Thursday, September 30, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 4

“Being Well-Read”: Barth in Conversation
with Paul Tillich on Reading Scripture and Culture

By Derek Maris

In studying Karl Barth, one is often daunted by the sheer volume of his writings. Neophytes of Barth’s thought will often seek out primers on his theology, even introductions to specific topics, viewing the actual Church Dogmatics as an unreasonable burden. Beneath this apparent humility hides a less noble reason for avoiding the CD – there is so much to read and understand that laziness or bitterness can short-circuit the fruits of extensive engagement.

While any student of theology can sympathize, one must remember that for Barth there were no short cuts in reading. As the numerous pages of the CD “fine print” notes demonstrate, Barth was a voracious reader of scripture, church history, and culture. His theology was born out of his constant engagement of numerous types of texts; if nothing else, Barth was well-read. In this essay we will seek to learn from this prodigious writer and reader how to read all types of texts well, both actual biblical texts and metaphorical cultural texts, the innumerable varieties of attitudes, beliefs, and activities that make up cultural narratives. Barth’s contemporary Paul Tillich will serve as a conversation partner in this endeavor.

Initially one must concede that this undertaking is undeniably provisional. Barth’s hermeneutical methods, as he himself admitted to Bultmann, resemble a “wild and crooked tree,” lacking the well defined parameters of his counterpart (in Saye’s “The Wild and Crooked Tree,” Modern Theology (1996), 435). Barth was so busy “trying to say something specific” that he never defined his approach to reading scriptural texts (ibid). In actuality, the provisional character of Barth’s reading demonstrated his genius. As Daniel Treier argues, Barth was a “pioneer,” the “forerunner” of the bible’s recovery from the grasp of historical criticism because he was committed to allowing the actual content of scripture to exert hermeneutical control over him (Introducing Theological Interpretation, 11-16). It was this submission to the content of scripture that freed it from an obsessive modern quest for historical verification while simultaneously allowing for a multiplicity of interpretative methods. Scripture, with all its various genres and messages, required a diverse hermeneutic, and in submission to the text one must relinquish all forms of control, one form being the rigorous application of a hermeneutical theory. As Barth writes “the exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible (CD I.1, 106).”

Despite this admonition many scholars have tried to describe aspects of Barth’s hermeneutical methods. One common approach focuses on Barth’s consistent engagement with biblical narrative. David Kelsey provides one such example, arguing that for Barth scripture is a grand narrative which itself renders the subject of the story (The Uses of Scripture, 32). Scripture functions as the mediator of the story’s subject, since the subject of the story “recedes from cognitive grasp the more he is abstracted from the story (39).”

While Barth’s exegesis has engendered renewed appreciation for biblical narrative, Kelsey misreads Barth since, for Barth, no text can render the Triune God to the reader independently. The bible can never imprison God; rather, in his freedom God can take hold of scripture for his sovereign purposes, and the bible becomes God’s Word in this event of his speaking through it (CD I.1, 109). One must not confuse abstraction with dependence, a frequent temptation in narrative theology. Here we encounter a second layer of provisionality in Barth’s reading of scripture. One must submit to the text, but never for the sake of the text itself. One submits to the text because in His freedom God has chosen to take hold of this text to use in the revelation of Himself.

Barth’s Christocentric logic comes into focus in his treatment of the three-fold Word of God. For Barth the reading of scripture is a word of God only in its relation to “the Word of God itself in the act of its being spoken in time (118).” We will return to the implications of this insight for preaching below, but here it is important to note that any partial or complete conception of a “Barthian hermeneutic” must avoid Kelsey’s mistake by affirming the contingency of scripture in relation to the Word itself, Jesus Christ. This frees the bible from captivity to any one agenda, thus rooting Barth’s submission to the text in all its multiplicity in the revelation of God himself: “it does not become God’s Word because we accord it faith but in the fact that it becomes revelation to us (110).” While granting the nature of the “wild and crooked tree,” the contention of this essay is that the fundamental contingency of reader, text, and preacher in relation to Jesus the Word provides the healthiest approach to understanding and applying Barth’s hermeneutics.

This thesis can be demonstrated by examining Barth’s “reading” of culture. As students of Barth know, his initial post-Safenwil years were marked by stressing the diastasis – the distance – between human culture and God (Palma’s 3, 117). In Barth’s later years, he began to move beyond this strong rejection of culture, which was undoubtedly conditioned by his refusal to submit to the Kaiser’s will (Metzger’s The Word of Christ, 9-10). In CD IV.3.1 Barth applies the same contingent logic in the relation between culture and God through his use of the biblical metaphor of light. Barth initially argues that Jesus Christ is the truth that
expresses, discloses, mediates and reveals itself, not as a truth but as the truth, in which all truths, the truth of God particularly and the truth of man, are enclosed, not as truths themselves, but as rays or facets of truth. (8, emphasis mine)
This point is later reinforced by using the biblical metaphor of light to argue that
Jesus Christ is the light of life…everything which we have to say concerning the prophetic office of Christ rests on this emphasis, being distinguished by it, and by the implied delimitation, from what is also to be said of other prophets, teachers and witnesses of the truth, or of the prophecy entrusted to the Christian community and each individual Christian. (86, emphasis mine)
Palma rightly argues that this does not entail the elimination of either church or culture, but rather makes their “lights” contingent on the Light, the Word of God, Jesus Christ (Karl Barth’s Theology of Culture, 32-3). For Barth, both biblical and cultural texts, including ecclesial cultural texts, can become true lights, true words of God only as they function as predicates of the Light of life and Word of God, Jesus Christ, being grasped by that Light and Word in the event of his self-revelation. It is this ultimate Light, this ultimate Word, which forms the final criterion which “we cannot handle (CD I.1, 93).”

Finally, one must note that the relativizing of cultural and ecclesial “texts” isn’t absolute. The church avoids capitulating into cultural “dialogue with itself” by attending closely to scripture (108). In its “writtenness” as the past-recollection of God’s self-revelation, scripture confronts the church as a “concrete authority,” which despite the ever-present danger of misreading has not and will not fail to “maintain its own life” as the fire that continually purifies the church of its idolatries (106).

Thus, for Barth, a primary hermeneutical principle is to read all texts with an eye to their fundamental contingency, deferring to the Word Himself. George Hunsinger characterizes this as Barth’s hermeneutical realism, which fleshes out in an analogical and self-involving hermeneutic (Disruptive Grace, 225). Such a hermeneutic respects the limits and multiplicity of texts, freeing them from all forms of captivity, allowing them to speak with full force as they are taken up by God in the event of revelation. In Barth’s phrase ‘it proclaims itself,’ argues John Webster, “one has found the Christological starting point for Barth’s understanding of the relationship between God and culture (Barth’s Moral Theology, 127).” Moreover, this simple phrase expresses a fundamental presupposition of all Barthian exegesis. Due to this presupposition, Saye’s thesis captures only one aspect of Barth’s perspective when he writes that “one must stand within the arena of church proclamation and read with an eye to finding Christ, that is stand in the outer ring (the church) and look through the middle ring (scripture) in order to see the center (Christ)” (“Wild and Crooked Tree,” 444). Saye’s thesis is incomplete because while seeking the Lord in accordance with his three-fold revelation, we must maintain that “He comes to us where and when He wishes (Barth, The Word in this World, 50).”

In Paul Tillich we meet an intriguing dialogue partner. While Barth made clear the substantial differences between their theologies, they did share some similar concerns (Letters, 144. See also Thomas’ Tillich, 28-9). Germane to this essay, they both displayed a deep concern with how to relate the sacred and secular realms to each other (Metzger, xix). In Tillich’s words, the fundamental problem for theology is “applying the relation of the absolute, which is implied in the idea of God, to the relativity of human religion” (On the Boundary, 40). Articulating this relation requires an understanding of how to read texts.

For Tillich, all theology – and therefore the reading of all texts – must serve to answer the questions of modern man (Kelsey, 65). Tillich contrasted his general approach with Barth in this regard, saying that Barth thought “the gospel should be thrown at man ‘like stones at his head,’” while “he wanted to present the Gospel as an answer to man’s question” (Thomas, 49). Tillich’s method for reading scripture – which can be characterized as “symbolic-expressive” (Kelsey, 65) – is birthed out of this apologetic approach. Fundamental is the belief that revelation is not a doctrine but an “event in which men receive power by which they are made new beings. It is at once a manifestation of that power and an occasion for healing, for salvation” (ibid). In order to articulate these revelatory events one conceptualizes them symbolically, and these symbols serve not only for recollection but also provide materials in which to experience future revelations; their purpose is to “express and occasion” revelation (65-6).

Looking at how Tillich reads cultural texts sheds helpful light on how biblical symbols function in expressing and occasioning revelation. Tillich’s famous maxim on the relation of religion and culture reads:
Culture has a claim on religion that it cannot surrender without surrendering its autonomy and therefore itself. It must determine the forms through which every content, including the ‘absolute’ content, expresses itself…As religion is the substance of culture, so culture is the form of religion. (On the Boundary, 69-70)
Tillich is attempting to maintain the interdependence of the realms of religion and culture while simultaneously allowing for their differentiation. He argued that neither the sacred nor the secular sphere should devour the other, but confessed that there is an “inseparable division” between the two, which is “a witness to our human predicament” (Church’s Essential Tillich, 102-3).

This inseparable division prevented any type of foundation (or outside revelation) which could adjudicate between cultural and biblical texts. Thus the cultural form, the question of modern man, became constitutive of the meaning of biblical symbols. This is evident throughout Tillich’s preaching. When commenting on texts, he would occasionally note how “strange” such terms and ideas sounded to modern readers, which he would then proceed to translate into contemporary expressions, concepts, and idioms. One sermon dealing with Isaiah and Jeremiah’s warnings of impending doom strikingly illustrates the consequences of Tillich’s methods:
In the language of the prophets, it is the Lord Who shakes the mountains and melts the rocks. This is a language modern man cannot understand. And so God, who is not bound to any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to the men of today through the mouths of our great scientists, and this is what he said: You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. I give the power to shake the foundations of your earth into your hands…This is what God said to mankind through the work of the scientists and through their discovery of the key to the foundations of life. But through them He did even more. He forced His Word upon them, as He had forced it upon the prophets, in spite of their attempt ever to resist it. (The Shaking of the Foundations, 4)
There are several points of note in this lengthy passage. There is the initial translation of biblical language into contemporary vernacular which, despite his deep suspicion, Barth could on occasion conscience. However, Tillich goes much further. God is not bound in any way to previous revelation of himself aside from the initial commonality of the biblical symbols, allowing the current cultural form to subsume the message of the prophets (cf. Kelsey, 66). The text is also wrenched out of the wider biblical narrative, leaving no barrier to modern concerns flooding the passage. The supernatural demise of earthly geographic features has been swallowed by destruction due to the recklessness of man. Finally, and most importantly, the agency of God in the original prophetic speeches now becomes the property of modern cultural sensibilities. The prophets believed God was the one to bring destruction, now humanity brings it on themselves. In the end, it seems likely that the only event of revelation possible would come from a vacuous God, subsequently filled with cultural texts.

