Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Lessing

(This post comes to us from Christopher TerryNelson. Be sure to head over and check out his blog, Disruptive Grace.)

Thank you, Travis, for allowing me to collaborate on this project, for it has allowed me to know both Barth and Lessing more deeply. Lessing, as both a child and enemy of the Enlightenment, raised perhaps one of the most salient problems at the time, which still remains with us today: the “nasty big ditch” between the certainty of immediate experience and the uncertainty of events witnessed long ago and accounted in the Holy Scriptures and church tradition. Lessing’s quotes have been italicized to help the reader differentiate between his voice and that of Barth.

Lessing was “on the one hand a perfect and perfecting man of the eighteenth century and on the other hand a complete stranger to his age” (220). Lessing adopted as his own position the philosophy of the Enlightenment, “with its unconditional will for form in morality, and resulting respect for the all-embracing power of natural logic, its unquestioning acceptance of the view of life built up on this logic and on natural experience.” While Lessing could speak of the heart and of experience, he “did not advance to that revolution of the heart against science and morals which Rousseau so stormily implemented” (221). Lessing’s dramas, “suddenly dared to take as its real object the nature of man himself” (223).

While Lessing’s had many criticisms of the history of the church and its dogmas, Barth found Lessing’s most interesting criticism was against the concept of revelation. When believers speak of a higher revelation, “they want truths to have been received through these which might be truths perhaps in another possible world, but not in ours. This they recognize themselves, so they call them mysteries, a word which refutes itself” (229). Lessing believed that pious feelings led to ecstasy, whereas religion should properly lead to virtue.

Barth notes that Lessing really had the best intentions towards the confused Lutheran Church, and attempted to provide it with advice for how to conduct itself in the present while waiting God’s final judgment that would enlighten. Lessing thought that revelation should be interpreted as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries – “as one which is certain in itself” (235). In contrast, the theology of the 18th century replied with historical defenses “to the detriment and obviously in misunderstanding of its own cause” (236), for it failed to acknowledge the reality of the “nasty big ditch”:

Historical proof of revelations means the historical proof of prophecies fulfilled and miracles which actually came to pass. But this proof cannot serve as proof of revelation. For the certainty which would have to be contained in a proof of revelation would necessarily be lacking in such a historical proof . . . For no historical truth, even when it is supplied with the best evidence, can be demonstrated. But if ‘no historical truth can be demonstrated, then neither can it in turn be used to demonstrate anything’ . . . ‘That, that I say, is the nasty big ditch I cannot get over, often and earnestly as I have tried the jump.’” (237-38).

Lessing’s famous maxim runs thus: “‘Accidental historical truths can never become proofs for necessary truths of reason’” (239). Despite the fame Lessing receives in theological circles for this negative critique, Barth will not allow it to have the final word, for he believes it was not a genuine concern, since historicity was unnecessary from a theological viewpoint anyway. The answer that Lessing had up his sleeve was no less than a turn to the subject and to practicality: “What do I care, whether the tale is true or not: the fruit is delicious” (238). And again: “‘He who has a more Christian heart than head’ is not deterred in the slightest by these objections, because he feels ‘what others are content only to think, because he at all events could dispense with all the Bible’” (239).

Lessing’s advice consisted in the fact that historical truth becomes revelation and proves that it has the force of the necessary truth of reason. The true religion is self-confirming. Revelation for Lessing is neither God’s decision to be for humanity, nor is it the “‘miraculous power’ with which God, as the Lord of history, espouses the cause of historical man in a historical encounter which man comes to share directly’” (248). There is no encounter with God, and revelation in this sense is precluded as a witness to the truth. While such a concept of revelation is not relevant to the historical apologists, it is “relevant to the notion that the Holy Scriptures are the authoritative document for the historical truth which to the church is identical with revelation.” As Barth notes, “it is precisely the Protestant doctrine of Scripture that Lessing is trying to juggle away.” Barth sees Lessing as being line with the projects of both Roman Catholicism and Protestant modernism “in favour of history itself as distinct from and as against the Lord of history, who is indelibly denoted precisely by the Protestant doctrine of the Scriptures” (249).

Lessing supplants Scripture with the concept of history, so that history is identical with revelation. There is no “Lord of history within history.” Yet history is identical with revelation only in a provisional sense, in the realm of possibility. No final judgment can be made on our part, and thus we are impelled toward a religious tolerance in the meantime (which Locke and Rousseau among others advocated so strongly at the time). Barth notes also that Lessing has a tendency to switch between emphasizing God as the educator of humanity in history while also saying that this education comes from within humanity itself through reason. The implication is that it makes no difference “whether we say ‘God’ or whether we say ‘humanity understanding’ in the significant places . . . It is difficult to say in what respect there is a distinction between them” (250). Barth asks rhetorically whether humanity is after all “self-sufficient” for Lessing, questioning whether the final word regarding true religion even matters at this point.

One of the obvious strength’s of Barth’s interpretation of Lessing is undoubtedly how much he lets Lessing speak without interruption or judgment. Barth had patient ears to hear the one whom he sought to surpass by necessity, just as Lessing himself seems to have been quick to listen to the point of empathy with both the orthodox and neologians. Barth would later walk that fine line as a critical realist between biblical literalists and religious-symbolic expressivists.

How do Lessing and Barth square up on the various issues discussed? Whereas Lessing held that piety to often lead to a lack of virtue, Barth saw piety and virtue in themselves to be part and parcel of the same works-righteousness and subjectivism, although they had their proper place. In his own rejection of a program of historical apologetics, Barth differed with Lessing on the reason for doing so. Rather than following his contemporaries (also indebted to Lessing) in a turn to the subject, Barth emphasized the objective character of revelation in the personal and concrete act of the Lord over history within history itself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Anxiety over the epistemological distance between the human subject and the prophetic and apostolic witness of Scripture is precluded by the revelation that has already taken place. The content of revelation is not available within the human person due to sin, and the content of revelation required the means of revelation – that is, it took place outside us even as it spoke to us and made itself accessible to us in our humanity.

- Chris TerryNelson


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