Conference Report: "For the Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology"


(Princeton, NJ, June 1999)


Over three hundred people packed Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton for the international conference on June 17-19, 1999 that kicked off the seminary's new Center for Barth Studies. When the venue shifted to the Mackay Campus Center Auditorium, there was standing room only. "For The Sake of the World: Karl Barth and the Future of Ecclesial Theology", the conference theme, attracted participants from all across the United States, a sizeable contingent from Canada, and visitors from as far away as Korea, Europe, and Great Britain. Roughly forty percent were pastors and ten per cent were lay people, with students and professors making up the rest. Among the events were a splendid reception at the Center of Theological Inquiry, worship with a powerful sermon by William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and a memorable banquet in the Mackay Main Dining Room that sparkled with Mozart string quartets, delightful reminiscences of Barth as a teacher by John Godsey, and an award of appreciation to publisher William B. Eerdmans, Jr. Many participants commented that it was the best conference, or one of the best, they had ever attended.

The participants were welcomed by seminary president Thomas W. Gillespie and by myself, George Hunsinger, the Barth Center's director. IPeoplewas pleased to announce that the Center had just concluded negotiations enabling it to purchase the library of the late Markus Barth, the New Testament professor and son of Karl Barth. A special division of the Barth Center will be devoted to Markus Barth's letters, papers and books. Recently, moreover, a hand-written autograph copy of the Preface to the third edition Karl Barth's epoch-making Romans has been donated as well. The Center will continue to seek materials of archival interest.

A stimulating start to the conference was provided by John Hart. Currently serving as Presbyterian pastor in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, Hart presented the results of his doctoral research at Oxford on the Barth/Brunner correspondence. This fascinating exchange, spanning nearly four decades, will soon appear in the Barth Gesamtausgabe (the series of mostly posthumous writings that now fills two whole shelves, with more yet to come). One hopes that these letters will also appear English. Responding to Hart was Princeton's own Daniel L. Migliore. Recently installed as the Charles Hodge Professor of Theology, Migliore showed once again why he has inspired generations of PTS students to study and treasure Karl Barth.

After breaking for the reception and then dinner, the conference reconvened for an evening session on "Karl Barth and the Jews." Two eminent Barth scholars with expertise in this area were on the docket. Well-known as Barth's distinguished biographer and as his successor in theology at Göttingen University, Eberhard Busch spoke on "covenantal solidarity" between Jews and Christians in Barth's thought. Katherine Sonderegger of Middlebury College was the thoughtful and learned respondent. Barth's provocative, controversial and tough-minded views received sympathetic yet critical attention.

The next morning began a full day of sessions and presentations. It is a great irony for those drawn to Barth by his linking of traditional faith with progressive politics to see him become a symbol in the US of reaction. Clifford Green of Hartford Theological Seminary and David Hollenbach of Boston College evoked Barth as a public intellectual who was constantly embroiled in political controversy.

They effectively retrieved his social relevance for today. A worship service then followed led by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, professor of pastoral theology at PTS, that included Coffin's preaching on "You Corrupted Your Wisdom for the Sake of Your Splendor." After lunch the participants were delighted by an airing of the 1961 BBC interview with Barth, in which he says that if he hadn't been a theologian he would have liked to be a traffic cop. Barth's doctrine of providence was extensively explored by Caroline Schröder of Bonn University and then deftly placed within the history of doctrine by Notre Dame's Randall Zachman. Before adjourning for the banquet, a panel discussed "the future of Barth studies." Led by Prof. Bruce McCormack of PTS, recent winner of the prestigious Berlin-based Karl Barth Award for the excellence of his work on "Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology" (Oxford, 1995), the panel included Eberhard Busch, John Webster of Oxford, and Hans-Anton Drewes, director of the Karl Barth-Archiv in Basel. Drewes rocked the conference with his musing that the axis of Barth studies may actually be shifting to the United States.

The final day of the conference included a brilliant paper by philosopher Caroline Simon of Hope College comparing Barth and André Trocmé on Christian love followed with a seasoned, equally brilliant response from theologian John Webster. The conference closed with a paper I presented on "Mysterium Trinitatis: Karl Barth's Conception of Eternity. The respondent, Brian Leftow of Fordham University, sadly unable to attend because of illness, wrote in his reflections that Barth had fully christianized the doctrine of eternity for the first time by re-locating it within an explicitly trinitarian context, as my paper had shown. The proceedings of the conference will be published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.