Book Review: ‘Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes’ by George Hunsinger

Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes by George Hunsinger, Eerdmans, 331 pp. $34.00


Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed has fast become one of my favourite collections of theological essays, for a couple of reasons. First, as you may have guessed from the title, the focus is on broad, ecumenical themes in a Barth-ian key, meaning that Barth is at the center of most of the various discussions. Hunsingers exposition of Barth in relation to these topics is masterful, and shows just how Barth can contribute to matters of ecumenical and catholic theology today, and this is no easy task. Second, the essays very rigorous (but quite readable). Hunsinger has a real familiarity and mastery of his sources and conversation partners, and reads them in a charitable but critical manner. Since there are a large number of essays, I won’t review each one, but focus on those that stood out to me.

The first three essays are all centered on Barth and the Trinity ‘Karl Barth on the Trinity’, ‘The Trinity After Barth: Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jungel and Torrance’, and ‘Election and the Trinity: Twenty Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth (Revised)’. Readers with their fingers on the pulse of the ‘Barth Wars’ will recognize that Hunsinger is defending the ‘traditionalist’ view of Barth on the Trinity in all three of these essays. All three are immensely helpful, with ‘Karl Barth on the Trinity’ being the most in-depth. As noted above, Hunsinger reads his ‘opponents’ (Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jungel) with charity, drawing out the best in their thought while criticizing what he takes to be their weaknesses.

Hunsinger is at his best, however, here when he puts Barth in conversation with key figures in Reformation theology. Two substantial essays, ‘A Tale of Two Simultaneities: Justification and Sanctification in Luther, Calvin and Barth’ and ‘Barth on Justification and Sanctification’ show both his command over historical sources and his dogmatic chops. Hunsinger draws out themes in all three of the above theologians that tie together to make a coherent picture as well as demonstrate just how valuable Barth is in these debates.

Perhaps one of the more substantial essays is ‘Uncreated Light: From Irenaeus and Torrance to Aquinas and Barth’. Here Hunsinger gives a tour de force of historical and dogmatic theology focused analogy, simplicity, and the doctrine of God. Each figure is engaged critically and constructively, and Hunsinger is unafraid to point out serious similarities between Aquinas and Barth on the issue of just how we can speak of God.

Other important themes are engaged within this volume. Schleiermacher’s christology (and christology in general), as well as the differences between Schleiermacher and Barth on Christ’s saving work, are engaged at length in two separate essays. Barth and Brunner’s dispute is engaged with as well, and there are a number of other topics (scriptural interpretation, the resurrection of Christ, Jesus as the lord of time and others) that are all rigorously investigated.

Perhaps more important than the content is the focus on catholicity. This is theology ‘for the church.’ The issues here are tackled with the intent to show why Barth’s contributions to theology matter for the church catholic, and while Barth is indeed the key player, he is far from the sole star of the show. Simply reading the table of contents is enough to show that Hunsinger is far from a radical Barthian – he is concerned for the whole of the church, and in this volume, Hunsinger interprets Barth as he needs to be interpreted if he is to have any relevance for the church catholic. I’ve said it before, but in my mind, it is the ‘traditionalistic’ and ecumenical Barth, and not the ‘revisionist’ Barth that has relevance for theology in the service of the church. Phillip Cary noted in his article on the Barth Wars that:

Part of the problem has to do with Barth’s peculiar homelessness. He belonged to the Reformed Protestant tradition, but the Reformed churches never took him to their bosom as they did with Calvin in centuries past. He made a point of calling his theology a church dogmatics, but his institutional home was the university, and his influence has been that of an academic rather than a reformer or a teacher of the Church. So his work ends up coming to the Church from outside, like an intellectual super-hero who might be coming to the rescue, if only we understood what he has to teach us as he reconstructs Christian teaching from the ground up.

In Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed, Hunsinger shows why Barth’s home isn’t the university, though he is certainly not a stranger to it. Barth’s home is the church, as these essays amply demonstrate. Here, we see how to do evangelical theology, with the Reformed theologian Barth, for the catholic church. 

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