Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Barth on Schleiermacher (with brief thoughts on American Evangelicalism)

Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lecture’s at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (Dietrich Ritschl, ed.; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans.; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982): xv.
Theologically the “genius” of the major part of the church is that of Schleiermacher. All the so-to-speak official impulses and movements of the centuries since the Reformation find a center of unity in him: orthodoxy, pietism, the Enlightenment. All the official tendencies of the Christian present emanate from him like rays: church life, experiential piety, historicism, psychologism, and ethicism. We need not ask how far he constituted this center personally and directly or simply as a proponent of the romantic and idealistic movement of his age – how far, then, the threads that link the past and the future also run back beyond him. Suffice it to say that almost all of them run by way of him, so that with a good conscience we can call him a type of what was determinative for a whole century, and are indeed forced to see in him the most brilliant representative not only of a theological past but also of the theological present.
The really strange thing about this quote is that the things Barth identifies as present-day (in terms of 1920’s Germany) tendencies emanating from Schleiermacher – “church life, experiential piety, historicism, psychologism, and ethicism” – are precisely the things that seem to me to be holding the field within contemporary American evangelicalism, in many ways. It is a well-worn trope of comic books and action movies that one is always in danger of becoming what one fights against. Have evangelicals started becoming liberals, in the classic European sense of the term? If so, how advanced are the symptoms, what is the prognosis, and what can be done to combat this malady?  

7 comments:

PGR said...

What does Barth mean by "church life"? Evangelicals tend to be anti-establishment and very tenuous in their relationship to the "institution."

W. Travis McMaken said...

Barth means something like an emphasis on the togetherness of the Christian community. Even though evangelicals don't have very developed ecclesiologies (but this is changing...not necessarily for the better), they are really into the togetherness of the community.

Tyler Wittman said...

I think "American evangelicalism" is too broad a term to be of any use in such a diagnosis. There are evangelicals who have very developed ecclesiologies and then there are those who do not. It all comes down to who we're going to let represent the whole.

Travis, often modern theology's engagement with "American evangelicalism" is marked with the same paucity of rigor of which the first evangelicals to engage Barth were guilty. Moreover, there might even be a dash of apathy thrown in there.

Certainly, there are some yet-to-be-fully revealed streams of influence from Schleiermacher to some strands of evangelicalism in North America. The major question would be: do the strands in question represent the whole or not? That's too big a question, in my opinion.

In my own research on Schleiermacher, I've even provisionally traced some of these strands of influence within my own Southern Baptist tradition. But they are dissipating and not representative of the best that Baptist theology has to offer.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Tyler,

I think you're right to complicate the demographic a bit. Evangelicals are notoriously difficult to descibe. However...

(1) I grew up in various non-demonimational, General Association Baptist, and E-Free churches, and so have a good intuitive and experiential grasp on a broad swath of the phenomena. Plus I studied at Wheaton, where my experience with evangelicalism was further diversified. So while there are likely exceptions to my comments within evangelicalism, I think they would be borne out in a large swath of centrist evangelicalism.

(2) There are lots of things that call themvselves evangelical that are not, in fact, evangelical. I'm thinking here of resurgent (neo) fundamentalism, and confessionally Reformed camps. I view such groups as on the hazy margin of evangelicalism, and more as perverting influences than important aspects to be included.

So, I'm sure I've said enough now to get me in trouble. Oh well. ;-)

Tyler Wittman said...

Travis,

I'm speechless. In #1, experience is your method and in #2 you're defining evangelicalism. ;)

I readily concede that there is a lot of ham-fisted theology in mainline evangelical churches...I'm just not sure it's always as insidious as Schleiermacher.

Though, granted, at least Schleiermacher wasn't afraid of creeds: http://jamesmacdonald.com/blog/?p=9055

W. Travis McMaken said...

Yeah, yeah, I know...I'm just running off at the mouth and spewing opinions left and right. ;-)

Part of the dynamic is that I don't think Schleiermacher is as bad as evangelicals tend to think, so when I see similarities, I'm not necessarily super worried. The irony of such similarity, however, is worth pointing out.

Bobby Grow said...

Travis,

I "get" what you're saying about Evangelicals, and I do believe that they have already (by and large) become the bogey-man they have been fighting for so long. There are differences between fundies and Evangelicals, but the latter would not be who they are today w/o the former. My experience as an Evangelical resonates with your observations.