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Bruce McCormack: Orthodox and Modern


Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

Bruce McCormack is the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He instantly became one of the world’s leading interpreters of Karl Barth’s thought with the publication of Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995). The present book, a collection of essays from journals and books, is the long-awaited follow-up punch to that 1995 book. “Punch” is not too strong a word, as these essays should go a long way toward revising the dominant North American view of Barth’s theology. It will be interesting to see how it stirs things up.

I personally do not agree with Barth’s theology, so there is much about this book that I cannot accept on a prescriptive, theological level. But when judged in comparison with other books on Barth, especially those under the influence of “Yale theology” and its attempt to turn Barth into a narrative theologian, I find the theology here much more philosophically consistent than anything that English-speaking Barthians have produced in the past forty years. It is also much more palatable to a student of the New Testament. I am thus torn. I am not in favor of Barthianism, but if there must be Barthians, then I much prefer that they be of the McCormack sort (which appears to be more faithful to Barth himself) than of the Hans Frei sort.

The writing in this book is always clear, even when the subject is obscure. One drawback for the beginning reader, of course, is that much of the discussion will seem in-house, as inevitably is the case with anything that is Barth-related but which is not an introduction. Those coming to Barth studies from the side of biblical studies will especially have a difficult time making out the terrain. Nevertheless, the importance of Barth for understanding present-day theology makes this an important book for teachers of theology.

This book is unfortunately marred by an instance of verbatim repetition: some of the wording on p. 273 is identical with wording found on pp. 296-97. (If students are punished for recycling their own words, then why is it alright for scholars to recycle their own words? That spate of laziness comes back to bite when the essays in question are gathered into a single collection, as they are here.)

Reviewed by John Poirier


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About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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