Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Eye of the Storm - Ceasing Transmission

The First (annual?) Karl Barth Blog Conference is over. The second annual Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary begins this afternoon. In the mean time, my wife and I are going to hear our friend, who is in town for the Barth conference, preach up at a church where he and I did field education together.

I am sorry to report that I will not be able to post regarding the Barth conference. My time is going to be taken up by organizational matters and attending the conference, and my wife and I are leaving for vacation shortly after the conference concludes. This will be the last post here at DET for a number of weeks. It pains me to have to undertake a period of blog silence so quickly on the heels of the traffic boost that the Barth Blog Conference gave me, but that is just how things are. I do hope that my new readers will not despair at my absence. Add DET to your aggregator (Google Reader is, I find, very nice), and keep a weather eye open for my return.

Until then,


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Concluding Remarks and Index

I want to express my deepest thanks to all those who contributed in writing to this first (hopefully annual) Karl Barth Blog Conference. A special thanks as well to those who dropped by and posted comments, and a hearty thanks to the very many of you who stopped by to see what was going on. I must admit that this series was more successful than I anticipated.

Just so you all know, I do plan on trying to put another one of these Barth Blog conferences together for next year. The format will be slightly different, and I anticipate it being shorter. Please contact me if you would like to be involved, and stay tuned in the months ahead – a call for papers will be published.

Feel free to leave any final thoughts that you may have, constructive criticism, tips, ideas, etc, in the comments section of this post. I leave you now with some concluding remarks from Ben Myers.

“We open books from the past in order to come to ourselves.”[1]

In a sharply critical account of Karl Barth, the British theologian John Bowden once observed that the question of how texts are interpreted is “the most serious [question] that can be put to Barth, because interpretation of other writers … is the dominant feature of his theology.”[2] At least in this respect, Bowden was exactly right. Barth practised theology by interpreting texts.

Speaking of the contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler has remarked: “Discussing Hegel and Lacan is like breathing for Slavoj.” Something similar could be said of Karl Barth: interpreting and re-interpreting texts was like breathing for him. No activity was more compelling and more demanding. For Barth, texts were not merely artefacts of the past – they were living voices that confronted him personally with urgent questions and demands. He had a remarkable ability to absorb entire texts and thinkers into the fabric of his own thought; his capacity to be astonished and affected by texts (including his own earlier writings) was limitless.

The texts Barth read supplied him with the intellectual architecture of his own theology; his horizons and possibilities were structured – and constantly extended – by the texts he read. Indeed, a doctoral student in search of a project could trace Barth’s entire development by telling the story of the texts which he was reading or re-reading at specific formative moments of his career.

In some cases, Barth’s struggle to understand a text or writer lasted a lifetime. Schleiermacher, for instance, hovers in the background throughout every stage of Barth’s development. Again and again, he returns to Schleiermacher’s texts; again and again, he remains perplexed by these texts, uncertain about how to respond. When, at the end of his life, he tried once more to write about Schleiermacher (after studying his texts for over half a century!), he could only conclude: “The door is in fact not latched. To the present day, I’m really not finished with him.”[3]

This sense of “not being finished” with the past lies right at the heart of Barth’s engagement with historical texts. Indeed, the real question isn’t whether we’re finished with the past, but whether the past is finished with us. In encountering the past, Barth sees that the present is at stake. Right here and now, the past makes a demand on us. It calls for a response – and thus we are not observers of history, but participants in a living historical tradition.

As we’ve explored Barth’s work on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century over the past several days, this theme has emerged again and again. Barth studies the 19th century in order to understand himself – the texts from the past are his resources for finding out how to act right here and now. As Barth liked to put it, the study of history is the study of history’s Sache or subject-matter. “Onlookers see nothing at all of history as such…. If their eyes are to be opened and they are to be entitled to join in the discussion, they must be involved in the Sache”[4].

To encounter the past is to become responsible for the past, and thus responsible to act in the present. When Barth reads Schleiermacher or Hegel or Kant or Feuerbach, he feels that a demand has been placed on him – he is compelled to respond, to decide, to act. In Barth’s view, it’s by taking responsibility for the past that we become responsible for the theological present – and that means, responsible to God.

- Ben Myers

[1] Barth, The Theology of Calvin, 8.
[2] John Bowden, Karl Barth (London: SCM, 1971), 63.
[3] Barth, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Schleiermacher” [1968], in The Theology of Schleiermacher, 274.
[4] Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 16.

Index of Posts

Introduction - WTM
Introduction (2) - WTM
Rousseau - Michael J. Pailthorpe
Lessing - Chris TerryNelson
Kant - Shane Wilkins
Herder - WTM
Hegel - David Congdon
Schleiermacher - WTM
Baur - Andrew Guffey
Feuerbach - Daryl Ellis
Strauss - Andrew Guffey
Ritschl - Jason Ingalls
Concluding Remarks and Index - Ben Myers

Friday, June 22, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Ritschl

(Jason Ingalls was a year in front of me here in the PTS MDiv program. We worked together on campus and in a local church. He currently works with InterVarsity on the graduate school level at Vanderbilt University. He keeps a blog about his IV work.)
“There were very real reasons why all [Ritschl’s] contemporaries, apart from the adherents to his school, and the history of theology after him showed themselves to be governed by the determination not to allow his words to hold sway as the final and characteristic words of the entire age, no matter how genuine and impressive they might be in their own way.” - Karl Barth, Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, 647.
If there is a point that Karl Barth wanted to make about Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), it would be this: Ritschl was not an epoch-maker. Important, yes. An interesting reaction, yes. Epoch-maker, no. Barth’s assessment stood against the “historians of Ritschl’s school” who wanted to make of Ritschl a parallel stream to the theological revolution of the only true epoch-maker of the nineteenth century: Friedrich Schleiermacher. While Ritschl stirred up controversy and attracted followers during and after his lifetime, only Schleiermacher was “incomparably stronger in 1910 than in 1830” (640). Rather like a rock in a brook, the theology of the nineteenth century momentarily pooled around Ritschl only to continue flowing down Schleiermacher’s stream. “In the development thus hinted at the school of Ritschl played the undoubtedly important rôle of a reaction. It is thus, however, and not as the beginning of a new epoch, that it distinguishes itself from the flood of events and personalities…” (641).

In reading Barth on Ritschl, I felt that Albrecht had become a morality lesson for Barth. Ritschl’s career and legacy are little more than a brief inconvenience in the history of theology, a history characterized by Schleiermacher and Hegel. If anything, it was Ritschl’s ultimate failure to reconfigure theology solidly on the basis of an “antimetaphysical moralist” reading of Kant that provided a negative case study for the theology Barth would later construct.

Consider this quote: “The passion with which he was attacked both from left and right is quite understandable—this self-assurance of modern man was not to everyone’s taste, even between 1860 and 1890—and quite understandable too was the fact that he and his school could not long sustain themselves, once the jubilation over Columbus’ trick with the egg had died away” (642). It is reported that Christopher Columbus once challenged a gathering of nobles to stand an egg on its end. When the whole room failed repeated attempts, Columbus cracked and slightly flattened the bottom of his egg and sat it straight up. Ritschl, apparently, had worked out a compromise with the Enlightenment that had broken theology’s egg, domesticating it to the Enlightenment’s ideal for humankind. Nineteenth century theology, after all, resulted “not at all in an overcoming of the Enlightenment, of its decisive interest of man in himself, but in its fulfillment” (641-42).

