Book Review: ‘Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology’, by Kimlyn J. Bender

Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology‘, by Kimlyn J. Bender, Cascade Books, 324 pp. $30.40

There are two big takeaways to this study. First, Barth’s entire way of theological thinking was profoundly christological and Chalcedonian – it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the bulk of this book serves to draw out that central theme in Barth’s thinking. Second, while Barth at first glance appears to neglect the Holy Spirit in his dogmatic thinking, this is an illusion readily dispelled by paying close attention to his ecclesiology. This is a dense, closely-argued and well-documented investigation, but close reading will repay dividends.

This volume is divided into two sections, the first of which focuses on Barth’s early ecclesiology and the second focusing on his later ecclesiology. The former leans towards genealogical work, and surveys Barth’s ecclesiology and its development within the context of conflicts with liberal theology, neo-Protestantism and Roman Catholic theology. The historical material here is probably the most helpful in the book as it serves to draw out Barth’s fundamental ecclesiological concerns that are expounded later on. After situating Barth historically, Bender turns his attention towards what he notes is Barth’s ‘constructive’, rather than purely critical ecclesiology in the Göttingen Dogmatics.

The second section, focused on Barth’s mature ecclesiology, is where Bender does the heavy lifting. The attentive reader may or may not have noticed that Barth’s ecclesiology is purportedly a christological one, and Bender shows that this is indeed that ground, grammar and structure of Barth’s doctrine of the church – Chalcedon and the en/an-hypostatic distinction are seen to be the driving force behind Barth’s understanding of the church. Barth’s christology and doctrine of election is brilliantly exposited – the section on election could serve as a primer proper on this topic. Of course, election is bound up with reconciliation, the former of which Bender takes up in order to discuss the nature of the human agency of the church.

Following this, Bender takes up the role of the Holy Spirit in ecclesiology. While a relatively shorter section, the material here really sings. Quite simply, the church is the work of the Holy Spirit, a ‘divine event that calls into existence a historical reality’ (p. 170) As noted above, this simple fact is more than sufficient to dispel rumors that the Holy Spirit is neglected in Barth. Perhaps the strongest section in this study, however, is penultimate chapter on the ‘Ordination of the Church as the People of God in the World’. For Barth, this means nothing less than the fact that the church is constituted and defined ‘according to its mission’ (p. 246) as well as tied to ‘Christ’s prophetic office’ (p. 246). The final section is a sort of summary and appraisal along with some critical questions for what a Barth-ian doctrine of the church brings to contemporary ecclesiology.

Overall, I really find it hard to see just how this study could be improved. Bender has faithfully and painstakingly laid out Barth’s doctrine of the church, though he raises good critical questions along the way. This is, quite simply, an essential volume for those interested in Barth and ecclesiology in general. While not for the uninitiated, those with some familiarity with Barth will only come away better for having read this.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

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