In this monograph by Smythe, we are offered a fascinating tour of Barth’s theological exegesis of Paul, with a special focus on the letter to the Romans. The author laments over the denial or minimization of what she calls ‘forensicism’ in Paul coming from such quarters as (1) recent interpreters of Paul (i.e., the so-called New Perspective); (2) the ecumenical movement; (3) recent Reformation scholarship; and (4) the lack of “theological identity” among Protestant lay and scholars. In contrast to this, forensicism or justification “is the hallmark doctrine of” Protestant churches, according to Smythe.
Enter: Karl Barth. Smythe argues that, citing John Webster, there is a lacuna of study of Barth as an exegete of Scripture, and, as such, she seeks to remedy this, at least in part, with her monograph. By turning to Barth, she is also keen to enlist the aid of those interpreters who can be described as following the apocalyptic turn in Pauline studies; that is, those interpreters who read “Paul with an eye to his apocalyptic eschatology.” Thus, throughout the volume, she puts Barth in conversation with Ernst Käsemann, J. Christian Beker, J. Louis Martyn, and Martinus de Boer, to name a few.
Moreover, in her explication of Barth, she is concerned to note his genetic-historic development, expressed in his development from the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans to his more mature A Shorter Commentary on Romans and his Church Dogmatics (CD) (esp. vols. II/2, IV/1 and IV/3.1). Furthermore, she incorporates Barth’s Christ and Adam at points. This development, for Smythe, demonstrates Barth’s maturation as an interpreter of Scripture (in this case, Pauline themes in Scripture).
Having set forth her emphases and concerns, Smythe writes that her aim “is to undertake a more sustained, accurate, and theologically complex reading of Barth’s contribution to the question of a Pauline doctrine of justification.” Though more will be said below, at this point it can and should be noted that, in the opinion of this reviewer, Smythe succeeds without question to meet her aim for the book.
By applying the term “forensic apocalyptic” to Barth’s doctrine of justification, Smythe is following de Boer, who distinguishes two patterns in Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, namely, the “cosmic-apocalyptic” pattern and a second pattern, the “forensic apocalyptic.” The latter pattern is distinguished from the first in that the emphasis in not on “evil cosmic powers” but on “human free will and individual human decisions,” which naturally leads to sin being answered by God’s judgment, hence introducing a forensic element into apocalyptic eschatology. Smythe argues in turn that “Paul is adapting these two patterns of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in light of his Christology and that Barth’s own forensic apocalyptic eschatology is fully consonant” with Paul’s adaptations.
Yet, in contrast to de Boer, who sees the “cosmic-apocalyptic” as having greater priority over the “forensic apocalyptic” in Paul, Barth, according to Smythe, reads Paul in a way which holds these two patterns together without causing one to trump the other. In other words, Barth as theological interpreter does not fit easily into the interpretive mold set forth by de Boer. Rather, Barth is seen by Smythe as a corrective of the apocalyptic interpreters of Paul throughout her study. Moreover, Barth is seen to offer a corrective to the Reformation doctrine of justification by “his intensifying of forensicism,” which is a result of “his historicized theological ontology,” which, in turn, “expresses both the reality that God has elected to take humanity into the event of God’s being and the reality that the human Jesus participates in the being and existence of God.” This interpretation of Barth follows McCormack vis-à-vis such interpreters as Hunsinger and Molnar.
These key elements of Smythe’s treatment of Barth are applied throughout the subsequent chapters as she looks at the intersection of Barth’s forensic apocalyptic approach to justification with such theological loci as revelation, atonement, justification, theological anthropology, and eschatology. Of these, this reviewer found her discussion of theological anthropology to be most helpful for personal edification.
There are a number of strengths of this volume. First, she displays with clarity and depth Barth’s strengths as an interpreter of Scripture, especially in light of the apocalyptic turn in NT studies. Second, much of this volume serves not only to offer a reading of Barth but also a reading of those NT scholars who have been participants in this interpretation of Paul. Third, this book rehearses from a different perspective both the continuity and discontinuity that exists between Barth and the Reformers. Fourth, the genetic-historical feature of her explication of Barth lends further credibility to McCormack as an interpreter of Barth over against Hunsinger, et al. Yet, this last strength may also be to the chagrin of those sympathetic to Barth who may which to see Barth as more of a corrective to rather than a (radical) departure from classical Reformation theology.
Two potential weaknesses are related to these strengths. Though Barth’s interpretation of Paul throughout his corpus, but especially in his mature work, seems to bolster the claims of McCormack and others, this reading of Barth would have been strengthened if Smythe had, even in an appendix, engaged more directly with the Barth interpreters who do not agree with the “historicized theological ontology” proposed by herself and McCormack. Also, at points she does not integrate the readings of other apocalyptic readings of Paul into her discussion of Barth in a manner that convincingly demonstrates both his continuity and discontinuity with these readings, often being content with a passing mention of a particular interpreter in place of this.
Yet, despite these criticisms, this is a significant work for those interested in the doctrine of justification, in the apocalyptic turn in NT studies, in Barth or even in Reformation theology (as it pertains to justification) and thus it will offer plenty of food for thought for almost any reader of the volume who works through it. In sum, this is a monograph that should read by any serious student of theology.