First Impressions

Before trying to articulate my understanding of the content of Church Dogmatics I want to give you my first impressions of the style of this massive work – a style that makes it one of the more challenging works I have ever read. Starting with the first page I encountered some of the elements that make it so difficult.

The first difficulty is that there are two font sizes – a normal size and a small size. It seems that the smaller font size is used for parenthetical comments, but it can stretch on for several pages. Although the smaller font is readable, it takes more concentration. I have not yet had to resort to using a magnifying glass to read the small print, but I may in the near future.

Also on the very first page is a small sample of another stylistic difficulty: Barth frequently quotes from other sources in Latin or Greek.
Here is what I encountered on the first page:

Theology is de divinitate ration sive sermo (Augustine, De civ.DeiVII, 1).
Θεολογος est ο τον εκ Θεον εκ Θεου εις δοξαναυτου λεγων
(Coccejus, Summa theol., 1699, 1,1).

This is not an isolated example. Barth often gives quotes in Greek or Latin. Since my hardbound edition of Church Dogmatics gives no translation of these languages, I decided to buy the study edition which is in paperback format and includes translations of all the Greek and Latin statements in footnotes. However I decided that I prefer the clear, dark print of my hardbound edition. So my method has been to read from the hardbound volumes and look up the translations of Greek and Latin in the paperback study edition. By the way, the translation of the above quotes is “Theology is argument or discourse on divinity” and “A theologian is someone who speaks of God, from God, before God to God’s glory.”

Another stylistic challenge in reading Church Dogmatics is Barth’s prose style. Often his sentences are brief and clear. However, just as often, they can run on and on with multiple modifiers, profusions of subordinate phrases, and anti-climactic conjunctions that take his thought in new directions which may or may not be clear upon the first reading or even the second reading of some highly complex, but seemingly important or crucial thought of the theologian. Often, in my first few days of reading, I would stop after few pages and ask myself, What did I just read? Many times I had to admit that I had no idea. Even after re-reading some paragraphs several times, I was still not clear about his meaning.

In my next post I’ll get into the content of Church Dogmatics which is no less daunting for me than Barth’s style.

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