In the interests of being even-handed, it is important to look also at Barth’s preaching, his use of scripture in proclaiming the Gospel. The early Barth succumbed to many of the same temptations as did Tillich, one example of which is his sermon after the tragedy of the Titanic. He later remarked about this sermon that he “had to make this disaster the main theme of my sermon, and a monster of a full-scale sermon resulted” (Homiletics, 118). Convinced that the biblical text was the best antidote to congregational boredom, Barth scrapped introductions and the desire for relevance and merely sought to preach in accordance with the truths that “God is the one who works,” and “we humans must try to point to what is said in scripture” (45, 80). Proclamation is contingently connected to scripture in much the same way as scripture is connected to the Word itself, thus forming the final circle in Barth’s three-fold Word of God. Hence, Barth prefers to call preaching “heralding,” in light of its provisional character (74). This orientation of pointing away from the preacher toward Jesus Christ is aptly illustrated in the Bremen Sermon, preached in November of 1934, during his Homiletics lectures. In his exposition of Mt 14:22-33, Barth comments:
He is not bound to us, but he comes to us. He comes to us where and when he wishes. And then that is always an event of his goodness. And this goodness of his which we hear about is an event that will continually encounter us as something new, an event which, God knows, we have never earned and which we may for our part neither demand, nor is it an event we can count upon, and it does not simply follow as a matter of course in our life or as a consequence of human history. No, when it comes, it stands before us as a divine miracle (The Word in this World, 50)
In contrast to Tillich, the agency of God in revelation reigns supreme for Barth. Whether it is in proclamation or in the reading of scripture, the revelation of Jesus Christ is a criterion we cannot handle. Barth’s approach is based on the conviction that “preaching cannot try to relate to the divine within us. The miracle must always take place from above” (Homiletics, 125). Barth is just as concerned with man’s modern “situation,” but due to his close reading and submission to the biblical text, modern man’s concerns look very different to him than they do to Tillich. For Barth, what humanity needs is not the freedom to decide whether or not it will perish, but to know “who and what Jesus is” (45). Consequently “throwing rocks” is not the primary point of proclamation, but “leading the congregation to the text” (123-4). Speaking to modern man’s situation requires courage, and faithfulness to the text requires humility. But if an error must be made, it is better to err on the side of humility, of closeness to the text – not to hurt people, but to allow the Word of God to speak to them through the text (116-7). For Barth, then, closeness to the text isn’t a way to harm people, but to prevent the preacher from harming others by speaking out of turn.

When we bring Karl Barth into conversation with Paul Tillich, we are presented with two similar but finally incompatible visions for how to read well. For Tillich, biblical texts and cultural texts must be kept in constant tension while still acknowledging their independence. Without any criterion by which maintain and judge this dynamic, Tillich’s desire to communicate to modern man takes center stage, filtering data found offensive to the current cultural milieu out of the biblical text. In the end, biblical texts are read in light of cultural texts, so much so that God loses any actual agency and the prophetic Word of God is rendered obsolete. Reading any text becomes an exercise in self-affirmation.

In Karl Barth, the biblical text is given the utmost respect and submitted to, as is the preacher’s communication of that text in today’s world. Such texts, as important as they are, must ultimately submit to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is able to grasp such human words and in the event of his revelation reveal Himself to humanity. Aware of the danger of reading modern sentiments into the text, Barth centers all reading in this ultimate Word. Doing so provides him with a criterion by which to take both cultural and biblical texts seriously, freeing them to be both what they are and instruments of His grace. Exegeting texts, seeking for and discerning the Word Himself, will train one to be well-read. Finally, since the Word of God is ultimately the Lord of all texts, readers must let themselves be read by these texts, seeking and submitting to the Son’s exegesis of their lives. In this way, too, they must be “well-read.” Thus reading theologically requires the double focus of seeking to understand all texts in light of Christ, and of submitting all of our labor, including our reading, to being read by our Lord. Being well-read is thus a paradigm for true discipleship.
By Tripp Fuller

Maris makes a number of comparative statements between Barth and Tillich that fail to highlight the location of their actual differences. Unlike Barth, Tillich was committed to articulating the freedom of God’s revelatory coming ontologically. This may be an inappropriate move at a time where rejecting ontotheology is popular, but criticisms of Tillich cannot neglect to recognize that his theology is the result of his philosophical attempt to speak of God in a public arena Barth did not tread. Not understanding Tillich’s ontology leads to nonsensical statements like “the agency of God in revelation reigns supreme for Barth” and “biblical texts are read in the light of cultural texts, so much that God loses any actual agency.” Getting Tillich’s ontology is essential because some of what Maris assumes is unique to Barth is shared by Tillich but stated in a different key.

God’s freedom and agency in the revelatory event is not unique to Barth. Tillich’s discussion of the Unconditioned is essential for seeing how they are differentiated. For Tillich, “there is no reality, thing, or event which cannot become a bearer of the mystery of being and enter into a revelatory correlation. Nothing is excluded from revelation in principle” (Systematic Theology = ST, 118). The Unconditioned, God, is then that which makes reality, creation, possible. God does not need to be inferred from reality because the conditioned is always already connected to the Unconditioned. Theologically one could say that the world is rightly understood as creation and creation is always already asking the question of its Creator. In his 1925 lectures on Dogmatik, Tillich defines revelation as the “breakthrough of the unconditioned into the conditioned. It is neither realization nor destruction of the conditioned forms but their shaking and turning around” (65). For Tillich, in stark contrast to Barth, revelation is the opening of the self to reality as it truly is. This opening up of reality can only take place because “there is a point of ontological contact between our being and the ground of being, or the Unconditioned which is the bearer of our essential being” (James Reimer in Gert Hummel’s Truth and History, 234). Barth rejects outright that there is any point of contact between God and the world a priori of the event of revelation and for him this distinction follows logically from the qualitative difference between the infinite and the finite.

Tillich did not find it necessary to limit the event of God’s revelation to the Christian tradition, its texts, and such. Tillich believed that all conditioned reality, sacred and secular, stands in dynamic tension with the Unconditioned. This ontological situation is universal such that all of God’s creation can be taken up, allowing God’s freedom to be present and revealed as constitutive of creation’s fabric, which is dependent upon God’s loving freedom to rupture the conditioned reality.

In an open letter to Barth and Gogarten, Tillich argues that
in all religion and all secular culture there are phenomena which make visible the source on which they stand, the revelation of grace and judgment in terms of faith. There are powerfully symbolic phenomena in religion and culture which are nevertheless under the No but the context and the consideration of them make possible a metaphysics of history, a symbolic, paradoxical salvation history...this sensitivity to the depths is not to be viewed objectively or immediately but paradoxically, by faith and in the unity of Yes and No. (“Critical and Positive Paradox” in Beginnings of Dialectic Theology by James Robinson, 138)
Tillich did not expect Barth to be satisfied with his articulation but he did want to problematize Barth’s own narrowing of revelation to the point which, in his mind, it become irreverent by being interested “only in the form of doctrine” (Protestant Era, 208). When Barth begins his Church Dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity, Tillich is left to wonder how the concept precedes the actual experience of the living and saving God. One can easily intuit Barth’s response that it is precisely the Triune God who is the free, sovereign, living, and loving God who saves. This was, is, and will always be God’s identity. Yet there remains a more pressing question: how can the Trinity, a doctrinal formula that developed over hundreds of years, in conversation with the very philosophical systems Barth is rejecting, end up being the conceptual a priori for a Christian discussion of divine revelation?

Tillich sees Barth’s idea “of God coming to man totally from the outside” as having great religious power that is yet disproportional to its philosophical power, for it cannot occur in such a way. God’s coming requires context if it is to be received, for Tillich. The divine object can never be present in that God, the Unconditioned, can never be contained in conditioned reality and thereby participating in the dialectic of subjects and objects. In contrast with Barth, however, is Tillich’s understanding of the ever-present potentiality of ultimate meaning rupturing into existence. The contrast plays out in Tillich’s discussion of the reality of revelation in his Systematic Theology, where he discusses relational constellations in which the Word of God can become present in human words (157-9). Take the act of proclamation, for example, in which Tillich identifies a number of variables: the meaning and communicative power of the words spoken and the understanding and existential reception on behalf of the hearer. In the correlation of these variables, the Word can potentially become present. He does not limit the meaning of the Word to a three-fold form but affirms the enormous diversity of means by which the Word can become present, all of which are united “in one meaning, namely, ‘God manifest’ - manifest in himself, in creation, in the history of revelation, in the final revelation, in the Bible, in the words of the church and her members” (159). While Maris believes that Tillich and Barth’s visions of how to read well are incompatible and they are different in many ways, they are both asserting that a text is scared if and only if God takes it up in God’s freedom - if the textual encounter becomes an event in which the God present in Christ ruptures the world as it was and makes it new.

Barth rejects Tillich’s philosophical account. For Barth there is one break-in structure in Jesus Christ and it is an act of divine grace. This structure is given in the event of Revelation and not in the act of Creation, nor is it lying dormant in the structures of the human (CD 2/1, 172). The desire to find a place within the created order for an anticipatory presence of God that precedes God’s action as redeemer is to imagine a God that can be something other than redeemer. This should not be possible for a Christian theologian according to Barth, but for Tillich, it is the faithful endeavor of the living tradition’s philosophical theologians. Reinhold Niebuhr located their parting of the ways in traditions running back in history to the Church Fathers themselves; “if Karl Barth is the Tertullian of our day, abjuring ontological speculations for fear that they may obscure or blunt the kerygma of the Gospel, Tillich is the Origen of our period, seeking to relate the Gospel message to the disciplines of our culture and to the whole of history” (Niebuhr in Kegley and Bretall’s Theology of Paul Tillich, 217). Maybe the time of the metaphysician is past, but a preference for one of the early church’s theological trajectories need not necessitate an incomplete hearing of the other.
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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 3

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Theology of Karl Barth
By Matthew Puffer

If Bonhoeffer’s importance to Barth’s theology is little noted, this is not without cause. “Disturbed” by the “particular thorn” of the enigmatic Letters and Papers and its “positivism of revelation” charge, Barth likewise found the “mandates” in Ethics to be “arbitrary” and “inadequate.” He wrote Eberhard Bethge—responsible for Bonhoeffer’s posthumous publications, and Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and nephew—“very softly I venture to doubt whether theological systematics (I include his Ethics) was his real strength.” Understood within the context of their relationship and respective theologies, such quotations can illumine rather than discredit a reciprocal influence between Barth and Bonhoeffer. This essay does not rehearse Bonhoeffer’s well-known dependence upon Barth, but, rather, Bonhoeffer’s often over-looked influence upon Barth’s thinking.

