Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Introduction (2)

This section deals with Barth’s fourth chapter, “Protestant Theology in the Eighteenth Century,” and while it is not really prolegomena, it is still in some sense an introduction. Barth flies through the significant figures (for his purposes) of the late 17th and early 18th century, composing a series of vignettes that follow a discernable trajectory. That trajectory is the increase in status, vis-à-vis revelation, that is awarded to human reason. In discussing Johannes Franz Buddeus (1660-1727), Barth writes:
“The reality of the salvation that has been received, the reality of the man who is to be renewed through faith, is the centre towards which the attention of this theologian is directed, and it also, in his view, forms the criterion for the greater or lesser worth of revealed truth. With this approach, the decisive step into a new time has been taken…the introduction of the new criterion involves a new assessment not only of human reason under grace, but also of natural human reason” (128).
This is followed with some comments on Christoph Matthias Pfaff (1686-1760), whom Barth quotes as arguing that, “No revelation is true unless it accords with the light of nature and extends it” (130). This conception is interesting because it seems to set up theology as the “Queen of the sciences”, taking our knowledge beyond that which is attainable by natural means but without contradiction of that knowledge attainable by natural means. To repeat the oft-used construction, ‘grace perfects [or completes] nature.’ This allusive connection to Roman Catholic theology is brought into the fore by Barth later on, when, in his discussion of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), he writes: “From a theological point of view, what was this but a great contemporary repristination of the outline of the approach of Thomas Aquinas?” (142) “This”, that is, Wolff’s system, asserted that “knowledge from reason and knowledge from revelation formed one quantum set alongside each other” (142).

From the inclusion of reason in the theological scheme of things by Buddeus, we now come to the point of seeing reason and revelation as being parallel. Of course, spurred on by the fury of the Enlightenment, this balance could not last for long. This swing was accomplished by a group that Barth, presumably following K. Aner in Die Theologie der Lessingszeit (1929), calls ‘neologists’ (149). According to Barth’s account:
“The saga of neology…consists in the fact that its representatives now at last set to work not to deny revelation as such (that was a further step along the same course), but to attack the dogma handed down as revelation in a number of places and then ultimately to cut it down to the point at which what was still recognized as revelation had approximately reached the extent of what was thought to be secured as the rational truth of religion, namely to the ideas of God, of freedom or morality, and of immortality” (150).
At this point, revelation has become subordinate to reason, and we can understand how small a step it would be from this point to the point of claiming that what passes for revelation is actually only a mythological re-description of basic human experience.

Now, let’s back up and touch on an interesting point that has been left out of our general narrative above.

Barth spends about two pages discussing Jean Alphonse Turrettini (1671-1737), the son of the famed Reformed scholastic whose anglicized name comes down to us as Francis Turretin. It is a shame that Barth doesn’t give us more by way of comparison between father and son, but this is excusable when we consider the breadth of Barth’s undertaking. But, Barth does intimate that the difference between father and son is not so much on the level of the dogmas that they each accepted, but resides on the level of their respective attitudes toward those dogmas: father was not nearly so tolerant as son, seems to be the operative notion.

Whence this tolerance of the son? It grows out of apologetic concern, but it also is possessed of a certain circular quality: “For apologetic to be possible there must be tolerance. And because tolerance is possible, apologetic, too, can be possible” (135). This is not to say that the son was not interested in arguing about dogma; indeed, he thought that the theologian and the church were obliged too. But, tolerance must be advocated as well. Again, Barth: “Doctrinal views even about the loftiest questions can and must be defended like all human opinions; they cannot and may not be taken as absolute” (136). This leads Barth to one of his more suggestive comments from this section: “On the one hand the inability for apologetic and on the other hand the notorious intolerance of earlier times had their root in constraints imposed by the subject matter, in a quite different conception of the relationship between reason and revelation or their nature…” (136).

- WTM

[N.B. Stay tuned. Guest posts begin tomorrow!]

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