The Future of the Complete Edition of Karl Barth's Works (Karl Barth-Gesamtausgabe) – Achievements, Tasks, Expectations

by Hans-Anton Drewes


The decision from summer 1970 to publish a complete edition of Karl Barth's works, including his previously published and unpublished writings, led one year later to the appointment of a full-time chief editor, who should guarantee a consistently high standard of the editorial work and, as far as it seemed adequate and possible, a uniform shape of the edition. The editor-in-chief should also coordinate, in collaboration with numerous editors, the planning and realization of the work on individual volumes. Before that, however, he had to make possible the editorial work itself: by functioning first, time and again, as an archivist who repeatedly and with increasing accuracy had to look at, order, open up, and make accessible the superabundance of Karl Barth's posthumous works that exist in the form of manuscripts, letters, books, brochures, and journals. This was the presupposition that made it possible to answer or at first and often enough to express precisely the questions that were posed by the editorial work on Karl Barth's oeuvre and by its systematic-theological and historical investigation. Thus, the task of the complete edition led directly to the Karl-Barth-Archive, and today both are unmistakably shaped by Hinrich Stoevesandt who worked with impressive competence and passion as the head of the archive and the edition from 1971 to 1997.

Correspondingly, the future of the complete edition also depends on the continuation of the archive's work in preserving and opening up the posthumous works. And this in turn depends on the support for the Karl-Barth-Foundation, the holder of the archive – here we are thankful, first of all, for the support from the Swiss National Foundation, which hopefully will continue to pay for the only full-time position, the archivist, in the future. But the coming years will pose new challenges, and the Karl-Barth-Foundation needs further help from old and new friends. Here we are thankful for the friendly co-operation from the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton (USA), whose efforts enable us to make important steps forward. Besides the precautions for securing and preserving the holdings, through the appropriate treatment of paper that is not acid-free as well as through the microfilming and computerization of manuscripts and letters threatened by the fading of their ink or carbon, further extensive work needs to be done on the ordering, cataloguing, and indexing of the holdings – all for the purpose of keeping or making accessible the heritage of Karl Barth to the reading and researching public.

This is realized mainly through the complete edition of Karl Barth's works, which shall make available in the attainable completeness Barth's texts in their critically secured original wording and with accompanying information and material. The latter renders possible a better understanding of the pertinent connections and of the biographical and historical background. But the production of editions like this not only presupposes a continuation of the archival work along the indicated lines. The progress of the complete edition is equally unthinkable without the co-operation of experts who put their abilities and energies into the service of this team-effort. In this regard, it will also be important that this work, which is done primarily by theologians in the ministry and the academy, is acknowledged and supported by institutions that are affected by it.

Given these presuppositions, it should be possible to proceed with the Karl Barth-Gesamtausgabe until the next Barth-anniversaries (anyone who knows about the difficulties and coincidences during such an undertaking will understand the somewhat vague mode of expression here), according to the following plan that above all intends the completion of units which are already emerging.

Section I (Sermons) will continue with the publication of three especially important volumes, including the sermons from the years 1918, 1919, and 1920/21. Like the sermons from 1916 and 1917, we find in them an extraordinarily exciting authentic commentary on Barth's way throughout the phases of liberal theology and religious socialism to the first edition of the Commentary on Romans and then from the first to the second edition. Thus, in the foreseeable future all of Barth's sermons from 1913 until the time of his death will be accessible. And there exist good conditions for the addition of the residual 148 sermons between 1907 and 1912, insofar as the transcription of the manuscripts has at least already begun.

In Section II (Academic Works) the particularly demanding work on the edition of the second Commentary on Romans from 1922 continues. When it appears, the two interpretations that mark an epoch in the history of theology and no less in the development of hermeneutics will be available in a critical format. Furthermore, the third volume of the "Instruction in the Christian Religion" can be expected in this section, which will complete Barth's Göttingen Dogmatics, on which particularly intense research has been done in the USA. Special attention will be given to its final section, the eschatology from the winter term 1925/26, when Barth was already in Münster, since it is the only worked out treatise of Barth about this topic.

The edition of the "Material related to the Church Dogmatics, 1943/44," which has been planned for a long time, belongs into the same context of systematic theology: pieces about the doctrine of creation and anthropology, which Barth worked out completely and presented in a lecture course but did not include in the printed version of the Church Dogmatics.