Barth and Bonhoeffer: Life Together

Bonhoeffer imbibed Barth’s early writings during his student years at Tübingen and Berlin (1924-27). Studying with Barth’s former professor and recent sparring partner, Adolf von Harnack, Bonhoeffer experienced Barth as a “liberation” through the lecture notes of his Göttingen and Münster students. Still, Bonhoeffer’s dissertations, Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, voice critical assessments of Barth’s early transcendentalism. In ’31 the young Berlin University theology lecturer spent three weeks in Bonn where the two conversed regularly. Barth was “delighted” when his visitor quoted one of Luther’s witticisms in a seminar, launching a friendship that would last until Bonhoeffer’s death. Bonhoeffer wrote, “I have been even more impressed by my discussions with him than by his writings and his lectures. For he is really all there. I have never seen anything like it” (A Testament to Freedom, 382).

The two labored together during the Kirchenkampf, until Bonhoeffer—exasperated with the Confessional Church’s cautiousness, the watered-down Bethel Confession, and Barth’s reticence to proclaim a status confessionis—took up a pastorate in London. Barth responded with words neither would soon forget:
Get back to your post in Berlin straightaway! … you need to be here with all guns blazing! … standing up to these brethren along with me … Why weren’t you there pulling on the rope that I, virtually alone, could hardly budge? Why aren’t you here all the time? … Just be glad I do not have you here in front of me, because then I would find an entirely different way of putting it to you ... that you are a German, that your church’s house is on fire, that you know enough, and know well enough how to say what you know, to be able to help, and in fact you ought to return to your post by the next ship! … If you did not matter so much to me, I would not have taken you by the collar in this fashion. (DBWE 13: 39-41)
Barth was in Basel by 1935 when Bonhoeffer returned, and though the two saw each other less in the subsequent years they remained important to each other, personally and intellectually.

Bonhoeffer in CD III: Differentiation and Relationship

As Bonhoeffer was reading II/2 and writing letters from prison, Barth was reading Bonhoeffer’s 1933 lectures, Creation and Fall, and developing his theological anthropology. Published shortly after Bonhoeffer’s death, Barth’s exegesis in III/1 appropriates Bonhoeffer’s analogia relationis against an analogia entis as the manner of human likeness to God. Barth’s reflections on Bonhoeffer’s insights become generative for his understanding of the Trinity and anthropology in the first three parts of III.

For Bonhoeffer, humankind bears the Creator’s likeness in its freedom, not as an inherent quality, but as “a relation between two persons” (Creation and Fall, 63). “The ‘image that is like God’ is therefore no analogia entis in which human beings, in their existence in-and-of-themselves, in their being, could be said to be like God’s being” (65). No individual exists alone, divine or human, so to perceive God or a human individual is to perceive a person in relation (surprisingly, Bonhoeffer fails to identify a freedom between the persons of the Trinity). In place of the analogia entis, Bonhoeffer argues an analogia relationis is a more faithful rendering of Genesis 1:26-27. Humankind’s created likeness to God consists, first, in its freedom for God and other human beings, and second, in its freedom from the creation, its dominion.

Rejecting numerous alternative interpretations of the imago Dei, Barth affirms Bonhoeffer’s analogy of freedom for God and for one-another, adding to his analogia relationis, the notion of God’s own freedom for Godself—the trinitarian “loving co-existence and co-operation, the I and Thou, which first take place in God Himself” (III/1, 196). For Barth, the original or prototype to which the imago Dei corresponds is not God’s relation to humankind ad extra, but the relationship and differentiation between I and Thou in God Himself. This original relation has its subsequent likeness in God’s relation to the human Jesus, Jesus Christ’s relation to humankind, and humankind’s relation to one-another as male and female. For both theologians, this analogy of relation in theo-anthropology bears directly upon ethics.

Barth writes, “When God and man meet as revealed in the Word of God, then definite spheres and relationships may be seen in which this encounter takes place … The one will of God and his one command embrace his work as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer … Similarly, the action of the one man is his action on the three corresponding planes” (III/4, 29). For Barth, “All ethical activity consists in discerning the will of God and bearing witness to it” as it is encountered by humankind within these spheres, these relationships (McCormack, 278).

Bonhoeffer too, maintains the essential element of relationships wherein the divine command is given, though the form of these relationships differs from Barth’s. For Bonhoeffer, the relations, or worldly mandates (family, work and government), are grounded in eschatological realities finding concrete expression in the divine mission here and now: Family—Christ’s relation to the Church-community and God the Father of Jesus Christ and Christ as brother to humankind; Work—“the creative service of God and Christ toward the world and of human beings toward God”; Government—Christ’s lordship over the heavenly city (Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 549-50). In, with, and under these three mandates, Christ is present in the concrete form of the church community. The Church, the fourth mandate, serves as an ontological ground and epistemological a priori for the participation of the other mandates in the reality of Christ. The worldly mandates bear witness to the promised heavenly kingdom precisely in their concrete encounters with the church-community. These encounters give provisional and temporal expression to eternal divine-human relations, foreshadowing, but also indicating here and now, the original and prototype existing in eternity.

Like Barth’s spheres, Bonhoeffer’s divine mandates reflect eternal dimensions of the divine-human relationship revealed through Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ. Favoring Bonhoeffer’s approach to the ethics of Althaus, Brunner, and Søe, Barth writes, “It is along these lines that we certainly have to think, and we may gratefully acknowledge that Bonhoeffer does this, even though it may be asked whether the working out of his view does not still contain some arbitrary elements…. The God who works and is revealed in His Word, in Jesus Christ, characterises Himself (in accordance with His inner trinitarian being) as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer” (III/4, 22, 25). Again, Barth offers critical modification to Bonhoeffer’s insights on divine-human relationships through reflection upon God’s Trinitarian existence.

Bonhoeffer in CD IV

While composing IV/1, Barth writes to P.W. Herrenbrück of Bonhoeffer’s importance. Although the letters from prison leave him “disturbed … embarrassed ... confused,” and “a lessening of the offence he has provided us is the last thing I should wish,” Barth nevertheless notes, “as always with Bonhoeffer one is faced by a peculiar difficulty. He was—how shall I put it?—an impulsive, visionary thinker who was suddenly seized by an idea to which he gave lively form, and then after a time he called a halt (one never knew whether it was final or temporary) with some provisional last point or other. Was this not the case with Discipleship? Did he not also for a time have liturgical impulses—And how was it with the ‘Mandates’ of his Ethics, with which I tussled when I wrote III/4?” (World Come of Age, 89-92).

On the theme of imitation in Discipleship, Barth indicates “it has long been clear to me that I will have to devote a lot of room to this matter in the Church Dogmatics.” And, again, “I always read his early writings, especially those which apparently or in reality said things which were not at once clear to me, with the thought that—when they were seen round some corner or other—he might be right.” Barth seems to have seen around additional corners in working out IV/2. Barth’s high praise in this volume resulted not only from reflection on Discipleship, but also from his oversight of John Godsey’s dissertation, The Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In “The Sanctification of Man” (§66) Barth expresses his appreciation for Discipleship:
the best that has been written on [imitatio Christi] … the matter is handled with such depth and precision that I am almost tempted simply to reproduce them in an extended quotation. For I cannot hope to say anything better on the subject than what is said here by a man who, having written on discipleship, was ready to achieve it in his own life, and did in his own way achieve it even to the point of death. In following my own course, I am happy that on this occasion I can lean as heavily as I do upon another. (534)
Later, in “The Holy Spirit and the Upbuilding of the Christian Community” (§67), Barth extols Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio, a work he regarded a “theological miracle” (Godsey, 21).
If there can be any possible vindication of Reinhold Seeberg, it is to be sought in the fact that his school could give rise to this man and this dissertation, which … makes far more instructive and stimulating and illuminating and genuinely edifying reading to-day than many of the more famous works which have since been written on the problem of the Church.… many things would not have been written if Bonhoeffer’s exposition had been taken into account. I openly confess that I have misgivings whether I can even maintain the high level reached by Bonhoeffer, saying no less in my own words and context, and saying it no less forcefully, than did this young man so many years ago. (641)
Although Bonhoeffer goes unnamed in IV/3, his prison writings echo in Barth’s words: “Had the world first to become mature in order that in its own way the Church should become mature in a positive sense?” (21). It comes as little surprise to find further congruence in Barth’s conclusion, the Church is “free for the secular world.” Barth repeats the point in The Christian Life, where an extended quote could easily have been taken from Bonhoeffer’s “Outline for a Book”: “[The Christian’s] job, then, is to usher in a kind of Christian secularism or secular Christianity… thinking, speaking, and action in the expectation that he can most fittingly serve the gospel of God among children and citizens of the world by the closest possible approximation and assimilation to their attitude and language and even their thought forms, so that in his own person he will set before them the fact of God’s love… Christians have the freedom … to take seriously their solidarity with those outside” (200). Barth notes, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer possibly had something of this view in his last years when he made certain rather cryptic statements.”

Andreas Pangritz and Kevin Hart suggest that Barth derives similar inspiration from Bonhoeffer for his “secular parables” of the kingdom and “doctrine of lights” in other religions. We could add to these Barth’s discussion of lying and un-truth in §72 (“The Falsehood and Condemnation of Man”), which offers striking parallels to the younger theologian’s “What is Meant by Telling the Truth?”

Bonhoeffer’s Lasting Impression

Even in retirement, after the Dogmatics had been set aside, Bonhoeffer remained important to Barth. In 1967 he wrote to Bethge regarding his “masterpiece on Bonhoeffer”: “I have learned many things about Bonhoeffer for the first time,” including “the fact that in 1933 and the years following, Bonhoeffer was the first and almost the only one to face and tackle the Jewish question so centrally and energetically. I have long since regarded it as a fault on my part that I did not make this question a decisive issue, at least publicly in the church conflict. Only from your book have I become aware that Bonhoeffer did so from the very first. Perhaps this is why he was not at Barmen nor later at Dahlem.” Barth understands that Bonhoeffer’s opinions on the Aryan Clause and his isolation on these matters were, in part, what drove a wedge between Bonhoeffer and the nascent Confessing Church movement, leading to his departure for London in 1933. He sees in Bonhoeffer one who shared the convictions he held at the time “when I left theological Liberalism,” including the trajectory “from Christian faith to political action.” In the years of their acquaintance, “there was a genuine need in the direction which I now silently took for granted or emphasized only in passing … and the need to fill [this gap], Bonhoeffer obviously saw very keenly from the first ... he became a martyr, too, for this specific cause” (Letters 1961-1968, 250-52).