But, when we talk of this domestication, we must remember that it was the spirit of the age. Ritschl did not domesticate theology, it was already done!, nor did he find for it a new starting point. Barth adamantly maintains this was Schleiermacher’s work against which Ritschl’s anti-Pietism reacted on the basis of the same starting point (642). It was not to Christopher Columbus’ feat with an egg that Barth alludes, but to Nikola Tesla’s “Egg of Columbus” at the 1893 World’s Columbus Exposition. Tesla’s invention allowed a solid copper egg to stand on its end in the grip of a rotating magnetic field. Instead of a broken end, invisible and temporary forces kept Tesla’s egg upright. So too with Ritschl’s theology. Barth reported that it was “attacked both from left and right” with great “passion.” What held Ritschl’s work upright, according to Barth, is not so much the “genuine and impressive” work he did, but its competing and opposing forces. When these forces dissolved again into the stream of Schleiermacher’s Romanticism, Ritschl’s trick with the egg died away.

But, in dying away, Ritschl may have provided Barth with two lessons for theology. First, ideas might be held upright for a time for no other reason than they are opposed on either side. I think specifically of the Emerging church movement that continues to struggle for a positive basis simply because it is opposed by fundamentalists on the one hand and liberals on the other. Just because an idea stands for a time does not mean that it will finally hold. The second lesson Barth may have learned is this: if one is to start an epoch in theology, one must begin with a fresh starting point. Ritschl’s success and failure showed that “it was possible to abandon the Schleiermacher-Hegel approach” but since Ritschl failed to do so, “a different approach would make necessary the choice of another point of departure” (642). In other words, if theology were to move past the Enlightenment, it could not do so on the basis of the Enlightenment but upon another basis altogether. Though Barth does not state it explicitly here, it is easy to hear the opening strains of his symphony to Revelation, the starting points of starting points, upon which he attempted to inaugurate a new epoch.

- Jason Ingalls

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Strauss

(This is another contribution from Andrew Guffey. If you didn't visit his blog - Seeing the Form - in conjunction with his post on Baur, you may want to do so now.)

Who’s Afraid of D. F. Strauss?

The first time I read (about) D. F. Strauss I immediately set my face against him. The second time I (actually) read Strauss I began to suspect he might be onto something. It is odd for a Chalcedonian-compliant Christian to enjoy Strauss. At least, it is odd for a modern orthodox Christian to do so, since Strauss seems to strike at the very heart of Christianity—Christology. But Strauss was always bound to be a polarizing figure, and his polarization is felt in the unusual respect he acquires from another famous modern orthodox theologian—Karl Barth. And, in fact, while Barth acknowledges the importance of Strauss for nineteenth-century theology, his presentation of Strauss cannot decide whether to admire or admonish.

The work that both marked the life of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) and haunts his ghost was and is his Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet), “a work,” Barth writes, “which made [Strauss] at once and for many years to come the most famous theologian in Germany and ensured that he would never in his life be considered for any post in the church or in the academic world” (527). The force of the work was largely negative, perceived as intent on destroying the foundations of Christian orthodoxy. But in reality, Strauss was merely symptomatic of the post-Enlightenment fascination with history. As Barth eloquently observes, we should look on Strauss not as a great speculative thinker, but “as one who broods, with a passionate, shrewd, and skilful, co-ordinating brooding” (530). Strauss pressed the question of history, and the force with which he asked it regarding the person of Jesus struck fear into the heart of nineteenth-century theology. All his other major works fell flat. None of his attempts at a positive system were very striking, much less influential. It was the force of his question, which he could not (even had he wanted to) effectively answer, that disturbed his confreres. This is Barth’s very accurate reading of Strauss. In short, although Strauss was not a certifiable genius, he reverberated with all the theological anxiety of his day and was intelligent enough and positioned just right to explode the whole.

In his Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, Strauss ranged his attack against both supernaturalist and rationalist interpreters of Jesus, and his assault on both parties was thorough. In this work Strauss sought to question historically, free from faith, the life of Jesus. Dismissing the biblical material as almost entirely myth, he makes no attempt to reconstruct what he has so viciously (virtuously?) rent into shreds. As Barth writes, “Strauss made everything, without exception, historically uncertain” (546). Strauss originally intended this work to be the second of three movements: first, a positive exposition of christological dogma; second, a negative reduction of the former; third, in good Hegelian fashion, a reconstruction of christological dogma for the modern age. The first movement was abandoned, and all attempts at the third were forever curtailed either by the weakness of Strauss’s constructive powers or by his great disdain for theology and the church which followed the upheaval of the occasion of this Life of Jesus. As an example of the third movement, in the same work Strauss finally denied that any unique status could be granted to Jesus, since the whole quest of Christology was, for him, ultimately only a question of humanity. The mythic portrayal of Jesus in the gospels is in fact only one instance of a history of the ideal of humanity. This is the theological payoff of Strauss’s (first) Life of Jesus, and it is why Strauss follows Feuerbach in Barth’s account of nineteenth-century theology. Just as with Feuerbach, Christianity is the projection of the values of humanity, so with Strauss, Jesus is an (not necessarily the) exemplar of all that humanity is and should be.

In the aftermath of this catastrophic rupture Strauss was able to find few friends and not a few critics in theological circles. By the third edition in 1838, Strauss had made a few concessions, which he promptly rejected after an incident in Zürich where, due to conservative uproar, he had to be pensioned off as a professor shortly after having been offered a post. The fourth edition (1840, the most commonly circulating English edition, translated by the superb pen of George Eliot) was as caustic and unapologetic as the original edition. Strauss also completed another Life of Jesus (subtitled: For the German People, 1864). In this later work, Strauss musters all the banal sentiment regarding Jesus he can and sketches a portrait of Jesus as a man of genius, whose life is shrouded in myth, but who ultimately can help humanity reach its destination. It is this kind of conciliatory, predictable move that earned him the scorn of Nietzsche, who reckoned Strauss the Philistine of Culture. But as Barth writes so well, “If Strauss had said [the things he did in the later Life of Jesus] in his first and famous Life of Jesus in 1835-6, it would definitely not have become famous, and it would not have cost its author his place at the university. As something which at that time could be regarded as having the attraction of a certain harmless novelty it would have brought him to the heaven of a university post in the usual way; and nothing would have been known of the great vexation which the name D. F. Strauss symbolizes in theology to this very day” (540). This later Strauss precisely was the philistine of culture for whom Nietzsche had nothing but gall. Barth wonders a little who was the true D. F. Strauss, the author of the 1835 Life of Jesus or the author of the third edition of that work and of the 1864 Life of Jesus. The truth, of course, is that both are the “real” Strauss, though the Strauss who has been enshrined in the history of theology is the critical, negative Strauss of the original Life of Jesus.

Since the negative Strauss is that figure whose shade lingers in theology, perhaps the most intriguing line in Barth’s treatment of Strauss is almost incidental: “Strauss offered to his time the sight of the theologian who has become an unbeliever, for all to behold and without denying it” (533). Barth continues the line of thought, following Strauss’s proud claims to having bested theism and his prescriptions for theology’s destructive vocation. Strauss even refused to have any clergy present at his funeral—and that ten years before his death. But Barth shows magnanimity toward Strauss. He refuses to let this negative face of Strauss be the last word, and goes on to expose the softer Strauss who thought there was some value in being religious, at least in the religion of humanity. Even so, it is exactly in his ire for the theology around him, that Strauss serves as a most welcome tutor. Strauss’s destruction was complete, and the reasons for the destruction clear. Unlike the further quests for the historical Jesus, Strauss’s negative portrait from the beginning pronounces its alliance to “modern” ways of thinking and seeing the world. Long before Bultmann’s demythologizing and in anticipation of Schweitzer was Strauss. His historical quest already belied the quests of secular history and sketched the telos (though unfortunately not the terminus) of the supposition that dogma could be wissenschaftlich. The Wissenschaft of modernity left no room for the Glaube of the Gospels. And it was Strauss above all who probed the extremes of a theology which thought it could control and represent dogma in the same way it attempted to control and represent all of reality and nature. The rules to the game of critical history were exposed, the lack of rigor amongst theologians in deploying modern currents of thought denuded.

Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Strauss must be loved in order to be understood.” Since it is hard to actually love, much less pity Strauss, Barth modifies Schweitzer: “One must love the question Strauss raised, in order to understand it” (554). Strauss’s contribution and great gift to us, then, is that he represents the bankruptcy of nineteenth-century theology’s fetishization of history and the historical Jesus. That the “historical” Jesus is still sought by the faithful is evidence of ignorance of Strauss and his question. “It is a fact,” writes Barth, “that he and no other man has the merit of having put this question, the historical one, that is, to theology, with such a grasp of the basic issue. Since then theology has talked round it in many and various ways, which was, rather, evidence of the fact that it had not heard his question. Many people have not been able to overcome Strauss to this day; they have simply by-passed him, and to this very day are continually saying things which, if Strauss cannot be overcome, should no longer be said…In such a situation…Strauss could not and must not be pensioned off” (553-4). Well said, Professor Barth, well said.

- Andrew Guffey

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Feuerbach

(Daryl is a friend and colleague from Wheaton College (IL), from which he holds a BA and an MA in theological studies. He will be entering Princeton Theological Seminary in the coming semester with 2nd year MDiv status.)

“And Was Made Man”: The Witness of Feuerbach’s Anti-Theology

Ludwig Feuerbach, Barth bluntly writes, practiced “anti-theology” (520). The description is especially apt because in many ways Feuerbach is Barth’s conceptual foil in the history of theological ideas. Whereas Barth understood theology as evoked by, rooted in, and solely preoccupied with the Word of God, Feuerbach set out to “turn theology… completely and finally into anthropology” (520).

His primary avenue for accomplishing this goal lay in his assertion that “God” is nothing more than a projection of humanity’s essential ideals as distilled from embodied existence. God is, in Barth’s paraphrase, the “religious feeling’s mirrored self” (522). Feuerbach positions himself firmly against any thought system that introduces an unnecessary abstraction from the totality of sensory experience in which the only real distinction is the encounter between the objective I and the otherness of the Thou. “Truth, reality, the world of the senses, and humanity are identical concepts” (521) according to Feuerbach and, in the last analysis, “divinity” is just another item in the equivalency series. Thus, “the beginning, the middle, and the end of religion is Man" [#1] his own and his god’s alpha and omega.

From a philosophical standpoint, Barth finds Feuerbach’s work to be decidedly underwhelming. On this level, Barth doesn’t see any difference between the type of “abstraction” that Feuerbach rejects in the concepts of Reason, Mind, or Ego as employed by Kant or Hegel and his own optimism that humanity’s “essence” can be distilled from its cumulative sensory inputs. In order to be truly faithful to the existentialist ideal, then ontological judgments cannot proceed much past the individual human creature because the interpretive move necessarily involves some level of abstraction. In our day, probably only the most extreme evolutionary materialist positions, such as that taken by Peter Singer, meet this ideal.

Accordingly, Barth argues that grasping Feuerbach’s enduring significance is matter of reading his project theologically, not philosophically. Indeed, Barth wrote in his 1957 introductory essay to Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity that the man’s attitude was “more theological than that of many theologians” [#2] due to his ability to stay focused on one object for the much of his work (as theologians must do with the Word of God). Seen from this theological standpoint, Feuerbach’s teaching is nothing less than “a summons, an appeal, [and] a proclamation." [#3] The key to interpreting Feuerbach in this manner is to trace his proximity to three streams of Christian theology: the modern Protestant tradition as represented by Schleiermacher, the ancient mystical tradition alive and well in the Orthodox churches, and the Reformed tradition and particularly its beloved figurehead, Luther.

Feuerbach’s proximity to the first two traditions is analogous. In its position that the pious excitement provides the starting place through which to know God, the Schleiermacherian tradition shares the Feuerbachian normativity for human experience and the intellectual move to project back to “God” from said experience. This parallel leads Barth to wonder whether Feuerbach actually takes some of his theological contemporaries to their rightful logical conclusion: God really is just an (illusionary) human projection. Likewise, the mystical tradition in Orthodoxy also prioritizes human spirituality. However, Orthodoxy’s prioritization occurs in the realm of ontology instead of epistemology as with the Schleiermacherian tradition. This occurs primarily in its doctrine of theosis, which teaches that through Christ humanity is allowed to participate in God’s divinity. As the well-known quote from Athanasius goes: “[The Word of God] assumed humanity that we might become God.” [#4] Granted, where Orthodoxy speaks of participation in God, Feuerbach simply posits an equivalency: the essence of divinity and humanity are one. Nevertheless, Feuerbach himself grasps his nearness to the Orthodox doctrine of divinization: “While reducing theology to anthropology, [I] exalt anthropology into theology, very much as Christianity while lowering God into man, made man into God.” [#5] From each perspective the intent is to emphasize that the divine Beyond is near at hand, indeed within humanity itself. To these two traditions, Barth argues, Feuerbach’s legacy stands as a reminder that when the line between divinity and humanity is reversed or intermingled, the divinity of true faith is lost along the way

In the end, however, Barth makes it clear that Feuerbach’s witness ought to be most keenly felt among reformed theologians. Perhaps surprisingly, Barth notes the fact that Feuerbach himself cites Luther as the starting point of theology’s turn to anthropology, a turn that he sees himself completing. Feuerbach points to Luther’s christology, with all its (over)emphasis on God’s incarnational and eucharistic this-worldliness, as supporting evidence. More specifically, the key aspect of Luther’s christology for Feuerbach is its claim that only in the Son’s incarnate history is God truly revealed. In making this move, Luther, and the theologians who followed him, “ceased to be interested in what God is in himself and became emphatically interested in what God is for man” (522). From Feuerbach’s perspective, Luther’s rejection of the Deus absconditus laid the foundation upon which he could conclude that God was simply a cleansed form of humanity’s profoundly this-worldly predicates writ large. Once God is epistemically and ontologically rooted in his actions on earth (the economic Trinity), for Feuerbach it is a short step to conclude that his essence is rooted there also.

For the contemporary student of reformed theology, Feuerbach’s employment of Luther represents a perversion of one of the tradition’s most beloved phrases: pro nobis. The latin phrase describes God’s axiomatic commitment to his creatures’ welfare and salvation, a commitment made manifest in Jesus Christ. He is ontologically and irrevocably for us and bound to us in covenantal love. Accordingly, “God” as conceived of apart from the reality that he is “for us” is, in Barth’s classic words, “another God, a strange God” and “by the Christian standard [not] God at all.” [#6] Yet, Feuerbach reminds reformed theologians that the union between God and man must be characterized carefully. The lesson to be learned and relearned is that the mysterious truth of the covenant, and particularly its actualization and climax in the incarnation, cannot be viewed as anything but an asymmetrical union: God, in all his lordliness, loves humanity in freedom (Barth’s words, of course), not in creaturely neediness. To deny the inherent asymmetrical nature of this relationship, whether epistemologically, ontologically, or economically (as one might say in Feuerbach’s reading of Luther) equates the parties and denies the transcendence, and ultimately, the existence of God altogether. It was the gradual loss of this “fundamental assymentry” [#7] in nineteenth century Protestant theology that Feuerbach rightly accentuated in his “anti-theology” and against which Barth positioned his startlingly confessional, expressivist, in a word, theological theology. [#8]

#1 - Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (2nd ed; trans. George Eliot; New York: Harper, 1957), 239.

#2 - Karl Barth, “An Introductory Essay,” in Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, x.

#3 - Ibid., xi.

#4 - St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 93.

#5 - Feuerbach, “Preface to the Second Edition,” in The Essence of Christianity, xxxviii.

#6 - Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley, et. al (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 509-510.

#7 - The phrase is taken from Christoph Schwöbel, “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers,” in On Being the Church: Essays in the Christian Community, ed. Colin Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 120.

