The headless horseman who drives the coach-a-bower (Irish: coíste bodhar), the death coach in Irish lore, is allowed to speak only the name of the departed. I first learned about the coach-a-bower from the 1959 Disney film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The story of the film tells about Darby O’Gill, a little old Irishman who captures King Brian, king of the Leprechauns. When his daughter, Katie, is close to death near the end of the movie, Darby asks his third wish from King Brian—that the death coach take him instead of Katie. The coach pulls up, the door opens, and a booming voice pronounces the name of him who must ride to the world of the dead, “Darby O’Gill!”
If Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) had been Irish, I suppose the headless horseman would have called his name in 1860, though there would be no historical evidence to prove it. The older contemporary and onetime teacher of D. F. Strauss, Baur and his erstwhile student deeply agreed on the importance of historical study. Baur, however, would prove the more constructive and ultimately more influential of the two. Considered the founder of the “Tübingen school” of historical-critical interpretation of the New Testament, Baur earned the scorn of the supernaturalist conservatives of his day. In his insistence on critical-historical engagement with Christian faith, Baur resembled his infamous student. Where the two disagreed was in the result of historical study. Whereas Strauss believed history could only destroy dogma, Baur sought in history the objective content of Christian theology. Unable to fully accept the subjectivist approach of Schleiermacher, Baur fostered, as Barth writes, “a lifelong interest in objective theological truth” (487). But no Protestant theologian of the age thought to look to “revelation” (as Barth would later do) for the objective content of theology. Rather, the theologians of the day looked to the Wissenschaft (science) of history, and Baur determined the theological shift from faith-oriented to critical history.
Although Baur is primarily known today as a great, early historical-critical exegete of the New Testament, during his own day Baur acquired the title, “critical theologian.” It was not a compliment. With Baur, as with his other nineteenth-century interlocutors, Barth displays a remarkable generosity. As with Strauss, Barth honors Baur’s questions without affirming his answers. The question that Barth identifies in Baur is not simply the historical question, but more specifically the historiographical question. Far beyond Baur’s rigorous but speculative exegetical conclusions, Barth recognizes in Baur the question that Strauss virtually ignored—the question of methodology.
In particular, Baur sought to rectify theological concern with church history, saving it from both “pragmatic” historiography (i.e, the presentation of bare facts) and from its counterpart, “dualistic” historiography, which saw history as moments in the struggle between God and the devil. “Against these two methods,” writes Barth, “Baur raised the by no means ungrounded objection that neither had really shown full awareness of the real subject-matter of church history, the former because it had no concept of a cause, an objective, a theme of history, and therefore could not see the wood for the trees; the latter, because while it had this concept, it immediately stunted it and limited it by antithesis, and a dualistic objective is no objective at all” (488). The question Baur puts to modern theology did not have to do with whether orthodox Christianity was viable by the criterion of history but rather with the overarching meaning of the (critical) history of Christianity. Insofar as Barth has recognized all of this, he has struck the heart of the matter. Barth again displays his faculty of perceiving past superficial readings and sympathetically feeling the true angst that drove the theologians of the nineteenth century.
Hegel was (posthumously) the salvation of Baur’s questions in a way he was not for Strauss. Baur took to heart the Hegelian dialectic and understood history to be the unfolding of the objective content of Christian faith. This was most prominent in his most lasting (and now obsolete) interpretation—an originally Semitic Petrine Christianity in conflict with the early Greek Pauline Christianity, synthesized by the end of the first century into Early Catholicism. And in a similar repetition, the Catholic and Protestant faiths stand in dialectical relationship, awaiting synthesis. But this unfolding dialectic, for Baur, and one might also argue for the majority of twentieth-century New Testament scholars, was the content of the Gospel.
Barth allows only two viable challenges to Baur: either a wholly secular history or a historical theology that does not conflate the Spirit of God and the spirit of humankind. The problem in Baur is “the identification of the Spirit that knows and rules history with man’s own spirit that considers history” (492). Indeed, we can certainly affirm Barth’s criticism of Baur’s Hegelian collapse of the Spirit of history and the content of church dogma. But can we then help but marvel that the only viable challenge Barth allows is the challenge of a “historical” theology? Where Barth’s short piece on Baur stumbles is in Barth’s inability to really offer an alternative in the face of the necessity of Baur’s positive position. Although they were deeply in accord, in one sense Baur and Strauss were not alike, but opposites—Strauss the critical destructor, Baur the critical constructor. It is a credit to the strength of Baur’s intellect that he found a way to build a theology on the foundation of critical history, but it is perhaps to the credit of Strauss’s utter honesty that he thought the foundation of critical history offered itself to no such construction. In order to save historical theology from Strauss, Baur had to understand the results of critical history as the revelation of the Spirit. It was precisely because Baur made the Hegelian move that his method survived the destructive impulse, and the Hegelian Spirit has left its mark on the historical method ever since. The question we might ask Barth, then, is whether the historical theology he himself advocates as a challenge to Baur is not in fact already a deadly concession to Baur. If we cannot follow Baur’s advance, do we end up in Strauss’s decay? And if the answer is inevitably “yes,” then is not the critical-historical way of Baur already the death coach of theology?
- Andrew Guffey