Finally, among his final letters, written only two months before his death, Barth declines Hendrikus Berkhof’s request that he advise their mutual friend, J. Boulon. “To direct him to remain in Beirut—what purely theoretically would be the best—I could not take responsibility: I already have in my memory the advice that I once gave Bonhoeffer to return from London to Germany, upon the execution of which he wound up in Flossenbürg” (Briefe 1961-1968, 505). The impact Bonhoeffer had on Barth was no less personal than theological.

With and Beyond Barth and Bonhoeffer

Scholarship that looks closely into Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics must wrestle with Barth’s influence. The converse has not been the case. However, if we take Barth at his word in CD, significant elements of his theology and ethics in III and IV would have gone missing had Bonhoeffer’s influence not exerted itself. As Barth wrestled intensely with the epistemic and ontological conditions of possibility for Christian theology and witness (in I-II), Bonhoeffer was writing and acting upon conclusions to which the Dogmatics would not give expression until III-IV: creation, theological anthropology, special ethics, justification and sanctification, discipleship, the communion of saints, and secular Christianity—namely, the lived experience of Christian discipleship in the church-community. As Paul Lehmann rightly points out, Barth’s “specific attention to these concerns did not emerge until … it was too late for further exchange on these matters,” at least not within the architectonics of CD (“The Concreteness of Theology,” 68).

What, then, of Barth’s “doubt whether theological systematics (I include his Ethics)” was Bonhoeffer’s strength? Barth himself offers the greatest help in this regard. In I/1 Barth draws a distinction between regular and irregular dogmatics that pivots on the completeness and consistency with which one attends to a host of subjects. Regular dogmatics aim at completeness (Origen, Thomas, Calvin, Dorner). Irregular dogmatics “will be, and will mean to be, a fragment,” for example, the early church, Athanasius, Luther, and Kutter (I/1, 277). Barth engages in regular dogmatics without demeaning the irregular approach, “a little of which all of us secretly do and which we ought to do boldly” (Göttingen, 38). “The ultimate question cannot be whether we are doing regular or irregular dogmatics.” Instead, “What finally counts is whether a dogmatics is scriptural” (I/1, 287).

This distinction between regular and irregular dogmatics, consistent versus fragmentary (yet equally provisional), helpfully illuminates Barth’s seemingly devastating appraisal of Bonhoeffer in an otherwise effusive letter to Bethge. Barth’s assessment differentiates his own self-consciously regular dogmatics from Bonhoeffer’s, to which he gives such high praise in CD as elsewhere. It explains how Barth is able to laud Bonhoeffer’s insights while submitting them to extensive revision—Ethics is “brilliant” even as it is “fragmentary and provisional.” For him, the form of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics had to do not only with its unfinished state (Barth’s Church Dogmatics had been in a similarly unfinished and non-progressing state for some years when he made this comment of Bonhoeffer’s opus), but specifically with the lack of systematic perspective from which Bonhoeffer had approached his Ethics which left a disorganized, unpolished result.

Barth saw in Bonhoeffer’s irregular and often fragmentary writings much more than nascent indicators, but rather seminal elements he could develop within his own distinctive theology. Barth’s reformulations of anthropology and the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer relations as the context of the ethical event build upon Bonhoeffer’s analogia relationis and his understanding of mandates as the relational context of God’s command in the “middle,” or, as Barth would have it, between the times. Such conversations between Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly warrant further consideration, as well as their conceptions of vicarious representative action and correspondence, re-presenting the Truth and giving witness, the Grenzfall in the ethics of suicide, and the difference election makes to the practice of ethics.

Barth recognized that analogy involves both differentiation and relationship, correspondence of the unlike, so perhaps it is fitting to close noting some shared features. Both theologians came to know the loneliness of forging new paths, resisting the accepted wisdom of their day, seeking for themselves not disciples, but to know the Word of God. They took seriously the Baptist’s “He must become greater, I must become less.” And at least one specific practice resulted from and informed their often shared and uncommon vision, sustaining them in the midst of busyness, solitude, and crisis. Bonhoeffer wrote after seven months in prison, “in addition to daily Bible study, I have read the Old Testament two and a half times through and have learned a great deal” (DBWE 8, 181). As a result, Bonhoeffer gained new insights on relational truth-telling. In preparation for IV/4 Barth wrote to his son Markus, the New Testament scholar, that he had again read “the New Testament from A to Z and word by word” (TCL, xv). His sacramentology followed. Certainly those who travel with or beyond these two great theologians will not require less in their own reflections.
Response - Supplementing Puffer’s Thesis:
Barth’s Growing Appreciation for Bonhoeffer

By Andy Rowell

Virtually all of the secondary literature on Dietrich Bonhoeffer explores the influence Barth had on him. Matt Puffer takes a different tact and focuses on how Bonhoeffer influenced Barth. He begins by recounting some of the harshest remarks Barth had to say about Bonhoeffer, but goes on later in the essay to put these phrases in context. His overall thesis is that Barth drew upon Bonhoeffer at various points in Church Dogmatics, and that it would be a mistake to hypothesize a great gulf between them.

From the time he met Bonhoeffer, Barth appreciated Bonhoeffer’s provocations but he was also always a bit confused by them. Puffer rightly and rigorously argues that Barth draws upon Bonhoeffer in a few important ways and that the confusion between the two of them should not detract from that fact. In addition to the systematic refinement that Barth gives to Bonhoeffer’s theological concepts in Church Dogmatics, the reasons behind the confusion are numerous and difficult to disentangle: Barth not having read Bonhoeffer earlier, the difficulty of communicating during the crucible of war-time Germany, differences in age (20 years), nationality (Swiss vs. German), differences in class (son of a Swiss pastor vs. son of Berlin psychiatrist), ecclesial pressures (Reformed vs. Lutheran), vocational journey (pastor turned academic vs. academic turned pastor), style of writing (regular vs. irregular dogmatics), and critics driving a wedge between them. I would like to supplement Puffer’s thesis by tracing chronologically Bonhoeffer’s influence on Barth—allowing the reader to see Barth’s growing appreciation for Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer and Barth met for the first time in July 1931. Bonhoeffer was 25 and Barth was 45. Bonhoeffer had interacted extensively with Barth in his dissertation (Sanctorum Communio ) and habilitation (Act and Being) while Barth had read nothing that Bonhoeffer had written. From that point until Bonhoeffer’s death, the two corresponded regularly and met occasionally. During Bonhoeffer’s lifetime, Barth ceded little ground to him—seeing himself primarily in the role of professor and Bonhoeffer as student. He did however depend on Bonhoeffer for one thing—news from wartime Germany. Eberhard Busch, Barth’s biographer, reports that “Barth was given a closer idea of the German situation . . . above all by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who visited him” three times in Switzerland during the summer of 1941 (Busch, Karl Barth, 314).

The word “Bonhoeffer” occurs 34 times in the 8,000 pages of Church Dogmatics. Barth interacted extensively with one insight from Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall in CD III/1, which was published in 1945. The rest of the references to Bonhoeffer’s work were written after Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945. Barth’s appreciation grew for Bonhoeffer after Bonhoeffer’s death. Barth drew mostly approvingly from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in III/4 (1951), and effusively from Discipleship and Sanctorum Communio in IV/2 (1958).

In 1951, Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison were published. Bonhoeffer’s comment about Barth’s “positivism of revelation” has been used as a bludgeon by Barth’s critics ever since. Andreas Pangritz, in his Karl Barth in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reports that the phrase was used in German theology to
play off the middle-class, liberal Bonhoeffer, who theology seems to be made believable on account of his death as a ‘martyr,’ against the Swiss democrat Barth, in particular his socialist leanings. Resistant against the Nazis—yes! as long as it remains within the domain of the middle class and as long as the military plays a decisive part in maintaining security; no! as soon as it tends toward a socialist revolutionizing of the order of society: this is how the message goes. (2-3)
In other words, in Germany, many dismiss Barth as a dangerous fundamentalist whereas Bonhoeffer is the enlightened pragmatist. In the United States, the reception of Barth and Bonhoeffer has been almost reverse of that of Germany. Bonhoeffer is generally seen as the dashing dangerous activist (liberal or conservative—depending on the interpreter) while Barth is viewed as the long-winded abstruse (and thus harmless) professor.

No wonder then that Barth himself was reluctant to say exactly how and where he and Bonhoeffer diverged. In 1962, in a question and answer session at Princeton during Barth’s visit to the United States, Barth asked for clarification from the audience regarding an aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology. “Is there any Bonhoeffer-specialist in this assembly?” This question takes on more significance when we consider the letter Barth wrote in 1967 to Eberhard Bethge after reading Bethge’s 800 page biography of Bonhoeffer. Barth writes, “I have learned many things about Bonhoeffer for the first time, or they have first made an impact on me, in your book.” He goes on to say,
Again, it was new to me that with Bishop Bell I myself was always so important a figure to him--until at the end he charged me with a “positivism of revelation,” an objection I could never clearly understand. Until now I have always thought of myself as one of the pawns, not the knights or castles, on his chessboard.
It took Bethge’s book in 1967 (just a year before Barth’s death in 1968) for Barth to realize what a devoted follower he had in Bonhoeffer. As we have seen, as Barth worked on Church Dogmatics, his comments about Bonhoeffer became increasingly appreciative. If the various misunderstandings between the two had somehow been clarified earlier than 1967, it seems probable that Barth would have interacted earlier, more extensively, more explicitly, and less suspiciously with Bonhoeffer’s work. Puffer joins the consensus of Barth and Bonhoeffer interpreters, who can see with the benefit of post-1967 hindsight, that the two theologians were as theologically close to one another as to anyone else, even though this fact was sometimes obscure even to themselves.
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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 2

Karl Barth and Herman Bavinck on the Deus dixit
By Andrew Esqueda

One of Herman Bavinck’s most profound contributions to theology can be found in his prolegomena to Reformed Dogmatics [RD, 4 vols] in which he seeks to bring forth a necessary and fundamental starting point for all further elucidations on the proper task of dogmatics. This starting point begins by affirming that “God has spoken,” Deus dixit (RD I, 30; 46). The significant impact of Bavinck and his exposition of the Deus dixit can be seen in his influence upon Karl Barth. Barth subsequently took Bavinck’s application of the Deus dixit and furthered its use by way of his commentary on the proper task of dogmatics and development of a three-fold Word of God. Barth, in preparation for his Göttingen lectures, read Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek closely, and incorporated Bavinck’s understanding of the Deus dixit into his lectures (McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology [CRDT], 337). It is important to note that Barth did not stop with a simple affirmation of Bavinck’s declaration that “God has spoken,” but developed it further, working with and beyond Bavinck’s original scheme. Although Barth’s use of the Deus dixit has been examined in studies by Bruce L. McCormack, (CRDT, 337), and John Vissers, (“What Might Canadian Evangelical Theologians Learn From Karl Barth’s Appreciative Use of Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics”?”, Lecture, CETA, Montreal, May, 2010), it is my intention in this essay to go beyond an examination of Barth’s appreciative use of Bavinck and to examine the differences and similarities in Barth and Bavinck’s dogmatic use of the Deus dixit.