#8 - The phrase “theological theology” is most often associated with John Webster’s theological project. This connection stems from Webster’s 1997 inaugural lecture as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity entitled, “Theological Theology.” The lecture was recently reprinted in his new collection of essays, Confessing God. However, as far as I can tell, the phrase “theological theology” originated as an appellation of Barth’s theology in Martin Rumscheidt’s foreword to Fragments Grave and Gay (Glasgow: Collins, 1971), 10. I have little doubt, of course, that Webster is fully aware of this.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Baur

(Andrew Guffey holds a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary, where I got to know him over Hans Urs von Balthasar and poker chips. An engaging writter and exciting interdisciplinary thinker, he has a blog entitled Seeing the Form. Head on over there an encourage him to post more!)


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

Monday, June 18, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Schleiermacher

Schleiermacher: Hero or Tragic Hero?

Introductory Note: My colleagues have been doing an excellent job with the very dense and difficult material that has faced them in this series. In light of their industry, I almost feel ashamed to include the minor reflections on Barth’s treatment of Schleiermacher that I have gathered below. But, I wanted to note that I have been reading along with all my colleagues, and I can honestly say that this Schleiermacher chapter was the most difficult for me. This is likely because while I have very little independent knowledge of the other thinkers covered in this series, I have just enough independent knowledge of Schleiermacher to make me dangerous, but not enough to make me insightful. So, this chapter seemed to me to be particularly hazy. In addition to this, I should note that I’m not sure whether Barth got Schleiermacher exactly right. Unfortunately, I am not clear enough on why I have reservations in that regard, and thus my reservations will not find their way into the below, which hopes to simply be a brief (or, as brief as possible!) exposition on Barth’s treatment of Schleiermacher.

Barth’s treatment of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (11.21.1768-2.12.1834) begins in charity that borders on open adoration. Barth makes numerous statements extolling Schleiermacher’s import: “The first place in a history of the theology of the most recent times belongs and will always belong to Schleiermacher, and he has no rival” (411). Despite the fact that Hegel was at first a real rival, 19th century theology constantly returned to drink from Schleiermacher’s well, and those who criticized Schleiermacher did so on the basis of a shared footing. Barth’s admiration of Schleiermacher waxes:
“we have to do with a hero…Anyone who has never loved here, and is not in a position to love again and again, may not hate here either…the man who could not only criticize Schleiermacher but measure himself against him, [has] not yet appeared” (413)
And yet, despite this epochal significance of Schleiermacher, and despite his heroic stature, Barth is not unaware of Schleiermacher’s historical situatedness. Indeed, as Barth’s treatment makes clear, the specters of Kant, Herder, Novalis and even Hegel flit about behind Schleiermacher’s work, arising here and there to make themselves known, and ultimately contributing to the significance of this theological giant. Barth does not hesitate even to mention Schleiermacher in the company of Calvin and Luther.

This comparison of Schleiermacher with Luther and Calvin possesses an aspect other than mere similarity of theological impact. Barth is adamant that Schleiermacher be treated as a Christian theologian. “However weighty the questions we wish to put we must reckon without reserve with the fact that Schleiermacher was a Christian theologian at all events as well” (415). In order to drive this point home, Barth offers four considerations as to why we should think of Schleiermacher as a Christian: First, despite the obvious potential that Schleiermacher had for study in areas like philosophy and philology, he chose to devote his life’s work primarily to theology; second, Schleiermacher did not distance himself from preaching but sought out such a station and remained devoted to it throughout his life; third, even in his study of academic theology Schleiermacher did not take the easy route of capitulating to history or philosophy but tried to carve out an independent place for dogmatics; fourth and finally, though Barth will criticize Schleiermacher for not being more careful in this regard, Schleiermacher at least saw that theology should not be “essentially apologetic in its approach” (417).

But what of Schleiermacher’s theology? It is here that Barth quickly outpaces my capacity, and my modicum of independent knowledge of Schleiermacher gets in the way. But, the broad strokes of Barth’s treatment are discerned easily enough. Of course, any student of theology worth his or her salt knows that Schleiermacher’s theology is characterized by the ‘feeling of absolute dependence’. Barth elaborates: “The great formal principle of Schleiermacher’s theology is at the same time its material principle. Christian pious self-awareness contemplates and describes itself: that is in principle the be-all and end-all of his theology” (443). But, this is ultimately not the most important point in Barth’s exposition.

Barth is first of all (in the sequential sense) interested in the fact that Schleiermacher was deeply concerned with ethics. This is counter-intuitive, especially in light of Brunner’s Die Mystik und das Word. But, Schleiermacher is not a mystic, Barth contends. Even when Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence looks like it could only naturally lead to a mystical passivity, Schleiermacher re-directs it in terms of “[teleological] religion” (422; the English text has “theological religion”, but I am convinced that this is a mistake although I do not have recourse to the German at present), that is, an ethical religion (cf. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 9.1). In support of his reading, Barth identifies four areas of special ethical concern for Schleiermacher: First, the state as the surety of peace and order; second, that Christians are to prove themselves in civil profession; third, Schleiermacher was concerned with marriage and family life; fourth and finally, Schleiermacher was concerned with the “responsibility of the upper classes towards those placed at a material disadvantage by the advance of civilization” (425).

Barth also gives considerable attention to what he perceives as Schleiermacher’s apologetic vocation, although this is apologetics as ground-clearing and not apologetics as proof of Christianity, theology, etc. It is Schleiermacher’s function as a mediator between the content of dogmatics on the one hand and his modern readership on the other that disturbs Barth, and Barth seems to be able to see this mediatorial activity only in terms of the (albeit temporary) subjection of dogmatics to philosophy of religion. Barth is worried that Schleiermacher has so ‘mastered’ the content of dogmatics that he begins to ‘interpret’ it, an activity of which Barth is suspicious even though Barth makes it perfectly clear that Schleiermacher did not place dogmatics upon a speculative foundation. Barth summarizes his thoughts on this point:
“[I]t must certainly be said that it is only by having as his background the positive vindication of the doctrine of faith by means of the science of mind that Schleiermacher is able to form this doctrine of faith into an means of this bold virtuoso playing on the instrument of Christianity, by this complete freedom in the handling of the store of Christian tradition, and by the brilliance of the system applied to it” (436).
The last two sections in Barth’s treatment really belong together. Section IV deals with Schleiermacher’s dialectical method, which owes more to Novalis than to Hegel, and section V deals with the application of that method to the themes of ‘experience and history’ in Schleiermacher’s theology. The basic idea is this: Schleiermacher likes to find the middle ground between two opposing poles. Barth ties this to Schleiermacher’s great interest in peace, and brings things together thus:
“The truth – once again in contrast to Hegel – is not to be found in some definable third thing, but in the indefinable centre between the first and the second, at the point where peace reigns, a point to which from all sides only approximations are possible” (439).
This comes to life in Barth’s final section, which includes brief discussion on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the Trinity and especially the relation of Holy Spirit and Word / Jesus Christ, which are ciphers in Barth’s usage for the subjective and objective poles respectively. Schleiermacher’s subjective or psychological motif is opposed by his retained focus on the historic person of Jesus. But, it is at this point that Barth does not think that Schleiermacher can hold together his dialectical position. While Schleiermacher’s theology was meant to be an ellipse with two foci, experience and history or subjective and objective, Barth notes that “the ellipse tends to become a circle, so that its two foci have the tendency to coincide in one centre-point” (450), although this center-point is not dead center, but drifts toward the subjective / experience side.

As per Barth’s reading, this collapse leads Schleiermacher to missteps in Christology and in the relation of sin and grace. Each has been reduced to quantitative difference. Christ is only quantitatively superior to the Christian, and the Christian’s experience of grace (or sin!) is merely quantitatively superior to the experience of sin (or grace!). Following this, Barth leaves us on a rather somber note, stating that such a quantitative relationship “cannot be what the Christian Church intends, and therefore could not be what Schleiermacher intended either” (459). And, though Barth doesn’t explicitly make this move, it seems – at least to this reader – that we are finally left with a picture of Schleiermacher not as a hero, but as a tragic hero.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Hegel

(This post was written by David Congdon, a long-standing friend and colleague of mine who needs no introduction in the theo-blogosphere. If you aren't already a regular reader of his blog, Fire and Rose, be sure to head on over and check it out.)

