Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What Am I Reading? Eberhard Jüngel

What Am I Reading? Eberhard Jüngel

Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy (Garrett E. Paul, trans; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986).

This volume is a translation of some of the material that appeared in German in 1982 under the title Barth-Studien (München). It is not a full translation and, in my humble opinion, some of the best stuff is left out. That ‘left-out’ material primarily concerns Jüngel’s treatment of Barth’s doctrine of baptism. For those of you who like conspiracy theories, see Kurt A. Richardson’s book, Reading Karl Barth, to get his take on why this material remains untranslated.

In any case, what we do have in translation reveals Jüngel to be a first-rate interpreter of Barth who is, among other things, intimately acquainted with Barth’s biography and work. The first 100 pages of this book gives two accounts – one shorter and one longer – of Barth’s life and work (the shorter includes some remarks about his impact and the longer focuses on Barth’s early development). The last remaining 35 pages or so deal with the difference between Barth and Luther on the Gospel / Law relation, and Barth’s Christological work in CD IV.2 primarily, but also in IV as a whole.

What follow includes one short reflection on two aspects of this work that jumped out at me, and one extended quotation from Jüngel dealing with another aspect.

Systematic Theology?

Most students of Barth know of his fondness for ‘beginning once again at the beginning.’ Indeed, this aspect frustrates students of Barth because it is directly responsible for the size of his corpus. It could never, for Barth, be an issue of refining and revising that which was already written. Rather, it had to be always a completely new interpretation of the subject matter of theology. Along these lines, Jüngel says
“Barth’s theology was, from the beginning, an avowed enemy of systems. It remained so even in the very systematically written Church Dogmatics. What is systematic about this theology is that it resolves to make progress precisely by constantly correcting, or else completely changing, its direction.” (27)
This kind of a statement raises the question of whether or not there should be called into existence by Barth’s work some kind of “Barthian scholasticism.” Now, as I have said elsewhere, I’m a big fan of a finely made distinction, which is one of the hallmarks of scholastic theology. So, in the sense that a “Barthian scholasticism” would mean the careful working out of the implications of Barth’s theology, I can see no fundamental problem with doing this kind of work. But, the danger here is that “Barthian scholasticism” might become, instead of a constant questioning and moving forward, the arresting of this movement through establishing a system, whereby theology is moved forward based on foundational premises from which conclusions might be drawn. No matter how closely these foundational premises might reflect the content of revelation as witnessed to by Scripture and attested by the Holy Spirit, they are not identical with this content, and are thus a false starting point – no matter how fruitful thought-experiments that use them as starting points might be. Thus, we must ‘begin once again at the beginning,’ taking our cues not from a system, but from the content of revelation, and thus from Jesus Christ.

Systematic theology? Yeah; but always theology, and not systems building.

Lutheranism, or, What screwed up modern theology before it began?

Ok, I admit that the title of this section is a bit polemic. Luther was a theological genius in his own way. It is just a shame that his insight was far better than his execution. In any case, Jüngel explicates Barth’s understanding of how Luther and Lutheranism lead directly to Feuerbach. Jüngel quotes Barth et al from various sources throughout this section, and because it would be tedious to note them all, you’ll have to get a copy of the book if you really want to follow the citation trail.
“Barth describes the modern history of theology as a progressive deterioration that reached its logical conclusion in Ludwig Feuerbach’s thesis: ‘Theology is anthropology – that is to say, in the object of religion, in what we call…‘God,’ nothing is specified except the essence of man.’ Feuerbach only drew out the logical consequence of the shift in theology’s ‘attention from what God is in himself to what God is for men.’ Luther’s ‘talk of faith as almost a divine hypostasis which moved and worked independently’; the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Lutheran teaching of the Lord’s Supper; and orthodox Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum [the interchange of attributes in the divine-human Christ], which took no notice of the Reformed reservation Finitum non capax infiniti [The finite cannot contain the infinite] – all these signified, Barth held, ‘the possibility of a reversal…of God and man.’ Barth believed that this possibility had become a reality in the modern era and was completely accomplished in Feuerbach.” (37-8)

1 comment:

Shane said...

Anything worth saying is worth saying systematically.

Nor, pace the German romantics, does systematization imply ossification and death. Orthodoxy itself is systematic. And Orthodoxy, as Chesterton reminds us, is a romance.