This essay is comprised of three sections. In the first section, I begin with an examination of Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit (RD I), highlighting its position as the foundation of dogmatics. In the second section, I examine Barth’s use and development of the Deus dixit within the Göttingen Dogmatics [GD]. I will begin with an investigation into Barth’s appropriation of the Deus dixit as it relates to his elucidation of the proper task of dogmatics and his doctrine of the three-fold word of God. In the third and final section, I compare and contrast Barth and Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit, paying significant attention to Barth’s understanding of its limits.

Herman Bavinck

That God has revealed Himself in His Word means that the Deus dixit has occurred—God has spoken. This assertion is, for Bavinck, the fundamental presupposition of dogmatics. Dogmatics can then be defined as reflection upon the Deus dixit. Bavinck writes, “The task of the dogmatician is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity” (RD I, 25). It is in reflection upon the Deus dixit that the dogmatician is able to properly carry out this task. But, for Bavinck, dogmatics is comprised of more than ambivalent reflection; there must be a certainty in the speaking of God for dogmatics properly to be dogmatics. Thus, it is only through supreme confidence that the Deus dixit has occurred that dogmatic reflection may be undertaken. As Bavinck saw it, the certainty and confidence that “God has spoken” comes to light in the exposition of Scripture. Therefore, dogmatics is able to proceed with confidence only on account of divine revelation grounded in “sacred Scripture” (RD I, 30). For Bavinck, dogmatics cannot and must not be seen as that which grounds the contours of the Christian faith—it is exactly the opposite. Room is made for dogmatic reflection by divine revelation attested in Scripture and the coming of faith. Bavinck maintained that the proper task of dogmatics can be rooted in none other than the speaking of God. Thus, for Bavinck, “the principle into which all theological dogmas are distilled is: God has said it [Deus dixit]” (RD I, 30).

Karl Barth

It is in the beginning of Karl Barth’s prolegomena to dogmatics, entitled “The Word of God as the Problem of Dogmatics” (GD, 3), that Barth adheres to what he calls an “older dogmatic tradition.” In following this tradition, Barth, defines dogmatics as “reflection on the Word of God” (GD, 8). It is important that dogmatics not be equated with the science of God (GD, 10), which reduces dogmatics to scholarly metaphysics. Barth, wants to make certain that these truths are always governed and “secured by an intervening Deus dixit” (GD, 10). Bavinck’s influence becomes evident at this point. Barth’s use of the Deus dixit, as he learned it from Bavinck (GD, 14; CRDT, 338n), began to shape the way in which he thought about dogmatics. For Barth, the actuality that “God has spoken” makes the dogmatician able to carry out that task properly. Barth, however, does not stop here. He takes the application of the Deus dixit a step further and argues that the actuality that God has spoken becomes not only the foundation for dogmatics, but also the proper foundation for knowledge of God in faith. What this means is that the Deus dixit, for Barth, becomes the bedrock of both dogmatic reflection and the doctrine of the Word of God.

Dogmatics is, for Barth, reflection upon the Word of God, which is revelation in so far as it is the speaking of God. What must be emphasized at this juncture is Barth’s assertion that all “truth” about God is secured by God’s speaking. In light of this assertion, our knowledge of God must be strictly attributed to the Deus dixit. As Barth understands it, knowledge of God cannot be ascribed to experience, the human psyche, or the dogmatician. Rather, it must be attributed to the “speaking of God which is identical with God; identical, because it is a speaking by God” (CRDT, 338). Barth’s emphasis upon the Deus dixit bears substantial implications for his understanding of revelation, which now brings us to his explication of the three-fold word of God.

The Word of God, as Barth explicates in the Göttingen Dogmatics and subsequently in Church Dogmatics I/1, is three-fold. In the first form, the Word of God is the “first address in which God himself and God alone is the speaker” (GD, 14). This first form of the Word of God is not ongoing since it took place at a specific time in history. It is thus important that a strict distinction be made between “The statement ‘God revealed himself’…[and] ‘revelation took place’”(GD, 15). The Deus dixit, as such, has an historical and original occurrence in the strict sense, yet it is still true that it eternally persists for “if the Word of God is to be known, it must be received by us in the present” (CRDT, 338). Holy Scripture as the second form of the Word of God is not ongoing—it is an event in time, which does not occur again. An extension of the idea of Scripture is certainly possible, e.g., if a truly inspired book was to be discovered, but it cannot be true that there is a continuation of the prophets and apostles. For Scripture, and even its possible extension, still belong in the historical past (GD, 15). Holy Scripture is thus, the attestation and witness of the original Deus dixit—it is not revelation, but from revelation. The third form of the Word of God is Christian preaching, which is ongoing in that it proceeds from the original Deus dixit and Holy Scripture. Preaching is ongoing because “It is present,” and “Naturally, in, with, and under Christian preaching, revelation and scripture are present too, but not otherwise” (GD, 16).

Barth’s reading of Herman Bavinck and his understanding of Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit had a formative role in the way which Barth sets forth his prolegomena and doctrine of the Word of God. Much of Barth’s exposition of his prolegomena to dogmatics strongly echoes Bavinck. But it is also true that while Bavinck takes the Deus dixit in one direction, Barth takes it in another, especially as it relates to his understanding of revelation. It is here that I will show Barth’s development of the Deus dixit, corresponding with his understanding of revelation, as the catalyst for his divergence from Bavinck.

Barth and Bavinck: Diverging Trajectories

The influence of Bavinck on Barth’s prolegomena and doctrine of the Word of God is significant. But the question is not whether Bavinck’s exposition of the Deus dixit had an impact on Barth’s theology—this is quite evident. Rather, the question is this: To what extent does Barth’s developmental use of the Deus dixit set Barth’s theology off toward a distinctly different trajectory than that of Bavinck? Until his exposition of the three-fold Word of God, Barth works primarily within the confines of Bavinck’s understanding of the Deus dixit. But what separates Barth and Bavinck is not their starting point, but their understanding of the Deus dixit as it relates to God’s revelation. What Barth brings to the theological table (so to speak) in his doctrine of the Word of God is an understanding of revelation which brings out the restricted nature of the Deus dixit. This is quite distinct from Bavinck. In order to understand these diverging trajectories, it is necessary to examine the ways in which the Deus dixit impacts their doctrines of revelation.

Bavinck understands the Deus dixit as an event in history. But the trajectory that Bavinck takes toward a doctrine of general revelation (RD I, 301) is interesting in this context. Bavinck sees the Deus dixit as ongoing. That is, the Deus dixit endures qua Holy Scripture and preaching, but it can also extend beyond the confines of the church. This is not to say that Bavinck digresses into a sort of Reformed doctrine of natural theology, but it is to say that he comes quite close. God is thus continually able to speak extra muros ecclesiae (outside the walls of the church). Bavinck understands the speaking of God in the particular sense—that is, the original Deus dixit—as ultimately related to the speaking of God in the general sense—that is, general revelation. Thus, the presupposition underlying Bavinck’s doctrine of revelation is that the Deus dixit extends beyond the original event in history, Holy Scripture, and the preaching of the church. God is, in fact, speaking to the whole of creation—God is not confined to the mediation of the church. Bavinck stresses quite strongly the general over the particular. But they are not to be separated from each other for the original Deus dixit is joined with the general speaking of God. Bavinck’s broad understanding of revelation does not deter from the significance of the original Deus dixit, but it rather affirms the significance of God’s activity in the created order. The Deus dixit is the revelation of God because it is the speaking of God, but Bavinck makes only a slight distinction, in contrast to Barth, between God revealing God-self and revelation occurring. That is to say, the original Deus dixit has obvious priority over all subsequent speaking of God, and the general nature of God’s subsequent speaking is wholly affirmed as revelation. Thus, the special revelation of God and the general revelation of God are truly and utterly the Deus dixit. Bavinck’s theology must not be construed to say that salvation occurs apart from faith—this is not true at all. But Bavinck does affirm that general revelation, although it might be blurry (RD I, 304), is a precursor to special revelation in which the two are ultimately united in faith (RD I, 302). It is quite fair to say that there is a sense in Bavinck’s theology that there is a special Deus dixit and a general Deus dixit. In order to keep Bavinck’s theology from falling under the category of “natural theology,” it might be beneficial to speak of an original Deus dixit and the general “speaking of God.”

Barth takes his understanding of the Deus dixit in a distinctly different trajectory than Bavinck. Barth emphasizes the particular, which constitutes the restriction of the Deus dixit. Like Bavinck, Barth understands the Deus dixit as an event in history. But unlike Bavinck, the Deus dixit happened once-and-for-all (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 [CD], 115) and can be actualized only qua scripture and Christian preaching. Barth is unwilling to affirm any knowledge of God apart from scripture and Christian preaching. So, the speaking of God is particular to the original Deus dixit yet, by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through scripture and Christian preaching, it eternally endures such that it is as if the Deus dixit occurs again. This is not to say that God is exclusively confined to the Church. In fact, Barth affirms that if God so pleased He could reveal Himself by way of a dead dog (CD I/1, 55), and Barth speaks of the possibility of the work of the God extra muros ecclesiae (CD IV/2, 724). But these instances are not normative, and must not be universally canonized as the way in which God acts. For Barth, the normative speaking of God is always located in and with the Word of God—so that, knowledge of God never occurs apart from the Deus dixit.

Barth puts a limitation on the Deus dixit. The trajectory Barth takes seems to hinder the ability of God but, in all reality, Barth simply preserves the particularity of God as the subject of the Deus dixit. Barth, over against Bavinck, starts with the particular nature of the Deus dixit, and subsequently stays there. There is nothing about revelation that can be characterized in the general sense. Thus, the only way in which the particularized Deus dixit can endure is by way of limitation through the three-fold Word of God. For although the original Deus dixit has occurred in the past, it is upheld and heard today through the reading of scripture and Christian preaching. What ultimately separates Barth and Bavinck, proceeding from their corresponding conceptions of the Deus dixit and related to the proper task of dogmatics, is their understandings of the particular and general nature of the Deus dixit. For Barth, the Deus dixit has occurred and endures only by way of Scripture and preaching. Any other claim of the knowledge of God is simply an abstraction.


