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To Know Christ and to Make Him Known

From Pulpit to Podium: Translator’s Preface

From Pulpit to Podium

Translator’s Preface

Karl Barth’s Academic Lectures on Ephesians Göttingen 1921/22
Translated by Ross M. Wright. Baker Academic Press: forthcoming

Barth delivered the Exegetical Lectures on Ephesians as he made the transition from the pulpit in Safenwil to the podium in Göttingen. The lectures reveal his theological concerns at the time as well as his determination to read and interpret Holy Scripture as a church theologian. The exposition consists of a detailed exegesis of the Greek text of Ephesians 1:1-23, originally delivered as 13 lectures, with a summary of Ephesians 2 – 6 in the final lecture. Readers familiar with Barth’s Epistle to the Romans will recognize signature dialectal expressions, such as “God is God” and “the impossible possibility” as well as philosophical concepts such as “the original” (Ürsprung) to describe the creature’s eternal relationship with God and Kierkegaard’s concept of “indirect speech.” The Ephesians lectures, however, also reveal Barth breaking new ground. The theme of the knowledge of God is far more prominent here than in Romans – partly because of Barth’s engagement with Calvin (he was preparing the 1922 Calvin lectures while delivering the Ephesians exposition), but also because of the prominence of gnosis in text that was before him. Calvin’s influence is also evident in a new awareness on Barth’s part of how the exegete is referred to the text by careful attention to its grammatical, philological, and structural details. Describing Calvin’s “objective study” of the Bible, Barth noted in the Calvin lectures: “We can learn from Calvin what it means to stay close to the text, to focus with tense attention on what is actually there … to track down every detail … to stick with the text and to follow where it leads.”[1] Accordingly, in these lectures, Barth manages to maintain traction with the biblical text as he explores its contemporary meaning.

What kind exegesis is Barth attempting in the Ephesians lectures? Barth used the term Erklärung to describe this particular genre of biblical interpretation, to distinguish it from Kommentar or formal commentary.[2] His explication of the text follows the lectio continua format. Two reading strategies are evident throughout the lectures. One move consists of grammatical, philological, and structural analysis. Barth stands at the podium with the Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament before him and at his disposal, an array of modern critical commentaries and New Testament introductions by Dibelius, Jülicher, Weiß, Von Soden, Kühl, Harnack, Holzmann, Meyer, and Beck as well as Luther’s commentaries on Ephesians and Calvin’s Opera Selecta. At this point, the exposition resembles a lively conversation as Barth takes his place in the interpretive tradition. Scholarly debate about the text, however, is kept to a minimum in order to maintain focus on the text itself. In a second interpretive move, Barth deploys various forms of “ingenious” paraphrase (Bultmann’s phrase) to re-express the meaning of the text. At this point, he relies on dogmatic categories, dialectical language, and philosophical concepts to explore the text’s entailments for present Christian existence. Chiefly, however, he uses intra-textual allusions to create a web of biblical associations, which re-express the meaning of the passage within the larger context of God’s saving purposes.[3] Along the way, the lectures crackle with direct address, admonitions about the ministry – “Consider this well, you who intend to be pastors!”; and polemics with faculty members – “Is the resurrection of Christ ‘only a picture’?” – referring to a lecture the previous day by Walter Bauer. In the Ephesians lectures, then, Barth adopts a form of theological discourse that allows him to engage with with issues of New Testament scholarship while honoring the kerygmatic nature of the biblical text.

Barth’s primary concern in the work of exegesis was to listen to the Sache or subject matter of the text. He likened this activity to listening for the sound of someone scratching on the wall, as if from within a prison cell.[4] He was always trying to find the way to allow that voice to be heard, returning to the same text repeatedly, always listening afresh and in new ways. In his 1921-1922 reading of Ephesians, Eph. 1:3 emerges as the interpretive key to everything that follows: “Blessed be God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” This verse, he notes, “sets the tone for the entire epistle.” It witnesses to the divine action, which proceeds from God, sets the creature in motion, and directs the creature to the glory of God. In the following paraphrase of Eph. 1:3, he summarizes this movement and states the exposition’s main theme: “We are created by God, from whom we come [von Gott her] and for God, towards whom we are moving [auf Gott hin]. We are standing on the ground of the beneplacitum Dei; we are moving toward the goal of the gloria Dei. The knowledge of God is the presupposition and the knowledge of God is the goal of all human being, having and doing, including our present speaking and hearing of divine things!”[5] This theme reflects two of Barth’s central theological concerns during the early period: to establish divine prevenience as the basis for the creature’s encounter with God and to map out the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.[6] We should understand Barth’s approach to Ephesians in light of this concern. He reads Ephesians 1:3 as an indication of the movement from divine action to creaturely existence. The exposition is an attempt to trace this movement.

