays or Brunner’s superior volumes they will ‘get it’.

Undergrads ought to be required to read this book and if not then Seminary students and Graduate students at University should most certainly be required to read it thoroughly.

The second volume is, unlike the first, not at all intended for theological beginners.  Aaron’s T. Smith’s A Theology of the Third Article, is a complex and in depth exposition of Karl Barth’s lectures on the Gospel of John and selections of the Church Dogmatics.  What Smith does with those sources is offer readers a profoundly impressive explanation of Barth’s teachings concerning the Holy Spirit.

In a nutshell, as he expresses it in the opening pages,


It is no mis-statement to suggest that the remainder of the book is an unpacking of this paragraph.

As magnificent as that unpacking is (down to the very bones of Barth’s pneumatology) and as brilliant as the choice of Barth’s lectures on John’s Gospel (chapter 1, to be exact), there is a problem with the book and it needs to be stated: the decision to utilize transliteration for Greek texts rather than simply using a Greek font.

tta2Every time I review a book which utilizes Hebrew or Greek transliteration rather than actual Hebrew and Greek fonts I complain about this and I suppose I must always.  Here’s why:  If someone reads Greek or Hebrew they won’t and don’t need such transliterations; and if they don’t read Greek or Hebrew, such transliterations are completely meaningless.  Furthermore, whilst in times past the inclusion of a foreign font was a publishing challenge today no challenge exists because fonts can easily be manipulated due to computerized processes.

I am not complaining for no reason.  Such transliterations are totally unnecessary and publishers publishing biblical and theological materials should simply use proper fonts.  Here, then, I mean that we all should take the Reformers call to return Ad Fontes thoroughly literally.

Aside, then, from that issue, this is one magnificent book.  It is not ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ reading and those who engage it will need to bring to bear their full intellect.  If distracted by the annoyance of transliteration, soldier on, and make your way to the goal of the high calling of comprehending far more fully the theology of Barth than you possessed before you began the work.

Both these books- occupying, as they do- opposite ends of the ‘scholarly’ continuum are exceptionally important for very different reasons.  The first is important for beginners and the second is important for the experts.   They do both, though, share one key attribute: they teach.  Nothing more can be asked of any book and many books don’t manage even that.  That Fortress manages to publish so many which do is a work of the Holy Spirit…

3 thoughts on “Two Theological Tomes

  1. As author of A Theology of the Third Article, I’d like to thank Jim West for taking the time to review my book, and for his thoughtful remarks posted here. I am especially gratified by his assessment that whatever heavy lifting may be required to access the work’s central claims, the effort is worth it. I’ve found that to be true of Barth’s thought itself.

    As for transliteration, I agree: it is best to utilize the original Greek or Hebrew script. In the initial manuscript, I did just that. Transliteration proved worthwhile in this case only because unlike the German original, the English translation of Barth’s lectures on John 1 do not contain Greek font (that includes his own occasional Greek compositions). Since I did not restrict myself to the German but made liberal use of the English (although some translations of Barth’s writings are not great, the English is solid enough to trust in this case), I had to decide whether to restore the Greek when using the translated text, or transliterate throughout. I obviously chose the latter. But I did so with the very mental reservation stated in the review. I trust that this sin, too, may be forgiven.

    Thanks again!


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