Hegel: A Great Problem, A Great Promise
1. Introduction

In 1953, Karl Barth remarked, “I myself have a certain weakness for Hegel and am always fond of doing a bit of ‘Hegeling.’” While Barth strongly criticizes Hegel throughout his works, he is careful to always remind his readers of his high regard for Hegel’s philosophy. Barth’s fondness for Hegel becomes more apparent in his later years as his theology begins to interact with Hegel directly, and the essay on Hegel in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century is a sustained appreciation for his accomplishments that sheds important light on how Barth appropriated Hegel in his own theology.

Barth begins his essay by asking, “Why did Hegel not become for the Protestant world something similar to what Thomas Aquinas was for Roman Catholicism?” (370). Barth sets out to answer this question in the pages that follow, and he returns again and again to this problem: How could the modern age abandon Hegel, whose work towers over all those who followed him? How could such a magnificent mind be almost entirely ignored so soon? Barth spends a good deal of time asking this question in different ways, and it is worth quoting some of them for the sake of setting the stage for Barth’s answer.
That Hegel, at all events outwardly, should temporarily at least appear to have been put so much in the wrong by the events of history; that is the amazing fact. … Was not Hegel he who should come as the fulfiller of every promise, and was it worth waiting for another after he had come? … Was Hegelianism really just another ‘ism’ among and before and after many others? … The century had denied its truest and most genuine son and since then it no longer had a good conscience or any true joyousness or any impetus. (371-73)
2. Hegel’s Philosophy

The question then remains: Where does the fault lie for this turn of events? Barth tables this question for the time being—he says to place all the foregoing “in parenthesis”—since “we do not know whether the age of Hegel is in fact entirely past” (376). Barth then proceeds to examine the three central aspects of Hegel’s philosophy:

2.1. First, according to Barth, Hegel’s philosophy seems so convincing because “he has complete trust in his own self-knowledge,” or to put it another way, Hegel is confident that “his thinking and the things which are thought by him are equivalent” (377). The basis for Hegel’s self-confidence rests in the identity which exists between thinking and what is thought, an identity which is established in the act of thinking itself. Hegel’s philosophy is a confidence in the thinking mind, which is finally identical with God. In this self-confidence, Barth sees Hegel as fulfilling the trajectory of the Enlightenment while at the same time affirming the central insights of Romanticism.

2.2. Second, Hegel’s philosophy is a confidence in human reason—in the act of thinking, the event of reason. According to Barth, “Reason understood in this sense is absolute reason, the concept in this sense the absolute concept, truth the absolute truth, the idea the absolute idea, mind the absolute mind” (384). The “secret” to Hegel’s philosophy is that human thinking is identical with the event of reason. In other words, the act of thinking is an event, or rather it is the event in which truth, life, revelation, even God are all realized. The act of thinking is “an absolute act”; it is actus purus (385). The concept as absolute concept, reason as absolute reason, is thus God (387-88). Furthermore, the event of reason has a particular rhythm, characterized by the “triple heartbeat” of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; the dialectical method of reason thus gives to reason itself a historical character. Reason and history are conjoined such that reason is a “life-process” and history is a rational event (386). Finally, Barth asks where the center of Hegel’s philosophy resides—where one might locate his most significant idea—and he concludes that it is not to be found in any particular concept or area of philosophical inquiry. There is “no centre here at the expense of a periphery,” but rather “the centre moves with the thinker himself” (391). The dialectical method of Hegel’s thought has no single center but instead makes all reality the centre of philosophy, because what distinguishes the event of reason is precisely its universality. Hegel’s genius rests not so much in the dialectical character of his method but “in the invention of a universal method” (made possible by the dialectic) by which all doors may be opened, all possibilities surveyed, and all questions answered (392).

2.3. Third, Hegel’s philosophy resolves the classic conflict between reason and revelation, between civilization and Christianity, between the polis and the ekklesia. He resolves this conflict by producing a philosophy which is at the same time a theology. Hegel’s philosophy does everything theology intends to accomplish and does it better. The reason this is the case is that Hegel uniquely produces a philosophy that is not de-historicized, in which the rational and the historical are not at odds but are instead harmonized. Whereas Schleiermacher wanted a “treaty” between culture and religion, Hegel is able to join them together, thereby restoring the unity of the human and divine that “had been lost since the Middle Ages” (396).

3. Hegel’s Demands

With these three central facets of Hegel’s philosophy established, Barth proceeds in the rest of his essay to examine the three demands that Hegel’s philosophy of religion made upon modern culture and theology; he concludes by looking critically at these three demands to see what in Hegel remains “unacceptable to theology for good reasons” (403).

3.1. The first demand Hegel makes upon “modern cultural awareness” is the recognition that “man lives from the truth, and only from the truth” (398). The progression of history and cultural awareness are concerned with the truth and depend upon the truth. Because Hegel takes John 14:6 with great seriousness, the truth is finally identifiable with God, and so we can say that humanity lives from God alone. The same demand is made upon theology in order to remind theology that “truth should not concern it less than philosophy but, on the contrary, much more” (401). Hegel’s demand is one that contemporary theology needs to hear again and again. The basic thrust is that theology cannot take place within an isolated echo chamber; theology cannot properly exist in a ghetto. Theology is concerned with truth, and not with a part of the truth but with the whole truth—i.e. with God. Here Hegel offers an important criticism of contextual theologies which seek to attend to one particular social context for the work of theology. As Barth states: “A theology whose basis was merely historical, merely psychological, merely phenomenological” easily ends up standing in the shadow of philosophy, incapable of speaking the truth, and therefore incapable of speaking of God (401).

3.2. Hegel’s second demand upon modern culture is “his insistence on having truth . . . understood as a movement, as a history” (398-99). Knowledge is an event; truth is actualistic in nature. “The concept, the idea, the mind, God himself is this event—not anything outside this event” (399). The historical character of truth is certainly threatening to those who would desire a static truth that presents itself whole and complete, except for the fact that Hegel identifies the truth with God and thus not as something outside of God’s own grasp. Of course, this then threatens the view of God as a static being, but it is this more than anything which Hegel discards. The corresponding demand upon theology consists in Hegel’s insistence that theology “be recognized and discovered in actuality and not otherwise” (401). The later Barth finds much here with which he can agree. Barth suggests that theology after Hegel “fell short” by failing to appropriate the notion of truth as a “real history” (402). Barth suggests that Hegel comes much closer to the biblical concept of revelation than theology ever did by recognizing that God presents Godself to humanity as the Living God—as a dynamic being-in-becoming in the event of revelation. By failing to understand the historical nature of truth, theology failed to apprehend the Living God of revelation.

3.3. Hegel’s third and final demand, according to Barth, is to recognize “contradiction as the law of truth”—i.e., to recognize the dialectical method as definitive of truth’s historical self-movement. The movement of life is a movement through contradictions; it is “not a unity resting in itself, but a perpetual a = non-a,” against the “whole of western logic” (399). The dialectical movement of life, not classical logic, is definitive for all reality, and thus truth does not arise in the removal of contradiction but precisely in the “unity of contradictions.” At this point, we must mention the centrality of Aufhebung (sublation) to Hegel’s thought, which functions as the logical motor driving his dialectic—e.g., in the contradictory history of Being and Nothingness, the two are sublated in the concept of Becoming. Out of this dialectical movement arises Hegel’s doctrine of the Trinity, according to which—against the philosophers and theologians who proceeded him—God is the “eternal process which consists in something distinguishing its parts, separating them, and absorbing them into itself again” (399). As Hegel himself writes: “God is this: to distinguish oneself from oneself, to be object to oneself, but to be completely identical with oneself in this distinction” (404). The corresponding demand upon theology involves the recognition that theological knowledge is also contradictory in nature. Yet it is at this point that Barth begins to register his differences with Hegel.

