Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Ephesians, edited by R. David Nelson, translated by Ross M. Wright (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 182 pp., $21.50, hardcover (ISBN 978-0-8010-3091-8).
In 1919, after finishing his first Letter to the Romans, Barth studied the Epistle to the Ephesians for his work in the parish of Safenwil (traces of that study can be found in the famous Tambach lecture). He read the epistle with a confirmation class, he held eighteen sermons on it between May 4 and September 7 (published in the Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe in 2003), and he dictated a German translation with some explanatory remarks for a study group. In the autumn of 1921, when for the first time he was obliged to offer lectures for his newly acquired Chair for Reformed Theology in Göttingen, he announced two series of lectures: an historical one on the Heidelberg Catechism (for a small group), and an exegetical one on the Epistle to the Ephesians (for around sixty hearers). The Safenwiler manuscript of 1919/20 and the Lectures of the Winter Semester 1921/22 (together with his explanatory lectures on the Epistle of James) were edited in the Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe by Jörg-Michael Bohnet in 2009.
The academic lectures on Ephesians are now separately edited and translated into English. Ross M. Wright, who holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, has been working on his translation for many years, already before the appearance of the German edition. Together with the editor, he consulted many specialists in the Karl Barth Archiv in Basel, the Barth Center in Princeton, the Barth Translator’s Seminar, and so forth. A selection was made from the annotations of the Gesamtausgabe, quotations in Latin and French were provided with an existing or a fresh translation, German words were explained
when necessary, references to other English translations of the Göttingen Lectures were made, and all those materials added with his own observations: a remarkably conscientious work!
The edition is enriched with two introductory essays. Francis Watson compares Barth’s first New Testament lectures with the second Letter to the Romans, which appeared in the same period (around Christmas 1921). A clear difference is Barth’s attention to historical questions, such as the authorship of the epistle, although he presents his reflections on such issues without any passion. More important is Barth’s interest in the structure of the text, especially of the doxology (Eph. 1:3–14). Of course, this is a standard exegetical practice, but it fails in both his paraphrases of the Epistle to the Romans. For the first time, in his explanation of Ephesians Barth was on the way to provide an exegetical basis for the analysis of the theology of the text. For Barth himself, finding the textual structure of the section was an important help to find a way in the grammatically very complicated sentences, which he discovered to be a compendium evangelicum (Bengel): “I am surprised that it has not been more prominent in historic and systematic account of Christianity, and I hope that you [the students that heard these lectures] are not disappointed that we have devoted the majority of the course to it” (126).
The second essay is written by John Webster and was delivered to the editor on the last day of March 2016, some weeks before his fully unexpected passing on May 25 of that year. Therewith, this text appears to be a last proof of his wrestling with the theology of Barth, that is, about a God that is beyond all relations, and exactly for that reason also the one who causes the relation to him in which we may stand (49).
I finish with some technical remarks, without any intention of relativizing the remarkable achievement of the editing team:
– (p. 70): Barth’s pencil notation “6:23–24!” needs an explanation. Barth translates the last verse of the Epistle: “grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in his imperishable essence” (Predigten 1919, p. 326; GA 46, p. 43). This could be an argument that the letter is addressed to a general audience.
– (p. 79f.): Barth translates καθως in Eph. 1:3 with nämlich (GA 46, p. 76) In the translation there is only a colon, but it would be better to insert “that is” (92).
– (p. 106): “It means”; German: “wir haben keinen Anlass (…), an etwas Anders zu denken als an …” (GA 46, 110).
– (p. 112): “even”: in the German text “eben,” that means: “exactly.”
– (p. 118): The comment seems to be not only by the German editor, but a marginal notation of Barth himself.
– (pp. 131ff.): Here there could be a reference to the lecture of Walter Bauer, as mentioned on p. 9 (GA 46, p. 139n184).
– (p. 133): “I shall follow this lead.” German, rather otherwise: “wie wir uns auch dazu stellen mögen” (GA 46, 142).
Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer
Protestant Theological University, The Netherlands