If one were to read Barth and Bavinck casually, it would be quite easy to assume that their theologies would end up in a very similar place. Their theologies are quite similar at times, which is exactly it—similar, but only to an extent. Bavinck, in attempting to affirm the work of God in creation, creates an abstraction in the form of the universal mediation of the knowledge of God. This can in some sense be defended by the titles of “special” or “general” revelation but, regardless of that demarcation, the Deus dixit is relegated to the mediation of something other than the Word of God. Although Bavinck would affirm the work of the Holy Spirit as the acting subject of general revelation, there is no possible way for one to properly discern what is true revelation in that context. It begs the question of who or what is the subject of general revelation. Can one be confident that it is truly the Deus dixit? An understanding of a general Deus dixit, or a general revelation apart from the preceding enlightenment of Christ through faith, is an abstracted revelation whose subject is not God and is, therefore, indistinct from natural theology.

Let this critique of Bavinck not deter us from the merit of his theology and the significance of his influence on Barth. Although Barth and Bavinck diverge, it is Bavinck’s elucidation of the proper task of dogmatics and his application of the Deus dixit that became pivotal to Barth’s understanding of dogmatics and his development of the three-fold Word of God. Barth’s restriction of the Deus dixit does not lose sight of Bavinck’s initial application and its significance for dogmatics. It was my intention to go beyond an examination of Barth’s appreciative use of Bavinck, not for the sake of minimizing Barth’s gratitude toward Bavinck, but in order to show the importance of theological influence as well as dogmatic construction. What can be gleaned from this examination is not insignificant: although Barth’s use of Bavinck beyond the Göttingen Dogmatics was not overly extensive, it remains significant by providing both an historical and dogmatic framework for understanding the foundations and development of particular aspects of Barth’s theology. Apart from critique, there is certainly an affirmation of Bavinck that cannot be overlooked and should be taken more seriously by Barthians. Bavinck’s theology, although sometimes at odds with Barth’s, can provide a helpful theological resource as well as a beneficial interlocutor.
By Joel Esala

Andrew Esqueda does an admirable job elucidating the little acknowledged relationship between Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth’s theology. While recognizing their differences in methodology, Esqueda does not point out the systemic root of those differences: the identity of the Word of God. My comments are not critical but ancillary in light of Barth’s development in the Dogmatics.

Bavinck and Barth’s differences concerning the Deus dixit center on the identity of the Word of God. Esqueda identifies that for Barth the first form of the Word of God is the “first address in which God himself and God alone is the speaker” (GD, 14). This is true in so far as it goes, of course. If we can know God’s word, this is only because God has revealed it. Without God’s revealing, what we would call “the word of God” would simply be our own idolatrous words, or as Barth would later put it, “a hypostatized image of man” (CD II/2, 4). The key for Barth is that God has not spoken one nugget of revelation here and another there, but has spoken with one voice definitely in Jesus Christ: “For it is Jesus Christ who is God’s revelation” (CD II/1, 74). Jesus Christ is not simply one part of revelation in a series of parts that must be unified into a coherent theological narrative; rather he is the beginning and the end of all God’s revelation, the first and last of all God’s words: “He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other” (CD II/2, 94). To him the apostles and prophets give witness in the second form of the Word of God, and preaching gives witness to Jesus Christ through the apostles and prophets.

While Barth indentifies different forms of the Word of God, that Word is the same in substance. All three forms point to Jesus Christ in whom humanity hears God’s gracious word to all. God does not give mixed messages because in Jesus Christ God’s will is revealed in full and without equivocation. The difference then between Barth and Bavinck’s theologies of the Word is rooted in differing understandings of Jesus Christ, different doctrines of election and, ultimately, different understandings of the gospel. For Bavinck, the distinction between general and special revelation indicates that Jesus Christ is not the beginning and end of all God’s revelation. Instead Jesus becomes the means to some greater end, namely to save some and condemn others. Jesus is instrumentalized and merely plays a part in God’s greater whole, and that whole is ultimately “unknown to us and neither can nor may be the rule of our conduct” (RD III, 466). For Bavinck, we cannot know “the will of God’s good pleasure,” but only “the revealed will” of God (ibid). There is a variance between what God wills and what God reveals for Bavinck, which is why he must affirm two different forms of revelation that – despite his best efforts to hold them together – ultimately cast doubt on the veracity of all God’s revelation. If what God has revealed is somehow different than what God wills, there is no way to trust what God reveals. God may appear to be gracious toward humanity, while in fact God might be hostile. Bavinck cannot state with Barth concerning Jesus Christ, “Before Him and without Him God does not, then, elect or will anything” (CD II/2, 94). Therefore Bavinck’s different forms of revelation, unlike Barth’s, are not the same in substance. God is not of one mind with respect to his creation, and speaks different words for different purposes. Jesus serves to reveal part but not all of God’s will. For Barth this leads to despair, obscuring the true God behind an unknown decree. Such a God cannot be loved, only feared.

Barth’s insistence on limiting the Deus dixit to God’s word spoken in Jesus Christ is rooted in his firm conviction that Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, not merely the means to the end. Bavinck cannot say the same. Even though their theologies begin with the same idea of rooting everything in God’s speech, they end up in different places because hidden behind Bavinck’s revelation is the unknown will of God. For Barth this was not good news. To limit the word of God spoken in Christ ensures the gospel remain good news for all.
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Monday, September 27, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 1

…ich immer nur habe sein wollen ein Diener
des göttlichen Wortes in freudigem Geist und Sinne…

--F.D.E. Schleiermacher, Sermon at Nathanael’s (his son) grave on 1 Nov 1829

Schleiermacher and Barth:
On Theology as the Science of the Divine Word

By: Matthew J. Aragon Bruce

Von Balthasar writes: “Schleiermacher gave Barth a powerful intuition into the unity, grandeur and totality of theology as a scientific discipline” (Theology of Karl Barth (1992), 199). With this, von Balthasar proposed that Barth’s thought exhibited a degree of genetic dependence on that of Schleiermacher at both a formal and material level. The concern of this essay is not to inquire into such genetic dependence, but with the phrase “theology as a scientific discipline.” How did these two modern theologians conceive of theology, and in particular dogmatics, as a “scientific discipline”? What is the nature and task of theology under the conditions of modernity, conditions prominently marked by the ascendancy of “science” and the modern research university?

I: Schleiermacher

In §1 of his Brief Outline (1830) Schleiermacher writes: “Theology… is a positive science,” i.e. “a compendium of scientific elements which have their common bond not as if they form a necessary component of the organization of the sciences by virtue merely of the idea of science, but only in so far as they are required for the accomplishment of a practical task.” With the adjective “positive,” Schleiermacher defines theology as a practical science, i.e. a critical inquiry that cultivates human knowledge for the purpose of addressing practical individual and social needs. The elements of theology (Schleiermacher has in mind all of aspects of the four theological fields and not simply systematic theology or dogmatics) are bound together as a science not by virtue of the idea of science, but by the task that theology seeks to achieve, viz. the training of Church leaders for the task of proclamation. The conception of “positive science,” though it has earlier precedents, emerges in large part in the midst of the foundation of the University of Berlin, an event in which Schleiermacher played a central role. Moreover, the question concerning the scientificity of theology has continued to be shaped in conversation with the role of theology in the university until today. It is thus necessary to examine Schleiermacher’s notion of science in light of the developments surrounding the formation of the university and the reform of the German educational system in the early 19th Century.

Schleiermacher borrows the definition of a “positive science” from the idealist philosopher F.W. J. Schelling. In his 1802 Lectures on the Method of University Studies, Schelling develops a philosophy of education founded on the notion of science as an “organic whole” and thus a collective undertaking in which all members of the scientific or university community are involved. This is in contrast to the current understanding of the sciences as distinct, relatively independent fields of inquiry. For Schelling and Schleiermacher, on other hand there are not sciences per se but only science, for “the more something is treated in isolation, the more incomprehensible and convoluted it appears” (Gelegentliche Gedanken über Universitäten in deutschem Sinn, in Ernst Anrich, ed. Die Idee der deutschen Universität (1964), 223). Each member of the academic community contributes her part to the whole, i.e. to the collective development of scientific knowledge. Schelling contended that it was the philosophy faculty alone (more akin to the liberal arts faculty in our day though heavy in what we call philosophy) that could put forth this vision of the unity of thought and impress it on young minds. It is no surprise then that theology and other “positive” faculties of the German Universities, law and medicine, were considered scientific not in themselves but only in their relation to philosophy. Philosophy, in this sense nearly synonymous with science, was considered the pure pursuit of knowledge for its own sake whereas the other faculties were designated “positive,” i.e. were undertaken out of practical concerns, viz. for the spiritual, moral, and physical health of the state. Schleiermacher’s treatise, Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense (1808), written specifically to address the foundation of the University of Berlin, contains, for our purposes here, only insignificant differences with Schelling. Both give the three positive faculties a place in the university because the state has an interest in the training of ‘instruments for the state’ (e.g. pastors, lawyers, and doctors), because the common good depended on these bürgerlich social roles (the positive faculties are what we today refer to as professional schools). The training of the individuals who will serve the state in such roles, so contend Schelling and Schleiermacher, should be shaped by science: “Without doubt such instruments should surely be formed by science… but science ceases to be science as soon as it is reduced to a mere means rather than promoted for its own sake” (Schelling, Vorlesungen über die Methodes des Akademischen Studiums in Schellings Werke (1958), 3.251). Their common argument is that the state should provide for and promote scientific knowledge pursued for its own sake, divorced from utilitarian concerns including those of the state. In so doing, the state will, contrary to common wisdom, gain the very thing it seeks from the university, citizens formed by science and as such equipped to be the very best of civil servants.

Both Schleiermacher and Schelling give theology a place in the collective whole of science but there were others that sought to exclude or severely reduce the role of theology in the new University. Schleiermacher’s defense of theology as a science must be understood in this light; he appeals to the common understanding of science as an organic, collective whole in order to argue for a place for theology in the university. Thus his definition of science is external to theology itself; theology is one part of the collective human enterprise of science. In this conception Barth and others will find resultant problems. Before turning to Barth however, it is still necessary to lay out the particulars of Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology as a science.