4. Why Theology Finally Rejects Hegel

Barth asks why theology around 1900 seemed to be no further along than Kant was a hundred years earlier. Certainly theology “could and can learn something from Hegel,” but at the same time “it may in fact be that the Hegelian demand is unacceptable to theology for good reasons” or else needs to be “very vigorously translated and transformed” (403). In order to address these problems, Barth again returns to the three demands: truth, truth as movement, and the dialectical nature of this movement.

4.1. Barth questions Hegel’s rational idealism on the Kantian basis that it divorces thought from practice. Hegel’s theory of truth, because of its grounding in human thought rather than practice, is able to be more universal than it should be. This is particularly felt in the way Hegel is able to integrate sin and reconciliation into the self-movement of truth. According to Barth, this relativizes the radical disruption of sin and the radical newness of reconciliation. In the end, the problem rests on an overly ideal unity of deity and humanity, which undermines the possibility of revelation being an event of grace from God to a humanity enslaved to sin.

4.2. Following from the previous point, Barth criticizes Hegel on the ground that God and humanity can never truly encounter each other. There can never be a truly new word, especially not a word given by God and received by humanity. Since the self-movement of truth is identical with the self-movement of the human thinking subject, human reason “is just as much divine revelation as is the imagination” (405). “Hegel’s living God,” Barth writes, “is actually the living man” (405).

4.3. The final criticism Barth puts forward against Hegel is the one he himself says is “the weightiest and most significant of the doubts about him which might be raised from the theological point of view”: because Hegel identifies the dialectical method with the being of God, his philosophy results in a “scarcely acceptable limitation, even abolition of God’s sovereignty, which makes even more questionable the designation of that which Hegel calls mind, idea, reason, etc., as God. This God, the God of Hegel, is at the least his own prisoner” (406). Here we come upon a central theme throughout Barth’s theology—viz. the freedom of God. The protection of divine freedom leads him to vigorously reject Hegel’s imprisonment of God within worldly necessity. According to Barth, Hegel’s philosophy means that creation, reconciliation, revelation, the church, and the individual ego are all necessary to God. Hegel “made impossible the knowledge of the actual dialectic of grace,” and this alone means that Hegel cannot provide a true way forward for theology.

4.4. In the end, Barth claims that theology rejected Hegel ultimately for the same reasons that modern culture rejected him: not because Hegel was too radical, but because he was not radical enough. Hegel did not go far enough, but instead fell short. By this Barth means that Hegel failed to think as theologically as he could and should have. “[T]here was not too much, but too little theology” in his demands upon modern culture and theology (401).

5. Assessment of Barth’s Interpretation

For my part, Barth’s critiques of Hegel are for the most part correct, though slightly misplaced in their emphasis. The first criticism addresses Hegelian idealism as opposed to a critical realism, and here Barth is correct to advocate for a much more realistic framework of thought. The other two problems stem from this one. Hegel’s failure is finally his decision to locate reality in the process of human thought, rather than allowing human thought to follow reality. By making the thinking human subject the center of history, Hegel’s attempt to conform human logic to the movement of life becomes an empty gesture. Barth’s second criticism is just an extension of the first. God and humanity cannot encounter each other if they are both constituted by the movement of human thought. If the history of God is simply the history of humanity, then God cannot interrupt humanity and nothing new can ever truly take place.

The third criticism regarding God’s freedom is more characteristic of the earlier Barth than the later, more Hegelian, Barth we find in CD IV. As Schleiermacher rightly points out, the dichotomy between freedom and necessity is a this-worldly polarity, or as others have noted more recently, the freedom of God is not an abstract freedom-from humanity but a concrete freedom-for humanity embodied in the incarnate Jesus Christ. God certainly is not God’s own prisoner; but we might instead speak of God’s self-determination to be God for us, and this freedom can take the form of a divine self-identification with history without undermining the “dialectic of grace.” Barth says this is the most important criticism, but this seems to be misguided. Certainly, the sovereignty of God is more important theologically, but there are ways of upholding divine freedom while still working within a Hegelian framework. The first two problems, however, require a more radical shift away from idealism toward a critical realism.

Without question, Barth offers a very charitable reading of Hegel. He concludes his lecture by saying that theology still has “no occasion to throw stones at Hegel,” since the mistakes he made are no different or no less serious than the ones theologians continue to make (407). Moreover, Barth’s later confession that he is “fond of doing a bit of ‘Hegeling’” is evident in his constructive appropriation of the three Hegelian demands upon theology. The aspects of truth, history, and dialectic are, each in their own way, definitive of Barth’s own theology, but the “Hegeling” of which Barth speaks is most likely in reference to the second of these demands: the nature of truth as movement, event, history.

Barth begins the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics by speaking of the Christian gospel in terms of “the being and life and act of God” as “a history which God wills to share with us” (CD IV/1, 7). With Hegel, Barth adopts a historicized conception of the being of God, and he even speaks of the history of God and the history of humanity as a “common history.” But this is precisely where Barth differs from Hegel, for the history of God and humanity is a “common history” only because it is the history of Jesus Christ; the history which God wills to share with us is in actuality “an invasion of our history” (7). Unlike in Hegel’s philosophy, Barth is able to posit a true encounter of grace between God and humanity, but he does so by employing an actualistic divine-human ontology concretely defined by the history of Jesus Christ. Barth thus carries out the radicalizing of Christian theology which he criticizes Hegel for failing to accomplish. In the end, despite his fondness for Hegel—and the debt he owes to his philosophy—the irreducible particularity of the person of Christ sets a clear barrier to any embracement of Hegelian metaphysics on Barth’s part. While Hegel’s philosophy presents us with “a great problem and a great disappointment,” we must also be open to the possibility that Hegel remains for us today “also a great promise” (407).

- David W. Congdon

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Herder

Barth describes Johann Gottfried Herder (August 25, 1744 – December 18, 1803) as “The master in the art of circumventing Kant,” an honorific which makes it possible to describe Herder as a theologian: “He was also truly a classical theologian, because he was the first to discover in convincing manner a way of making a theology possible which was able to bypass Kant” (302). Already we begin to see what Barth will focus on in this chapter. Looking ahead, we find precisely what we might expect when Barth calls Herder “the inaugurator of typical nineteenth-century theology before its inauguration by Schleiermacher” (325). We may (or may not!) have cause to dispute with Barth about this when we come to Schleiermacher, but this reference is highly suggestive for us in thinking about how it is that Herder might have circumvented Kant.

In broad strokes, this circumvention was accomplished through Herder’s employment of notions that emerge in Lessing, namely, ‘experience’ and ‘feeling’ (cf. 301). Though the use of these notions Herder latched on to what was already emergent in Rousseau (as per Barth’s account), namely, the “reducing of thought and action to a position of merely relative importance, and the award of pride of place to experience” (302). Barth sums things up:
“With Herder the vanquishing of the Enlightenment influence means the vanquishing of the supremacy of logic and ethics in general, of the categories of the understanding and of the categorical imperative as well, by means of the discovery of feeling and experience, the discovery that there is a form of knowledge and speech which arises directly from the events of life.” (303)
It does not take much imagination to see how one might, on the basis of such a position, be able to marshal a positive account of the theological task. But, what is Herder’s understanding of experience and feeling? Barth quotes from a number of Herder’s poems to make this point, but I will try to get to the heart of the matter. It seems as though Herder’s notion of experience is dialectical, that it, it is the negotiation of two poles: “being alone and…not being alone” (307), in Barth’s account. The human person is both inextricably linked to social and natural surroundings, and the human person also transcends these things. We act and are acted upon, and it is within this dialectic or contradiction that our experience emerges. This can be seen in Barth’s description of Herder’s understanding of the imago Dei: “if we keep our minds and spirits open to the influences of the world, which is God’s world, then we come to resemble God, as it were, of our own accord” (308).