This translation of Barth’s 2009 Erklärungen des Epheser- und des Jakosbusbriefes, 1919-1929, edited by Jörg-Michael Bohnet, (Zurich, TVZ) is designed to enable the reader to “hear” the lectures as his students heard them.[7] The Greek text of Ephesians is retained, in accordance with Barth’s delivery, demonstrating how his translation conveys crucial interpretive and exegetical moves.[8] Latin and French citations are also included in the body of the text, with standard English translations provided in an end note. Where no standard translation exists, I provide my own. The German text is provided at points to inform the translation. Barth’s sources are identified and full bibliographical information provided, including the standard English edition of translated works. Where Barth misquotes or takes liberties with the source, the original text is provided and the differences noted.

Translators, Vladimir Nabokov warns in “The Art of Translation,” can commit three types of transgressions. The first and least egregious consists of “errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge.” The second and more serious is the practice of omitting words or phrases that are obscure: the translator simply “accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him.” The worst degree of turpitude, however, is when a piece is polished and “patted into shape” to conform to the prejudices of the imagined readers. It is hoped that the errors of this translation fall into the first category and that readers whose knowledge of German is superior to the translator’s will forgive the “errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge.” To avoid Nabokov’s third and worst degree of turpitude, I have made every effort to preserve Barth’s juxtaposition of lively, direct address with long, serpentine sentences which negotiate considerable technical exegetical detail. Barth made large demands on his listeners, and I have tried to resist the temptation to simplify the lectures or polish them into shape to conform to my own prejudices. I hope that the translation conveys something of the complexity as well and the rhetorical power of Barth’s lectures. In the course of translating them, I have often felt that I was in the lecture hall, hearing Barth hold forth, and have been deeply moved.

The demands of weekly sermon preparation first drew me to Barth’s theology and subsequently to his expository courses on the New Testament. If I had to identify a single way in which this project has changed my approach to exegesis and preaching, it would be the influence of Barth’s confidence in scripture as the viva vox dei, the medium through which God makes his presence known, or to express the matter differently, his confidence in the Sache of the text to establish contact with the listeners, as opposed to reliance on personal anecdotes or rhetorical flair. Barth’s confidence in the text to refer the reader to the divine voice has sent me back to the work of exegesis with renewed confidence in eloquence or claritas of the word of God.

This first published English translation of Barth’s Ephesians lectures has been made possible by the enthusiastic support of the editor, David Nelson, who recognized their importance early on. Ken Oakes, who read the text, saved me from a number of embarrassing errors, tracked down several of Barth’s obscure Swiss allusions, and, on the basis of his intimate knowledge of Barth’s 1921 Römerbrief, pointed out a number of places where the translation needed to reflect the dialectical language and style from this period of Barth’s development. Thanks to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church (Richmond), where I serve as rector, I enjoyed a sabbatical in fall, 2012 at the University of the South in Sewanee, and had the opportunity to revise the translation.

An earlier version of this translation was submitted as my PhD dissertation at the University of St. Andrews (2007). The project would not have been possible without the encouragement and support of Dr. Hans-Anton Drewes, former Head of the Karl Barth Archives in Basel. Prior to the appearance of the German edition, he kindly consented to the use of the typescript of Barth’s handwritten manuscript, on which the German edition is based, and provided invaluable guidance along the way, including a warm welcome to the Barth Archives in July, 2004 and the invitation to participate in the Karl Barth Tagung in Leuenberg, Switzerland. He also read the version of the translation that appears here and made valuable suggestions, particularly about Barth’s use of the phrase, “the idea of God.” Dr. Mark Elliott allowed portions of the text to be discussed in a translation study group at the University of St Andrews and made valuable suggestions, which have been incorporated in the translation. Dr. Gisela Kreglinger, a member of my PhD cohort at the University, read several portions of the translation and made valuable suggestions possible only by a native German speaker. My PhD supervisor, Professor Alan Torrance, believed in the project from the beginning and provided the encouragement and guidance necessary for its completion. Professor John Webster, University of St Andrews, alerted me to the importance of Barth’s expository lectures at the Barth-Bonhoeffer Conference in 2000 and provided detailed guidance in the translation and interpretation of Barth’s lectures during the completion of the dissertation. A grant from the Russell Trust permitted important archival work in Basel. The publication of Barth’s Ephesians lectures is the culmination of a project that began in 2003. During this time, my wife, Lynda, and our sons Ross, Elliott, and Owen have sacrificed much to support me in the project. Their love and support has made it possible, and therefore this theological reflection on the praise of God is dedicated to them.


Ross M. Wright
Ashland, Virginia

[1] The Theology of John Calvin. 389.

[2] Perhaps we should not press the distinction too far, and in any event, it is hard to find exact English equivalents to do so. Barth’s exegetical lectures, like Luther’s and Calvin’s expository lectures on the Bible, are neither sermons nor academic commentaries, but combine elements of both.

[3] R. R. Reno.

[4] Conversation with Hans-Anton Drewes at the Karl Barth Archives, Basel, August 8, 2004.

[5] Exegetical Lectures; my emphasis.

[6] John Webster, “Barth’s Lectures on the Gospel of John,” 21.

[7] This is the approach adopted by Guder in Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions. See “Translator’s Preface.”

[8] This strategy is an improvement over older translations of Barth’s exegetical lectures, such as Stenning’s Resurrection of the Dead, which omit the Greek text.