In BO §5, Schleiermacher writes: “Christian theology is therefore the compendium of scientific knowledge and techniques, without which the possession and application of a united leadership of the Christian Church, i.e. a Christian Church governance, is not possible.” Much criticism of Schleiermacher attacks at just this point. Troeltsch, upon whom Barth’s criticism is dependent, argues that Schleiermacher’s understanding of theology and especially dogmatics is merely an expression of the contemporary theologian’s personal belief undertaken in order to inform the preaching and teaching of the Church; as such, it cannot be designated scientific since “science… is concerned only with the general and universal” (Geesammelte Schriften 2 (1913), 516). This is the seed for Pannenberg’s criticism, which contends that Schleiermacher’s definition reduces theology to the practical task of church leadership and that this is tantamount to making the educational needs of church leadership determinative of the content of the Christian faith, at least as taught in the university (cf. Theology and the Philosophy of Science, 250-255). Pannenberg counters that the opposite is actually the case and that in fact the content and even the form of Schleiermacher’s work proceeds on just this basis contrary to his own definition. The danger Pannenberg sees in Schleiermacher’s supposed reduction is the risk that theology comes to be understood not as the search for the truth about God and God’s relationship with human beings, but rather as an ideology that defends the existence and interests of the Church and the educational needs of its leaders in a bourgeois society. Pannenberg’s interpretation is understandable as such Ideologiekritik justly takes to task much later 19th century thinking. Schleiermacher, however, is not susceptible to this charge.

In the explanation of BO §5, Schleiermacher writes that its content is already contained in §1. What he means by this is far from obvious and thus requires interpretive explanation. Recall §5: “theology is…the compendium of scientific knowledge and techniques.” Schleiermacher explains further that the Christian faith has no need for such a compendium but the Church does; this is supported by §3 where Schleiermacher states that theology is not the responsibility of everyone in the Church but rather those in leadership. Theology, in the sense of critical inquiry and it is this sense Barth has in mind in the discussion below, is essential for the life of the Church but not for the faith of the individual Christian – faith is a given, whereas theology is human reflection on this faith. We must ask, however, if this does not support Pannenberg’s criticism? It does not if Church leadership is understood, as with the Reformers, as the calling to a spiritual office rather than the as a legal hierarchical office for the establishment (sacramental or otherwise) and management of the institutional Church.

Such an interpretation enlightens our understanding of the Brief Outline, e.g. §11: “Every treatment of theological subjects as such…always belongs within the province of Church leadership.” All theological work is properly called “theological” only if it is undertaken for the sake of the Church. Theology for Schleiermacher is a Church discipline; it is the Church’s critical self-reflection on its own being and experience. It is the Church’s reflection on its own history in order to understand its present location and to guide it into the future. The theologian, be she a professor or pastor, is called to understand the place of the Church in history. This involves both knowledge of the Church’s past and also its contemporary form and doctrines, understood as the product of the Church’s historical development (BO §26). These two aspects, the past and present of the Church, are when taken together the sum total of historical theology, “the actual corpus of theological study” (BO §28) as well as “the indispensible condition of all reflective effort toward the further development [of Christianity]” (§70), i.e. the future of the Church (cf. §81).

The reason for Schleiermacher’s placement of dogmatics within historical theology should now be clear: “Dogmatic theology is the science of the system of doctrine prevalent in a Christian ecclesial community at a given time” (Der Christliche Glaube, §19; cf. BO §97, §195). Historical theology is divided into three sub-divisions: exegesis, dogmatics, and church history. Theology makes uses of the various historical tools available to other sciences in investigating the primal Church in which all ecclesial communions are rooted. Inquiry into the further development of the Church after the apostolic age is undertaken by Church History (the history of the Church as community) and the history of dogma (the history of the writings and teachings of the Church)

Dogmatics is that aspect of Christian theology which through critical inquiry into the history of the dogma, exegesis (for Schleiermacher unfortunately only the NT, a feature for which he must be faulted) and Church history – the three of which taken together form the sum total of the historical experience of the Church – explicates the contemporary doctrinal content that is prevalent in a particular ecclesial communion. Dogmatics is a descriptive discipline, which traces the history of doctrine to its contemporary state; it is “the systematic presentation of the doctrine that has currency at any given time” (BO, §97). The emphasis on the empirical, descriptive task of dogmatics, let alone its definition as “the science of the system of doctrine prevalent…at a given time,” once again brings Pannenberg’s criticism to the fore. Is dogmatics concerned with the truth, with the reality of God and God with humanity, or is it merely a description of what the church believes at a given time, rightly or wrongly? In other words, if dogmatics is descriptive, does it have the ability criticize and correct “the system of doctrine prevalent in a Christian ecclesial community at a given time”? And if it does, how and on what basis?

According to Schleiermacher the historical material of Christianity is the basis of theology and in particular dogmatics. Thus, knowledge of the present moment is the most significant aspect for Church leadership, for the very reason that it is that from which the future of the Church will develop. Historical theology is the discipline which, when it functions properly, exerts a “right and appropriate influence upon both the healthy and diseased conditions” of the contemporary ecclesial community (§81). The present state of the Church, however, can only be understood from its past. As the Church is “occupied in the process of expansion,” and continually comes to contact with other social forces, it is necessary to ascertain the purest perspective possible of its distinctive nature. This is possible only though knowledge of “primitive Christianity (§84).”

Schleiermacher’s development of the tripartite form of historical theology is in large part behind the 19th Century obsession with the “essence of Christianity.” Schleiermacher approaches this issue through ecclesiology. Some explanation is needed here. The science of theology as a whole is also organized triadically; the three sub-divisions are philosophical theology, historical theology, and practical theology. In his treatment of philosophical theology, Schleiermacher lays the ground for his ecclesio-centric theology. The task of philosophical theology (we must set aside all contemporary meanings of the term) is to determine the nature of Christianity by contrasting it with other religious communities (§32). In addition, philosophical theology has the task of determining what developments in the historical expression of Christianity are in accord with its essence and what developments are derivations and therefore “diseased conditions.” Philosophical theology is thus neither a purely scientific nor a purely empirical practice, rather it proceeds critically by comparing what is historically given in Christianity to both other religions and, in light of the current division of the Church, the theologian’s own confession in comparison to other confessions. Philosophical theology is also a historical discipline, for it “presupposes the material of historical theology as already known; its prior task, however is to lay a foundation for the properly historical perspective on Christianity” (§65). This feature of philosophical theology is made explicit in Glaubenslehre, §11: “Christianity is a monotheistic faith…and is essentially distinguished from other such faiths by the fact that in it everything is related to the redemption accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth.”

The essence of Christianity, the Christian form of piety, is faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer: the historical fact upon which the Church is founded, the concreteness of the Christian experience, is faith in Christ the redeemer. Or perhaps better put, the material principle of the Christian theology is the feeling of absolute dependence upon Christ; this feeling is what makes a person a member of the Christian Church. The often misunderstood “Introduction” and its “borrowed propositions” in the Glaubenslehre is better understood in this light. Schleiermacher is not trying to base the veracity of the Christian faith in either speculative deduction or rational proof. Rather his aim is to give a description – description here needs to be understood as the verbal articulation of the feeling of absolute dependence upon Christ – of the Church’s experience of its faith in Christ. He does so by placing Christianity alongside other forms of religious consciousness in order to demonstrate and describe what makes it distinct from other religions. Schleiermacher’s notion of the feeling of absolute dependence is an abstraction from particular forms of religious consciousness. He does not hold that there is a religious consciousness in general, a general feeling of absolute dependence, but rather that we can artificially abstract similar features found in all human forms of religious consciousness. For Schleiermacher, all religions demonstrate some form of absolute dependence. The distinctive Christian form is the redemption accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Schleiermacher’s aim is not to determine the essence of human religiosity, but to describe the essence of Christianity. In doing so he found it necessary to inquire into the origins and subsequent development of the Church’s faith, i.e. to make clear its distinctiveness. This critical inquiry, along with the tools of modern historical consciousness developed in the modern sciences, make possible scientific description of the Christian faith’s essence, and in turn allow for the continual critical development of doctrine and judgment about appropriate and “diseased” developments of the Church’s faith. The Church for Schleiermacher “is a being in becoming, in which the present must always be grasped as a product of the past and as a seed of the future,” (BO 1811, §33). Schleiermacher conceives of dogmatics as the theological science based on this concept of the Church. It is the discipline that learns from exegesis and the church history about the past dogma of the Church and in this light informs Christian leaders of the current developed state of Christian doctrine, giving them tools to judge the appropriateness of such judgments and to continue along such paths or initiate reform in order to serve the future Church. The Church is a product of history; it has developed and will continue to do so. As it moves through time, the Church must borrow language from its historical context to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is because its message, like the God in Jesus Christ who proclaims it to the Church and world, is not static but alive. The Church for Schleiermacher is a being in becoming, a community that continues to be formed by the living God. Theology is scientific to the degree that it functions as the community’s critical self-reflection as it continues to develop in conformity to the living Word of God.

II: Barth

The treatment of Barth is more brief as I assume readers of this blog will 1) be more familiar with Barth’s thought and 2) more likely to be sympathetic to the great Basler than the great Berliner; Schleiermacher simply needed more unpacking to give him a fair hearing. I’ve restricted the discussion of Barth to §1.1 and §7.2 of the Church Dogmatics; leaving aside both the details of his debate with Heinrich Scholz and any questions of development in the latter volumes of the Church Dogmatics.

I take it as uncontroversial that there is little disagreement between Barth and Schleiermacher that theology is a science (CD I/1, 3) that serves the Church’s task of proclamation. The necessary question is: Does Barth understand theology to be a science in the same sense as Schleiermacher? At the beginning of the CD, Barth writes: “Theology as a science…is a measure taken by the Church in consideration of the vulnerability and responsibility of its speech” (4). For Barth, the scientificity of theology is directly related to the Church’s critical self-reflection and examination of its God-talk and the Church and creation’s relationship with God. As we turn to Barth then, it appears at first glance that he shares Schleiermacher’s conception of theology as a positive science, i.e. as a science motivated by a particular practical task.