It is not surprising, given Herder’s interest in experience and experience defined as relation to the world around us, that Herder would have something to say about history. Indeed, at least as per Barth’s account, history is the dominant aspect in Herder’s thought. “Herder’s genius…the new and epoch-making quality of his mind, is precisely his complete, loving and devoted understanding of the concrete reality of history” (312-313). But, what is history for Herder? “[N]othing else but living experience understood in the macrocosmic and universal sense, instead of, as preciously, in the microcosmic and individual one” (313).

So, what of history? And, more pressingly, what of religion? The two fit together nicely for Herder. To quote Herder, as given by Barth, “Religion is man’s humanity in its highest form’ (315; Herder’s Ideas, 122). This ties into history rather closely, for humanity is, in a very strong sense, history. “Man’s distinguishing quality is the fact that he stands within history” (316). We might even say that standing within history is what separates human beings from lower animal life forms. This consciousness of history is uniquely human, and thus our relation to history is unique. It is this, I think, that makes history ‘macrocosmic’ for Herder. But, not only is history the unique feature of humanity, but “religious man’s chief distinguishing quality too is the fact that he stands within history” (ibid). How could it be otherwise?

The next move, and a rather easy one to make, is to identify revelation and history. If the unique thing about humanity is history, then it makes sense that God would meet humanity in this form (this is a variation on Calvin’s accommodation doctrine, which is brought slightly more to the fore a little later in relation to natural / supernatural questions, cf. 320). Thus, for Herder, “Standing within history also means on principle standing in the stream of revelation,” for “history provides the record and commentary of revelation” (316). Thus, Herder prizes the Bible as history (cf. 321). Furthermore, our relationship to God is historical, not (in the first instance) rational or personal: “Man’s existence, according to Herder, with its historical quality, comprises his participation in God’s revelation in a manner which is without doubt the most direct possible” (317).

Now, this gets us to a very interesting relation between revelation and reason, at least as Barth poses the problem. It is, more accurately I think, a relation between history and reason. Revelation is seen as the parent who has trained the child, reason. But, at this point Herder also has recourse to more dialectical constructions that pit reason and revelation against each other in a balanced relationship that “cannot be explained intellectually, only experienced” (318). That is all well and good, but let’s play with it. It seems to me that this is only one very small step removed from a critically realist epistemology, as opposed to idealism as given by Kant. For Kant, the categories are a priori things, but, if revelation (which = history) is the parent that has educated reason, then the categories cannot be a priori. Instead, we must think of our historical, empirical, sensory human experience as building categories in our consciousness. These givens of history shape and are refined by reason, and that is how we get to a kind of critical realism. In any case, this is just a bit of extrapolation on my part.

Finally, we must consider again the question of the possibility of theology. It is clear that he has established a possibility, as the next epoch of theology would show. Theology continued, and it would seem to be thanks in no small measure to Herder. But, Barth has serious concerns because it seems to him that Herder has not truly gotten away from Kant in that Herder has still tied religion, revelation, and thereby theology to an anthropocentric measure. “[T]he most significant concept…for Herder’s thought, can be nothing but humanity” (310). Why is this? Because Herder does not finally get beyond Kant’s phenomena / noumena split. Herder does not enable human knowledge to get beyond that which is measured by humanity, and therefore theology remains beholden to reason. Barth poses this in somewhat technical epistemological terms: “Herder’s theory does not in fact extend beyond experience as such. He is far from basing theological knowledge upon the object of experience but bases it quite definitely upon experience as such” (324).

Suffice it to say that Barth wants a critically realistic or scientific theology that knows the thing in itself rather than simply the thing as it appears to us.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Kant

(This post comes from my infamous philosopher friend, Shane Wilkins, who is known throughout the theo-blogosphere for his sharp wit and even sharper skills at critical analysis. Be sure to visit his blog, Scholasticus.)

Protestant Theology in the 19th Century demonstrates Barth’s deep familiarity with the philosophical climate of the 19th century. The philosopher whose shadow loomed largest over 19th century protestant theology was doubtless that of Immanuel Kant. Kant was also, by no coincidence, the most formative intellectual influence on the young Barth.

As a student in Berne, Barth reminisces, “I was earnestly told, and I learnt, all that can be said against ‘the old orthodoxy’ . . . and that all God’s ways begin with Kant and, if possible, must also end there.” (Eberhard Busch, “Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts”, 34). Barth began reading Kant through the Critique of Practical Reason, which made a strong influence upon him.

To someone familiar only with Barth’s later work and not the details of his violent conversion from protestant liberalism this would seem most surprising. For in his first Critique, Kant repudiates all “dogmatic” claims about God, the soul and immortality as involving an illegitimate transgression of boundaries. Neither the theist nor the atheist has any genuine knowledge of the things they debate just because they have no empirical experience of God, the soul, etc. Without experience all one has is an empty concept to which no reality need correspond.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, which was apparently the text that resonated so strongly with the young Barth, Kant notes that the existence of God, the soul, and personal immorality are practical necessities to guarantee that the virtuous are rewarded for their virtue and the vicious punished. Kant is not contradicting the perspective of the first Critique, however. The God invoked here is not the old mythological God of positive theology; rather this God is a postulation of reason. Kant does not believe that it is possible to “prove” the existence of God the way one might prove the existence of Bigfoot. Rather, what is necessary is the individual’s personal certainty that God exists in order to provide a stimulus for moral behavior. Kant’s overall position on God then is a sort of skeptical agnosticism. One cannot have definitely knowledge of any affirmative proposition about God, but one can and indeed ought to have a “rational faith” in the postulated moral God as the completion of the moral system of Kantian ethics. From such religious view, one can chart a short course towards the decay of protestant theology into social ethics.

Having worked through the first two Critiques, Barth found himself drawn by the theology of Schleiermacher through Kant (Busch 45). Upon transferring to Marburg, Barth was exposed to the school of Marburg neo-Kantianism through Paul Natorp and Hermann Cohen, and continued his theological studies with Wilhelm Hermann. According to Natorp, this ‘neo-Kantianism’ does not signify a return to any particular Kantian dogma, but rather an attempt to return to a kind of realism against Hegel and the German idealists. (Bruce McCormack labels the epistemological position Barth derived from the Neo-Kantian reaction to Hegel “critically-realistic” and “dialectical” - cf. McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology)

Barth’s own statements in Protestant Theology in the 19th Century indicate his own preference for Kant over against the later German philosophical tradition because Kant was the first to recognize the limits of the enlightenment and rationalism, against Voltaire and Leibniz, limits which Schleiermacher and Hegel did not respect (267).

For Barth, Kant’s criticism of the limits of human knowledge provides a definitive turn away from the old protestant orthodoxy as well as the naïve version of enlightenment.
“With Kant and from Kant onwards the human use of reason has left the broad way and finds itself with the ‘strait gate’. This was also, and particularly, true of theology. From now on theology would no longer be able to formulate its tenets, no matter on what foundation it might base them, without having acquired a clear conception of the method of reason, which it also uses in the construction of its tenets. Any theology which had not at least faced this question and presented its credentials was backward, from now on, superseded in its relation to the age, no matter how valuable or worthless it might otherwise be” (Protestant Theology, 273).
Barth takes the Kantian critique to be a decisive refutation. However, he rejects the idea that the Kantian critical project could somehow impugn the truth of the Christian faith. Rather, Barth understands the critical project to draw the boundaries of mere reason which theology can happily step over. Whether Kant would agree with this theological high-step, of course, is a different question.

Barth traces three possible responses to the critical project, which outlines successive changes in his own approach throughout his career:
  1. Accommodation Interpretation. On the accommodation interpretation, the premises of Kant’s thought (in the neo-Kantian realist interpretation, presumably) are substantially correct and the job of theology is to accommodate itself to the new philosophical regime. Barth names Ritschl and Hermann, the primary teachers of his student days as a liberal at Marburg as proponents of this approach.

