Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Fundamental Ecumenicity of Karl Barth’s Thought

Karl Barth was a Reformed theologian, without a doubt. He purified Protestant theology according to its own best insights, to be sure. But we Protestant readers of Barth often forget just how ecumenical his vision was, something that Roman Catholic and Orthodox readers of Barth are quick to pick up on. Indeed, I helped with George Hunsinger’s intro to Karl Barth class this past semester, and had an Orthodox student who constantly reminded me of this - it was quite interesting to get a glimpse of Barth through her eyes.

In any case, Amy Marga - who spoke at the recent PTS Barth conference - has a nice paragraph on the foundation of this ecumenical quality of Barth’s thought in her book, Karl Barth’s Dialogue with Catholicism in Göttingen and Münster: Its Significance for His Doctrine of God:
Barth’s curiosity about thinkers outside of the typocal cast of Reformation figures was one of the earliest – but perhaps farthest-reaching – ecumenical move[s] that Barth made. While not ‘ecumenical’ in a contemporary sense of personal dialogue or joint statements on social and doctrinal issues, as ecumenism is carried out today, Barth’s decision to explore the wider history of Christian theology no doubt played a role in how he viewed the scope of his work, and how his work was received by Protestant and Catholic alike. On many levels, Barth’s openness to Christian theologians outside the Reformation was a signal that the wider history of the Church – including many thinkers that were authoritative in the Catholic Church – was as legitimate and useful to the needs and commitments of modern Protestantism as that of the Reformation. His exploration of the wider history of Christian theology bestowed the same value and power upon pre-Reformation (i.e. “Roman Catholic” theology) as that of the Reformation. Such a shift in vision in the early decades of the twentieth century signaled the inevitable weakening of the liberal Protestant stronghold on the interpretation and valuation of history. If the entirety of Christian history was legitimate for informing theology, there was no reason why Protestants and Catholics could not study this history in conversation with one another (28-29).

==================================

7 comments:

Chris Donato said...

It seems obvious and silly, when you put it out there so plainly, as Protestant to challenge this kind of ecumenical practice.

Perhaps it stems from a proper view of one's Protestantism—i.e., that insofar as we remain Protestants we are not home? We are ever-protesting and in schism with the mother church, out of whom many thinkers and theologians have come that we ought to engage and affirm.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Barth's ecumenical practice, you mean?

Chris Donato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Donato said...

Yes. Meaning to affirm Barth's practice.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Ah, got ya. Sorry for the confusion.

The one quibble I would make is with the language of "home" - because it can all too easily suggest that we know what that would look like, or that one of the already existing options is everyone else's final destination.

jridenour said...

I'd be curious to hear your response:

http://itself.wordpress.com/2011/07/02/if-you-want-to-be-a-contemporary-theologian/

W. Travis McMaken said...

@Jrid - Can you be a bit more specific?