Looking at §1.1 and §7.2, Barth gives six principles for the scientificity of theology, and dogmatics in particular; these are summarized below.
  1. Theology is concerned with truth; with the designation ‘science’ it recognizes that it shares this concern for the truth with other human disciplines that are classified by tha designation. Consciousness of this similarity reminds theology that it too is a human discipline and that it is not superior because of its subject matter. “Dogmatics is in fact an ars among artes,” (284).
  2. By not giving up the designation science, theology protests against “a general concept of science that is admittedly pagan” (11). By its very presence, theology unsettles the confidence of the modern scientists and fellows of the research university who are self-assured in their understanding of science.
  3. By adopting the designation science, theology demonstrates that it does not take the paganism of such an understanding (in 2.) seriously, but rather counts these persons as part of the Church in spite of their refusal of the theological task and their adoption of a definition of science which excludes theology. Theology does so because it believes in God’s justification of sinners.
  4. Theology is scientific only if it is devoted to Church proclamation, i.e. devotion to the task or act of Church proclamation and not ancillary issues that arise relative to proclamation. Inquiry into the realm of knowledge of theology that is not motivated by the task of proclamation is unscientific. In short, “Dogmatics is preparation for Church proclamation, it formulates the statements to be pondered before Church proclamation formulates its statements. But it is by this relation that that statements of dogmatics are to be tested” (280). In other words, theology informs the task of proclamation but, if its statements are unintelligible to the preparatory task of proclamation, it is unscientific.
  5. Theology is scientific only if it is devoted to the development (in Barth’s terms, “criticism and correction”) of Church proclamation rather than the mere repetition of some classical historical expression of the Christian faith. The scientific character of dogmatics, “consists in unsettling rather than confirming Church proclamation” in either its past or contemporary forms. Historical and contemporary accounts of Christian dogma are only a means to an end. Barth terms a theology that simply conforms to some past or present understanding of the Christian faith as “comfortable [bequem].” A comfortable theology is an unscientific theology. The question put to dogmatics, writes Barth, is “Whether dogmatics should be a part of Church history, or a part of current ecclesial affairs, or whether it is itself a part of church action. Only in the final case is it a science in the sense of its assigned task,” (282). Barth is critical of Schleiermacher on this point: he ranks Schleiermacher’s dogmatics as merely the “clarification and presentation of the faith as the dogmatician concerned personally thinks it should be proclaimed” (p. 281). Barth contends that Schleiermacher reduces theology to a concern with current ecclesial affairs and to this he writes: “one might ask whether here all the criticism and correction amounts to, and wants to amount to, a grandiose conformity” (282).
  6. Decisively, and above all else, theology is scientific only when it asks whether or not the Church’s proclamation agrees with the revelation testified to in Holy Scripture. Scripture is the criterion of theology and must not be usurped by or confused with other subsidiary criteria. Theology stands or falls to the degree to which Scripture is made the standard of the Church’s proclamation. However, the theologian must have an education in and be familiar with other sciences, viz. philosophy, psychology, history, etc. “The dogmatician also,” writes Barth, “must think and speak in a particular age and should thus be a person of his or her age, which also means a person of the past that constitutes his or her age, i.e. an educated person. But no element of his or her education makes a person a dogmatician besides the one that is not provided in all those disciplines, which consists in unsubstantiated and unassuming regard for the sign of Holy Scripture around which the Church gathers and becomes the Church again and again” (283). Theology is more than a mere ars among other artes. Theology is autonomous and this means that it is free from any definition of science coming from other disciples. Theology is the science of the Divine Word testified to in Holy Scripture. To the degree that it pursues its own special path of knowledge defined by the object testified to in Scripture it self-defines as a science. When theology takes as its primary criterion something other than the self-revelation of God which God makes available in Holy Scripture, it is rightly judged to be unscientific.

III: Theses on the Similarities and
Dissimilarities of Barth and Schleiermacher

Thesis I: Barth and Schleiermacher share a notion of theology as a “positive” science and of the material content of this science. For both, theology is not a science pursued for its own sake; rather, it is the science of Church proclamation. It is the science that forms and continues to inform Church leaders by enabling them to hear and proclaim the Divine Word revealed to the Church.

Thesis II: Furthermore, both understand theology as a part of the whole, a particular realm of inquiry with an overall coherent discipline (Schleiermacher) or a science among the sciences (Barth). Theology is a human discipline and should not be exalted above the other sciences because of its subject matter. This also means, however, that the other sciences likewise have no basis to exalt themselves over theology. Differences remain however. For Barth, the other sciences have no basis to exclude theology from the scientific table because it does not conform to some a priori definition of what constitutes a science. For Schleiermacher, theology, as knowledge of the community’s faith and of the being of God, is part of the general theory of science.

Thesis III: Barth’s material criticism of Schleiermacher is inaccurate. His conception of the scientificity of theology is not, as Barth claims, the particular theologian’s concern for what should presently be proclaimed. Like Barth, Schleiermacher conceives of theology as the Church’s critical self-reflection upon its continual reception of the revelation of the Divine Word. Questions remain as to the location of the Church’s reception of revelation. For Barth, this location is clearly the witness of Scripture whereas for Schleiermacher the location is in the Church where the inherited tradition, including Scripture, is developed. The role of Scripture in theology had often been put forward as a primary dividing line between Schleiermacher and Barth in the scholarly literature. However, when the role of the Spirit is taken into account, particularly in the case of Schleiermacher, it appears the two are far closer than one might expect. While this claim is unsubstantiated here, it cannot be denied that Barth developed the received tradition with just as much freedom as did Schleiermacher. The question of the Spirit and Scripture is a clear area for future scholarship to pursue in comparing Schleiermacher and Barth.

Thesis IV: Schleiermacher’s understanding of science is rooted in the rapid social developments that led to the formation of the University of Berlin. More precisely, his conception of the scientificity of theology is, from a contemporary standpoint, unduly motivated by the concern to guarantee theology a place in the university. In order to secure a place for theology it must be defended as an essential element in the complete system of science. This requires a general theory of science, i.e. an overarching conception of science that organizes the “sciences” into a complete system with theology having a particular place within the system. The nature and task of “science” is defined a priori, i.e. prior to the actual practice of theology or any other of the individual sciences. For Barth, this will not do. On the contrary, a science is a human inquiry in which the norms that make it a science emerge only in the act of theologizing. As distinctly human disciplines, the standards of the various sciences are created in the act of the particular domain of inquiry: “No science holds the lease rights to the name ‘science’ and there is no scientific theory which the final authority to grant or withhold this title” (CD I/1, 10). For Barth, such the determination of what is a science cannot be defined transcendentally, i.e. prior to the actual practice of theology (or any other science). Thus according to Barth, when it comes to judgments about the scientificity of theology – if I might borrow a phrase from Schleiermacher – “beginning in the middle is unavoidable” (Dialektik (2001), 1.353). Barth defends this view of science in order not to concede even an inch to the “pagan” sciences in regard to the scientificity of theology. This in part explains Barth’s ultimately unsatisfactory treatment of the role of theology in the university; he would not allow it to be judged by anything but methods appropriate to its object, and it must be admitted that if God is the object of theology, then theology is unique in comparison to the other sciences and has a likewise unique and somewhat uncomfortable and even disruptive role in the university. And this is the very role in which Barth envisioned its continuing practice in the academy. It is up to the contemporary generation of theologians to continue to define theology’s rule in the university without forgetting that our task is primarily in service to the Church’s proclamation that God is for us in Jesus Christ.
By Matthias Gockel

Matt Bruce has chosen a central topic for the discussion about Barth and Schleiermacher. His method is exemplary in two respects. First, he presupposes that both men have something important to say to theology and the church today. Second, his interpretive maxim is that Barth’s reflections on Schleiermacher shall be evaluated on a case-to-case basis and independently from one’s own allegiance to one or the other side.

My response elaborates on central claims and topics, with the two-fold goal of delineating trajectories for future discussions as well as clarifying particular issues in the current debate about “Barth and Schleiermacher.”
  1. Connections between Schelling and Schleiermacher have been noted before, especially in regard to their affirmation of the “identity” of subject and object as the precondition of human knowledge and action. Matt Bruce suggests that they also share the idea of science as “an organic, collective whole.” This connection deserves further attention, since Schleiermacher himself uses the same image when he speaks of ethical concepts as forming an organic whole (Grundlinien einer Kritik der bisherigen Sittenlehre, 1802/3).
  2. In regard to the place of theology in the larger chorus of sciences, Schleiermacher and Barth agree that theology is “a part of the whole.” But the agreement extends even further, since Barth also assumes the “unity of all human strivings for knowledge” (Einheit aller menschlichen Erkenntnisbemühungen, KD I/1, p. 291), which he qualifies eschatologically.

    Barth calls theology a science because, like other sciences, it has a specific object and proceeds on a specific path, for which it can account to itself and to others (KD I/1, p. 6). Schleiermacher probably would not share Barth’s strict dissociation from a general concept of science, since he still could be more optimistic about the acceptance of theology in the general concert of sciences. Nevertheless, he also implies the criterion of Sachlichkeit (KD I/1, p. 292), when he says that the self-proclamation of Christ provides the “text” for dogmatic theology (The Christian Faith 1830/31=CF, §16.2).
  3. For Schleiermacher as well as Barth, theology is not purely constructive. It does presuppose certain “external” conditions. Its task, however, is not conceived a priori (unlike Matt’s concluding thesis IV), that is, in a speculative fashion. Theology is not a function of the state for the promotion of ‘civil religion,’ nor does it pursue the theoretical goals of a general science of religion
  4. .
  5. For Schleiermacher, dogmatic theology is descriptive in a critical sense, since it asks whether actual expressions of Christian piety correspond to “the basic teachings of our faith” (Brief Outline 1830=BO, §206). Schleiermacher rejects a “servile comfort” that accepts everything, as long as it only is “edifying for many” (ibid.), and he affirms the possibility of “corrections and new developments of Christian doctrine” (CF, § 19.3).

    The critical quality of theology in Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s approaches is understood differently. This is mainly due to the diverse historical conditions. Systematically, they share a central assumption. This leads us to the next point.
  6. For Schleiermacher, dogmatic theology in the Western churches is either Protestant or Roman-Catholic. The Christian character of dogmatic propositions is determined by the latter’s correspondence to the New Testament (the “norm of Christian doctrine”), whereas their Protestant quality is determined by the relation to the Lutheran and Reformed confessions (CF, §27). The New Testament is at once the sufficient “norm of Christian doctrine” (CF, §131) and the “first member” (CF, §129) in the historical series of expressions of the Christian faith. Dogmatic propositions are verified (bewährt) by tracing back their content to the New Testament and by the overall coherence of their “scientific expression” (BO, §209).

    Barth defines the quality of dogmatic propositions according to the correspondence between the Church’s proclamation and the revelation attested to in Scripture. Such correspondence he calls “dogma.” The church must carefully distinguish between the Word of God and its own word. Scripture is authoritative in an indirect sense. Both Scripture and proclamation are dependent on revelation, not vice versa. The doctrine of revelation, which addresses the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Holy Spirit, is the basis of Barth’s doctrine of the three-fold Word of God.
There are, again, differences and similarities. Both theologians have in common an emphasis on the evangelische character of their theology, thus their confessional preference for the Reformed tradition is relative. The most interesting similarity may be the priority of Christ (Schleiermacher) or revelation (Barth) over Scripture.
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