  2. Romantic Interpretation. On this interpretation, Kant might have provided an accurate philosophical system, but he has missed something essential: the religious feeling. Schleiermacher, of course, is the figure Barth names here and the figure which most inspired Barth’s own study after his encounter with the Critique of Practical Reason.

  3. Insufficiency Interpretation. On this interpretation, there is something insufficient, at least for the theologian, about Kant’s configuration of the relationship between theology and philosophy. For Kant, in the final analysis, religion is just the coping-stone to hold together the edifice of moral philosophy.
“If the reality of religion is confined to that which is subjected to the self-critique of reason, then religion is that which is fitting to the ideally practical nature of pure reason, and that only” (305).
This is a conclusion which the theologian cannot abide. At this point the theologian has nothing to do but to renounce Kant as a guide for her own thinking. This third possible reaction to Kant marks the mature Barth’s own response and,
“in a word, [it] consist in theology resigning itself to stand on its own feet in relation to philosophy in theology recognizing the point of departure for its method in revelation just as decidedly as philosophy sees its point of departure in reason” (307)
Barth accepts that this pushes his back up against the wall of fideism. Barth cites with approval a statement of Kant’s: “The biblical theologian proves that God exists by means of the fact that he has spoken in the Bible” (312). Kant means to ridicule the biblical theologian by the vicious circularity involved in the statement, but Barth accepts it as a programmatic statement of his own position.

How then shall we evaluate Barth’s position in relation to Kant’s? It seems that he faces an unattractive dilemma. Either he must reject Kant on philosophical grounds, which is a modified version of position 1 or 2 above or he must accept this fideistic circularity. Barth rejects the first task for, “it is not for the theologian to conduct himself as if he were in a position to propound a philosophy . . . and to pull a philosopher’s work to pieces,” especially if that philosopher is Kant (308). Therefore, theology must embrace this circularity.

For my part, I think Barth still cedes too much ground to Kant. If he is willing to say that Kant must be wrong about religion because Kant’s philosophy of religion is insufficient, why does he not also challenge Kant’s critique of knowledge on the same grounds? It may be, of course, that Barth simply sees no reason why he needs to reject the Kantian theoretical philosophy on theological grounds because he interprets Kant as being neutral between faith and disbelief.

On the contrary, it seems to me that there are good reasons to want to reject Kant’s theoretical philosophy because I understand Kant’s theoretical philosophy to install a sort of permanent metaphysical skepticism which viciously undercuts any attempt to insist that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are actually true in the sense of representing a real state of affairs. If you take this more negative assessment of Kant--and I think you should--then I think it becomes necessary to reject the entire framework of the debate. At this point one is left with two options: rejecting philosophy as such through a fideism much more severe than Barth’s or “beginning again at the beginning” in the realm of philosophy as well as in theology.

- Shane Wilkins

Thursday, June 14, 2007

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Rousseau

(This post comes to us from Michael J. Pailthorpe. Be sure to visit his blog, Intellectus Fidei.)

In Karl Barth’s significant work Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century he focuses largely on individuals and their influence to the theological environment of the nineteenth century and lasting relevance for theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first influential that Barth deals with is the Geneva born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778).

Barth’s in-depth presentation of Rousseau is essentially biographical which gives insight into Rousseau the man and not simply his thought. Barth reveals Rousseau’s complexities as a person and in some instances paradoxical in light of his social contract and educational theories, which has lead many to find excuse in dismissing the contribution of Rousseau. However, for Barth, to dismiss Rousseau on his seemingly apparent contradictions is a total misunderstanding of the significance of Rousseau. To dismiss him in this way, however, is actually to fully understand the eighteenth century (p161) and to criticise his rationalism or individualism is to simultaneously criticise Hegel and Goethe (p162). For Barth, Rousseau was both a man of the eighteenth century and was whom the eighteenth century achieved fulfilment (p160); “a man of the new era, in eighteenth-century garb” (p162).

Barth focuses on three major works of Rousseau that of the very popular fictional work Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (The New Heloise), the political work Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique (Of the Social Contract, Principles of Political Right), and his treatise of human nature Émile ou de l'éducation (Emile, or, On Education). Through these works Rousseau attempts to present new structures for morality, politics, and education (p199). Reference is also made to Rousseau’s groundbreaking autobiographical work Les Confessions (Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and his concept of genius in his Dictionnaire de Musique (Dictionary of Music). Throughout Barth’s biographical sketch and examination of major works he is highlighting certain facets that contribute to Rousseau’s anthropology and his influence upon nineteenth-century theology. In particular, Rousseau’s Pelagianism and his opposition to the church’s emphasis of no free will and the original sin of the human being. Barth points out that Rousseau still believed in a “fall” of humanity though, however, not in the biblical sense.
“The two dimensions of Rousseau’s anthropology come about only in this way, that he distinguishes between man in nature and man in society. According to Rousseau it was man’s transition from this one to the other which constituted what might be called the Fall.” (p207)
His understanding of evil is really only a possibility or potentiality for human nature; man may do evil but cannot be evil.
“man can in fact be wicked and is wicked times without number; but he is never essentially wicked and need not be so. He may well do evil but he is not evil.” (p208)
His Roman Catholic and Protestant opponents were critical of Rousseau’s position on original sin and also his attitude toward revelation, Christ, and miracles yet were not able to successfully correct Rousseau due to their own assailable positions (193-194). This is an interesting point made by Barth about Rousseau that his faith in God was captured by the uniqueness of the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ but couldn’t reconcile many things in the Bible he considered contrary to reason and of those he respectfully doubted. Rousseau would always prefer to learn from nature and reason than simply accept the findings of anyone else (p189-191).

Barth sees the contribution of Rousseau as the origination and lasting influence of theological rationalism. For Rousseau, his Pelagian concept of human nature rejected the doctrine of original sin and upheld the essential good of man. Rousseau’s apotheosis of man even identifies with the self-sufficiency of God (p213). With this emphasis on man’s inherent goodness Rousseau developed the peculiar absolutism of his day and challenged the way theology was done. With original sin and revelation already under threat doing away with the sinfulness of man opened up a new path for the activity of theology.
“Rousseau’s new gift to theology ultimately consists in this very widening of the concept of reason by means of the discovery of man’s spirit-nature, for which objectivity and non-objectivity, non-identity and identity become reciprocal and interchangeable ideas. The theological significance of this discovery was nothing less than the settlement of the conflict between reason and revelation, since by it man was encouraged to look upon himself alternatively now as reason and now as revelation… Rousseau’s doctrine was meant to convey a demand that this theology should at last understand itself rightly, i.e. truly understand man as one who in his true humanity can also command the true God… It is from Rousseau onwards and originating from Rousseau that the thing called theological rationalism, in the full sense of the term, exists: a theology for which the Christian spirit is identical with the truly humane spirit, as it is inalienably and tangibly present to us in that depth of the ratio in that inmost anthropological province.” (218-219)
It is interesting to note that the apotheosis of man in Rousseau and his lasting contribution of theological rationalism stem from an understanding of the falleness of humanity. This is an understanding that avoids the entire fallen nature of humanity as extending to its rationality and establishes its inability to truly apprehend God. Throughout different theological methods and various forms of apologetics this Pelagian view still has influence today, even if it is in an anonymous sense. Pelagius and Rousseau would be strange places to start to learn theological method, yet, of course, theological rationalism is still a popular method, which works to confirm and convince the existence of God based on reason being a foundation to faith as opposed to fides quaerens intellectum. In light of this, an appreciation of Barth comes in his understanding of the falleness of humanity and the transcendence of God turns our attention away from the mirage of man’s grasping for the divine to God’s inseparable self-revelation and reconciliation of humanity.

- Michael J. Pailthorpe

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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).


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