The Epistle to the Ephesians: Karl Barth

(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017) ISBN 9780801030918 (hardcover) – 182 pp. Price $18.33

Edited by: R. David Nelson

Translated by: Ross M. Wright

I wanted to first off say thank you to Baker Academic for sending me an unsolicited review copy of Karl Barth’s Ephesians commentary. This review will offer entrée into the current volume under consideration by engaging with the editor’s and translator’s thoughts, and then by engaging with the two forwards written respectively by Francis Watson and the late John Webster. In closing I will give a my brief impression of this book, and impress upon the reader what I think about its value.

As the editor, David Nelson notes in regard to the origin of Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, as well as its offering in English translation in this current work, “Karl Barth’s lectures on Ephesians from 1921–22 are published for the first time in English in this little volume. The lectures provide a window into Barth’s developing theology during the critical period of the early 1920s and right around the publication of the second edition of Der Römerbrief (1922)” (p. 1). Indeed, Barth did this work as he taught Ephesians in his role as professor of Reformed theology at Göttingen University; which was his first professorial post following the publication of his first volume of Der Römerbrief. As the translator Ross Wright notes in regard to the development of these lectures and what became Barth’s commentary on Ephesians, “…The exposition consists of a detailed exegesis of the Greek text of Ephesians 1:1–23, originally delivered as thirteen lectures, including a summary of Ephesians 2–6 in the final lecture” (p. 7). The reason Barth had to compress chapters two through six was simply a lack of time; he of course had many other pressures placed upon him, not to mention the publishing of his second Romans commentary. But what he did produce in his more detailed exegesis is quite impressive, and what you would expect from the capaciousness of Karl Barth.

As noted previously Francis Watson and John Webster, respectively, wrote introductory essays for this publication of Barth’s commentary; both valuable pieces of reflection in and of themselves. As David Nelson notes, as a former PhD student of Webster’s: “Barth’s Epistle to the Ephesians turned out to be my final opportunity to work with my erstwhile Doktorvater, John Webster, who passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. From what I have been able to gather, it is also his last word on Barth, with whose thought he had wrestled his entire career” (p. 6). For those of us who were “students” of Webster’s from afar, this makes his contribution to this volume that much more significant.

In order to get a taste of how both Watson and Webster engaged with Barth’s Ephesians, and for purposes of time, I am simply going to offer quotes from each of them as provided for in the concluding summative remarks of their respective essays. Hopefully you’ll be able to get a sense of the whole of their essays by reading a small part of them here. We will hear from Watson first, then Webster.

Here is how Francis Watson closes his essay:

As evidenced in the Ephesians lectures of 1921–1922, Barth’s relation to the traditions and conventions of biblical scholarship is complex. As we have seen, Barth distances himself from what he (wrongly) regards as extraneous historical questions about author and addressees, yet he devotes significant parts of the earlier lectures to discussing them (I). He works with the Greek text and has internalized the exegete’s awareness that small-scale issues of syntax and sense can have major interpretive consequences (II). Equally characteristic of the exegete are Barth’s concern to analyze the structure of larger units of text and the willingness to engage with and learn from other exegetes in doing so (III). While theological preoccupations are everywhere to the fore, Barth makes serious and successful attempts to show their grounding within the scriptural text (IV). Barth’s radical Paulinism leads him to make unexpected common cause with a scholar already regarded by many as an archenemy of historic Christianity (V). Nearly a century after they were delivered, and from whatever perspective one comes to them, these lectures on Ephesians retain their power to disconcert (p. 30).

Reading Watson’s closing remarks the reader might get the impression that the whole of his essay was largely critical of Barth; but that isn’t quite the case. While he has some serious reservations about Barth’s ultimate conclusions I think Watson’s essay as a whole offers a charitable reading of Barth, and sheds light on Barth’s context and circumstance as he operated as a theological exegete of scripture.

John Webster approaches Barth a bit differently than does Watson. Here are his concluding remarks at the end of his essay:

It would be relatively easy to judge Barth’s lectures, both in what they say about divine revelation and its apostolic media in their presentation of Christian existence in relation to God, as often trapped by the malign contrast: aut gloria Dei aut gloria hominis. Such an opposition is not Barth’s intention: the lectures (along with those on Calvin from the following semester) are in part a struggle to articulate a relation between the “vertical” and the “horizontal” that is neither antithesis nor synthesis. So intense is Barth’s concern to draw attention to the nongiven, nonrepresentable character of God’s presence that he allows himself to say rather little about the human forms and acts by which divine revelation and saving action are communicated and received and about the ways in which they shape and order human life and activity—beyond some highly charged descriptions of the dislocation that they engender. Together with Barth’s instinctive occasionalism and his insistent rhetoric, this intensity runs the risk of denying what, after many qualifications, he is trying to affirm. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth will leave this difficulty behind in his long descriptions of God’s economic acts and the human moral history that they evoke and sustain. Here, however, his principal concern is to refuse to think of God and creatures as reciprocal, commensurable terms; yet in so doing, he sometimes appears to subvert not only commensurability but all relation (p. 49).

Whereas Watson focused more on the biblical discipline aspects of Barth’s approach to lecturing and exegeting Ephesians, Webster, as the quote reveals, focuses on theological thematic themes that he perceives as funding Barth’s theological frames as he engages with the book of Ephesians. While largely appreciative of Barth’s work, Webster also evinces some critical notes as he thinks through what in fact Barth accomplished and communicated in his study of the epistle to the Ephesians.


In contrast to the esteemed Watson and Webster, while their points are clearly attuned to the finer impulses of Barth’s theology and exegesis, I walked away from my reading of Barth’s Ephesians with the impression that what he did in Ephesians was rather commentarial. In other words, juxtaposed with the work that Barth did in Romans, his lectures/commentary on Ephesians fit much better with a more traditional biblical commentary. For this reason I found it very refreshing, and even surprising; I wasn’t expecting to encounter Barth with this sort of genre attendant to his pen. You will certainly get Barth’s theology, as his exegesis, no matter where that is encountered, is always going to “err” on the side of the theological exegetical combine; but I was impressed with his ability to follow the text-line in an almost expositional manner. He certainly hits upon a variety of themes, one important theme being his doctrine of resurrection, which Webster highlights in his essay, and for that this work is also important as it gives us an insider’s look into Barth’s early theological thought life; again, another reason to pick up this book and read.

All in all, I was very refreshed by reading this book. I commend it to all who are interested in understanding Barth’s theology; not to mention for those interested in getting a unique look at the Apostle Paul’s theology—from one theologian to another. If I was going to rate it on a star system I’d give this volume a five out of five stars. Tolle lege.