As far as Barth's exegetical lecture courses are concerned, only the interpretation of the Gospel of John (chapters 1-8) so far has appeared in the Gesamtausgabe. Intense work is being done on the publication of his other lectures on New Testament books, in two or three volumes: these are the lectures on 1 Corinthians and Philippians and the lecture on Romans at the adult college in Basle, which Barth himself published but which will be accompanied by additional material in the new editions; and especially the unpublished interpretations of Ephesians, Colossians, James, 1 Peter, and the Sermon on the Mount. They each exist in different versions (in the case of Ephesians they go back to the dictations about a short explanation that Barth presented to a congregation group in Safenwil). The comparison of the different stages will be very revealing for the understanding of Barth's theological development. Finally, it might be of great importance that the "whistle" to do "exegesis, exegesis, and once again exegesis," which Barth tried to impress on his students' mind when he left Bonn, can be heard in this direct form – and his entire theological oeuvre shall be heard and evaluated as such a whistle.

After a long time, the lecture course on Zwingli, from the winter term 1922/23, will be published in the section Academic Works, and preparations have begun to publish also the lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, with which Barth began his academic career in the winter term 1921/22. When this task, which is difficult already during its first stage, that is, the deciphering of the manuscript, is solved, the posthumous edition of Barth's previously unpublished lectures will be complete, except for the two Münster lecture courses about the history of Protestant Theology in the 19th century, the third version of which, given in Bonn and greatly revised, Barth himself had published. Section II, however, will not be yet complete, since it shall also include new, critical editions of academic works that already were published during Barth's time, as it happened already, for example, with the "Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf." But it might be agreed that the edition of previously unpublished texts certainly has a priority.

In Section III (Individual Lectures and Brief Works), a volume with texts from 1914 until 1921 shall appear shortly and close an often and rightly deplored gap. The editorial work on the material from 1930 to 1935 has already far advanced and the work on the material from the subsequent years 1935-1938 has begun, so that altogether three volumes can be expected in this section during the next years. If it is at all possible, further volumes that include the texts until 1945 shall follow not too long afterwards.

In Section IV (Conversations), a volume is almost finished that includes the particularly productive year 1963, with many presentations and interpretations about his life and work by Barth himself, and completes the series of conversations between 1959 and 1968. The collection of material continues for another volume with interviews and discussions during the preceding years.

In Section V (Letters) four weighty volumes have been published in the last two years: the correspondence between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, covering 50 years, the letters between Barth and Thurneysen from the years 1930-1935 that were so decisive theologically and historically as well as for Karl Barth's personal life, and two editions of Open Letters, 1909-1935 and 1935-1942. Another correspondence, between Karl Barth and Willem Adolf Visser t'Hooft (1930-1968), is in the making.

On the whole, the material in these volumes is extensive but offers only a small part of Barth's preserved correspondence. Barth's letters make for a particularly fascinating reading, since they give testimony to a disappearing and perhaps already extinct culture of letter writing. But above all, Barth's exchange with the most diverse partners offers a lively and educating insight into his occupation with a wide range of topics and thus into the manifold contexts of thinking and experience, in which Barth lived and worked. Yet, the edition of and commentary on the letters present such high demands on the knowledge, precision, and intuition of the editors that on the basis of a realistic estimate of the tasks and the available resources a fast excavation of these treasures for research purposes and for the wider public cannot be expected, as desirable as it might be. Thus, one has to consider if prior to the publication of further volumes of Karl Barth's general correspondence, which so far exists only for the years 1961-1968, should be preceded by the development and publication of Regesten. This procedure has been well-tested in other cases, as with the letters of Thomas Mann and Melanchthon, to name two very different examples. It not only helps to prepare the subsequent full editions more coherently but also allows to give interested persons in a foreseeable space of time an overview over the correspondence and the topics on which it touches.

Section VI (From Karl Barth's Life) shall begin with a volume that present Barth's conflicts with the Swiss censorship during World War II on the basis of official documents. Together with the Open Letters from the same time, the collection will shed an admonishing and consoling light on threats and preservation in difficult, dangerous times.

In the beginning, I talked about the conditions on which the continuing work of the Archive and thus the publication of further volumes in the Gesamtausgabe, under the appropriate scientific standards, depends. Another condition is the willingness of editors to undergo this difficult task, together with an ability to fulfill it, and the competent and efficient subsequent care of the publisher, which now has felt responsible over many years for the Gesamtausgabe and, even longer, for Karl Barth's oeuvre. The request is therefore appropriate that everyone connected to Karl Barth's theology or, better, attentive to the necessary impulse that can come from it and be fruitful in today's church and society may accompany the undertaking of the realization of the prospect presented here with their good will and benevolence.

(The original German version of this article appeared in Verkündigung und Forschung 46 (2001): 6-10, published by Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn. Translated into the English by Matthias Gockel, Center for Barth Studies, Princeton, NJ, USA.)

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.